Hats and the House of Commons

When did Members of Parliament stopped wearing hats in the House of Commons? someone asked recently.

The question wasn’t something I was expected to answer but a search engine question, meaning the person who asked isn’t likely to see the answer. Still, it intrigued me. So let’s hack it apart and see what we can learn:

The short answer is 1998.

The answer is also more complicated than that, and more fun. We’ll work more or less backward in time.

Irrelevant photo: I’m reasonably sure these are osteospermum. It sounds like a disease, but it’s not.

The reason 1998 comes up is that it’s a dividing line. Before then, anyone who wanted to raise a point of order during a division (which in the normal world would be called a vote) had to wear a top hat while they were talking. According to some sources, that was because it made them easier for the Speaker to spot. According to others, it was just because. Traditions are like that sometimes. It’s easy to lose track of why they were once done but that doesn’t stop anyone from doing them.

Two collapsible top hats were kept on hand so that they could be passed to whoever wanted to raise a point of order.

Yes, collapsible. For all I know, the point of order might have been invalid if the hat hadn’t been collapsible, although I have read that a women MP was issued a get-out-of-hat-free card: She got got to raise her point of order without putting the hat on her head. Maybe it didn’t work with her hair style. Maybe she (or the speaker, or the god of top hats) felt a top hat was inappropriate for a woman. Or for a lady. But that’s guesswork. If it was considered inappropriate for a lady, I just know I’d have worn the thing, and I like to think I could’ve pulled it off with a certain grand absurdist style. Fortunately–or possibly sadly–we’ll never find out so I can go on believing.

Then in 1998, the Modernisation Select Committee came along and ruined everything. Let me quote:

“In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television.'”

So no more games with top hats and TV cameras and Order Papers. But take heart. They didn’t spoil all the hat-related fun. Before each sitting of Parliament, the Speaker leads a procession from his or her office to the Commons chamber. This involves someone walking behind him or her carrying the train of her or his cloak (which is long enough to look like it was cut for some much taller species) and yet another person walking behind the train-carrier carrying fuck-all but looking very serious about it.

Apologies if the swearing offends anyone. All this ceremonial seriousness will rot your teeth if you don’t counteract it with a carefully calibrated dose of profanity.

Besides, I do swear. I have ever since I was first introduced to the words, which was some time before I understood what they meant. 

The two walkers-behind are–at least in the picture you’ll find if you follow the link a couple of paragraphs back–wearing frothy lace where you might otherwise find a tie. And no hats.

As they process through the members’ lobby, the police (because what’s a procession without police?) shout, “Speaker,” in case anyone hasn’t figured out that this is the Speaker. This allows everyone who isn’t the Speaker or the followers-behind to scuttle out of the way. Then (or possibly first–I have no idea what the route is), in the central lobby, the police inspector (because what’s a procession without a police inspector?) shouts, “Hats off, strangers,” and all the police take off their helmets. Because helmets are hats, sort of.

In the House of Commons, strangers are people who aren’t MPs–a.k.a. Members of Parliament. If any non-police non-MPs are around, they’re expected to take their hats off too. If they don’t, they’ll be turned into June bugs for the remainder of the day. 

Have you ever wondered how J.K. Rowling came up with all the convoluted traditions of the Harry Potter books? I’m not saying it was from Parliament in particular, just that the British culture sets a person’s mind working in certain odd ways.

Now, in the interest of making some marginal sense of all this, let’s slip back a bit further in time, to the days when gentlemen wore top hats or put order papers on their heads. And keep track of the gentle– part of the word gentlemen, because the whole point of a top hat was to prove you were the sort of man who could wear something that was as expensive as it was useless.

MPs were traditionally the sort of men who wore top hats.

So Commons had rules governing the hats. You could wear them inside the chamber but you couldn’t wear them as you were coming in or going out. Or when you were addressing the house. So you had to take your hat off to come in, then you might or might not put it on your head to sit down, but if you did you had to take it off to again stand up and speak, put it back on (if you chose to) to sit down, then take it off again to leave.

Which should be clear enough for anyone to follow.

A parliamentary guide to the traditions and customs of the House says:

“In the late nineteenth century,  the tall hat was de rigeur. It also served as a place reservation in the Chamber for its owner, the  thinking being that the wearer could not leave the Palace without it, and would therefore soon return.

“This system was defeated by some Members bringing two silk hats into the Palace (one Irish Member, it is said, once arrived with a cab full of hats) and so the present device of “prayer cards” was adopted.”

Prayer cards?

The House of Commons–can we agree, for convenience, to call it the H of C? Thanks. I feel comfortable enough to take off my top hat now. The H of C currently has 646 members but only 427 seats. Most days that’s not a problem. Turn on the news and you can often catch slight of MPs orating to a nearly empty expanse of green benches. (Green is the color of the H of C. It reminds them not to get above their station, because red is for the H of Lords.) But when some hot-ticket item is on the agenda, everyone wants to squeeze in and there isn’t room. As the BBC’s Democracy Live explains, “Behind each seat on the green benches is a small, brass frame into which MPs can place a card with their name.

“This card must be put in place before prayers take place each day and the MP must be in that seat during prayers.

“The seat is then reserved for that MP for the rest of the day.”

Now let’s go back to hats, because we need to keep our eyes on the important stuff.

Keir Hardie, the Labour Party’s first parliamentary leader, from 1906 to 1908, scandalized many a gentle (in the class-bound sense of the word) soul by showing up in Parliament wearing a cloth cap, which was as much the symbol of the working man as the top hat was the sign of a gentleman. He also wore–oh the horror of it all–a tweed suit.

Hardie was the son of an unmarried servant who later married a carpenter, and he started work as a baker’s delivery boy at the age of eight. He was, for at least part of that time, the family’s only wage earner and he never went to school . By the time he was eleven, he was working as a coal miner. By seventeen, he had taught himself to read and write.

So, no. No top hat on Mr. Hardie’s head, thank you. He was very pointedly not a gentleman and he knew he’d get nothing done if he played by gentlemen’s rules. Not that they’d have accepted him as one anyway.

What he put on his head when he wanted to make a point of order during a division I have no idea. Maybe the question never came up.

