The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'englishness'
An expatriate Briton in America was diagnosed as clinically depressed, prescribed antidepressants, and even scheduled for shock therapy, before doctors realised that he was not depressed, just British. (Or, to be precise, English.)
Doctors described Farthing as suffering from pervasive negative anticipation: a belief that everything will turn out for the worst, whether it's trains arriving late, England's chances of winning any national sports events, or his own prospects of getting ahead in life. The doctors reported that the satisfaction he seemed to get from his pessimism was particularly pathological.
'They put me on everything -- lithium, Prozac, St. John's wort,' Farthing says. 'They even told me to sit in front of a big light for half an hour a day or I'd become suicidal. I kept telling them this was all pointless, and they said that was exactly the sort of attitude that got me here in the first place.'The symptomology of Britishness, it seems, is indistinguishable from that of depression (the next edition of the DSM will presumably contain an entry for it). Luckily, both conditions are treatable.
(via Mind hacks) ¶ 0
The latest commentator to attempt to nail the essence of Englishness is expatriate Frenchwoman Hortense de Monplaisir, currently resident off Fulham Road, as her husband is a grosse légume in the City:
There is a famous crêperie on the King’s Road. (We love crêpes, as we have kept in touch with simple pleasures.) As lumpen doughy pancakes were brought to the table with a pitiful garnish of anaemic lettuce and flavourless tomatoes, I wept. I gazed out at the rain and said: “I cannot do this.” My husband held my hand and looked quite wretched.
Having no talent for sex (or food), the English make a virtue of their deficiencies. What they really enjoy is going without. Rather than leave the office for a delicious lunch, they will pull out a Tupper-ware box of sandwiches. Instead of a soirée sensuelle, candlelit dinner followed by a night of love, they’ll go to the country to strip wallpaper, walk in the rain and sleep in a freezing cold bed.
In France, we are wary of the marchands de biens, dealers who buy and sell houses for profit, but in England everyone is a marchand de bien. The property ladder is the very essence of Englishness: a fusion of greedy profiteering and stay-at-home cosiness.
As part of a section on the significant chunk of the population of Poland moving to Britain, today's Grauniad has a slightly facetious guide to British culture (in English and Polish).
1 Why do you ask people "how are you?" if you don't care about the answer?
Britain is a nation built upon appearances. We pretend to be richer, happier and probably nicer than we actually are, and glean some small grain of superiority in doing so. Asking "how are you?" is the quotidian incarnation of this trait. We don't actually care how you are, we are merely giving some semblance of caring, so that at all times we can retain the moral high ground. For further examples of this, perhaps study Keeping Up Appearances, the early 90s BBC sitcom starring Patricia Routledge, or the letters page of the Times. It is also worth pointing out that to be asked "how are you?" in a disgruntled British fashion is perhaps not so affronting as to be bid "have a nice day!" by some sunny-side up American.
4 Why do women here wear open-toed sandals in deepest winter?The guide goes on to cover such perplexing phenomena as the prices of rail tickets, the full English breakfast, and the peculiar habit of eating chips with vinegar (something I never understood either).
In Britain, women are highly prized for their hardiness. We have a popular saying: "Is she rugged as a goat? Then she is for me!" Hence a woman spotted out on a February evening in the most northerly quarters of the isle wearing nothing but a short, skimpy frock is valued far above any woman in a sensible coat. A less extreme interpretation is for a woman to sport open-toed sandals, regardless of the inclement weather; to us, it is as erotic as a burst of cleavage, or a glimpse of a lady's ankle.
As Britain's higher education minister puts forward a plan to teach "core British values" in schools, hopefully reducing the number of kids who turn into happy-slapping hoodied thugs and/or radicalised Islamist jihadists, Grauniad blogger Stuart Jeffries looks at just what these values could be:
We must try to help Mr Rammell and find out which values are characteristic of modern Britain. Here are three that occurred to me:
None of these values, I submit, should be taught to secondary school pupils. In any case, kids will learn them just by living here for five minutes.
- Drinking to excess in order to obliterate feelings of social awkwardness, existential angst and the fact that there's nothing worth watching on television.
- Invading other countries and imposing our values, even though we aren't really sure what they are, on them. Then feeling terribly guilty about the mess we have made and doing a lot of (1) to make the guilt go away .
