For the avoidance of doubt, as the lawyers like to say, most of my experience of England has been among members of the middle class, the kind of people visiting Kiwis are likely to end up with. I am not qualified to comment on the mores and attitudes of, say, Birmingham plumbers.
You’re a decent ordinary Kiwi visiting England for the first time. You’re outgoing, like people, think of yourself as a helpful sort. A pretty good sort of guest to have, in fact. Stand by for an educational shock.
Your Uncle Richard has picked you up from the train station and is driving you back to his family home in Middle Swinchwell (pronounced Swinnell) where you are to spend a few weeks getting to know this lovely, warm and welcoming English branch of the family as the first great step on your OE.
Uncle is chatting away about family stuff but you are not really paying attention because you are busy gaping at what is going past the windows. You’ve seen Coronation St and The Eastenders. You know that the UK in general and England in particular is an advanced industrial society with 65 million people packed into an area scarcely bigger than New Zealand. You have also known forever that your country is endowed with the kind of natural beauty that the English can only dream of.
But… but … what??? This is not what you expected, not at all. Everything going past your window is heart-stoppingly beautiful. Surely over there is where Longfellow wrote ‘The Village Blacksmith’ about half an hour ago? You weave your way down insanely narrow roads lovingly folded into dense hedgerows where the occasional vehicle coming the other way engages in a courteous, wordless negotiation which sees you both squeeze by with a polite wave. Picture-postcard landscapes, little villages with church towers five hundred years old, farms masquerading as parkland. It’s just – enchanting. You are enchanted.
Uncle Richard keeps blathering on.
– Our Milly was always going to go in for medicine, but things got a bit dicey around the A-levels and her results, well, the competition’s so fierce. Doing bio-medical science as an intermediate and doing so well, right back on form God bless her …. Of course she was always very close to the other Florence, Rose’s sister, so when she had her diagnosis – breast cancer, right on Christmas two years ago, shocking, it threw her. Now Rupert, Florence’s eldest …
As he turns into a gravel driveway leading to one of the most beautiful, rustic, slate-roofed, stone-walled houses you’ve ever imagined never mind seen, a squirrel, an actual squirrel sitting frozen on the gatepost flickers and vanishes. You wish you had had time to grab your camera.
You walk into an open-plan living-dining area straight from the pages of English Home & Garden. A King Charles spaniel snuffles briefly around your ankles before being bowled aside by a boisterous, fluffy Westy terrier with a ball in her mouth.
– Minty! Minty! Stop it! I’m so sorry. How utterly lovely to see you at last!
Aunt Margaret comes forward, kisses you warmly on the cheek, apologises for something else (you don’t quite register what) and tells you how you must be starving/exhausted/jet-lagged/sick of Richard’s gossiping-Richard-you-haven’t-been-boring-him/her-have-you-he/she/must/be-utterly-done-in and sweeps off somewhere.
Uncle Richard looks sheepish and apologises because they both have to go straight back into town to pick up Damian because they told him twice that if he changed at Snitting-on-Wye he could have been on the same train as you but he’s hopeless, utterly hopeless and Margaret has to come to close up the charity shop so I’m afraid you’re going to have to fend for yourself for an hour or so but just make yourself at home, absolutely at home, it’s so lovely to have you here, help yourself to anything, we’ll be back as soon as we can. Damian is terribly excited about meeting up again. Wellington, wasn’t it?
And they’re gone.
You are alone in this incredible place. The living room ceiling is forty centimetres above your head, thick white-painted beams a foot across. Multi-paned windows are set in walls half a metre thick.
Outside the sun has set and a slow mist is forming around the trees in the distance across the meadows. The garden beckons, bursting with late summer flowers but it is hard to leave the house because everything, everything is just … perfect. Everything is exquisitely placed. Much of what is there fascinates you. Beautiful things of Edwardian, Victorian and Georgian provenance are lying about, any one of which would merit prominence in a NZ antique shop window.
There are half a dozen dishes sitting on the bench. The Westy has torn a newspaper to shreds and it’s all over one corner of the kitchen.
Richard told you to make yourself at home. Right-oh. Might as well make yourself useful, as you do. You poke around in likely-looking cupboards until you find the broom and mop, dust-pan and brush and get to work on giving them a nice surprise when they come home.
You’ve finished your spot of housework and they still have not returned. A walk. Off a sitting room you spotted a little office. You take a sheet of paper from the printer, grab a pen and scribble a note. You leave it on the kitchen table and set off for a stroll.
You have just made two of your first, terrible mistakes. It will get worse. It won’t get worse before it gets better, because it won’t get better.
Welcome to England.
Half an hour later you wander back, bursting with enthusiasm for their wonderful little village. The car is in the driveway. You enter with a cheery “Hi!” to Richard, Margaret and Damian who are sitting around the table having a glass of wine. Your note is gone. Handsome, tousled-haired and tall, Damian ignores you, busily playing with the Westy who is so cranked to see him it seems likely that he will piss himself all over your newly-mopped floor.
