The Columnist

unravelling the British
         I am not the best person to write about the English. No Englishman is. If I wanted to know the truth about the Swedes, I would not ask a Swede, unless he had been living abroad for a long time, because foreigners always provide the best views of another nationality. Theodore Zeldin, an Englishman, wrote a book about the French called “The French”, which was incredibly popular in France. What a sensible wise book! Everyone said. Monsieur Zeldin is so accurate about our country and its people! In fact, what M. Zeldin had said in his book was that there was no typical Frenchman and that France was a country occupied by 500,000,000 interesting individuals, all different. No wonder the French loved the book.
         I do not think Theodore Zeldin has ever written about the English and nor have I before now, but by pretending to be a Swede living here, I have begun to notice some very interesting things about the English, and the first is that every person in the country has two nationalities. An Englishman is English, but he is also British. A Scotsman is Scottish, and also British. The same is true of the Welshman. Ask a Scotsman where he comes from, and he may say Britain; he will probably say Scotland; but he will never, never say that he is from England. The golfer Sandy Lyle has a very Scottish name, but he grew up in England of Scottish parents, he has never lived in Scotland and he has no Scottish accent. Yet, when asked what country he wanted to play for, he immediately chose Scotland. There was no way he would play for England, the auld enemy.
         Until you understand this, you cannot start to understand the British. Until you understand that people may think of themselves as British, but they only feel themselves to be Scottish, English, etc, you will get nowhere. Until you realise that you hear crowds shouting, ‘Come on England!’ and ‘Come on Scotland!’ but never ‘Come on Britain’, you won’t begin to realise that conversations like the following can take place:
         Englishman: ‘You know, the French make really good bread, so you’d think the British would pick up the trick, but they never have, have they? English bread is awful.’
         Scotsman: ‘Aye, but Scots bread is very good. We have always know how to bake good bread in Scotland.’
         Englishman: ‘Have you? I didn’t know that. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted Scotch bread.’
         Scotsman: ‘It’s not scotch, you ninny – it’s Scottish. And when you said British just now, you really meant English, didn’t you?’
         Englishman: ‘I expect so. I can’t remember.’
         It’s true. An Englishman takes British and English to be roughly the same thing, which always infuriates the Scots. An Englishman is not aware that they have different cooking traditions in Scotland, which also infuriates the Scots. The Scots do not like the word Scotch except when applied to mist, eggs, or whisky (thought they never call whisky “Scotch” themselves, only “whisky”) and when the word Scotch is used otherwise, it infuriates the Scots even more. The Scots are easily angered by the English. And what infuriates the Scots most about the English is that the English don’t care. The English really don’t think it matters if you say Scotch, Scottish, British or English.
         But they still won’t shout ‘Come on Britain!’
         Here’s another conversation I heard recently.
         Scotsman: ‘You know what really annoys me about the national TV news and weather?’
         Englishman: ‘No – what?’
         Scotsman: ‘After they’ve heard the national and international news, they say “And now over to the regions for local news and weather”.’
         Englishman: ‘What’s wrong with that?’
         Scotsman: ‘Scotland isn’t a region you fool – it’s a country!’
         Englishman: ‘ Is it? Yes, I suppose it is.’
         Scotsman ‘God, you infuriate me.’ (Strangles the Englishman)
         Or to put it another way, when Australia beats England at cricket, the whole of England mourns and Scotland rejoices. But enough of Scotland, and on to the game which everyone in Britain enjoys. Yes, class. The British have such a pervasive class system that few of them realise how strong it is. A sociologist once said that a country which lived underwater and had to describe itself, would not mention till last the fact that it lived underwater, because the most all-embracing points are taken for granted. That is why the British do not notice their class system game, and yet as soon as they meet a stranger, they immediately start to deduce from the stranger’s language, dress and lifestyle what part of the class structure he inhabits and if it is safe to talk to him. Does he say lunch or dinner? Does he eat early or late in the evening? How does he hold his knife? Does he drink wine with his meal (very good), beer (bit ordinary) or tea (very ordinary, unless it’s a Chinese meal in which case it’s quite brave)?
         That’s the real reason the British are bad at dealing with foreigners. They can’t work out what class a foreigner belongs to. I have known Americans drive English people wild by sending out contradictory class signals to confuse the English.
         I mean British. Sorry.
         Recently, I heard a programme on BBC radio in which several people were discussing the way each other spoke, because one of the guests was a professor of language, and he said he was fascinated to listen to the two Yorkshiremen on the programme, because they had modified their accents in accordance with the image they wished to offer. Roy Hattersley, the Socialist politician, had lost some of his Yorkshire sounds to sound statesman-like but kept others to sound a bit working class. Fred Truman, a famous cricketer, had kept all his sounds, but lost his dialectical tricks of grammar, because it suited his image as a regional sports champion. The professor himself agreed that he had a colourless, quite posh, BBC radio accent.
