The English Way

By Martin Parr & Kate Fox


Photos by Martin Parr & text by Kate Fox.

I don’t read books much. I prefer my inspiration to come in the form of films, art, and photography. But I stumbled across one book, which I read cover to cover in a few days, Kate Fox’s Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Inside I found all of my own observations that I had made about my fellow English folk, built up over many years, but articulated with very sharp and witty prose. It really is funny—the sort of humor that makes you laugh out loud on your own!

I got in touch with Kate, and she said that her publisher was thinking of doing a new edition of the book with photographs, and that some of mine were being considered. Sadly, this project never happened, so when VICE asked me to nominate a person to collaborate with for this year’s Photo Issue, I immediately thought of Kate and sent her a selection of unabashedly English images that I had taken over the past few years. She selected a few explicitly English themes to write about, and that is what you see here. — Martin Parr

A Nation of Closet Patriots 

Looking at these patriotic images, what strikes me immediately is how unusual they are. To capture them, Martin must have waited patiently—like a wildlife photographer hoping for some shy nocturnal creature to emerge—as patriotic displays like this are a rare sight among the English. Only a tiny minority of us ever indulge in such public displays of national pride, and even this minority only do so on very special occasions. 

In fact, it is often said that the English suffer from a lack of patriotic feeling. And there is some evidence to support this claim: English people, on average, rate their degree of patriotism at just 5.8 out of 10, according to a European survey, far below the self-rated patriotism of the Scots, Welsh, and Irish, and the lowest of all the European nations. Our national day, Saint George’s Day, is on April 23, but surveys regularly show that at least two-thirds of us are completely unaware of this occasion. Can you imagine a similar number of Americans being oblivious to the Fourth of July, or Irish people ignoring St. Patrick’s Day? 

Based on my ethnographic research, however, I had a hunch that our reluctance to engage in public patriotic displays may be related to what I would call “hidden rules of Englishness,” rather than an absence of national pride. So I conducted my own national survey, just before Saint George’s Day, asking what I felt were more subtle questions about patriotic feelings. The results confirmed my impression that we are actually a nation of “closet patriots.” 

My findings showed that the vast majority (83 percent) of English people feel at least some sense of patriotic pride: 22 percent “always,” 23 percent “often,” and 38 percent at least “sometimes” feel proud to be English. 

Three-quarters of my respondents thought that more should be done to celebrate our national day, and of these, 63 percent would like us to “embrace” Saint George’s Day as the Irish do St. Patrick’s Day. Nearly half would at least like to see more people flying the English flag on Saint George’s Day. Only 11 percent, however, would go so far as to fly the flag themselves, and 72 percent said they would not be celebrating in any way or had no plans to celebrate, even though Saint George’s Day fell on a Saturday the year I conducted my research. Even the few who freely admitted their plans to “celebrate” said this would, at most, consist of having a beer or two in their local pub—hardly comparable with the Fourth of July or St. Patrick’s Day extravaganzas. 

But why? If so many of us are proud to be English and feel that more should be done to celebrate our national day and flag, why not actively celebrate or fly the flag ourselves? 

First, there is a clue in the English quality of which we are most proud: a key element of our biggest source of pride, the famous English sense of humor, is something I call “the Importance of Not Being Earnest.” One of the unwritten rules of Englishness is a prohibition on earnestness or excessive zeal—and the sentimental, boastful, heart-on-sleeve, flag-waving patriotism of other nations is frowned upon and makes us cringe with embarrassment. We may feel proud to be English, but we are too inhibited, and perhaps too cynical, to make a big gushy patriotic fuss about it. Ironically, the English quality in which we take most pride, our sense of humor, prevents most of us from publicly displaying any patriotic pride. 

Second, looking at my survey findings, you may well have noticed that the high percentage of English respondents who think more should be done to celebrate Saint George’s Day (75 percent) is almost exactly the same as the percentage who have no intention of celebrating our national day (72 percent). This contradiction is also typically English. It reflects two of the “defining characteristics of Englishness” that I previously identified in Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour: moderation and “Eeyorishness.” 

Our sense of moderation means that we tend to be rather apathetic—we avoid extremes, excess, and intensity. It has been said that the English have satire instead of revolutions, and I feel that a truly English protest march would see us all chanting, “What do we want? GRADUAL CHANGE! When do we want it? IN DUE COURSE!” Our Eeyorishness means that we tend to indulge in a lot of therapeutic moaning about a problem rather than actually addressing it or doing anything about it. We whine and complain that “more should be done” to celebrate our national day, but we don’t actually organize a celebration, or even so much as fly a flag.

