29 December 2006

Kate Fox, Watching the English

I just finished reading the above book, which I realise never made it into the blog list at the right but there you are. These things happen. It was recommended by several of our English friends as a good introduction to the behaviour and patterns of those raised in England.

Just to be clear once again, for those who haven't gotten it quite yet: we do not live in England. Wales. Different country, different language, different national history/heritage/pride. So the book was only of limited use for understanding our current surroundings, and indeed one of the interesting things was how much it did differ from our experiences in Wales.

I can highly recommend said text for any anglophile or frequent visitor to England who has observed various stereotypes (queueing, constantly saying 'sorry', self-deprecation) and wondered what was going on. Kate Fox is an anthropologist whose methods (like deliberately bumping into people for an afternoon and counting how many said 'sorry' to her) are as funny as many passages in the book (the English don't like revolutions, and so she articulates their 'protest' chant as: 'What do we want? GRADUAL CHANGE! When do we want it? IN DUE COURSE!' which I find hilarious. well, call-and-response just gets me).

She also details the minutiae of class distinctions, which are quite different from those in the US, needless to say. So it was fascinating. For example: folding your napkin neatly after a meal is considered 'common' as it implies that you might need/want to re-use it. to be properly upper class, you should crumple your napkin messily and leave it whereever. I find this intriguing.

We have also just experienced one of the other measures of class in both the US and the UK: the grocery store. Where you shop is as important as anything else for indicating class. Safeway--King Soopers--Albertsons was the order when we were growing up in suburban Denver, until the wave of organic/whole foods type places added a further upper category. In Minnesota you can go to Byerly's where the floors were carpeted and they hung chandeliers over the produce section. In PA and the NE it's Wegmans. (Blogged about this before here.) Other regions certainly have theirs, I'm sure.

Here in the UK it's Iceland--Lidl--Asda--Tesco--Sainsbury's--Waitrose--whole foods type places: Iceland carries only frozen stuff. hence the name. Asda is Walmart-owned. Say no more. Tesco, where we've been shopping, is more or less the middle class starting point. We just discovered, however, that Sainsbury's now delivers, and so we got our first Sainsbury's order this week. Very exciting. Over-designed packaging, new exotic dips, and generally you pay more for basically the same stuff. We do admit, however, that some of the items are, er, a bit better tasting than the Tesco equivalent. Does that make us elitists? Or are we merely justifying our striving for upper-class status by finding the food better at the one-tick-up store? Of course, if we were truly upper class we wouldn't care--crumpled napkin and all. we also probably wouldn't blog. Sigh. so much for striving.


Tarn said...

Yes! (imagine upturned, fisted-hand pumping the air by my side, Tiger style) all this time, I've been upper-class with my handling of crumpled linens, when I thought it was crass, crude and just plain messy. Of course, I bet leaning back in your chair, unbuckling the belt and tucking your fingers into the waistline of your pants isn't quite upper class, is it?

Rebecca said...

this is the cool thing about the English upper class. The metric is that you don't care because you aren't threatened in your class identity, so I can't be sure, but crass behaviour is probably fine too. It's the upper upper middles that have issues with how one acts, because they're just trying too hard. fab, no?

Anonymous said...

I hate to spoil the illusion but the book is a combination of over-used cliches and poorly researched insight into 1950s England. that's not to say that some of the observations aren't true, but only because it's a look at everyday life. for example, the supermarket class distinction is nothing to do with class and everythign to do with money as the list is basically in price order (Lidl is cheap, Waitrose is overpriced)