holidays apart, the English do not tend to spend much time with
their families. Once the tiresome business of childhood is over,
they set out on life's journey largely unhampered by considerations
of siblings or parents. Free at last, they can apply themselves to
cultivating that most English talent - not getting on with others -
and to starting their own uncommunicative families.
has tried to get lunch for a small child in a pub on Dartmoor in the
depths of winter, will know the despair that clutches the heart at
the sight of that notice - "No Children, No Dogs."
Although the two
nuisances are lumped together in this instance, they are seldom
mentioned in the same breath for while most English people like
dogs, not many of them like children.
Children make them
nervous. They are unpredictable. Where should they patted? On the
head, perhaps: "Well, well, my little man - and what do you
want to be when you grow up?"
The implication of
the question is clear. An English childhood is something to be got
over as quickly as possible. To be an English grown-up - that is the
only really glorious thing. No wonder the English child is in such a
hurry to be one.
about sex is nothing to the embarrassment they show about its
consequences. Pregnancy is not considered a fit topic for
The sooner a mother
is back on her feet (or back) after childbirth the better and,
despite the best efforts of feminism, breast-feeding is still seen
as almost as private a bodily function as the others.
Only when the baby is
beautifully dressed in a christening robe will the English outside
the immediate family deign to acknowledge its existence. Then they
will tell it that it looks just like its mother or father - never
It is an
English maxim that a person who likes animals cannot be all bad for
the English adore animals - all kinds of animals. They keep them,
not, as other nations do, primarily to guard their property, for
scientific interest or for status, but for company.
For while they are
not always very good at talking to each other, they excel in
conversation with their animals. Although they are not often
successful at forming tactile bonds with their children, they
continually chuck the chins of their lap dogs and whisper sweet
nothings into their hairy ears.
This is because,
unlike people, the wretched things cannot answer back. If they could
the English might learn quite a lot about themselves. As it is, they
are assumed to be in total agreement with their masters and
mistresses and consequently enjoy an unrivalled position in the
Pet owners' homes are
shrines to their animals. The best seats, the warmest spots, the
choicest morsels are handed over to these household gods as a matter
Cats and dogs,
parrots and guinea pigs are excused behaviour which if seen in the
children of the household might well end in assault. They are
deemed, by their owners, to be incapable of almost any misdemeanour.
So when dog bites man, it is always man's fault, even if he is just
a passer-by. Everyone in the vicinity will sympathize with the
owner's disclaimer: "Fang wouldn't hurt a fly!"
by and large, find their elderly as difficult to deal with as their
children. An awkward minority group, they are often ignored by their
families and, funds permitting, banged up in twilight homes. Every
so often they will be visited by their relations who check that they
are basically healthy and happy and that the security systems are in
Other races find this
attitude puzzling. To them the idea of the extended family with its
inherent benefits for all generations is the norm. It is not for the
English. With their children at school and their old people out of
harm's way, they can get on with the real business of life, with
which, they believe, neither youth nor old age is equipped to cope.
To the rest
of the world the entire English race is eccentric. To the English
themselves, the concept of eccentricity is a useful way of coping
with the problem of anti-social or un-English behaviour in one of
their own kind. Solidarity dictates that all the English, whether
sane or not, are basically good eggs and worth any ten foreigners at
twice the price.
So, to a certain
extent, the English cultivate the idea of eccentricity as agreeable
and even admirable.
The phenomenon of the
eccentric does exist in its own right. Class and money have a lot to
do with it. Mental affliction, usually described as lunacy in the
poor, is grandly referred to as eccentricity in the rich.
It is all a question
of scale. Thus non-threatening dotty behaviour, such as Lord Berners'
predilection for travelling about the country in a motor-drawn
horsebox filled with butterflies, and playing a grand piano, was met
with a kind of admiration. He was, after all, a Lord.
The builders of batty
follies and underground ballrooms are considered eccentric and
applauded provided they spend enough money on their creations.
All these eccentrics
are excused de facto from many of the conventions of correct English
they are, eccentrics do represent an element of danger to the
English, for they flout convention. So to have a few is all very
well, but only a few.
have always been among the first to accept refugees from less
enlightened countries. But they do not see why any immigrant should
expect to become part of the community within a matter of days,
months or even years of their arrival. Any such ease of assimilation
would, after all, fly in the face of the thousands of years it has
taken to produce England and the English proper.
They are, however,
generally a tolerant people, their attitude to minority groups being
kindly if condescending. Anyone visiting an English town cannot fail
to be aware of the rich mix of nationalities on view. This is
because the English are better hosts to foreigners than most other
nations. They are used to having aliens about the place and usually
accord them just enough civility to make their lives bearable.
In many ways
foreigners are treated rather like English children. That is to say
they are seen, but not heard.
generally believed that the English are more formal than they really
are. In fact, in day-to-day contact with each other they are less
inclined to formality than the French or the Germans.
Perhaps it is the
awesome spectacle of their state occasions that has given rise to
the popularly held belief that even husbands and wives call each
other by their titles and surnames. In reality, first names are
commonly used among colleagues, and the American habit of using
these on the telephone even before the names have met is how
The custom of men
deferring to women is now some-what on the wane, thanks to the
strenuous efforts of the apostles of political correctness who see
it more as condescension than consideration. You will, however,
probably still get away with opening a door or giving up a seat for
all but the most strident of feminists. But it is no longer de
rigueur to jump to your feet when a woman enters the room, whether
or not there are enough chairs.