- Having a marvellous tolerance for other people's rudeness, vulgarity and impoliteness - mainly because we're too worried that the rude, vulgar and impolite people we encounter might hurt or kill us if we complain about their anti-social behaviour. Hence the national sport of moaning about anti-social people who aren't there, which helpfully reduces the risk of hospitalisation, while never really confronting the core problem that bedevils British society.
In her book Watching the English, social anthropologist Kate Fox concludes that there are three English values. They might not be quite the same as British values, but let's assume that they are for a moment. She suggests that the values are fair play, courtesy, and modesty. When you've quite finished laughing, let's review them as contenders. First, fair play. Has Fox ever seen an English premiership football match, where fair play has been substituted for feigning injury to deceive officials and mobbing the referee until he concedes that they were right and he was wrong? True, there are many English idioms that invoke fair play such as That's not cricket, Live and let live, but not Did you spill my pint" and Did you look at my bird, you slag? Fair play is about an aspiration to be better than the base behaviour we see around us.
How about modesty? Is Britain really a country where everybody (man and woman) wears burkas to conceal their naughty bits? Sartorial modesty isn't really what Fox means. Rather, she means that the British detest boasting and self-importance. True, the countervailing bling culture may represent a counterexample to this, as may, for example, Jordan's autobiography and the fact that every cough and spit of her worthless life is seen as fit material for weekly magazines. Fox contends that this modesty is a form of self-deprecation which is usually found by us saying the opposite of what we intend people to understand, or by using deliberate understatement. Hence what she calls the English sport of one-downmanship, whereby we deny wealth/class/ status differences for the sake of some polite egalitarianism. As Fox suggests this ironic self-deprecation often acts as a counterbalance to our natural arrogance, and so is rather hypocritical. Our values may in fact continually be at risk of being destroyed by from our uglier impulses. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't stand up for them.Jeffries concludes that actually teaching values in a classroom would be futile. The idea strikes me a bit like the endless pontificating about "the Australian national character" that happened in Australia, and the compulsory subject of "Australian Studies" which the state government of Victoria introduced into schools in the early 1990s. This was generally a load of hot air seasoned with left-wing identity politics (at least before the conservatives took office, and presumably reduced it to its core component of hot air), and ended up involving assignments like "watch an episode of Neighbours and write about how work roles are represented in it". Perhaps they could adopt this, replacing "Neighbours" with "Eastenders" and "work roles" with "extra-marital sex" or something.
These people appear to have been putting official-looking stickers on Tube trains, prohibiting talking, sitting and eye contact, among other things:
(via london-underground) ¶ 0
The Graun looks at Christmas and New Year's television programming across the world. While Britons get into the Queen's speech (and "alternative" takes by various "edgy" celebrities like Jamie Oliver and Damon Albarn), Americans are shedding tears over Rankin/Bass's animated Frosty The Snowman, Russians are getting maudlin over extended reruns over a 3-hour comedy titled The Irony Of Fate that they have all seen dozens of times before and Romanians are watching action replays of the execution of former dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. Meanwhile, Australians are watching celebrities singing "Aussie carols" like Six White Boomers and Santa Never Made It To Darwin (which, in all my years in Australia, I had never heard of), while their (apparently more self-consciously "British") neighbours in New Zealand watch Only Fools And Horses and Morecambe And Wise. The French seem to have the coolest Christmas TV fare, though:
Since 1982, black-comedy Le Père Noël Est Une Ordure (which translates along the lines of Father Christmas Is A Scumbag) has risen from obscure box-office failure to France's ninth most popular movie. Set on Christmas Eve in a social service helpline call centre, three workers try with varying degrees of failure to spread festive cheer among the depressed, suicidal homeless, heartbroken and bereaved who turn up looking for salvation. Utterly bleak, totally farcical, and very very funny.Across the border in Germany, however, one of the annual Christmas favourites is, inexplicably, an old British comedy skit named Dinner For One:
Dinner for One, also known as Der 90 Geburtstag (The 90th Birthday), has rattled around the cabaret circuit for decades. Written by British author Lauri Wylie in the 1920s, it presents a morbidly funny story in miniature—(just 11 minutes on TV): Elderly Miss Sophie throws her birthday party every year, setting the table for her friends Sir Toby, Mr. Pommeroy, Mr. Winterbottom, and Adm. von Schneider, while conveniently ignoring the fact that they've all been dead for a quarter-century. Her butler James manfully takes up the slack by playacting all of them. He serves both drinks and food while quaffing toasts on behalf of each "guest," a bevy of soused British noblemen and von Schneider, who toasts Miss Sophie with a heel-click and a throaty "Skål!"
