When I lived in Britain, I was a regular visitor at Hatchards on Picadilly. Once a month I would go in there and stock up on Conrads and Gordimers and Le Carres, and that would see me through the British winter. Now that’s what I call a bookshop!
I picked up an amusing little book entitled ‘How to be a Brit’ by the Hungarian emigre George Mikes (pronounced Mikesh). He has many funny jokes about the English personality, and little tags like, "Many continentals think that life is a game. The English think that cricket is a game…" He has a whole chapter on talking about the weather.
One piece of advice that I recall was, ‘If you (a foreigner) attempt to imitate the English, but don’t quite carry it off, then you will wind up looking faintly ridiculous. If you manage it perfectly then you will wind up looking completely ridiculous!’
Unlike we antipodeans, who usually will agree with a foreigner who is laughing at our quaint ways (cultural cringe, politeness, indulgence, confidence at a deeper level, or whatever it is that makes us do that), do not expect the same response from the larger economies of the world. They like foreigners criticising their country about as much as the Americans, the French, or the Germans. Understandable I suppose.
George Mikes has a whole chapter on British sex life. He describes a conversation about where he had written that, "On the continent people have sex-lives, the British have hot-water bottles." Someone asked him if he thought that things had moved on since he wrote that, and he replied, "Yes, now you have electric blankets."
At the time John Major was the Prime Minister. He would appear on the news frequently, banging on about how the Tories were "The party of family values." But his efforts were invariably undercut by the almost weekly incidence of Tory MPs found dead in their Pimlico flat, wearing nothing but fish-net stockings and a plastic bag over their head. Or a ballet tutu and an apple in their mouth. David Mellor (the minister of sport and recreation, ironically) was alleged to make love to his Spanish actress mistress in his Chelsea football shirt. And Tim Yeo (still an MP, I think), was essentially practicing bigamy, and took his wife and mistress out to lunch together on The Strand so that the paparazzi could photograph them all together like one big happy family!
And my hat went off to the English Upper-class wife. They invariably stood by their man. Hurt, humiliated, but staring down their detractors with quiet dignity! I didn’t understand it, but I admired it.
In my team was a girl who lived in Chelsea. Over mid-summer they discovered that the basement flat (below street level), had been let to some women who were running it as a brothel. She did not mind, except on hot days when they opened the windows, and one could hear the men moaning as the were whipped! I was younger then, but it did seem odd to me that masochism should be so widespread.
And so I come to the Max Mosley caption competition currently running on YouTube. The conservative press don’t really know what to make of it all. There’s a strong theme of ‘There’s nothing wrong with that,’ coming from the British papers:
- In The Daily Mail, Richard Littlejohn says that Mosley is "Just one of many to enjoy a good thrashing. A certain type of public schoolboy has always been partial to a bit of thrashing by a female authority figure."
- Matthew Syed in The Times declared his solidarity with Mosley, saying, "It might be argued that a bit of light-hearted bondage is very different to a Nazi-style sado-masochistic romp with five prostitutes, but who’s doing the maths?"
- The Independent praised him for his refusal to bow to pressure, and asked why should deviancy disbar him from serving at the helm of Formula One?
Of course there are a lot of ex-public schoolboys working in the press too…
Is it just the weather? Or is there something really rather odd about that country?
And my picks for the caption competition:
1. Schumacher and Mosely: Both ‘Dominating’ Formula One for a Decade
2. Achtung Baby!
3. The English Patient
4. Mercy Mistress, Merci!