Do Not Touch
informal they are in their manner or address, when it comes to
physical contact, the English are still deeply reserved.
They are not a
tactile people. When greeting each other, men will shake hands on a
first meeting but probably avoid doing so on subsequent ones. The
preferred English handshake is a brief, vigorous affair with no hint
of lingering. The cue question, "How do you do?" and the
answer "How do you do?" signal the end of the ritual and
hands should be crisply withdrawn from contact. Any deviation from
the above procedure can cause all sorts of problems and suspicions
of freemasonry, or worse.
Women may kiss on one
or both cheeks; if they do, the miss-kiss is preferred - the kisser
making a kissing gesture with appropriate sound-effects in the air
in the general region of the recipient's ear or ears.
Men may kiss women in
greeting, but only on the cheek. Trying to get a kiss on both cheeks
can be risky as most women only expect the one, do not turn their
heads for the second and receive it full frontally, which can result
in the worst being feared - i.e. that it was an intentional ploy -
an oscillatory rape.
Most Englishmen never
hug or (perish the thought) kiss other men. They leave that to
football players and foreigners.
In public places, the
English make strenuous efforts not to touch strangers even by
accident. If such an accident should occur, apologies are fulsome
but should never be used as an excuse for further conversation. On
crowded public transport where it is sometimes unavoidable, physical
contact with a stranger is permitted, but in such circumstances, eye
contact should be avoided at all costs.
consenting adults is recognised as involving more touching. But that
takes place behind closed doors usually with the lights out.
Displays of affection in all relationships are kept to a minimum.
Ps and Qs
children have their own particular catechism of accepted conduct to
learn. The first rule they come across at an early age is "Mind
your Ps and Qs". These have nothing to do with waiting politely
to use the lavatory. Ps and Qs are short for "Pleases" and
"Thank Yous". Supplication, gratitude and, most important
of all, apology are central to English social intercourse, which is
why English people seem to express them endlessly as if to the hard
It is difficult for
the foreigner to learn how to wield the small vocabulary necessary,
but the starting point is to understand that it is almost impossible
linguistically to be over grateful, over apologetic or over polite
when it comes to the point. Thus, the English man or woman whose toe
you tread on will be "so sorry" presumably for not having
had the offending digit amputated earlier. He or she will thank you
"so much" when you stop treading on it or, if you do not,
ask you to with a routine of pleases and thank yous that would last
any other national half a lifetime. It's just the English way.
A lack of profusion
in the gratitude or apology department will certainly land anyone in
such a situation in the "not very nice" camp from which
there is little chance of escape.
look with amazement at the English queue. It is not their way of
doing things at all. But for the English, queuing is a way of life.
Many still consider
that one of the few plus points of the last war was the
proliferation of queues. There were queues for everything. People
would join one and then ask the person in front what the queue was
And that is the
secret of English queue-mania. A queue is the one place where it is
not considered bad manners to talk to a stranger without being
Such an enjoyable
custom should, to the English way of thinking, commend itself
naturally to all peoples. They are amazed when it does not, and do
not take kindly to aliens who fail to recognise a queue when they
see one ("There is a queue, you know!"), or to join in and
play the queue game nicely.
appear to be a deeply serious people, which, by and large, they are.
This gives an added piquancy to the English sense of humour. For it
comes as a surprise to foreigners to find that it exists at all.
English humour, like
the will-o'-the-wisp, refuses to be caught and examined and just
when you think you have cracked it, you realise that you have been
duped once again. For example:
Two men in a club are
reading their newspapers when one says: "It says here there's a
fellow in Devon who plays his cello to the seals." "Oh
really", says the other. "Yes", says the first,
"Of course, they don't take a blind bit of notice."
Since the English
never say what they mean, often the exact opposite, and tend towards
reticence and understatement, their humour is partly based on an
exaggeration of this facet of their own character. So, while in
conversation they avoid confrontation, in their humour they mock
Tact and diplomacy
are held up to ridicule in a way that would appear to give the lie
to all that the English actually seem to hold dear. Thus in a
popular television situation comedy, Yes, Minister, we are
encouraged to laugh at the elaborate verbal subterfuge of die civil
servant who can turn black into white and convince everyone that
they were one and the same thing all the time. English humour is as
much about recognition as it is about their ability to laugh at
During a television
programme on sex the audience was asked "How many people here
have sex more than three times a week?" There was a weak show
of hands. "And how many have sex once a month?" A sea of
hands shot up. "Anyone less than that?" One man waved his
arm surprisingly enthusiastically. "Once a year," he said.
The audience was stunned and the interviewer observed incredulously,
"You don't look very upset about it." "No," said
the man, "Tonight's the night!"
Cruelty, a mainstay
of German humour, has no place in its English equivalent. Not for
them the acid satire of the Berlin cabarets. They prefer a gentler
corrective, cleverer and more subtle.
The wry smile that
greets the well-judged understatement is a characteristic English
expression. They love irony and expect others to appreciate it too.
In this, they are all too often disappointed as foreigners take
umbrage at what appears to them to be unbearable rudeness. This, of
course, merely confirms what the English have always secretly
suspected - that foreigners cannot take a joke.