Richard looks up with an obviously forced smile and says, “Oh, hello. You’re back.” Margaret is positively icy. Oh-oh, you think. Bit of a family row while I was out. Better be diplomatic. Of course you won’t get a pat on the back for your work – bigger things are afoot.
Stop the cameras.
It’s for your own good. I wish someone had done it for me.
Nothing has happened. Richard, Margaret and Damian are fine.
What is wrong is you. You have behaved disgracefully.
Their sacred stuff. Their broom, mop and washing up stuff. You have put the dishes away, which means you have pried into their kitchen cupboards. Even worse, you have desecrated both their property and their space by going into their office and helping yourself to a piece of their paper, writing on it with one of their pens.
Who in the blazes do you think you are?
Yes, Richard said “Make yourself at home.” What he meant, of course, was, “Make yourself at MY HOME. You ignorant colonial wart.”
Right now, the best thing you can do is look around for a landline to surreptitiously dial your cellphone. When it rings, hang up and take a bogus call from a close relative about some catastrophe which calls for your immediate departure.
Believe me, that is so what you need to do.
Of course, you probably won’t.
The Second Circle of Hell
We enter the phase where your gracious hosts decide, graciously bearing in mind that you are a colonial savage, to conquer their distaste and pretend nothing terrible has happened. In spite of the fact that they now have in their house – their house! – someone so downright rude as to pry and poke around in their private, personal places, they will be gracious.
Because they are English. The English are gracious hosts.
What to do?
Talk about the weather of course.
– So tell me Simon/ Felicity, how is it to be in soggy old England, haw haw? I imagine for once even our apology for an English summer might be a relief. I hear New Zealand is having a late and rather vile winter.
(Of course, he has checked. Standard preparation for conversation, part of the tool-kit of the considerate host.)
– Oh, it wasn’t so bad. But we have been having a tough time with Karen being so sick. It was hard to leave …
– My stepmother.
If you were quick (you’re not) you would have noticed the shift.
– Yeah. Breast cancer.
What is that look? It’s resentful resignation. There is nothing for it, they are just going to have to grin and bear being stuck with this hopeless, insensitive colonial.
Don’t you remember your briefing?
Your briefing, you moron. All that banging on that Richard did all they way from the station to Swinching, you were supposed to remember it. Remember? Florence, Rose’s sister? She has breast cancer.
A subject you were specifically and clearly warned not to mention. He very considerately prepared you so you would not put your foot in it and you have callously thrown it back in his face. You insensitive, graceless … colonial!
Go home. Now.
But of course you don’t. You’re trapped.
I hope you live.
What the …?
First of all, understand that when the English middle classes refer to other cultures what they mean is what foreigners do wrong. When they use the word culture they mean the arts, sport, Bank Holiday weekends. Their behaviour and attitudes have nothing to do with culture because they don’t have one, don’t need one. They simply behave like normal decent human beings. Nothing you can say will convince them otherwise. Don’t try. They will just be offended. Again.
A friend told me that during her twenty-five year marriage both partners had places in the house that the other absolutely should not and would not even think to look into. Naturally.
I told her, truthfully, that in my long life I had lived in a relationship with women of five different nationalities and cultures – NZ, Australian, Swiss-German (yes, even them) Indonesian and Tibetan – without ever having or seeing such an arrangement. (Of course they may exist – vive la difference.)
I am quite sure she thought I was lying, fabricating stories to excuse my dreadful behaviour.
English middle class values, in their fixed and inalterable view, are simply the default settings for correctly configured homo sapiens.
The ones you need to know:
– Physical contact of any sort is a violation. Any accidental physical contact is the occasion for an apology, regardless of who is responsible. If you so much as brush past someone, apologise. If someone brushes past you, apologise. (It’s your fault. You were in their way.) You may not even have to touch. Almost touching also calls for an apology.
– Private property is sacred unto God. This doesn’t mean, as elsewhere, don’t steal or borrow it. It means don’t use it. Don’t ask to use it. Don’t even look at it. If it has boundaries, don’t cross them.
Operating principle: An Englishman’s home is his castle, and everything in it is for his use and enjoyment, and his alone.
– Before any new social interaction it is the duty of the introducer to prepare the guest to ensure that no embarrassment is caused. It is the guest’s duty to listen closely and remember.
– The English middle classes are all about form. When in A Fish Called Wanda John Cleese’s wife discovers Kevin Kline in her house he stumbles over a false name, introducing himself as Michael Martin … son … gin … ton … son. A few minutes later, she comes out with a perfectly fluent “Well, let me tell you Mr Martinsongintonson …”
One always remembers the names of those to whom one is introduced. One is never so rude as to doubt what one is told, and even if one does, one certainly does not let it show.
It’s really like that.