To be fair, our reasons for not flying the English flag are only partly rooted in these qualities. Although it has now been “reclaimed,” at least to some extent, the flag has in the past been a symbol of the political far right and racism, and is still contaminated by these associations. In recent years it has gradually become more closely associated with football fans, but this in itself is off-putting to many for whom the flag is now tainted with a “chavvy,” lower-class image.

A few of us do emerge from our patriotic closet every so often, as Martin’s images show, for big royal occasions, such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and the royal wedding in 2011. For this minority, royal events are brief episodes of what anthropologists call “cultural remission” or “festive inversion,” like carnivals or tribal festivals, where some of the usual social norms and unwritten rules are temporarily suspended and we do things we would never normally do: waving national flags, cheering, and dancing in the streets—and even talking to strangers.

But those involved in the celebrations Martin has captured represent a tiny percentage of the population (6 percent at most)—and surveys show, for example, that Americans were significantly more excited about the royal wedding than the English, the majority of whom remained underwhelmed, despite all the media hype. At least two-thirds of us either “couldn’t care less” or felt “largely indifferent” about the event, and only about 10 percent would admit to being “very excited.”

I write “would admit” because I know that even with anonymous surveys we have to be aware of what researchers call the social desirability bias—defined as a standard error on self-report measures due to respondents attempting to present themselves in a socially desirable and acceptable light (otherwise known as “lying”). But socially desirable responding of this kind can itself be highly revealing: the fact that so few English survey respondents will admit to being excited about a royal wedding may not necessarily tell us their real feelings, but it does tell us that the social norms prohibiting excitement about such things must be very powerful.

Martin’s images have captured a sense of patriotism that many English people at least sometimes secretly feel, but that only a few are willing to display in public, and then only during occasional episodes of cultural remission. So, to me, these images are like a total solar eclipse, or a rare comet, or some elusive flower that only blooms once every few years.

Queuing

What do you see when you look at these images of English people queuing? To the naked or untrained eye, these queues might seem almost comically dull and uninteresting: just orderly lines of people, patiently waiting their turn. Indeed, many commentators have joked somewhat sneeringly about the English talent for queuing, implying that only a rather predictable, plodding, sheeplike nation could be so good at standing long-sufferingly in tidy lines. 

But that is because they have not looked closely enough at English queues. When examining such orderly behavior under an anthropologist’s microscope, one finds that each queue is a microcosmic minidrama—not just an amusing “comedy of manners,” but a vivid human-interest story, full of scheming and intrigue, moral dilemmas, shame, face-saving, shifting alliances, anger, and reconciliation…

As part of the field research for Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, I spent many hundreds of hours observing English queues. And to test the rules of queuing etiquette, I forced myself to conduct experiments involving a deadly sin: queue-jumping. I am very English, so this was a truly horrible ordeal for me—perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in the name of research. 

In order to test the social rules of a nation, however, one sometimes has to break them. My preferred method in these cases is to get an unsuspecting research assistant to break the sacred social rule while I watch the outcome from a safe distance. But this time I had decided that I really had to act as my own guinea pig. Like those brave scientists and doctors who test drugs or viruses on their own bodies—except, of course, in this case I wasn’t in any real danger. And that was the weird discovery I made: the irony about English queuing is that it is actually easier to get away with queue-jumping in this country than almost anywhere else in the world. Although queue-jumping is a big taboo in England, we have other social rules that come into play, such as not making a scene, not drawing attention to yourself in public, not confronting strangers, and always moaning about a problem rather than actually addressing the source of the problem. 

This means that the worst that can happen to you if you try to jump an English queue is a lot of really vicious body language: frowns, glares, raised eyebrows, heavy sighs, pointed coughs, scornful snorts, and tutting and muttering. English people faced with the threat of a potential queue-jumper will even break their usual rule of not talking to strangers in order to mutter indignantly to each other. But you will very rarely see them actually confronting the offender directly. This does happen sometimes—if the queue-jump is exceptionally blatant—but it’s very unusual. 

So, it is easier to jump a queue in England, where queue-jumping is a deadly sin, than in other countries where it’s treated as a minor misdemeanor. But only if you can bear the humiliation of all those eyebrows and coughs and tuts and mutters—in other words, only if you are not English. I think maybe you have to be English to know just how deeply wounding a raised eyebrow can be! 