Long before him, in the seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell created a flap when he appeared in the H of C wearing a plain cloth suit that was none too clean and none too well made, along with a hat with no hatband.

The funny thing about all this is that to the people who took this stuff seriously, this was serious stuff. A hat with no hatband? Was the man born in a barn?

Mentioning Cromwell lands us conveniently in the period that explains the H of C’s obsession with hats, or at least gives us a some context for it: The whole question of who was superior to who(m, if you like) was–I was going to say more rigid in the seventeenth century but let’s change that to less hidden than it is today. Who–and this is among men, because they colonized all the positions of power, making women irrelevant to the discussion–took his hat off and who kept it on was the kind of issue you could discuss seriously. And take serious offense at. Not to mention cause offense by. Taking your hat off to someone was an acknowledgement that the someone was further up the social hierarchy than you. Or in the terms of the day, was your better. So hats were a handy symbol for all sides and everyone could agree on what they meant.

If you were on the bottom of the ladder–say, a peasant–and didn’t have a hat to take off, you were expected to tug a bit of hair above your forehead to prove you knew your place. What you were supposed to do if you were bald is beyond me.

The H of C devoted considerable brain space to when one of its members should be hatless or hatted in meetings with the Lords–who were considered their social superiors.

MPs were expected to take their hats off to hear a message signed by the king, and ditto during the king’s speech. Which made it all the more pointed–and probably more fun–when some refused, which on occasion they did.

Take that, Kingy. I keep my hat on in the presence of your writing materials.

All this obsession with who takes their hat off to who filters down to us in the H of C’s conviction that it has to regulate hats.

Even without the metal hat that goes with the outfit, though, no one, and I mean no one, is or was allowed to wear armor in the H of C.

You’re welcome.

Crime in London: a bonus post

In an effort to find material for an article, the New York Times asked  for people’s experiences of petty crime in London. Then the Times tweeted the article and nothing’s been the same since. To read the responses for yourself, you can follow the link or search Twitter using the hashtag #PettyCrime, which for no reason I understand calls up a whole different set of answers. I’ll quote entirely too many. I lost the better part of a rainy afternoon to the thread and I don’t see why you should be spared.

“An American talked loudly on his mobile in a restaurant then drank red wine with a fish course. Gave him an extra loud tut.”

“Increasingly people respond to the question ‘How are you?’ With ‘I’m good’ instead of the grammatically correct (and far more polite) ‘I’m very well, thank you.’ It’s only going to escalate.”

Only the excessively boastful and self-satisfied would respond with “I’m very well, thank you”! The acceptable answers are a) ‘not bad’ and b) ‘not too bad at all’ from which we can infer a) ‘my life is falling apart’ or b) ’I’m positively ecstatic’ “

“I fell down a flight of steps at Bank and immediately apologised for causing such a kerfuffle and holding up people’s journeys. So ashamed of myself”

“I once offered a class set of rubbers to a fellow American teacher, trying to offer some good old Limey hospitality. The response was criminally rude and the offer was declined.
I never knew pencil erasers were so contentious”

Ah, yes, friends. Rubbers are one of those things that shouldn’t be discussed with people from the opposite side of the Atlantic. On one side, they’re prophylactics (translation: birth control, as worn by the male of the species). On the other side, they’re erasers–things you use to rub out pencil marks.

“This morning, in Streatham South London, I said ‘good morning’ as I walked passed a fellow pedestrian, they didn’t say ‘good morning’ back. So rude. This will stay with me all day. Traumatised.”

“I left the house after lunch and a street-sweeper said ‘mornin’ to me.  I had to bite my lip not to correct him.”

“On the tube a young man got up and offered me his seat as the carriage was busy. I saw it as a ploy to mug me so I called the police.”

“I stood on someone’s foot on the train today, and they didn’t even say ‘excuse me’. I don’t know what the world is coming to.”

“I recently took my 10 month old daughter on the underground. She stared at people, it frightened them. She doesn’t know the code. She now lives in the north. The tube is safe once more.”

“I asked a man directions to a Burmese restaurant on Edgware Road, he pointed me in the right direction and said it would take 3 minutes to walk there but it actually took 20. Admittedly I stopped for a pint but he should have factored that in.”

“Kitten stole my croissant. Despite obvious trail of crumbs, stolen item was not recovered”

“I fear I’m responsible for a #PettyCrime as on Monday I took a crowded tube, lost my balance and ended up grabbing the arm of a fellow passenger (who I didn’t know!) in a panicked attempt to stay upright. Totally unacceptable behaviour.”

“I was in a busy pub just yesterday, I knew the gentleman a few people to my right was there before me but he was looking at his phone. I placed my order without alerting him. I haven’t been sleeping since.”

“I was blatantly blocked on escalator by a left standing tourist… I didn’t just sigh loudly but also tutted AND HARRUMPHED. To no avail. Said sightseer turned and looked at me. Obviously I apologized, moved to the right and carried on sighing. These people should be locked up.”

“I stopped to let another car pass down a narrow road. They did not gesticulate a thank  you. I have the police report if you wish for more details.”

“I was waiting for a bus recently. When it came, someone who had arrived at the bus stop after me got on before me.”

“A man got on my tube train wearing brown brogues when everyone knows a gentleman only wears brown in the country and black in town.  It was shocking”

“A close friend and I, approaching from different ends of the street, accidentally acknowledged each other outside a polite speaking distance.  I pretended I was waving goodbye and hid in the nearest shop until they were gone. We have never spoken of this.”

“I witnessed an Italian tourist standing on the left side of the up escalators at Piccadilly Circus station preventing people from walking up. Naturally I said nothing but stood close behind them seething and encouraging fellow commuters to join me in silent rage.”

“I have had entire conversations without mentioning the weather. I’ll go quietly, officer.”

“Some guy didn’t apologise to me once after I bumped into him. I was very dissapointed in that exchange and think he should be banged up”

“When I was 21 years old, I worked in a London hotel and one morning I was asked, by an American couple, how to use the microwave in the room. It was the safe deposit box.”

“A publican of fine reputation went rather overboard with an extra splash or two of Tabasco in my Bloody Mary recently. I was so flustered I nearly told him”

*

My thanks to Mardi for sending me a link to the BBC’s coverage of these outrages.

