Nationalism and Identity
How They See
(Actually the English prefer "xenolipi" (pity for
foreigners) but both words, being foreign in origin, are of limited
pertinence in any case), although a Greek word, has its spiritual
home in the English dictionary where it is drily defined as an
This is misleading.
It is, in fact, a very "common" noun - an everyday sort of
noun really, with nothing abstract about it at all. For xenophobia
is the English national sport - England's most enduring cultural
expression. And there is a very good reason for that.
As far as the English
are concerned, all of life's greatest problems can be summed up in
one word - foreigners.
Nine hundred years
ago the last invasion of England was perpetrated by the Normans.
They settled, tried to integrate themselves with the indigenous
population and failed.
population then, as now, displayed an utter contempt for them not
merely because they had conquered but more importantly because they
had come from abroad.
descendants of those Normans who think to impress with a throw-away
remark about their families having "come over with the
Conqueror" find themselves on the receiving end of the sort of
English frost normally reserved for someone who has broken wind in a
lift between floors.
The real English deal
with them as they dealt with the Romans, the Phoenicians, the Celts,
Jutes, Saxons and, more recently, every other nation on earth
(especially the French) - with polite but firm disdain.
The whole thing is
rather like cricket, the archetypal English game. It lasts all your
life and it is apparently more important to play than to win - a
sentiment which is more reminiscent of Confucius than Carruthers.
That is what you are
up against. It is useless to imagine that you can succeed where so
many have failed. But since it is the proudest English boast that
they cannot begin to understand foreigners, it would be gratifying
to steal a march on them by beginning to understand them.
How They See
on foreigners are very simple. The further one travels from the
capital in any direction, the more outlandish the people become.
When it comes to
their neighbours in the British Isles, the English are in absolutely
no doubt as to their own innate superiority. This they see as no
petty prejudice but rather as a scientific observation. The Irish
are perceived as being wildly eccentric at best, completely mad at
worst. The Welsh are dishonest and the Scots are dour and mean.
However, the Irish,
Welsh and Scots should take heart. For most English they are not
quite as appalling as their cousins across the Channel. They should
also remember that "foreign-ness" for the English starts
to a certain extent at the end of their own street.
The French and the
English have teen sparring partners for so long that the English
have developed a kind of love-hate relationship with them. The
English love France. They love its food and wine and thoroughly
approve of its climate. There is a subconscious historical belief
that the French have no right to be living in France at all, to the
extent that thousands of Englishmen try annually to turn the more
attractive areas of France into little corners of Surrey.
As to the French
people, they are perceived as insincere, unhygienic and given to
With the Germans the
English are less equivocal. Germans are megalomaniac, easily-led
bullies who have not even the saving grace of culinary skill.
forgetting the fact that their own Royal family is of German
descent, the English make no pretence at liking the Germans.
Confronted with one, they will constantly be reminding themselves
"not to mention the War" whilst secretly wondering whether
he or she is old enough to have fought in it.
For the rest of
Europe, as far as the English are concerned, the Italians are
hysterical and dishonest; the Spanish, lazy; the Russians, gloomy;
and the Scandinavians, Dutch, Belgians and Swiss, dull. Further
afield English odium is no less concentrated. Americans and
Australians are vulgar, Canadians are boring, and all oriental
peoples inscrutable and dangerous.
You will only find
this out, of course, by listening at keyholes, for to your face they
will always be charming. They appear to be tolerant to a fault. In
actually, they only value foreigners for their backs - which they
can use for talking behind.
have a natural distrust of the unfamiliar and nowhere is this more
clearly seen than in their attitude to the geography of their own
Since time immemorial
there has been a North-South divide in England. To the Southerner, civilization
ends somewhere around Potters Bar (just north of London). Beyond
that point, he believes, the inhabitants are all ruddier in
complexion, more hirsute and blunt to the point of rudeness. These
traits he generously puts down to the cooler climate.
