Monday, April 27, 2009

Watching the English

I am an Anglophile – there’s no use hiding it (if it has ever been hidden). I guiltily watch Midsomer Murders on my weekends, I celebrate the Man-Booker prize winners, I love mushy peas and eating pies. I love books on England, on British history, on the royal family, on the British collective conscious: Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Bill Bryson, etc.

I am aware that this is completely lame, because there’s nothing worse than someone who loves a concept unconditionally. It’s like loving a movie star who will never know you existed, but worse. American (and I sound American) Anglophiles are a dime a dozen. I’m sure the British are heartily sick of them: gushing about Jane Austen, thinking dreamily about Prince William, reminiscing about the Lake District and that little jaunt to Bath. Guilty. And the worst part is, I have no chance of ever looking cool around a British person. I lose it – my cool – and grovel, fawn, smile knowingly.

Part of this I blame on my upbringing in a once British colony. We shared spelling, certain words like “foolscap paper” for college-lined, “queue” for a line, and “rubbers” for erasers. My primary school and high school seemed like a pale imitation of the British – bazaars, fetes, English breakfasts, uniforms, matric tests that vaguely resembled how people talk about their A/O levels. I think that I was implanted with some vague yearning for the Mother Country.

Watching the English by Kate Fox is definitely the finest of the Brit-Lit bunch I have encountered. Whether it is because she’s English herself, or because she’s an anthropologist, her observations are funny, detailed with instructions for what to expect in exchanges with the English:

“One must appear self-conscious, ill-at-ease, stiff, awkward, and, above all, embarrassed. Smoothness, glibness and confidence are inappropriate and un-English. Hesitation, dithering and ineptness are, surprising as it may seem, correct behavior. Introductions should be performed as hurriedly as possible, but also with maximum inefficiency. If disclosed at all, named must be mumbled; hands should be tentatively half-proffered and then clumsily withdrawn…”

After reading Kate Fox’s study, I read John Bayley’s tribute to his wife Iris Murdoch (Elegy for Iris) and was struck by how many observations Fox made popped up in Bayley’s writing. Murdoch, a brilliant novelist and philosopher, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Bayley writes “The continuity of joking can very often rescue such moments. Humour seems to survive anything.” Fox’s book, though a serious study, is also laced with humor and aside jokes; I couldn’t stop laughing at her own self-deprecation and by wonderful pejorative phrases like “complete muppet.”

Fox delights and entertains with advice on how to correctly eat peas with the upper-class, the mentality behind the constant “sorry”s, the travails of queue-jumping, what pub-etiquette demands especially among males, how to correctly discuss the weather as a bonding tool, and how to identify a person by class by noting their car/ house/ language/ dress/ garden.

Fair-play and courtesy are important to the English, as is humor as a preservative, ironic wit, communal “Eeyorishness”, avoiding looking overly-sincere (and therefore pretentious) and employing mock modesty by continuous (sometimes competitive) self-deprecation. A true gem if you are at all interested in “decoding” the English psyche.

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