In 1962, German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld stumbled on Dinner for One in Blackpool's seaside circuit. Frankenfeld was so charmed that he invited actors Freddie Frinton and May Warden to perform the sketch on his live TV show Guten Abend, Peter Frankenfeld. The now-classic black-and-white recording dates from a 1963 live performance in Hamburg's Theater am Besenbinderhof.The skit's popularity has spread across Northern Europe, and it has inspired numerous derivative works, including dubs into regional German dialects, many parodies and a Latin translation. To this day, nobody is entirely sure of why Dinner For One is so big in Germany, though there are theories:
But why? How did a sliver of British humor come to dominate another culture's holidays—with apparently no connective thread back to its source? First, the slapstick of Dinner for One transcends the language barrier. Second, it offers a slight thrill of the verboten: After all, it features a very crazy old lady, a bevy of lecherous male friends, a big stench of post-WWII death, a hell of a lot of drinking, and senior-citizen sex. A third notion, floated by Der Spiegel and the Guardian alike last year, is that the film plays to Germans' worst idea of the British upper class: dotty, pigheadedly traditional, forever marinated in booze despite titles. The BBC counters with the more politic theory that Dinner for One "has become synonymous with British humor, on a par with Mr. Bean." British TV executives see it as fit only for foreigners, or they would rush to broadcast it themselves. Why Germany finds it so funny and the British don't is, according to Der Spiegel's Sebastian Knauer, "one of the last unsolved questions of European integration."
Best of all, Dinner for One is a perfect foundation for a tidy drinking game in which you down four different liquors in 11 minutes, "the same procedure as every year." What more fitting way to ring in the New Year?
A US professor of psychology has found the difference between English and American smiles. Apparently, Americans smile naturally and warmly, whereas an English smile is a suppressed grimace, or a signal of acquiescence to hierarchy (which, apparently, is internalised in the English national character):
Keltner hit upon this difference in national smiles by accident. He was studying teasing in American fraternity houses and found that low-status frat members, when they were teased, smiled using the risorius muscle - a facial muscle that pulls the lips sideways - as well as the zygomatic major, which lifts up the lips. It resulted in a sickly smile that said, in effect, I understand you must paddle me, brother, but not too hard, please. Several years later, Keltner went to England on sabbatical and noticed that the English had a peculiar deferential smile that reminded him of those he had seen among the junior American frat members. Like the frat brothers', the English smile telegraphed an acknowledgment of hierarchy rather than just expressing pleasure.
(via bOING bOING) ¶ 1
2. You have never been to The Tower of London or Madame Tussauds but love Brighton
4. Hookers and the homeless are invisible.
9. You consider eye contact an act of overt aggression.
19. The UK west of Heathrow is still theoretical to you.
24. You don't hear sirens anymore.
25. You've mentally blocked out all thoughts of the city's air/water quality and what it's doing to your insides.
29. You roll your eyes and say 'tsk' at the news that someone has thrown themselves under a tube train.
(via london-underground) ¶ 0
The BBC's online magazine invited readers to propose just punishments for social infractions:
Groups of three or more people who insist on occupying the entire width of the pavement and expect everyone and thing to manouvre around them should be forced to be hand-cuffed together for a further 24 hours. - Neil D, London
People who choose to sit right next to you on the train when there are free seats all around should be forced to have a fellow traveller accompanying them wherever they go for a day. - Lucy Larwood, UK
People who ware Burberry should have it tattooed onto their skin. - Alan Bowden, UK
The Graun has published an extract of Germaine Greer's latest polemic, "Whitefella Jump Up". In it (originally published as a Quarterly Essay, and now reprinted by another publisher), she argues that to achieve nationhood, Australia should declare itself an Aboriginal Republic, replacing the head of state with "the Aboriginal people", and allowing anybody in Australia to call themselves "Aboriginal":
The second step in the journey is a second statement to the self in the mirror. "I was born in an Aboriginal country, therefore I must be considered Aboriginal." This is a tougher proposition, as long as Aboriginality is thought of as racial, but if we think of Aboriginality as a nationality, it suddenly becomes easier. It would not involve the assumption of a phoney ethnicity or the appropriation of the history of any particular Aboriginal people. The owners of specific dreamings would continue to be so still, and would continue to pass them on according to their law as it applies to those concerned.
