ON NOT BEING ENGLISH

I’ve been reading (and enjoying) Watching the English by anthropologist Kate Fox.

I find myself in a slightly uncomfortable position. (She makes it clear she is discussing the English, not the British or other British nations.) It is perfectly obvious that there are enormous differences between Scots characteristics and English ones, yet I am surprised how many we hold in common.

She cites a pervasive humour that affects everything, an ever present but unspoken awareness of class, an overwhelming desire and respect for privacy, a frequently misunderstood habit of self deprecation and a desire for fair play as being the predominant English characteristics, and I would agree with her.

Humour is one of our methods of coping; it can also be a weapon. On the day of the London terrorist attacks, (which occurred one day after we won the 2012 Olympics, Paris being our main rivals,) the author records how in the silence that descended on an attacked train carriage, a lone male voice was heard to speculate, I had no idea the French were such bad losers. And in the carriage John was in, which was halted in darkness underground, but was undamaged, when a railway official arrived with his torch to lead them out of the carriage and tunnel to safety, he greeted them by saying, Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen; I am your tour guide for this morning. My favourite story on English humour is when a poll was conducted on who you would most like to banish from our shores into exile, the ‘winner’ was the Prince of Wales. I think foreign nations often don’t always grasp that every English person understands at once that these are jokes. There’s no question of the French being accused of causing the atrocity, nor is there any serious intention of exiling the Prince of Wales.

American films of English period drama almost invariably fall down because they don’t understand the subtlety of the English class system. We pretend it doesn’t exist or matter any more, we rarely speak of it, yet we make a judgement on class, without thinking about it, on everyone we meet. We know for example that David Cameron stands a notch or two higher than George Osborne in the class system, even though we never bother to analyse why. We know this even if we despise the English class system.

Our respect for privacy makes us unwilling to give our name with promiscuous abandon, nor do we want, on first acquaintance, to know yours. It makes us uncomfortable with emotional statements and is why we mock weeping acceptances of award speeches. It’s also why it’s completely unacceptable for politician’s to call for God to bless us.

As for our self deprecation, take it from me, we don’t mean it. It’s a form of boasting. It’s also why we’re accused of not being ‘patriotic’ because we don’t fly the flag all over the place. Nothing against those who do. We don’t need to. Attack us and you’ll soon see how loyal and patriotic we can be. There was an amusing incident in the premiership of Harold McMillan where the Russian president Khrushchev interrupts McMillan’s speech, shouting and banging his shoe on the table. McMillan mildly observes, I’d like it translated please, which makes the assembly laugh, but at the same time reduces Khrushchev’s speech to being a toddler’s tantrum.

As for fair play. Now that’s a serious business. On a jury once, feeling was rising against the defendant, who was an immigrant (possibly illegal though that was not the issue). When it was put to the jurors (who were from all walks of life) that they were an ENGLISH jury, and therefore wanted to deliver a fair and just verdict, such as we would hope would be delivered to one of their own sons, they agreed soberly and at once.

So, I agree with all these points. I could, in all those respects, be English.

Except when it comes to the leavetaking. According to the author (and she’s been right about everything else) English leavetakings are protracted and slow and therefore you should allow 15 – 2o minutes to leave a gathering. Good

God, I think, 15 – 20 minutes? Heaven preserve us. I think it should be no more than 5 minutes from when you make your first move until you finally depart.

Is it because I’m a Scot?

One final point on the English.   With their deadpan humour, their apparent modesty, their habit of self deprecation and their politeness, they could be mistaken for an effete and peaceful people of little threat.   This would be a mistake.   They held a world wide empire with an incredibly small army by comparison with the millions they controlled.   The English are dangerous and  deadly.   As Lord Byron (himself described as Mad, bad and dangerous to know) put it:

He was the mildest mannered man that ever scuttled ship or cut a throat, with such true breeding of a gentleman, you never could divine his thought.

ON LYING

“Any fool can tell the truth, but it requires a man of some sense to know how to lie well.”  Samuel Butler

 

Is it ever acceptable to lie?

I aim to tell the truth. If I compliment you on something you may be assured that I mean it. I will not praise things simply to please you. If you ask me a question, I will attempt a truthful, if tactful answer. (Do not ask questions where you cannot cope with the answer!) But what this means is that if I do feel it necessary to be ‘economical with the truth’, I can generally do this successfully. People tend to believe me. Also I do not lie very often.

But sometimes it is inadvisable to tell the truth. People ask hostile questions that they have no business asking, and if you give an honest reply, you or someone you care about, will suffer loss.

You are not obliged to surrender private information about yourself . Commercially, if you were to tell the whole truth always, it would be very bad for business. However you must be truthful enough that your word can be trusted.

