From my sun-singed-scalp and freckled cheeks to my pasty little toes, there’s no doubting that I’m as English as a crunchy Cox, and it’s not the first time I’ve written about it. I was (quite rightly, it transpires) terrified of missing English tea. I like order, precision, making lists and reading books. I appreciate it when people are timely, committed, modest and honest. I spend a lot of time observing the weather and (failing at) dressing accordingly. There are things about myself that I knew were very British before I left, and some that have transpired since. At times the line between my Englishness and my personality is far from clear. One thing’s for sure: after six months abroad I’ve learned not only a fair deal about Mexican culture, but through being the foreigner, dealing with people finding me funny and strange, and having the new perspective of looking from the outside in, a lot about my own as well.
I was funnily enough in a second-hand bookshop in Australia when I first came across Kate Fox’s book, Watching the English (2004). I snapped it up and chuckled my way through as she attempted to unearth ‘the rules of English behaviour’. I initially agreed with a lot that she had to say, but now being a Brit away from home with new insight, hindsight and general all-around-sight, I also believe Fox leaves her analysis a few cups short of a teapot. She claims that at the core of being English is social ‘dis-ease’ owing to our obsession with privacy and the home on the one hand, and crippling politeness and restraint on the other. “We do everything in moderation,” and are “the most repressed and inhibited people on earth,” apparently. Maybe so from the outside, but for me it is exactly the contrast between the image and the reality that makes being English so entertaining.
We love more than anyone else to ham up the stereotypes (intentionally or otherwise), but bag yourself an invite to a gathering of friends and you’re just as likely to see complete and uninhibited freedom of expression. Take sex, for example. Of course it’s taboo to talk about it with strangers, in public. But behind closed doors it’s another story altogether, and more often a case of TMI (‘too much for information’ for the over fifties) amongst my friends than evidence of the cautious, embarrassed behaviour we are more famous for. And that’s precisely what makes it so funny when we behave ‘out of character’. Sure, English culture is enigmatic and may seem inaccessible to those outside, but really it’s just like one huge inside joke. Work on getting that invite, it’s worth it.
Despite being English herself (and casting herself and her partner in starring roles), she titles her book Watching the English, and offers a very observation-based, distanced perspective. I, however, am talking about being English, what it is and how it feels. She offers commentary on how baffling our behaviour is to outsiders, but I think it is precisely our odd little ways that make us so intriguing (and, dare I say, enchanting) to foreigners. They don’t want to merely watch the English, but to be the English: every Mexican I meet is dying to get in on the joke. They don’t just want to go to England, but to know the Queen, to talk like James Bond and sing like The Beatles. I can understand why. There’s a lot of debate on ethnocentricity in anthropology, and it’s generally not the done thing to champion your own culture for fear of being perceived not only as self-centred (how horribly un-English), but to be harbouring some secret imperialist, colonialist, supremacist, even racist agenda. I don’t give a hooty toot, I’m not blowing our own trumpet but our Royal Philharmonic ORCHESTRA: being English is bloody hilarious!
People often ask me what I miss about England, and once I’ve reeled off the obvious, family and food (Marmite, ginger nuts, Branston pickle and cheddar cheese, English breakfast, warm scones and clotted cream, jacket potatoes and Heinz beans, to name but a few), it’s hard to define. But I spend a lot of time alone, pondering and wandering, and I think I’ve cracked it. It’s not the weather itself – of course, like every other Brit, I’ve spent enough light years complaining about it – but the quirky associated rituals. We can boast and laugh about picnics eaten in the car, barbecues cooked under umbrellas, and year after year after year as the nation is crippled by an inch of snow, all normality grounds to a halt and, love it or loathe it, everyone is comparing how much they’ve got, how long they were stuck in traffic for, and how tall their snowman is. I can’t complain about the weather here, but I have to admit, for the first few months I did find the eternal sunshine monotonous. What blasphemy – Brits are desperate to seek the sun! But I know now that it’s not the weather I found boring, but the lack of sunshine-worshipping activities – people in Puebla don’t even wear shorts for goodness’ sake. I missed ridiculing people in the parks flashing their flesh and slathering themselves in suncream, but really I was dying to be one of them and I longed to find companions to join me in my beloved silly English behaviour.
Each year, newspapers are predictably smothered in photos of Brighton beach at the first sign of a ‘heat wave,’ or of scantily clad teens shuffling through the snow in stilettos for their £2 Jaeger bombs, and we are still laughing at THAT faux pas from Michael Fish. Nobody pokes fun at us like we do. Whether we’re huddling around the pub’s open fire scoffing on a steaming pie; emptying our purses for this year’s must-have wellies and rain macs to style out the rain; urgently pulling sickies (aka ‘snowed-in’) to dash out with a sledge; or panic-buying disposable barbecues and sprinting for the beach for what could potentially be the only sunny day of the year, there’s no denying that being British comes with innumerable rites and rituals according to the weather. Our calendars are brimming with annual events we wouldn’t want to miss, rain or shine, heat or hail: it’s not talking about the weather but braving it that is the Great English Tradition. “I’ve heard the weather there is terrible” is something I hear a lot. Yes, it may be terrible, but there’s an associated activity for the best and the worst of it and everything in between. There is a general indifference to the weather here, and that makes me miss home.
Roger Scruton (England: An Elegy, 2000) claims a demise of traditional Englishness and miserably declares that there’s nothing to replace it, while Krishnan Kumar (The Making of English National Identity, 2003) states that the English have never in fact had a strong sense of themselves. And just to twist the knife Kate Fox claims that our rites of passage leave a lot to be desired. You’re telling me between them they don’t own a barbecue, paddling pool, gazebo, sledge, wellington boots or fluffy dressing gown? Poor writers, how silly they must feel, they published their books before the wonderful year of 2012 which saw the United Kingdom celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and host the Olympics. In your face, global recession of 2008, everybody I know celebrated quintessential British living that year. And you know what, the sun even shone (not that it would have mattered).
Disclaimer: yes, I use English and British interchangeably. I know the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish would probably take some issue with this, but for me, I’m both without distinction.