– All expressions of expansiveness and openness are strictly pro forma and not to be taken otherwise. ‘Make yourself at home,’ ‘Just help yourself,’ ‘Don’t stand on ceremony’ are empty phrases intended to generate a feeling of warmth and bonhomie. They mean nothing. Touch nothing. Ask if you may use the toilet. Ask if you may wash your hands.
When Richard said ‘help yourself to anything’ he meant oxygen. At a stretch, a glass of water. Breathing their air and drinking their water is OK provided it is done unobtrusively.
The Real Problem: You Speak English
The English, however, are far from stupid. They know that people from Sri Lanka and the Ivory Coast have different cultural values, although for most it will be a stretch to accept that these may involve different attitudes to property and space. But if English is your mother tongue the assumption that you share their culture is set in concrete. Because – I repeat – they don’t believe they have a culture. They are simply well-behaved.
This doesn’t mean middle class English are ungenerous or mean. They are considerate and in the appropriate circumstances can even be generous. But they hold deeply sacred the notion that they should give or share only what they choose to give or share, entirely on their terms, right down to what you or I may consider utterly inconsequential places or items. And a decent person, recognising this sanctity, does not embarrass himself or his hosts by asking to use their stuff. He or she certainly does not touch anything, absolutely anything, without asking.
They are the most materialistic people on earth in the sense that their property, their territory, matters more to them than anyone from any other culture I have known, and I have known a few. The fact that there are evident historical reasons for this does not make it any less unfortunate both for them and others. Materialism to that degree is misery, and they are not a happy race.
Ironically many of these materialistic, physically isolated English middle class folk believe themselves to be deeply spiritual. Buddhism is fashionable; there are Buddhist centres everywhere.
“Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering.”
– the Buddha, Sunakkhatta Sutta.
The main form of spirituality is, of course, Christianity. Church attendance remains high.
“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple”.
– Luke, 14:33
Doesn’t even make a dent.
The Worst Bit for Us Lot: Entitlement
Big tip coming up. If you come from the colonies avoid all forms of helpfulness among the middle classes and absolutely if they involve your using their personal property. Nail sticking out of a doorway, waiting to snag passers-by? Leave it. If you are left in the house, even if there is a hammer in plain view, do not knock it in. They will think you were reprimanding them for their negligence and have a damn cheek for using their property to put it right. If there is a nail sticking out the decent thing to do is to pretend that it’s there on purpose, for some reason that it is none of your business to think about.
Do not offer to help out even with things that they clearly need, even mention that they need sorting out, because the class system is alive and well, tightly stitched into the English genome. Any pitching in to be of service, even if done correctly by asking before touching anything, will be taken as a confirmation that you belong in the serving class. Before long you will be hearing orders barely disguised as requests and rewarded with faint and empty thanks. Truly.
If you have made the above mistakes there is no point of return. They will never forget and never forgive. They may intend to. They may believe they have.
They haven’t. Even if you finally get it and change, your earlier behaviour has created that vital first, lasting impression.
You are beneath them.
What is Wrong With You?
Now here is the worst of it. The English have spent centuries confined in close quarters by bad weather and poverty. Put aside your impressions from all those sumptuous costume dramas. For much of their history the vast majority of the English spent their lives crammed together in grinding poverty. So they spend what is for colonials an enormous amount of time and energy thinking about other people, constantly adjusting for their presence, their needs and wants, their spaces, their expectations. Because you don’t they assume that it is because you don’t care about others but think only of yourself.
Should you stay some helpful person will eventually help you out by telling you, confidentially and in terms of the deepest compassion, what is wrong with you. You are self-absorbed and of course riotously unboundaried. It is because of your self-absorption that you to fail to show the proper concern for other peoples’ feelings and property. It would never occur to Uncle Richard that you missed his briefing because you were caught up in the sights and sensations of a new and surprising country, perhaps even reflecting on the cultural, sociological, historical and environmental implications of those sights. Thinking, as we call it.
If you are a sensitive soul, emotionally affected by what others think of you, you may start dwelling on this, wondering if it is true.
Self-consciousness and self-doubt creep in and take over. Paralysis replaces spontaneity and you become, well, self-absorbed. And depressed, a great danger for those from sunnier climes during the long, cold, dark English winters.
I am not making this up. It happens.
Why not just move on?
Fortunately there are some good alternatives that don’t involve giving up the genuine pleasures of living in this physically gorgeous country with its rich and subtle cultural life.
Colonials living in England will have a grand time if they bear all the foregoing in mind and avoid living cheek by jowl with the middle classes. The English can be witty. Endearingly self-deprecating. Many care deeply about injustice, because they are fair and just. They are unusually active and enterprising. They have given the world, the human race, great gifts. Find other foreigners to live with, share a laugh and draw reassurance from your common experience of this maddening, intriguing country.
And it could be worse. Your common language and cultural origins at least will give you some understanding and sympathy, unlike those from warm climates, who by and large simply find the English cold, mean and superior.
But fix their broken dishwasher and discover what it is to be a nobody. Forever.