         What was fascinating about this programme, apart form the accuracy of it, was the fact that it was happening at all. I cannot imagine any other country in the world where people would go on national radio to discus the intricacies of the way they spoke, and how to change it if they wanted to move up in the world. No wonder foreigners keep their accents when they live in England (George Mikes, the Hungarian humorist, kept his for forty years unchanged) for otherwise they might be mistaken for a Briton.
         I mean Brit. Sorry. Brit is an ugly word which has recently become popular as a general word for British people, and I think we accept it because the British have had an ugly image in the world, and in Europe especially, in the last few years. Our vandals and hooligans have been the best in Europe – the most drunken, the most violent. The rest of us are amazed by it. We can’t understand it. The rest of us are very gentle and sweet people, even more so with our yobs around. And the result has been, for the first time in the history of the world, that the British have started apologising. They have started feeling guilty. When English football fans caused trouble in Stockholm in 1989, and the Swedish police said, ‘Well actually, I think the Swedish fans were more to blame,’ the English press said, ‘No, no, it was our fault, we are to blame, we insist we are to blame.’
         This is quite extraordinary. The British never apologise. There is nothing to apologise for. The British always do their best, don’t they? So why should they apologise?
         (Mark you, a small section of the British population has always apologised for everything in Britain – the bread, the cooking, the arts, the drink, the culture. This is the part of the middle class which spends its holidays in France, where they do all those things better.)
         But now the British do have something to feel ashamed of, and to do them credit, they have noticed. We actually have, for once in our history, taken notice of what other countries are saying. We are not doing anything about it, but we are at least feeling ashamed. We have never been ashamed of our Imperial conquests, or interfering with the rest of the world, or annoying the rest of the European Community, but we are ashamed of our football fans. More ashamed of our football fans than of Northern Ireland…
         I had better explain the Northern Ireland situation. Somebody once said that anyone who can explain the situation doesn’t understand it, but I do have a theory which has never been disproved, because this is its first appearance, and it goes like this. The struggle in Northern Ireland is between the Catholics and Protestants but it isn’t a religious battle; it’s between two social and political groups, one of Scottish origin, one of Irish. Now, if you or I met someone from Northern Ireland we wouldn’t have the faintest idea if he were Catholic or Protestant, because they look the same. So how do they tell the difference? Oh, all sorts of ways. From his name, from his accent, from the school he went to, from the place he works, from his address – establish two or thee of those, and you know at once.
In other words, it’s very like the British class system, but even more so. In England, you have to deduce from other people’s characteristics your relative position in society, because it helps you know how to behave. In Northern Ireland you have to make deductions like this, because it stops you being shot. In other words, it’s more serious in Northern Ireland. And my theory is that we in England like to have the Northern Ireland situation continuing because it is the only thing in the world that makes our class system look sensible. After all, if you speak in the wrong accent in England you don’t get shot, just cut dead.
         What you won’t find in Britain these days is the old stereotypes such as bowler hats and umbrellas which remain rolled up even when it’s raining. There are a few left like that, but there are just as many turbans and West Indian bobble hats. The only thing that unites the British is their tendency to dress boringly – most of them go around in casual clothes which look as if they belonged to a sporting event no longer included in the Olympics, like rock climbing or weekend sailing. They dress as if they do not want to draw attention to themselves, and they tend to talk the same way as well. Every time I listen to local Welsh and Scottish radio, I can detect an immediate increase in the interest of the language used – it’s more colourful, more featureful, full of pockets of light and shade, even though it’s still the same English language. People who become famous on English radio for having the gift of the gab are usually from Ireland, Wales or Scotland…
         But I see I am back to these fascinating national differences again, to the position in which Wales has no government but is allowed to play football in Europe as an independent nation, and in which Scotland has no independence but a completely different legal system from England. Really, it is as hard to explain as the differences between Denmark, Norway and Sweden…
         I shall have to find this out one day for a book I am working on called The Atlas of World Prejudice, which has taken me five years so far and looks like taking me the rest of my life. I remember at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis in the U.S.A. many Sikhs in America complaining bitterly that they were being attacked by members of the American public who thought, because of their turbans, they must be Iranians. ‘Won’t someone please tell the American the difference between an Iranian and an Indian before we are all beaten up?’ they cried piteously.
         Well, that is what my book will achieve. I am against ignorant prejudice. I am all for well-informed prejudice. What the world needs is an encyclopaedic work which tells you the truth about nations; not, for instance, that the French smell of garlic, but that they smell of logic. There will of course be a chapter on How to Infuriate A Scotsman, but that will be easy. The only chapter I am going to have trouble with, I think, is the one on How To Annoy An Englishman, and I would welcome suggestions from readers who may have experience of this exciting sport. All suggestions will be tried out in a scientific and fair manner. Thank you. 
Scanorama (Scandanavian Airlines inflight magazine) Nov. 1989

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