4 November 2011

La Règle du Jeu

I'm always fascinated by the American fascination with class in Britain. Years listening to American visitors on radio has left an impression of people wandering round, lost, in a series of social codes that are designed to alienate and disturb. Many visitors from Africa have explained in conversations over the years that they find English politeness to be a form of subtle rudeness.

I remain on the fence in these cases. It was a relief to visit France and to learn that the codes there were often the direct opposite of those practiced in the English speaking world. I can play at either, if necessary, but find most bourgeois habits to be a bore. The Mitfords were much in fashion when I started reading seriously, trying to find a way of making sense of the horror that much social interaction has become. U and Non-U behaviour was a source of hilarity, not a guide to how to behave.

This ensured that I made sure never, if possible, to visit Britain and I still feel more comfortable speaking French than in trying to communicate with my closest geographical neighbours. London continues to be a personal nightmare place, Dickensian and very tiring. When there, we took refuge in the friendly Jewish areas where food and a sense of humour warmed the visit.

This may sound like an Irish reaction, but I am not alone in finding London cold. Anybody I have spoken to who lives north of Watford understands my discomfort in being addressed in a chilly fashion and held at arm's length while the interlocuter avoids eye contact. On the Underground, one learns to find a place just above the other passengers head and direct one's gaze there. The French habit of staring is considered to be the height of impertinence, but I find it less tiring. Really, it's all to do with what one can tolerate.

That said, my ability to laugh for no particular reason has made me instant friends in London shops and anybody who has (or claims to have had) an Irish grandmother seems to find me a magnet for conversation on the street. London is the world and one may as well be in Asia on the Finchley Road.

Americans always seem to be having a jolly time in London and, as far as is possible to see, don't take any of the codes seriously. Getting to all the tourist spots is the aim, though I do wonder what they make of being corralled by army on horseback during the changing of the guards.

I have never felt so poor and excluded as during the moments outside the vast gates of the Palace and being yelled at as part of the mob.
Dickens would have understood...

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