Still when facing hostile questioning it is better not to lie outright. One can withhold information, or mislead without actually lying.

As for the taking of oaths, I resent the practice. People of low principle will not care if they break their oath. I feel that being required to take the oath suggests that without the supervision of the oaths ceremony, it’s assumed I’d be lying in my teeth. Given that I intend to tell the whole truth it’s quite insulting.

But lying is a serious business. When Jonathan Aitken stood up before journalists and declared: ‘If it falls to me to start a fight with … bent and twisted journalism with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play,’ I was fascinated and horrified. I knew he was lying, and more than that, I knew he would go down, because he had picked up the sword of truth to vindicate his lie; he had mortally offended the goddess Athene . People being so bold as to take up the sword of truth had better be absolutely certain they are in good order. Otherwise the sword will turn on them.

In less dramatic cases, holders of positions who are proved to have been lying, should be dismissed.

Some lies are worse than others. If you deny emptying the biscuit barrel, when you know you did, that’s naughty. To invent falsehoods to damage someone else’s reputation, that’s wicked. Not to speak out when someone is falsely accused of crimes you know they didn’t commit because when you witnessed what actually happened you were doing something you shouldn’t have done – that’s sinful.

If your country goes to war, you’ve abandoned all normal standards of behaviour and your one objective is win. Of course you’d have to lie if necessary. The French resistance hadn’t worried too much about its lying. In some cases – for example if facing the unprincipled representatives of a corrupt authority that enforced improper laws – persecution of minorities, slavery, apartheid etc then lying to protect the vulnerable could be a civic and moral duty.

So, once again, you’re on your own. There’s no one set of rules you can apply that will cover all eventualities. You’ll have to come to your own conclusion.

When I was in primary school I got a new pencil. These were not easily come by, for me, and I got my father to flick a little bit of the paint off at the base and carefully wrote in my initials. Sitting near me was a girl with similar initials. She took my pencil and refused to give it back. I raised my voice in protest. The teacher came. “What’s all this racket?” she demanded. My neighbour got in first. “She says this is her pencil, but it’s mine,” says she, bold as brass. To my amazement she then added in great detail how she had gone to the village shop with her Aunty Irene who had bought her a cinnamon potato and the pencil. There had been a choice of red or green pencils and she had chosen red to match her pencil case. I wondered, since she was so swift and vivid in her creation of this myth, why she was so thick at her school-work. The teacher turned to me. “What’s your story?” The other girl smirked at me. I could not out-do her story. I said, “She is a thief and a liar, and you know that I am not.” The teacher handed me the pencil without another word.

Can lying ever be justified? Yes, but try not to be in this position too often.

MACHINE OVERLOAD

I sometimes think, with all our modern aids, that we are going to lose a lot of our natural abilities. It’s so easy,with Sat Nav to punch the coordinates in, and then voice and map take you there. Will future generations lose the ability to read maps and decide on a route? Can sailors still navigate by the stars?

We’ve had one of those weeks when you’re afraid even to look at a piece of equipment for fear it will break down.

The first casualty was our rain shower in our main bathroom. It shrank to an unsatisfactory trickle, accompanied by the most incredible noise. We hastily switched it off. We have another shower or bath, so that was inconvenient but manageable. The plumber has been and fixed the pump and that now runs as it should.

Then, as if in sympathy, an unbelievable series of crashes and bangs came from the central heating unit (not on for the heating at the moment, but heating the hot water). We switched that off. We have an electrical option for the hot water heating but it provides about a third of the water and it’s never what I’d call really hot. Apparently there is no connection between these two failures. The engineer has ordered the part and is coming shortly.

Then finally (or at least I hope it’s finally) the TV failed. I’ve staved my wrist and it’s still quite painful so I need to rest, not using my arm, and so watching TV alleviated the boredom. The problem had been caused by, so the help desk in Mumbai informed us, a download of data to our box (no, I don’t understand any of this either) by them, which proved too much for it. The news that the earliest resolution that could be expected was in 8 days time proved too much for John. I left him requesting to speak to someone in the UK (But I am speaking my very best English, sir…)

Frankly, I’m not too hopeful.

PS Oh me of little faith. John unearthed some old TV from somewhere, attached it to something mysterious in our bedroom, and abracadabra, as if by magic we have main channels. Plus a new box is to come a week sooner and at their expense, not ours.