In the North they
frighten their children to steep with tales of the deviousness of
the inhabitants "down South". They point to their
softness, their mucked-about food and their airy-fairness on all
matters of real importance. Nevertheless, any English man or woman,
no matter how soft or hairy, is entitled to special treatment as, to
a lesser extent, are the inhabitants of those countries which
represent the English conscience - once the Empire, now the
How Others See
the English are intellectually impenetrable. They express little
emotion. They are not so much slow as stationary to anger and the
pleasures of life seem to pass them by as they revel in discomfort
appreciation is incomprehensible to most, but especially the French,
and in their hesitation to be direct or state a view, they are
With an unparalleled
sense of historical continuity, they appear to carry on in their own
sweet way largely unmoved by developments in the world around them.
The unlikely effect of all this is that outsiders have a kind of
grudging respect for them. This is partly because they amuse, and
partly because they are consistent.
they may be, but you know just where you are with them.
How They See
don't just believe themselves superior to all their nations. They
also believe that all other nations secretly know that they are.
They feel themselves
to be natural leaders, the most obvious choice for "top
nation". Geography reinforces this belief as the inhabitants
look out to the sea all around them from the fastness of their
"tight little island". Nobody would ever question the
aptness of the newspaper report: "Fog in the Channel -
Continent cut off."
With their wealth of
experience of "running the show", as they see it, they are
also deeply aware of their responsibilities to others. These they
take very seriously, which means that throughout life they act
rather like head boys or head girls in school. They see it as their
solemn duty to protect the weak, strengthen the faint-hearted and
shame bullies into submission. These are their roles in life and
they fulfill them, by and large, to their entire satisfaction.
How They Would
Like to be Seen
is impossible for the English to appear to care what others think of
them, deep down they would like to be loved and appreciated for what
they see as the sterling qualities they possess. These qualities,
which they bring selflessly to the world forum, include a reflex
action which leads them to champion the underdog and treat
persecutors with a firm hand, absolute truthfulness and a commitment
never to break a promise or to go back on one's word.
In a perfect world,
the English suspect everyone would be more like them. Then, and only
then, would they achieve the recognition and affection they feel
they so richly deserve.
Stiff Upper Lip
characteristic English pose involves keeping the head held high, the
upper lip stiff and the best foot forward. In this position,
conversation is difficult and intimacy of any kind almost
impossible. This in itself is a clue to the English character.
Puritanism has always found in the English its most fertile breeding
ground. For hundreds of years their children have been brainwashed
with trite little sayings - "Silence is golden",
"Empty vessels make the most noise" and, most telling,
"You are not put on to this earth to enjoy yourself".
Small wonder that
they end up, as adults, acting rather like the three wise monkeys
and emotionally in traction.
But still the English
defend their character and behaviour against all comers. Perhaps
that is because Puritanism with its punishing work ethic assures
them that their reward for all that restraint will come at a sort of
school prize-giving ceremony in the world to come.
If it is the latter,
they are forgetting that since God is also English - a firmly-held
belief - any hedonism in the next world will probably be accompanied
by mugs of bromide.
English continue to bask in this certainty to the general
astonishment of the rest of mankind.
If there is
one trait that absolutely singles out the English it is their shared
dislike for anyone or anything that "goes too far".
Going too far, as the
English see it, covers displaying an excess of emotion, getting
drunk, discussing money in public or cracking off-colour jokes and
then laughing at them noisily. Beyond the pale altogether is the man
or woman who regales one with his or her titles or qualifications.
The only acceptable place to air these is on an envelope.
To the English the
proper way to behave in almost all situations is to display a
languid indifference to almost everything, though one may be
seething underneath. Even in affairs of the heart, it is considered
unseemly to show one's feelings except behind closed doors.
A Good Sport
If an English
man or woman refers to you as "a good sport", you will
know that you have really arrived. For to them it is a qualification
normally never awarded to a foreigner and by no means within the
grasp of all the English.
The term is not
exclusively a sporting one. It describes the sort of behaviour both
on and off the playing field that characterises everything the
English really respect. In all physical trials, the good sport will
play without having been seen to practice too hard and will,
ideally, win from innate superiority. He of she will then be
dismissive of their victory and magnanimous towards the loser.
It goes without
saying that the good sport will also be a good loser. There will be
no arguing with umpires or outward signs of disappointment. On the
contrary, a remark such as "The best man won!" tossed
airily to all and sundry, and never through clenched teeth, is
obligatory even in the face of crushing defeat.