British manners

People here say “yes, please” a lot.

Let’s say I ask—as I often do when someone stops by—“Do you want a cup of tea?”

No one says just plain old “yes,” and not many will say, “I’d love one.” They say, “Yes-please,” and it’s more or less one word, which is why I stuck that hyphen in there. Imagine a good little girl who folds her hands in her lap and never kicks the chair legs. That’s what they sound like.

Unless they go from polite to self-effacing and say, “Only if you’re making one anyway.”

God forbid I should want to go out of my way for them because they’re friends.

But the pleases matter to people here. Really, really matter. As in, if you don’t say “please,” it doesn’t matter how nice you’re being, you’re still being rude. It runs me into trouble because—I’ve come to realize—the American version of asking for, say, half a pound of lunch meat politely is to start the sentence with, “Can I have…?” and end it with “lunch meat,” not “please.”

Why not? Be-fuckin’-cause. (Sorry. It’s a post on manners. Manners make me nervous. Being nervous makes me swear. So do other things, including air and water.) We say it that way that’s just how we say it. Don’t look for too much sense in these things, but if I had to come up with an explanation I’d say it’s because we’re doing business, not asking a favor.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. These are whatsit flowers. In bloom. In our yard. They’re wonderful –the slugs don’t eat them.

Over here, what people seem to hear in can I is something along the lines of “is it physically possible?” Which makes them want to say, “Of course you can bloody well have half a pound of lunch meat. It’s right there in the display case. We’re trying to sell the stuff. Why couldn’t you have it?”

Although of course they don’t. Because they’re very, very polite. Mostly—but that’s a different post.

As a side issue, over here half a pound makes it sound like your talking about money. Ask for a quarter of a kilo. Ask for 250 grams. It’ll be close enough.

Anyway, to the American ear what’s physically possible isn’t the point of “can I?”. Maybe we say it to imply that the person behind the counter’s being nice in selling it to us. Maybe that’s not what’s under the surface at all. Maybe we don’t know what the hell we’re implying. It’s politeness. It doesn’t have to make sense.

In Britain, though, repeated drops of please and thank you are what you use to oil your way through the day. The country’s mind-bogglingly mannerly, but people over a certain age complain that no one has manners anymore. Store clerks are rude and kids are surly and water isn’t as wet as it used to be.

If they’re right, I don’t know how anyone found time in the day to eat, never mind build and then lose an empire, what with all the pleases and thank you’s they had to say.

A brief interruption: This is your pilot speaking. Please fasten your seat belt. The post is about to make what looks at first like a diversion but it really is related.

Building an empire, or imposing it on other countries, or whatever you want to call the process, isn’t a polite business. It involves money and guns and bloodshed. If you’re on the building end of this, you don’t say, “Only if you’re having one anyway.” You don’t say “please.” At least not to anyone you don’t consider your equal.

So give me a minute to speculate about the origin of contemporary British manners. First let’s go back in time. The empire’s being built. Within Britain, the class structure is rigid. Think great house with servants. Think of farm workers being expected to take their hats off to the lord—no, sorry, that was only the men. I don’t know what the equivalent was for women. You get the picture, though.

Who’s not the equal of who (okay, okay: to whom, if it makes you happier) is a national obsession, and this is carried over to the empire. The new rulers look down on the ruled for eating odd food and for having odd customs and skin colors and languages.

The definition of odd is “different from ours.”

But they also look down on each other, keeping a finely tuned awareness of who’s above who and who’s below. That tells them who they have to say “please” and “thank you” to and who has to say it to them. They may have the same skin color, but they had different ancestors. Most of them are convinced that matters. Because in Britain the class system isn’t just about money. I’ve heard people claim it’s not about money at all, although I’m sure money comes into it. But what they mean when they talk about the class system is each family’s place in a rigid structure and how long it’s clung on there.

So the way-back-when system meant that you were born into a station in life and were meant to damn well stay there. It gave rise to phrases like it’s not my place to… and getting a bit above ourselves, aren’t we? I’ve heard both. The second one was addressed to a cat, but I’ve never heard anyone say it to a cat in the U.S.

The cat didn’t think he was getting above himself at all.

And now let’s leave the cat behind, because I’m going to go out onto thin ice. My research on this is thin, so if anyone wants to correct me I’d be grateful.

After World War II, the class system broke down a bit. (I say “a bit” because it’s still around, but with nothing like the rigidity it once had.)

Some of the changes seem to have started earlier. Food rationing had been in place throughout the war and continued on for a good while afterward, and although it caused hardship for many it also meant that the poorest people were eating better than they had been. It was a form of equality, even if it was an equality of scarcity.

Then in 1945, a Labour government was elected and it either consolidated changes that were already in process or caused them–or more likely a little of each. The National Health Service was created, making health care free to all, and council houses (the equivalent of what Americans call public housing) were built on a massive scale.

And so on. I don’t want to get lost in the detail. For our purposes, what matters is that people weren’t expected to stay in their place anymore. They had a right to health care, decent housing, better pay, everyday respect. Egalitarianism was an acknowledged goal.

A few years back I heard someone on the BBC talking about a railway porter at the end of the war being addressed by a passenger who was high the social ladder. I can’t remember the details, but the passenger wanted to be addressed as sir, or something along those line. And the porter said, “Those days are over.”

It’s not a systematic study, but it’s one of those resonant details, although it’d resonate a hell of a lot more if I remembered the detail. Sorry. I could make it up, but I’d like to stick to the truth if you’re okay with that. What matters here is that the winds had shifted. No one was going to take their hat off anymore.

I haven’t fallen through the ice yet, but it gets thinner from here on out, because I have no evidence for this at all. That’s a sober-sounding way of saying I’m guessing. Somebody make sure the cat hasn’t followed us, okay?

My guess is that in that egalitarian windstorm, instead of sir and madam being blown away completely, they started to apply more or less across the board. If you’re a customer someplace, you’re in danger of getting sirred or madam’d. We’re all sirrable or madamable. It drives me mildly nuts, but it’s not a battle I’m going to fight.