Greer then goes on to argue that the Australian national character owes more to Aboriginal traditions than to the British character; that Australia's British settlers and their descendents gradually "went native" without realising it, adopting everything from the broad, nasal Australian accent to the egalitarian tradition, from backpacking and "feral" dance parties (which came from "going walkabout" and corroborees) to the tradition of telling exaggerated yarns, from the continent's first inhabitants; meanwhile, the gulf between Australia and Britain is vast:
Observers of white Australian life are struck by the degree of segregation between the sexes, which cannot be explained by the prevailing mores of the countries they came from. Aboriginal society, too, is deeply segregated; men and women are used to spending long periods in the company of their own sex. The more important the occasion and the larger the gathering, the more likely it is that women will gather in one area and men in another, just as white Australian men gather round the beer keg, leaving the women to talk among themselves. One explanation of the Australian mania for sport of all kinds is that sport is the only remaining area of human activity that is still rigorously segregated.
Funny that she mentions this, because none other than Jeremy Paxman pointed out (in his book The English: A Portrait of a People) the great degree of segregation between the sexes in English society (as compared to other European societies and/or America, undoubtedly). This has probably changed somewhat over the past few decades, though to say that Australian blokes' tendencies to watch the footy with a tinny of VB in hand while the sheilas talk in the kitchen about their kids/the last episode of Neighbors comes from Aboriginal customs of "secret (wo)men's business" seems more far-fetched than attributing it to how English society was in decades or centuries past.
Michael Moorcock on the poor state of English fantasy literature, and the similarities between Lord of the Rings and Winnie the Pooh, being steeped in the moribundly conservative values of restraint and conventionality of a nation in decline:
I sometimes think that as Britain declines, dreaming of a sweeter past, entertaining few hopes for a finer future, her middle-classes turn increasingly to the fantasy of rural life and talking animals, the safety of the woods that are the pattern of the paper on the nursery room wall. Old hippies, housewives, civil servants, share in this wistful trance; eating nothing as dangerous or exotic as the lotus, but chewing instead on a form of mildly anaesthetic British cabbage. If the bulk of American sf could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits and for rabbits.
(via bOING bOING)
Ah yes, the SIRC Guide to Flirting, enumerating the rules of the game in anthropological terms. Useful for Martian scholars of Earth customs, or if you'd like to flirt but the flirting parts of your brain have become rewired for obscure programming languages or train spotting or something like that. Or just read it for the many insights into human psychology that emerge in such a subject:
Research has also shown that men have a tendency to mistake friendly behaviour for sexual flirting. This is not because they are stupid or deluded, but because they tend to see the world in more sexual terms than women. There is also evidence to suggest that women are naturally more socially skilled than men, better at interpreting people's behaviour and responding appropriately. Indeed, scientists have recently claimed that women have a special 'diplomacy gene' which men lack.
The "diplomacy gene" theory makes sense; one thing I've noticed that, in many close couples, a sort of specialisation develops where the woman handles most of the social interaction, even with old friends of her partner. (via one.point.zero)
A piece on the social impact of Britain's CCTV system,
''Imagine a situation where you've got an elderly relative who lives on the other side of the city,'' Marshall says. ''You ring her up, there's no answer on the telephone, you think she collapsed -- so you go to the Internet and you look at the camera in the lounge and you see that she's making a cup of tea and she's taken her hearing aid out or something.''
Norris also found that operators, in addition to focusing on attractive young women, tend to focus on young men, especially those with dark skin. And those young men know they are being watched: CCTV is far less popular among black men than among British men as a whole. In Hull and elsewhere, rather than eliminating prejudicial surveillance and racial profiling, CCTV surveillance has tended to amplify it.
The cameras are also a powerful inducement toward social conformity for citizens who can't be sure whether they are being watched. ''I am gay and I might want to kiss my boyfriend in Victoria Square at 2 in the morning,'' a supporter of the cameras in Hull told me. ''I would not kiss my boyfriend now. I am aware that it has altered the way I might behave. Something like that might be regarded as an offense against public decency. This isn't San Francisco.'' Nevertheless, the man insisted that the benefits of the cameras outweighed the costs, because ''thousands of people feel safer.''
In many ways, the closed-circuit television cameras have only exaggerated the qualities of the British national character that Orwell identified in his less famous book: the acceptance of social hierarchy combined with the gentleness that leads people to wait in orderly lines at taxi stands; a deference to authority combined with an appealing tolerance of hypocrisy. These English qualities have their charms, but they are not American qualities.