Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I know exactly when my eyes were opened. It was Monday April 3rd, on a trip to town for two significant appointments. One was to see my specialist nurse, to arrange details for my stay at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. It didn’t happen then. The other was to collect my new glasses from the opticians; emblematic as that sounds, it didn’t happen then either, at least not directly.
I’d decided to to save a lot of bother, have the new lenses put in the existing frames; so I had to hand them over for a couple of hours to give the lab time to cut and fit. I went round the corner to Oxfam, whose shelves of donated books have so often changed my horizons. That’s where I recently got a fat anthology of diarists, called The Assassin’s Cloak, and encountered Etty Hillesum for the first time.
Thus I was “eyeless in Gaza” for a while but my sight these days is such that I read books with the naked eye. And a book sat on those shelves waiting specially for me: Watching the English, by Kate Fox. Immediately gripped by its content, I came back to the optician’s waiting area and its motley characters, who, as I saw, displayed precisely the behaviour patterns she describes as the unwritten rules of the English tribe. Then I got restless, took the book to the Falcon pub, sat among its motley characters, again observing the same patterns she observes and records.
Kate Fox is the daughter of a famous English anthropologist who took his family abroad to many lands in pursuit of his field studies. If she is to be believed, he would have raised her alongside a baby chimpanzee to study that too, had her mother not “drawn a red line” at this point. At any rate she grew up to become an anthropologist in her own right, vowing to keep near modern plumbing and away from mud huts. Furthermore, she wanted to explore what passes for standard normal behaviour in England, with professional objectivity. To investigate the English obsession with orderly queuing, she had to deliberately queue-jump and see what happens; but she found it almost impossible to overcome an ingrained taboo which made it unthinkable. It’s much easier in America, she says. Someone will always yell “Hey you! Get back in line”. Nothing so direct here, but we have devious and subtle ways to reinforce our norms.
I took the book with me into Stoke Mandeville a couple of days later, observing yet again, in contacts between staff and patients, the behaviour patterns Kate had documented. In my last piece I spoke of conversing with a “knowledgeable Health Care Assistant”. It seemed to me that apart from the mundane tasks he was called upon to do, his main role was to mingle with patients and staff, as a kind of secular chaplain who makes people feel at home. And as he mentioned being an omnivorous reader, I told him about the book, and then decided to stop boring him with my take on it, and just give it to him. I’ve ordered a replacement copy from Amazon: since it hasn’t yet arrived I cannot bore my reader further with quotes from it.
What does it teach me, that might be applicable in the wider world? That in any geographical space, the way people get along together is by conformance to rules, just as people avoid road accidents by driving predictably.
Suppose they are immigrants, coming from cultures with different ways? Kate broadens her definition of “English” to embrace them, and sees a two-way assimilation, adding extra dimensions to sometimes stuffy old traditions, for example when West Indian audiences came to support their cricket team at hallowed venues. Till then, audience participation might have consisted in a cry of “Well played, sir!”
The degree of assimilation varies. On my own street, living close by the Mosque, there’s a huge cultural gap with no middle ground, no softening and merging. Still, in little ways and on odd occasions, “Englishness” rubs off—in the queuing, perhaps. We get along because we’re too crowded on top of each other to have any choice in the matter. White faces like mine are a minority in this street.
The trouble starts when you act as though your own ways are intrinsically superior to those you encounter in the same space. A market trader sets fire to himself in a Tunisian marketplace, triggering a kind of revolution which came to be known as the Arab Spring. The flames of protest were fanned by Western media which published excerpts from Wikileaks which “included descriptions of corruption and repression by the Tunisian regime”—features inevitable in any non-democracy. Hopes for change spread across the Arab world, triggering outrage and ever more repressive Islamic reaction in Libya, Egypt, Turkey and Syria. To cap it all, a Caliphate is declared on ultra-traditional lines: choose Islam or the sword.
One thing I notice directly from my street: when the fleshpot culture stands too close and tempting, medieval austerity tightens its grip.
It may be over-simplistic, but in Russia I see an old brutality never yet reconciled with aspects of European civilization: a theme you see in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. I see a set of shared values between Vladimir Putin, Bashar al Assad and even the various strands of rebels against his rule. None of them see human well-being as highest priority. From this point of view, it hardly matters which faction is responsible for releasing poison gas, or cluster-bombing, or starving a city by siege. These are not cultural patterns which make sense to Europeans.
I’ve left it till last to talk about America, I don’t know how it is there, but it has tribal patterns shaped by its own history. I cannot see which amongst these can claim virtue over others, which are fit for moral condemnation today. I’ve read tales from Englishmen who’ve been there and described what struck them particularly: R. L. Stevenson in 1879 (The Amateur Emigrant), P.G Wodehouse in 1915 (Psmith Journalist), Eric Linklater in 1928 (Juan in America) J.B, Priestley in 1935 (Midnight on the Desert), Martin Amis in 1984 (Money). Perhaps you could once characterize Americanness, but not, I suspect, the same way you can characterize Englishness.
And yet. There’s one book about cultures in America that springs to my mind, with extraordinary correspondences to Kate Fox’s Watching the English. It’s The Sellout by Paul Beatty. Its narrator is the son of a sociologist, who conducted sociological experiments on him in childhood (as Kate’s father would have liked!), leaving him with an ambivalent attitude to the prevalent notions of race, integration, diversity, all that good liberal stuff. As he grows up and takes on some of the roles bequeathed by his father (like Kate!), fellow black members of the continuing discussion group call him a “sellout”—that is, someone who betrays unwritten rules of black society to further his own advantage. Like his father, he becomes a “nigger-whisperer”, that is to say a kind of therapist to the bewildered and despairing. An old actor attaches himself to him, one whose nostalgia for humiliation is such that he begs to be made a slave.It’s important to note that the author rejects the assumption that his novel is satire, even though it pokes fun a every kind of stereotype. What he sees is that the different tribes have their own rules. Blacks can feel themselves oppressed by the white liberals who champion their cause, as much as the black activists who claim to speak on their behalf; because the unwritten rules of a tribe, the acquired instincts, work on a level that has nothing to do with movements and slogans. The rules of behaviour in a given tribe are not so easily negotiable. They are what works, what gives a level of freedom to each person, what makes daily life capable of running smoothly.
I started by saying my eyes have been opened. Now I ask myself “to what”? It seems to me that all the world’s troubles today seem to result from trampling on other people’s ways. When there are frontiers of incomprehension, there is grave danger. We need to leave huge spaces between, not impose our “better” on their perceived “worse”. Our better is not that good anyway, even though we like it best.