That may be what all the pleases and thank you’s are about as well. We’re all the people we have to polite to these days. Anyone who comes in thinking they can just give orders will get a raised eyebrow and possibly even (may the angels, the fairies, and all the many sunspots protect them) a tut.

Looking at it that way, even this reckless American has an incentive to say “please.”

Again, I’m not at all sure I’m right about this. I’m testing out a theory and I’d love to know how much it matches with your experience.

If you’ll excuse me now, I’m going back to see how the cat is.

How to behave like a British aristocrat

British aristocrats have perfect manners, right? Of course they do. Here’s an example:

The—ahem—fourth Viscount St. Davids was hauled into court earlier in May for making threatening Facebook posts and, being an aristocrat and all, he refused to stand when he was addressed as Mr. St. Davids, insisting on Lord St. Davids.

Oh, lord.

But we haven’t gotten started yet. This is the preamble.

Irrelevant and somewhat weird photo: This is an alexander–a greenish flower that, to me, marks the beginning of the full-on (and by the way, gorgeous) Cornish spring. A friend tells me they’re edible, but I haven’t tried them. Yet.

Mr. Fourth Viscount has a name, it turns out, and it isn’t Lord, or even St. Davids, it’s Rhodri Phillipps—double L, double P, double I except the I’s don’t get to sit together because they made too much trouble in class at the beginning of the year.

I’m sure somebody with deeper roots in the country could tell me the overtones, undertones, and class meanings of the name Rhodri, not to mention of all those double letters, because nothing in this country comes without overtones, undertones and signals about class. With my shallow roots, all I’ve been able to figure out is that Rhodri’s a Welsh name and that Rhod’s (you don’t mind if I call you Rhod, do you Rhod? I don’t mind if you don’t stand. You can lie on the floor as far as I’m concerned. We’re informal around here.). I seem to have gotten sidetracked, so let’s start over. All I’ve figured out is that Rhod’s viscountery is in Wales. Which doesn’t make him Welsh, but somebody with deeper roots is going to have to tell me about that as well. To be Cornish, I’ve been told, you have to have four generations in Cornish soil, but I don’t think you get to be Welsh that easily.

In case you need to know this, you don’t pronounce the S in viscount. It’s VYE-count. Why do they use the S then? It was an alphabetical land grab back when the first dictionaries were being compiled. We’re lucky they didn’t snatch two or the rest of us would’ve had to do without in some of our words. Even as it is, Americans had to substitute Z for S is all the -ization/-isation words.

The VYE-counts had some serious power back. They got to spell things the way they wanted and got to write whatever they wanted on Facebook. Unless it was about the king, of course.

What do you mean they didn’t have Facebook back then? Of course they did. How else would they have managed?

Rhod’s family used to be mere baronets and only became viscounts in 1918. What’s more, their baronetcy only dates back to 1621. They had nothing to do with the way viscount’s spelled, which may account for all the extra letters they stuffed in the family name. It’s a kind of Napoleon thing.

So, what did this parvenu do to be hauled into court? He wrote on Facebook, “£5,000 to the first person to ‘accidentally’ run over this bloody troublesome first-generation immigrant…. If this is what we should expect from immigrants, send them back to their stinking jungles.”

Yup, in addition to being hateful and racist, that sounds like a threat to me. And no, I’m not the person he was talking about. He meant Gina Miller, an anti-Brexit campaigner whose lawsuit forced a vote in parliament on whether to trigger Brexit. In practical terms, it didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference, because Parliament dutifully pulled the trigger, but it may have established an important principle. Or may not have. I’m not at all sure.

It does seem to have upset Rhod, though. Because, after all, Miller’s (a) an immigrant, (b) a woman, and (c) of, I think, Indian heritage. Or something heritage. For the Rhods of this world, I’m guessing it doesn’t much matter what her ethnic background is as long as she has one. (The Rhods of the world, of course, don’t. They’re ethnicity-free. And right in all ways.) There are only two types of people: those like him and scum.

Or maybe that’s three: People like him; white scum who aren’t at all like him but do vaguely resemble him; and ethnically different scum, who are scummier scum than the scum who vaguely resemble him. Because he is the paragon of perfection. Because he has a title that’s not pronounced the way it’s spelled.

This is all guesswork, you understand.

But even allowing for some uncertainty, having the scum he disagrees with win a major case in court? Surely that lands us squarely in the territory of What’s the world coming to?

So, my fellow scum, how do we behave like aristocrats? We need perfect manners, of course, and we need to define perfect manners as whatever the hell we choose to do. Because if we do it, it’s perfect.

When the judge told Rhod the conditions of his bail, he laughed and mouthed “wanker.” In the most mannerly possible way.

Have you ever wondered why Britain maintains its system of aristocrats and titles and antiquated silliness? it’s because the rest of us need models of behavior that we can aspire to.

*

In researching this story, I naively punched “viscount in court” into Google. What did I find? A flat (that’s an apartment) for sale on Viscount Court; an old people’s home called Viscount Court; a lawyer’s office on Viscount Court; statistics about crime on Viscount Court; and an industrial estate (in the U.S., that would be an industrial park—I had to look it up because the phrase had fallen out of my vocabulary; that scares the hell out of me) called Viscount Court. So yeah, being a viscount is very classy. You leach into the geography and end up with old people’s homes and industrial parks sort of named after you. And when you’re not getting accused of crimes yourself, you can fill your time by looking up statistics for crimes committed on the sidewalks that share your title.

Sorry—not sidewalks; pavements.

What happens when British manners break down?

Let’s talk about manners. And anger. And Britain.

Large print: The British value manners and avoid conflict.

Small print: Except when they don’t.

And there, in two lines, you have the problem with generalizations and stereotypes. They make the world so simple and they fall apart so embarrassingly.

The small print means it’s easy for one mannerless, angry person to turn a roomful of polite people into emotional hostages. I’ve been in two stereotype-smashing situations recently, which is why I’ve been thinking about this, and in a rare moment of discretion I’m going to make every effort not to tell you where they took place or who was involved.

Sorry. It would be a hell of a lot more fun to fill in the details, but no one but me (or I if you want to be formal about this) signed on to be blogged about. So I’ll tiptoe around any identifying information while I try to find something solid enough to be worth reading.

Irrelevant photo: crocuses. It’s spring.