This does not really
fool anyone, for the English are fiercely competitive especially in
matters sporting. They would rather be crossed in love than beaten
on the tennis courts, but to let it be seen would be going too far.
It is the
apparent colossal self-confidence and moral certainty of the English
that is paradoxically one of their greatest stumbling blocks. For
both qualities are, to a certain extent, only illusions. Whilst they
may appear fearless and calm on the surface, deep down the English
suffer from agonising self-doubt, feeling that in many areas of
human activity they just cannot cut the mustard.
All the time there
were countries to be conquered and foreigners to be governed, the
English could sublimate all their clamouring uncertainty. The scent
of success served as incense at the altar of their self-assurance.
But with the
helter-skelter slide from Empire to Commonwealth and ever downwards,
their doubts, like itches, have begun to plague them and it is
considered bad form to scratch in public.
have a strong sense of history. Because their past was so infinitely
more glamorous than their present, they cling to it tenaciously. Mix
this love of bygone ages with an unrivalled sentimentality and you
have a heady mixture which can be sensed in every aspect of the
Antique shops clutter
up every town and village. English homes are filled with old things
not only because please the eye but because there is a feeling that
anything that has stood the test of time must be better modern
The English generally
distrust the new-fangled or modern. Shininess is vulgar and the
patina of age lends respectability. Thus they cling on to old
furniture, old carpets, old chipped china, old kitchen gadgets and
garden implements long after common sense dictates that they should
"If it was good
enough for my grandfather/grandmother, it's good enough for
me!". The English cry goes up and each new invasion from the
future is greeted with the indignant question: "What was wrong
with the old one?".
And as far as the
English are concerned, there is no answer to that.
are endlessly resourceful and inventive, but rarely profit from
their inventions. The inventor in his garden shed turning out
gadgets and widgets tends to be almost exclusively male, lacking the
more practical female genes in any great numbers.
needs in daily life which have gone unobserved by the rest of his
compatriots, he will beaver away 24 hours a day creating such
indispensable items as the perfect egg boiler or the self-creasing
he will come up with something with real promise like the hovercraft
which will then be ignored by his countrymen and taken up by
are governed by a simple set of attitudes and values to which
everyone pays lip service, whether they believe in them or not.
There is, however, one exception to this rule and that is:
is central to the English attitude to almost everything in life. It
is common sense to carry an umbrella in case of rain. It is common
sense not to sit on cold stone (which bestows hemorrhoids). It is
common sense to wear clean underwear in case one is run over and
taken to hospital.
In fact, it is common
sense and thoroughly English never to be wrong-footed in any way. To
fall foul of changing circumstances is inexcusable. One should
"be prepared" at all times.
For the English,
common sense is part of the historical imperative. It was common
sense that beat back the Armada and won the Empire. The lack of it
caused the Fall of Troy, the French Revolution and almost any other
foreign debacle you care to mention.
It is common sense
that sets the English apart: they may look silly in their plastic
macs on the Riviera, but the last laugh will be on them if the
Mistral comes early.
Of course it does not
always work; sometimes germs do get through despite their efforts.
Then, as well as looking ridiculous, they sport that archetypal
affliction, "le sang-froid habituel des Anglais" - the
English person's usual bloody cold.
important to the English. Individuality is all very wel1, in some
cases it can be commendable, but, on the whole, being part of a team
is their preferred situation and they are never happier than when
they are surrounded by a group of people with whom they either have,
or affect to have, everything in common.
This urge for
togetherness manifests itself in many ways. Historically its most
obvious symptom is found in the English devotion to the class system
which is central to the whole English way of life. Its importance
can hardly be overrated and it should never be dismissed. It is the
unseen joker in the pack - the card that negates or validates the
whole game of life and turns winners into losers and vice versa.
