Saturday, 22 May 2010

"A perverse need to make social life difficult for themselves"

I am in London. It's hot and very peaceful in Papa Waffle's house. Waffle Senior and Stepmother are away. All the children at the two frightfully posh schools in his street have been collected by their whippet thin, nicely highlighted American mothers and provided with sugar free protein bars and smoothies before Japanese class. The yoga centre loons are pretty quiet on their cork soled orthopedic sandals. I can just lie here on the bed fighting to stay awake, dribbling slightly, in a nest of cheap cosmetics packaging. I made the grave error of checking my UK bank balance, and since it was marginally better than I was expecting, I have run amok in Boots, obediently followed the blanket advertising and bought Cadbury's Caramel biscuits (meh. I keep checking I don't like them though, and have eaten close to a packet) then concluded with a quietly respectful stampede around Daunt Books.

I am very tired, for no good reason. I think it's because I'm off duty here and can have a couple of days off fretting about almost everything, and just sit vacantly in front of a range of hot drinks thinking about Stuff (by which I mean material fripperies, like Yves Saint Laurent eye masks, and Liberty's underwear department, not significant Life Stuff). This isn't what I am supposed to be doing; I should be writing like my fingers are on fire. This is not happening. Mainly I have been drifting around my usual haunts on automatic pilot, seeing people, sniffing the unsavoury scent of Oxford Street Tube and Berwick Street market like a pervert, trying on cheap shoes and wandering aimlessly. See Exhibit A below, Liberty tearoom with the adoptive son:

I like this picture. I can imagine us sitting in cafes like this for several decades to come, and the prospect is very soothing and makes me happy.

Fittingly, on a trip back to London, I am reading Watching the English. Regardless of its intellectual rigour or absence thereof (and reviews were very mixed), this is a book that, in the short time since I started reading it yesterday afternoon, has let me off the hook about some of my most ridiculous behaviours. It is not a self-help book. It's an ethnological study of Englishness. I wrote a post earlier this year about being terribly inarticulate and bad at asking seemingly innocuous questions and having a disabling level of social awkwardness. Well guess what? Kate Fox says English people aren't SUPPOSED to be good at things like that. It's not just that we're bad at it, it's an actual RULE that we have to be bad at it.

In the parts I have read so far, the author explains, minutely, how English people are bad at:

1. Introductions

The author says "the only rule one can identify with any certainty .. is that, to be impeccably English, one must perform these rituals badly. One must appear self-conscious, ill-at-ease, stiff, awkward, and above all, embarassed".

Can you imagine the relief I feel on reading this?

2. Asking social questions

"In addition to our privacy scruples, we English seem to have a perverse need to make social life difficult for ourselves".

Why yes, yes I do.

I flicked around a bit, and toward the end is this diagram:

Social dis-ease is placed at the heart of English identity. So there we go, I can continue being crippled with awkwardness at every juncture, and just put it down to following the immutable rules of being English. I particularly liked the fact that the book starts with her girding her loins to spend a day queue jumping. Just reading that sentence gave me a huge transgressive frisson. I can't imagine having the daring to do that. You can see why I nearly died of suppressed rage living in Paris, can't you? Speaking of which the catalogue of incompetence continues, and I have already missed my train there. I must run away to the station to plead my way onto another, queueing with exquisite politeness until I miss it, probably.


Laura said...

OMG, I've been English all my life and I never knew it. That may explain why American existence is so challenging at times.

English Mum said...

Interesting. Having recently spent two weeks in Morocco in the company of hoards of French people, I worked out that there does seem to be SOME method in their queuing madness, I just can't quite work out what it is.

I prefer the sniffy, uptight English way though, I think...

Margaret said...

I need to read this book--I think it will make me feel much more competent about my social skills. (Do the French cut lines? I didn't notice that in Paris. You try that shit in the U.S., and we will harangue the bejeesus out of you: "ExCUSE me--there's a LINE" and "HEY--end of the line, lady".)

Anonymous said...

A get out for all of us then! I shall definitely have to read that too. Another one for the Amazon wishlist.

shooz said...

I found that book immensely helpful when I came to live in England after a lifetime in Scotlandshire

Juli Ryan said...

Until now, I had assumed that the difficult awkwardness in my social encounters was a reaction to my country bumpkin American upbringing. How lovely to realize that the mumbled introductions and barely concealed class loathing are actually just because people are English.

WrathofDawn said...

This explains Canadia somewhat as well. What a relief!

WV is doessest. This doessest explaineth Canuckistan.

Anonymous said...

Well that probably explains why I feel more Canadian than English. Still, I can't wait to get to London and roll around in Englishness this summer. Coming Boots!

AliBlahBlah said...

While back in the UK I read a brilliant article in the Guardian about there being 'askers' and 'guessers' in life. British people are 'guessers' they will never ask an awkward question unless they are 99% sure they have been able to guess your answer. Askers will ask anything of you and expect to be turned down, but don't realize that they torment 'guessers' who are shocked at how forward and rude they're being.

Sounds like my relationship with my Mother in Law in a nutshell!

Thanks for another good post, I always find something to think about at your blog!

Laurel said...

That's so interesting! I requsted & received "Watching the English" for Christmas, and halfway through abandoned it because I couldn't tell how much credence to give it. I'm a New England WASP and a lot of what she said sounded like easy generalizations about life here as well. I couldn't tell if a British person would really agree about what she had to say. Funnily enough I'd just picked it up last week to forge on. Now that I am fortified by your positive opinion I will continue.

That does make me curious, though, about whether New Englanders are still very similar to Brits. Certainly we are reserved and I think much more class-aware than some parts of the U.S. Wish we had your pub culture, though!