What happened in both situations was that two or three people broke the unwritten group rules by shouting, accusing, or mocking. And what happened next?

Well, not a hell of a lot. In the first situation, our opening move was to pretend it wasn’t happening, or at least try to. And that included the very un-British me. When it happened a few more times, some weeks later, several people had what folks here call “a quiet word” with someone about it. A quiet word is polite and discrete, although a few of them were spoken in places where they could be overheard, but as far as I’ve been able to establish they weren’t disruptively public. In this case, at least, they didn’t fix the problem, because it happened again. After that, no one knew quite what to do next. Several of us stewed and fumed to each other, which (at least as I understand it) is very British. I think it’s Kate Fox, who wrote Watching the English, who defined moaning (and I’m paraphrasing a bit) as complaining about a problem to the people you’re absolutely certain can’t fix it.

Our moaning wasn’t entirely useless. A few more quiet words were had. A few letters were written. A few quiet conversations were held, and some of them were with the person who could solve the problem. I don’t know yet if we have a solution, but it looks like we might.

But it took a long time to get to that point, and the important question is probably, What didn’t happen along the way? No one stood up publicly and disruptively to say, “Hey, knock it off.” Including, I’m sorry to say, me, because it just plain didn’t occur to me. I get trapped by politeness as surely as anyone else does. On top of that, the most recent time it happened I managed not to quite pick up on what was happening. Afterwards, with twenty-twenty hindsight, I geared myself up to be loud and public when it happened again, but then it didn’t.

Would it have helped if I’d pulled myself up to my full five foot not very much and made a scene? I have no idea. But when playing by the rules doesn’t work, it’s always worth asking yourself if you shouldn’t break them.

The second situation was a fairly formal meeting. Two people refused to shut up when the chair asked them to stop disrupting the meeting. The chair was good, I thought, at acknowledging what was going on while still avoiding a full-blown, let’s-all-get-in-a-wrestling-match confrontation. I didn’t take on one of the people who was being disruptive—I’m not sure why—but when the other one talked through the chair, I talked through her, so neither of us could be heard. When she stopped, I shut up with a powerful feeling of relief because I was running out of words and was only talking to keep her from holding the floor.

No one acknowledged what had happened, and for all I know, although she’d alienated most of the people in the room, I may have embarrassed them by being impolite. And public. And loud.

How would those challenges have played out in the U.S.? I’m not sure. It might depend on region, ethnicity, and age group. It might depend on those here as well. For whatever it tells us, both groups I’m writing about had an average age of, oh, maybe 60, although a few people were a good bit younger. As a general rule, that means no one’s likely to start a knock-down, drag-out fight just for the joy of it or because they need some exercise, although in the second situation a fight might have happened if the chair had been hard nosed.

As for place and ethnicity, both groups were in Cornwall. Cornwall’s startlingly white, and so were both groups. I’m not sure how either of those facts affected what happened. I’ve lived here eleven years now, but I’m still American and there’s some stuff about the culture that I just can’t read.

What I do know is that a good number of people here talk about the embarrassment of being noticed in public—because they tripped on the street, say, or because someone with them did something visible like (gasp) waving wildly. It’s not a mindset I understand, but I do understand that it’s real. It’s not something I remember people talking about in the U.S.

So one strain of the culture pulls toward invisibility and conformism.

There’s also a streak of violence running underneath all that politeness and restraint. It shows up in sports, where getting in a fight is, for some people, part of the fun of going to a game. Or it was—I don’t read about that happening as much as I did when we first moved here.

I’m guessing the people who go to a game to get in a fight aren’t the same people who’d be embarrassed to stand next to someone waving too enthusiastically, but as usual, I don’t know. They coexist, however uneasily.

It’s not–do I even need to say this?–that the U.S. isn’t a violent country. The number of gun deaths in the U.S. and our attitude toward guns regularly throw the British into shock. All I’m saying is that violence lies under the surface in both cultures but pours itself into very different forms. Which is an inconclusive way to end a post but the best I can do today.

All insights on the subject (or off the subject) are very welcome.

British understatement

Every so often, I ask what people want to know about Britain or the U.S., and every so often they answer. Zipfslaw wrote, “I’d love to know how to understand British understatement. Like, I’ve heard that ‘at your earliest convenience’ means ‘RIGHT NOW’,’ but I don’t really know how it all works.”

Neither do I, so I went running to my strange friend Dr. Google and found a 2001 Guardian article, which gives a memorable example of what happens when the British and non-British try to communicate.

During the Korean War, a British brigadier informed General Soule, his American superior in the U.N. joint command, “Things are a bit sticky, sir,”

He meant they were in serious trouble. “His men were outnumbered eight to one, stranded on every side by human waves of…attackers…. But Gen. Soule understood this to mean ‘We’re having a bit of rough and tumble but we’re holding the line’. Oh good, the general decided, no need to reinforce or withdraw them, not yet anyway.”

More than 500 British soldiers were captured and 59 were killed or missing. Only 39 escaped.

So, yes, I can see why Zipfslaw’s question is worth asking.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

From the Guardian, I went to a site I never expected to visit, Debrett’s, which calls itself “the recognised authority on etiquette, influence and achievement.”

Yes, and modesty as well. Haven’t they heard about understatement? Well, sure they have and here’s what (as the recognized–note the American Z I’m using, please–authority) they say about it:

“A quality that is much revered – and exploited – by the British, understatement is frequently seen as being synonymous with good manners. Understatement is characterised by a number of negatives: a refusal to be effusive, overdramatic, emphatic or didactic. More direct remarks are frequently accompanied by tentative or provisional qualifications: ‘perhaps’, ‘it could be’, ‘I wonder if’, ‘maybe’. The overall effect is an aura of modest reticence, quiet understanding and considerate behaviour. Like self-deprecation, understatement is an attractive and effective quality, which is often more persuasive, and appealing, than a direct approach.
Understatement permeates British humour.”

So that’s the answer aimed at aristocrats and those anyone who wants to behave like aristocrats. J., however, tells me that Northerners and the working class in general are generally more direct than the upper class(es) and people from the Southeast. (I’m not sure where that leaves the Southwest, never mind Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Midlands, since I didn’t think to ask, but let’s keep this simple.) Notherners and the working class may be the only reason anyone on this island ever gets out of a burning building: Everyone looks around for someone bold enough to shout, “Fire!” instead of murmuring, “It may soon become a bit warmer here.”

