Underground England, 2
Culture, Comedy, History and Politics
This is the concluding part to my essay on English culture and society. Part one, on society and character, can be found here.
English Culture and Values
George Orwell and D.H. Lawrence both used the word ‘gentle’ to describe the English, which would strike anyone wandering through a typical English town on a Friday night, or seated on a train next to a group of office lasses on their way to a hen do, as a tad wide of the mark. Nevertheless, putting aside loutishness, hooliganism and so on, and putting aside our conspicuous and hypocritical state violence, and putting aside the fact that ‘gentleness’ can be a cover for the emotionless death-in-life of the comfortable classes, it is still an accurate characterisation, and, insofar as it refers to a kind of quietly spoken decorum, or mild-mannered courtesy, ‘gentleness’ forms part of a collection of attributes which includes our secretiveness and our sense of humour that are, as a whole, little appreciated by many visitors, who assume we are merely cold, inscrutable and weird. This certainly can be the case, particularly in the wealthy south, but such faults are really corrupt expressions of a certain innate subtlety that more direct and literal cultures tend to overlook.
Like other high-context societies, the English, particularly the working-class, naturally seek meaning from the context, not from explicit expression.1 On the surface, we shake hands, make ridiculous small-talk, unnecessarily say ‘so sorry, do you mind if I just squeeze past?’ and accept invitations we have no intention of ever honouring, while, underneath, we caress each other in our tone of voice, perform an elegant ritual of acknowledgement or privilege the harmony — or the comedy — of the moment over tedious literacy and consistency. This ‘belly-speech’, as the Japanese call it,2 is all but invisible to some cultures3 and as it, like everything else of value, vanishes beneath the surface of modernity, it leaves the degraded context-dead shell of itself; extreme hypocrisy, crippling social confusion and either pathological awkwardness or, for the upper classes, bland over-confidence.