The class system is a
reflection of the fierce competitiveness of the English. For whilst
they believe that, as a a race, they are superior to every other
nation on earth, they have a surprising need to establish their
individual superiority within their own society. They do this by maneuvering
themselves into cliques in whose company they feel comfortable. Once
there, they adopt mutually exclusive fashions of all kinds and
nurture a kind of phobia about other groupings to which they do not
belong. All this Is achieved through skilful manipulation of the
The existence of the
class system is a living proof of the English devotion to tradition,
their innate fear of their own inferiority and their desire to
better themselves in the eyes of their compatriots. The whole thing
can appear to be of paramount importance but there is also,
ironically, something of the game about it. Like all English games
it is more important to play, than to win.
demands the existence of three classes.
Once upon a time
these equated to the old groupings of aristocracy, merchants and
workers. However, with the irresistible rise of the merchant or
middle class, the aristocracy and workers were squeezed out of the
frame and the middle class turned its attention to dividing itself
into an upper, middle, and lower class. Around 98% of the English
are, in fact, middle class.
representing barely 1% of the population, is historically above
joining in the class game although it still serves as the arbiter of
it. The working class is now pretty well extinct and today
represents at most 1% of the population. For them the whole social
game is beneath contempt. Thus it is left to the middle class to
provide all the players.
However much English
class structures change, class consciousness never disappears. When
BBC interviewer Sandra Harris met that beldame of letters, Dame
Barbara Cartland, in the 1960s, she asked her: "Have English
class barriers broken down?" Dame Barbara, with saccharine
honesty, assured her: "Of course they have, or I wouldn't be
sitting here talking to someone like you."
The Dame was, of
course, exaggerating. Class barriers still exist and competition to
scramble over them ahead of one's compatriots is fierce.
Because of this, the
middle-class English can never relax. They are conscious that in
every aspect of life they must project the "right" image -
one based on their perception of what their betters would cultivate
if they had to bother. They care desperately about what they wear,
what they say, what they eat and drink, where they live and with
whom they are seen.
It is an exhausting
business because there is so much at stake. For while it is almost
impossible to move down a class, a glorious upward bound can be
achieved provided the player does not make a single false move when
on trial. And, of course, social life is nothing if not a succession
trials for the middle-class English.
attach enormous importance to accents. Nowadays a regional drawl is
not necessarily a fatal flaw but what used to be called an
"Oxford" accent or "BBC" pronunciation will
still stand the accused in the best stead. Probably even more
important than vowel sounds is vocabulary. Traditionally the upper
classes have always agreed with the working classes that a spade
should be called a spade and never a garden implement.
Although they are
adept at avoiding saying what they actually mean, the words the
well-bred English use to conceal their real feelings are preferably
direct. They never use foreign words when there are perfectly good
English ones for the same things (i.e. napkin and not serviette).
Short Anglo-Saxon words are used to describe bodily functions. All
euphemism is anathema and hyper delicacy, abhorrent.
This makes life
tricky for the middle classes who confuse delicacy with refinement
and tend to avoid any direct confrontation with what they perceive
to be coarse or vulgar. Until they learn to refer to
"lunch" not "dinner" at lunchtime, sit in the
"sitting room" rather than the "lounge", on a
"sofa and chairs", not a "3-piece suite", go to
the "loo" not the "toilet", and use
"scent" rather than "perfume", they can never
pass the conversation test.
The most important
single word in the social climber's vocabulary is
"common". It should be used frequently to describe anyone
or anything which offends one's assumed level of sensibility. There
is no appeal against "commonness".
Trial by Table
have a growing interest in food but it is the ritual of meals and
table manners which hold an unrivalled fascination for them. This
means that mealtimes are probably the most testing times for any
If the meal starts
with soup, remember the English maritime tradition and tip the bowl
away from you to avoid the soup spilling on to your lap in the event
of a swell. And note that a knife should not be held like a pencil
and that "pudding" is never "sweet" except
Trial by Dress
are, understandably, primarily concerned with keeping warm and
admonish impractical fashion victims that they will "catch
their death of cold".
upper-class fashions mostly reflect tradition. The natural habitat
of the English gentleman or woman is the country, not the town, and
this is reflected in their wardrobe. Preferred colours, dismal
browns and duns, remind them of their estates and often bring a
whiff of the Borders to the West End of London, where green
Wellington boots and Barbour shooting jackets are not considered any
more out of place than four-wheel drive Range Rovers.