J. told me about a scenario in which an aristocrat offers a working class person a lift, expecting to be politely turned down. But the working class person thinks it’s a genuine offer and accepts it.

Inevitably, it would be raining. I’d have accepted too. The aristocrat would be put out but too polite to say so, and I’d have no idea I just broke the rules. Subtlety’s wasted on me.

At roughly the same time, a different friend whose name also starts with J. sent an email saying something I’d written wasn’t half bad, then added, “(British upper class understatement from 1930s). In fact its a  jolly decent letter.

“Not sure it is just a public school thing though. Consider the (working class ) phrases “fair to middling” and “mustn’t grumble,” which are responses to “How are you?” when the person is actually unwell. Then there is professional middle class mealy mouth. A girl at my school hit a student teacher over the head with a book. On her term report, the teachers wrote, ‘Amanda must not allow her keeness to learn to overcome her natural good manners.’ “
Now that’s understatement.
This is probably a good place to note that “not bad” (depending on the tone of voice) can mean very good, but “not terrible” means bad, although probably not disastrously so.
As people used to say in the U.S. when I was a kid, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
I only threw that in because I suspect it’ll be as baffling to anyone who doesn’t already understand it as the not bad/not terrible distinction is to the rest of us.
You can see that understatement quickly shades over into indirectness, or even opposite-of-what-you-mean-ness. On Quora, someone wrote that “incidentally” means “the primary purpose of our discussion is.”
I was beginning to think that you’d have to grow up with this to understand it, but then I found Anglophenia, which along with a few other sites ran a translation chart for a range of phrases. As an example, “I’ll bear it in mind” means I’ve already forgotten it.

Before you decide that expanding your head so it encompasses understatement is all it takes to understand people over here, I’ve also heard classic British overstatement. Friends periodically tell me they’re gasping for a cup of tea, although I have yet to hear an actual gasp. Or that they’re perishing for one, although so far none of they have died when no tea materialized. But then I don’t (thank whatever laws of the universe control these things) hang out in Debrett’s kind of circles.

I’d add more examples here but the only Briitish overstatements I’ve been able to think of involve tea. That’s worth pondering.

In the U.S., Minnesotans are known for their understatement. I’m working from memory, which is an invitation to disaster, but Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan had, I think, a segment about a guy using a welding torch near a car’s gas tank. What does the Minnesotan watching him say? “Y’know, a feller might not want to do that.”

So all I can say in answer to Zipfslaw’s question is, Consult your translation chart. It’s incomplete, but that may be a result of classic British understatement.

*

Apologies to anyone who read this a week and a half ago when I accidentally posted a draft. Since then, I’ve moved three commas, put two of them back where they started, removed a stray URL, and added a photo. You can see, it’s a massive improvement.

I’ve also added J. emailed comment, which is a genuine improvement.

Finally, this P.S. gives me an excuse to mention another crucial cultural difference between the U.S. and Britain that the Guardian quote reminded me of: We do the dash differently. American publishing uses what’s called an em dash–a dash the width of the letter M–with no space on either side. British publishing uses an en dash–the width of the letter N–with a space on either side.

People, this matters.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. They take me places I wouldn’t have thought to go otherwise.

Are Americans louder than the British?

You know that stereotype about noisy Americans? If you don’t, you’re American and you think the whole world talks at the same level as you.

It doesn’t.

Back when Wild Thing and I lived in Minneapolis, our friends D. and D. traveled from quietest Devon to visit us. When they reeled off the plane, jet lagged and culture shocked, they confessed that they’d thought Wild Thing was loud until they changed planes in Chicago, where they had a revelation: Wild Thing isn’t loud, she’s just American.

Okay, they might have waited a few days to say that. Or it could’ve been a few years. I don’t really remember. But they did say it. And since they worry (especially the one D.) endlessly and unnecessarily about offending people, I should add that we weren’t offended. We thought it was (a) true and (b) very funny.

The British, as a rule, are quiet–at least when sober. They don’t like to stand out in a crowd. They teach their children seventy-four forms of politeness, most of which I don’t understand but at least a dozen of them are variants on not calling attention to themselves. And Americans? The positive way to see it is that we’re less inhibited. If you want the negative spin, we’re thoughtless and rude. Take your pick. Or take both. It’s not an either/or choice.

Irrelevant photo: Red campion (which is actually pink) surrounded by nettle leaves.

Irrelevant photo: Red campion (which is actually pink, and polite) surrounded by nettle leaves, which are not polite.

But when D. and D. commented on Wild Thing being noisy, they didn’t mention me. So when I’ve worried about whether and how and when I offend British sensibilities (and I do occasionally worry about it, although I don’t lose sleep to it), I’ve spent the past ten years thinking I was doing pretty well on volume level.

It’s not that I can’t be loud. I learned what my voice could do when I was thirteen or so and spent my Saturdays on picket lines in front of Woolworth’s because the store’s lunch counters in the South refused to serve African-Americans. It was my first independent political activity. We handed out leaflets and chanted slogans, and I was young enough to think we could end segregation by being loud, so I was loud. Without anyone teaching it to me how to do it, I stumbled into the trick that lets your voice feel like it’s coming directly from the chest, bypassing the throat and emerging into the world resonant enough to shatter antiquated and oppressive social systems.

Changing the world has turned out to be more complicated than I thought, but that form of segregation did eventually end and what we did wasn’t the primary reason but it wasn’t irrelevant either. And I walked away with an interesting education as well as a powerful sense of what my voice could do.

Somewhere during that time, I heard Odetta sing. She had a huge voice—strong, resonant, and lower than most women were willing, or maybe able, to sing—and she gave me an expansive sense of what a woman’s voice is capable of. If you’ve never heard her, follow the link. She’s gorgeous.

But enough background. We’re talking about noise levels and culture clash.