A toast… To men. We don’t appreciate them enough. They may not be good at talking or ‘sharing their emotions’, but who cares about that when you don’t have hot water or TV?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JUST SAY NO

JUST SAY NO

Over the years I’ve observed various friends (mostly women) become exhausted and over-worked because of a tendency to allow themselves to be ‘put upon’ by employers, relatives, church or charity organisers, friends. They are usually very busy people, already undertaking a variety of charitable duties, but unscrupulous people spot that they have a kind heart and take advantage of them.

I am sure, dear reader, if you have accompanied me on my blogs for longer than a week or two, hat you will realise that I do not belong in this august and virtuous company. I have never found it in the least difficult to say No. When we had been living in this house for a few weeks, an overbearing woman rang and announced in the no-volume-control tones of one who thinks she must be obeyed, that she was calling on behalf of a well known charity; they were about to despatch the envelopes that were to be distributed and in addition to the usual streets covered by Mildred, she had a few more that were also to be included and could it kindly be ensured that all were posted through the doors by a date only about a week away. I replied politely that Mildred no longer lived here and regrettably I did not have a forwarding address. She responded by saying it didn’t have o be Mildred; I would do just as well. I said I would have to decline the honour. Why can’t you do it she demanded. The person living in our house had always distributed the envelopes. I said, I did not choose to contribute in this fashion. Well, she said, clearly in an almighty huff, it’s just as well everybody isn’t so selfish. I asked her if the charity actually employed her? Yes, of course, she replied. I said I thought she should consider seeking other employment, for her arrogant rudeness and lack of christian humility was damaging the charity’s reputation. She uttered a very uncharitable phrase, and hung up.

But I am not suggesting everyone must be so assertive. If you are happy with the time you give to projects led by other people, then carry on and you can have the pleasure of being virtuous and enjoying it. But if you feel put upon and stressed, and never have enough time for your own priorities, consider changing your responses.

Firstly you should examine why you are vulnerable to being exploited in this way. Did your childhood upbringing train you to be subservient to the will and desires of a parent perhaps? But you are no longer a child, so this no longer applies. Do you wish to be liked and therefore find it hard to refuse? The hard faced harpy demanding your services – or even the sacharine sweet organiser with her list of asks – is not going to like you if you comply: she’s just going to enter you on her list of people who are quick to persuade. It is important that you are able to refuse comfortably. If the problem is guilt – you feel you have had a fortunate life compared with others and therefore feel bad about refusing, but still resent the demands on your time – then decide on a work or charity you are prepared to undertake and do that gladly, and decline other requests with a clear conscience. There’s no point in indulging in guilt AFTER an event. You should have thought of that before, and not done whatever it was. If it is truly outwith your control, then guilt isn’t appropriate. If you agree to all that is asked of you, you won’t have time to serve the people who really are your responsibility; and if you don’t get enough time to yourself, you won’t be strong enough to give of your best when you want to do so. Why should you care if she doesn’t like you anyway? You don’t like her very much.

So when the Ugly Sister rings and proposes the task, just say pleasantly that you’re very sorry, but on this occasion you aren’t able to help her. And whatever she says, (But I’m counting on you; your scones are the best; nobody does it like you; it’s not like you to refuse to help) you just repeat your phrase like a stuck record. I’m sorry that on this occasion, I can’t help you. Don’t offer any explanation (she’ll find a way round it. ) if she asks what else you’re doing, (people of her ilk have no manners at all)say you’ll need to go now. If she says since you can’t do this rota, will you do one next Wednesday, say you can’t decide that until nearer the time, if you’re not brave enough to refuse outright. If she says, when will it be convenient for you to do this, say, I’m very busy over the next few weeks and I can’t give you any date at this time. Don’t be put in the position that the buck stops with you. If she says she’ll assume you’re OK for Friday unless she hears from you, say, No, she’ll have to ring you nearer the time or else you’ll forget (and do so.)

Bear in mind too that if you don’t think fast enough to refuse, it’s a simple matter to go back and say, Yesterday I agreed to — but on reflection I find I had forgotten some other commitments and therefore I’m sorry but I am unable to help you.

If the person loading you with tasks is entitled to do so (an employer) then of course you will have to undertake them, but if the load is quite unreasonable, you can ask in what order the tasks are to be carried out, making it clear that some will have to be delayed.

You only have to do this a few times and you will be removed from the Quick and Easy List of People to Dump Tasks on. Then you should have plenty of time to enjoy doing what YOU want to do which might well include some of those tasks you were overburdened with in the first place, but they will be at your choice, rather than someone else’s.

Bear in mind that if you have always been very meek and obliging, people will initially react very badly to your change of view. But you weren’t happy with the previous arrangement, were you, so it’s quite fitting that they feel irritated and put upon for a time. So, walk away, put the telephone down, close down your email,  and then go and do something pleasurable that you didn’t have time to do before!