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.


About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.


  1. Eugene Windsor says:

    Yes I read that book by Kate Fox a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I’m with you on goodbyes, I just like to go without fuss!

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