Not long ago, I attended a conference about health care, social care, and politics, which are a potent combination and should not be mixed by any but the most expert of bartenders. An amateur is likely to screw it up so badly that they’ll blow the country’s infrastructure to bits. Unfortunately, Britain’s recent governments have been sticking nursery school kids behind the bar and encouraging them to pour any old thing into whatever else they find. Which is why we felt the need for a conference.

In the afternoon, J., who was chairing the conference, tried to gather everyone back together after a break. Now, J. has a small voice and at that moment had a mic that wasn’t working. So although she spoke politely and Britishly about ending the several dozen conversations that were going on and starting the meeting again, no one stopped talking.

I do like to solve problems, and I’d helped organize the conference so I felt some sense of responsibility, and without giving it three seconds’ thought I bellowed something along the lines of, “Okay, people, let’s get back together now.”

Silence fell with all the subtlety of a grand piano smashing down from a roof top. Two men sitting behind me levitated off their chairs, then crashed back into them and giggled nervously. Not being a mind reader, I can’t say for a fact that they were critical of me for bellowing, but they were—nervous is probably a fair observation. Not sure what to do in the situation. Maybe they thought I was dangerous. Without question they thought I wasn’t British, although the accent should have given that away much earlier in the day.

It did work, though. People sat down. They turned forward to listen to J. Maybe because it gave them a reason to not look at me.

It’s like that, living in a culture you didn’t grow up in. Or it is for me. I trot along happily, thinking I’m not offending anyone, then I do something that seems perfectly natural and blast two grown men off their chairs and push a piano off the roof.

How many people did I offend or shock? All? None? Most? Some? I have no idea. I asked N. later on, and he deflected the conversation so gracefully that I didn’t realize until later than he hadn’t answered my question.

And the worst of it? I can’t help thinking it was funny, although I suspect I should be feeling bad about it.

*

I can’t end without acknowledging that Americans aren’t the only loud people on the planet. Wild Thing and I were in Hong Kong once, and when she realized she wasn’t the noisiest person in the room she fell in love with the place.

Comparative tipping

According to Kate Fox in Watching the English, you don’t tip bartenders in England (and by extension in Britain), you buy them a drink. Which I always thought was code, in the U.S. at least, for I’ll leave you the price of a drink and you decide whether to drink it or put the money in your pocket. Admittedly, I never spent enough time in American bars to know the rules, so no one should take my word for that. But in Britain it really does mean I’ll buy you a drink. Which the bartender will eventually drink, nodding his or her thanks to you.

Of so Fox says, and I’m sure she’s right. She sees this as marking a sort of official class equality between bartender and customer, regardless of what the class divisions (and oh, will both sides ever be aware of them) are.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: pampas grass, which is (I think) called something else here. Don't you love it when I'm informative?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: pampas grass (and the tip of Wild Thing’s lens). I think it’s called something else here. Don’t you love it when I’m informative?

(I haven’t given you a link to Fox’s book this time, although I have before. I’d link back to the embedded link but I can’t remember which post it was in and, hey people, I only get just so much time on this planet. Besides, you know how to find a book, right?)

But back to our topic: In the only pub where I spend much time—and that only because I like the singers night—the bartenders are also the wait staff, and they do get tipped for serving meals, so it takes a finer eye than mine to figure out the distinction. But it’s true that people don’t tip at the bar.

Except me. For a long time I behaved myself and didn’t tip when I bought a drink, but I’ve worked for tips, as both a cab driver and a waitress, and after a while I just couldn’t help myself. I started tipping. Sometimes at first I had to explain myself—one or another of the bartenders would think I’d miscounted my money and return the extra.

“I’m American,” I found myself telling one of them. “I tip. I can’t help it.”

I also remember saying, “I’m awkward but I mean well” since I hadn’t managed to make it clear that I was tipping—although in the U.S. I expect it would have been more than clear enough.

But no one seems insulted. The tip goes into the jar with the tips from the tables and my behavior goes into the Weird American category.

This comes up because Dan Antion commented that before he visited the U.K. he read that the British don’t tip, so he didn’t.

Sorry Dan, but they do. Not as much as Americans—or at least not as much as New Yorkers and Californians. Midwesterners are more, um, cautious with their tips. Or stingy, if you like. I haven’t done a full survey of the two coasts or of the south and west, so I won’t go out on a limb about how they tip. But the British? They tip wait staff in restaurants and (mostly) in pubs. Either many or most cafes have tip jars. And if they don’t? Wild Thing and I leave the tip on the table.

As far as I can tell, people tip cab drivers. We sure as hell do. And if something gets delivered that’s a pain in the neck for the delivery person, we tip—which often involves offering the money for a drink after work, which may or may not turn into a drink but who cares?

Around the holidays, some people we know leave money for the folks who pick up the trash and recycling and who deliver the mail—although the last one is, I think, never supposed to happen and the post office is probably coming to arrest me for even writing about it, never mind doing it. (I never said I did it, Your Honor, I only implied it. And I could’ve been lying.) Anyway, you can call those tips or Christmas presents or whatever you like. They happen, although not universally.

I’ve been reading, both online and in the papers, about campaigns to stop restaurant chains from stealing their employees’ tips. Yeah, some do that, both in Britain and in the U.S., especially if the customer puts the tip on a credit card with the rest of the bill, but sometimes even when the tip’s in cash—or in some cases if there’s no tip at all, because the restaurant acts as if there was one and charges the waitron what it figures he or she must have gotten. And it’s all okay, because if a businessman can’t steal from people with less power and money than him, how’s he supposed to make an honest buck?

Social media’s been effective at shaming the shit out of some chains that did this, but I expect others are still at it.

So whatever country you live in, tip, and do it in cash. And follow Wild Thing’s dictum: Nobody ever went to hell of overtipping.

Of dukes and baronesses and scamsters

In September, Alexander Wood was in court for having posed as the duke of Marlborough (there’s a real one; I just checked) and for having run up a bill in the neighborhood of £10,000 at expensive London hotels. No one asked him for identification because they thought it would be “inappropriate to ask.”  I mean, this is (purportedly) a duke, after all. You don’t do a stop-and-frisk on him, and you don’t ask for i.d., even when he runs up a huge whackin’ bill. They did eventually get suspicious when he bought drinks for fellow guests—something I gather no aristocrat would do.

