Beliefs and Attitudes
- Attitudes and Values
- Common Sense
- Trial by Conversation
- Trial by Table Manners
- Trial by Dress
- Trial by Love
- Wealth and Success
Attitudes and Values
The English 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:
Common sense 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 haemorrhoids). 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.
Belonging is important to the English. Individuality is all very well, 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 manoeuvring themselves into cliques in whose coiftpany 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 class code.
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.
English tradition 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.
The aristocracy, 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.
Trial by Conversation
The 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 conseal 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 hyperdelicacy, 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 Manners
The English 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 player.
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 adjectivally.
Trial by Dress
The English are, understandably, primarily concerned with keeping warm and admonish impractical fashion victims that they will "catch their death of cold".
Predictably, 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
Love is 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.
The 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 hovar 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 peccadillos of the famous are a constant thrill. Nothing, even the act itself, can enthral the English quite as much as reading about some sado-masochistic pillar of society caught bending over in Bayswater on a Sunday afternoon.
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 anaphrodisiac - a few too many lagers or a mug of steaming cocoa.
Wealth and Success
The English generally prefer the old to the new in their daily life and dislike change in the status of their relatives and acquaintances.
"0ld" money 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 enjoymeent 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".
Unlike their 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.