For while fashion
itself is transitory, the English way of life goes on for ever. So,
it sometimes seems, do English clothes. Formal outfits have to be
bought on occasion, but they should never look new. Neither should
old school, regimental or club ties. Casual clothes are chosen for
their comfort, not for their appearance.
Fashion, even foreign
fashion, interests the English increasingly, and this is reflected
in a growing awareness of cut and style. However, no designer can
change the Englishman's penchant for trousers which are a little too
short for the leg, as if he had somehow grown out of them.
Trial by Love
something that does not come all that naturally to the English, who
see romanticism as a threat to practicality and common sense. In
terms of the social climb, however, it is central. It is, after all,
the one way in which one can move upwards in one bound. A good
marriage can put a social climber in a commanding position. But in
the game of life, even the English acknowledge that the love card is
wild. That is why they are so wary of it.
If you come
through the trials and establish your credentials, you may earn a
grudging respect in English social circles.
Finally, though, the
laugh is on you. For if you have really had to try, you have lost.
The accused in this trial needs to exercise every care except,
perhaps, that of caring too much.
It is hard to
believe that the English reproduce, for while other nations
celebrate their sexuality, to a greater or lesser extent, the
English regard theirs as the enemy within.
sexually-unattractive Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans in general
have got a lot to answer for. Together they drove die issue
underground hundreds of years ago and it has been growing there ever
since quietly choking the flower of English youth and occasionally
upsetting the entire garden plan.
But instead of
ploughing up the whole area, the English have played around with
trowels and forks for centuries. Consequently they have never, so to
speak, solved the problem.
This is strange, for
the English are fearless in their confrontation of almost everything
else. In all other matters emotional or psychological, while angels hover
nervously on the sidelines, the practical English rush in, dragging
their tea urns behind them, ready to cope. When it comes to sex,
however, they are struck dumb and stumble about helplessly.
Because of their
inclination to ignore the existence of the sexual impulse, the
English have never really seen sex as a fit subject for study or
discussion. The result is that their attitudes towards it are still
characterised by the superstitions, myths and taboos of less
enlightened ages. In consequence, many English see sex in terms of
domination - a liaison being termed a "conquest" of one
party by the other.
When it comes to the
act itself, the English have always felt themselves to be inferior
practitioners. As far as men and women are concerned, sex was, and
to a certain extent still is, primarily about reproduction. Lights
out, face to face, is the name of the game.
It is as well, too,
to remember that for the English, even sex is not free of class
distinction. Tradition has it, for example, that the sign of a
gentleman is that he will take his own weight on his elbows and,
however, intimate the moment, he will always remember to thank his
hostess for having him, just as she will thank him for coming.
Voyeurism is a
favourite hobby. The English love to read about sex. Newspapers are
full of the bedtime exploits of others and the peccadilloes of the
famous are a constant thrill. Nothing, even the act itself, can enthrall
the English quite as much as reading about some sado-masochistic
pillar of society caught bending over in Bayswater on a Sunday
But safer, and
perhaps even more to the English taste, in sexual innuendo of the
seaside postcard kind. Naturally nervous of sex, they feel happiest
when they tittering about it. So it's Benny Hill and "Carry on
Bottom" for a really good night out - followed by a comforting an aphrodisiac
- a few too many lagers or a mug of steaming cocoa.
Wealth and Success
generally prefer the old to the new in their daily life and dislike
change in the status of their relatives and acquaintances.
is preferable to "new" money and inherited money is
infinitely preferable to money earned. Those who suddenly achieve
wealth are referred to dismissively and anyone who talks about their
financial status or hints that he or she might be anything more than
"comfortably off", will get a very cool reception in
desirable social circles.
Overt enjoyment or
the flaunting of wealth is also considered rather bad form and the
innate puritanism of the English warns "Pools" winners
that ho good will come of their having won and that "money
cannot buy happiness".
transatlantic cousins, the English have an inherent distrust of
success and look upon money with disdain. Misquoting the Bible to
underline this attitude, they aver that: "Money is the root of
all evil." What they really mean is that everybody else's is.