Setting aside this one person’s motivation (the article makes it sound, not surprisingly, like mental health comes into it), Britain does tempt a person to borrow titles.

Irrelevant photo: teasels

Irrelevant photo: teasels

When I went online to donate the money from our village fundraiser to the Red Cross, I was offered a choice of Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms, Doctor, Lady, Professor, Reverend, Dame, Sir, Major, Captain, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, Sister, Lord, Canon, and Other. Oh, wheee! I lost my nerve before finding out whether Other would have given me a blank space to fill in the title of my choice, but I expect it would have.

As an aside, I was once called a dame, but no one mistook me for an aristocrat and no hotel bill was involved. And it wasn’t a compliment.

The Guardian’s subscription form despairs of coming up with a complete list and just leaves a blank line, where you can play as much as you dare. You want to be a general, or the Lord Mayor of Mill Crick? Feel free. Then sit back and see if your correspondence is addressed appropriately. And complain when it isn’t.

Why the blank instead of the list? I can’t help picturing some committee trying to list everything necessary to this title-obsessed land and sinking under the weight of the task. Why, for example, include Colonel but not General? And since this is the Guardian, a generally leftish and egalitarian paper, what about Private? Don’t privates deserve the respect of their title? And since the women members of the House of Lords are addressed as Baroness (something I happen to know because I’ve written letters to a fair few of them, and there’s a tale of its own), doesn’t that merit a mention? Or does Lady cover it? I haven’t a clue. If they’re Lady Whatsit, even though you address them as Baroness, what do they address themselves as? And what about the Barons? The male members of the House of Lords are Lords, not Barons. No, I don’t understand it either. But there are real barons out there, aren’t there? Granted, they probably don’t read the Guardian, but what if they wanted to?

And what about all the Lord Mayors dotted around the country. And the Counsellors: Spare a moment’s thought for all those long-suffering folks who sit on Parish Councils around the country, doing their unpaid and non-party-political bit for the most local level of local government? And Citizen. It was a popular title during the French Revolution. Give it half a chance and it could catch on again.

You can see the problem. Either the committee voted for the blank line and fled or else they’re still meeting, trying to complete the list, sinking deeper into despair with every passing week. Several of its members have been hospitalized for stress and clinical-level nit-picking.

This is what happens in a status-obsessed society. Everyone with a title needs to be recognized, placated, bowed to even.

And on the lowest level, where the rest of us live our lives? I still can’t get myself called Ms. Instead of Mrs.  No matter how often and politely I ask.

How to be British

P. and S. sent me a clipping from their local paper, in which columnist Ericka Waller, moved by the refugee crisis, kindly offers newcomers an eight-point guide to being British. I won’t cover all her points—that dances on the border of copyright violation, not to mention bad manners—but I’ll paraphrase a couple of them. Read the rest for yourself, because you need to know this stuff, even if you’re not British and have no intention of being. And even if you’re already British. With the government’s emphasis on British values these days, you don’t want to give someone the wrong impression, do you?

Besides, it’s a good article.

It may be irrelevant, but it speaks for itself.

It may be irrelevant, but it speaks for itself.

Point number 1: To be British, you must greet people by asking, “How are you?” but if they ask you the same question the only possible answer is, “I’m fine, thanks.” If you say you’re wonderful, you’re being a showoff. If you say you’re terrible, you’re moaning.  If you follow that by going into the details of your toothache or unpaid bills, you’ll either scare people or embarrass them. Or both. People don’t ask because they want to know, they just want to seem polite. Emphasis on seem.

The how-are-you? rule shares a common root with American greeting rituals. We (that’s Americans) ask without remembering that it’s a real question, although we do allow room for someone to say, “Wonderful,” or, “Tired, thanks,” or something along those lines. We also appreciate an occasional twist in the answer—something along the lines of  “better than nothing.” But your toothache? Your unpaid bills? The thousand ways your life’s threatening to fall apart? Nope. We don’t want to know either.

When Wild Thing first started to work as a therapist, she’d occasionally run into clients out in the real world, and if they greeted her she greeted them back. (If they didn’t, she walked on. Being a therapist is—says me who’s never been one but was in a position to observe—deeply weird.) She had to learn not to ask, “How are you?” because in the relationship they’d established that it was a real question. Some people would actually answer. In the middle of a supermarket aisle.

On the flip side, I went to the doctor once about I can’t remember what, and when she walked in and asked how I was I automatically said, “Fine. You?”

She managed not to slap her forehead—or mine—but I expect she wanted to. Imagine that happening to you twenty times a day.

Point number 2: To be British, you must also tut and learn to respond to tutting. “Nothing says Brit like a disapproving tut,” Waller writes. “As you finish the tut, raise your head slightly and roll your eyes elaborately to the heavens for extra punch.” And if someone notices and asks what’s wrong, deny everything. You’re not allowed to explain a tut or say how you actually feel.

As a rule, Americans don’t tut. Or I don’t think we do. But my understanding of the subject is colored by—how am I going to explain this to you? I don’t do well with subtle. If you want to insult me, you need to be clear or it’ll go over my head and where’s the fun in that?

This was a problem in Minnesota, where the official language is Indirect English. Wild Thing was called into service periodically to interpret for me. So maybe I’ve been tutted at all my life and didn’t notice. But I don’t think so. I think we leave the tut, like the tea, to the British.

I’m only aware of British tutting because I’ve been reading about it, both in Waller’s article and in Kate Fox’s wonderful Watching the English. So this is a nation that not only tuts but writes about tutting and ponders the deep cultural meaning of tutting. It wouldn’t be too much to say, the philosophy of tutting. This is a nation that cares about tutting.

The tut is powerful here—or so Fox says. Someone jumped the queue? If they’re British, a lone tut will be enough to shame them back into place. And in case you’re American, you need to understand that a queue is a line, and standing in line is the real British national religion. The Church of England? That’s for show. So we’re talking about someone violating the country’s most sacred principle. And a tut will be enough to remind them of it.

It sounds as if Fox differs from Waller on the tut’s power, but underneath there somewhere I expect they’d agree that it’s power comes from not needing to be explained (or something along those lines—we’re getting into murky waters here) and it will be understood regardless of how much it’s denied.

It’s a wonder this country’s let me stay.