And just because the people in these queuing images appear to be patient and uncomplaining, do not assume, as many commentators have done, that the English somehow actively enjoy queuing. We don’t. We hate it, like everyone else. It makes us cross and resentful and irritable, perhaps even more so than other nations, because we take the rules and principles of queuing more seriously—and all of our constant vigilance and deterring of potential queue-jumpers with eyebrows and coughs and the rest of the nonverbal “body English” repertoire is jolly hard work. 

We may not actually complain out loud about being kept waiting in a queue—or at least we are unlikely to address our complaints to the cashier or ticket collector or whoever is keeping us waiting—but do not mistake our silence for contentment or even patience. Look closer, and you will see that we convey our intense displeasure and frustration with queuing through yet more nonverbal microsignals: heavy sighs, exasperated eye rolls, pursed lips, fidgeting, tutting, coughing, finger tapping, and pointedly looking at our watches every few seconds. We mutter to ourselves under our breath, and we may even break our own contact-avoidance rules to exchange raised eyebrows and grimaces with fellow sufferers (and perhaps, if we are really furious, we may even speak to each other, quietly). 

As with many of Martin’s images, I can’t help imagining what the people in these queues might be saying. And again, this is predictable. The word you are most likely to hear—the word that is probably being muttered among the apparently patient queuers in these images—is “Typical!” 

With this one quintessentially English word, almost always accompanied by an eye roll, we will somehow manage to sound simultaneously peeved, stoically resigned, and smugly omniscient. And that pretty much sums up the English attitude to queuing, rain, mediocre food, slow service, and most other national frustrations and disappointments. 

When we mutter “Typical!” we are expressing annoyance and resentment, but also a sort of grudging, humorous forbearance—and there is even an element of perverse satisfaction: we may have been inconvenienced by the rain and the endless queues, but we have not been taken unawares. We knew this would happen, we “could have told you” that it would rain (it always does on weekends, bank holidays, and special occasions), and that there would be long and tedious queues for the exhibition, the tea stall, the lunch counter, the bar, and the loos. For we in our infinite wisdom know that this is the way things are: there are always queues, you always choose the slowest queue, you always wait ages for a bus, and then three come along at once. Nothing ever works properly, something always goes wrong, and on top of that, it’s bound to rain. We start learning these mantras in our cradles, so by the time we are adults, this “Eeyorish” view of the world is part of our nature.

So, in a strange way, the people queuing in these images are enjoying themselves. They are experiencing a peculiarly English pleasure—that of seeing one’s gloomy predictions fulfilled.

Dogs

These images capture a very special and complex relationship. Sure, other nations keep pets—especially dogs—but the inordinate love of animals displayed by the English is still one of the characteristics for which we are renowned, and one that many foreigners find baffling. 

It is often said that the English treat their dogs like people, but this is untrue. Have you seen how we treat people? One would never dream of being so cold and unfriendly to a dog. All right, I’m exaggerating, but only a little. The fact is that we English are far more open, communicative, and demonstrative in our relationships with animals than with our fellow humans.

We suffer from a condition that I call the English Social Dis-ease—my shorthand for all our chronic social inhibitions, our insularity, our emotional constipation, our inability to engage with other human beings in a normal and straightforward fashion. Both the famous “English reserve” and the infamous “English hooliganism” are symptoms of the Dis-ease: when we feel uncomfortable in social situations (i.e., most of the time) we either become overpolite, buttoned-up, and awkwardly restrained, or loud, loutish, crude, violent, and generally obnoxious. 

We seem to be incapable of the kind of spontaneous, friendly, street-corner sociability that comes so naturally to most other nations. Most English people assiduously avoid any social interaction with strangers; even maintaining eye contact for more than a fraction of a second is interpreted as either flirtation or aggression. We have no difficulty at all, however, engaging in lively, amicable conversation with dogs. Even strange dogs, to whom we have not been introduced.  

The English are in fact capable of Latin-Mediterranean warmth, enthusiasm, and sociability; we can be just as direct, approachable, emotive, and tactile as any of the so-called contact cultures. But these qualities are only consistently expressed in our interactions with animals. And unlike English humans, our dogs are not embarrassed or dismayed by these un-English public displays of emotion. No wonder dogs are so important to the English: for many of us, they represent our only significant experience of open, unguarded emotional involvement with another sentient being.

An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but his dog is the real king. In other countries, people may buy luxurious five-star kennels and silk-lined baskets for their dogs, but the English let them take over the whole house. We allow our dogs to sprawl all over our sofas, chairs, and beds, and they get far more attention, affection, appreciation, and “quality time” than our children. (It is perhaps no accident that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established for more than half a century before the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which appears to have been founded as a rather derivative afterthought.)

A typical English household is often ruled by one or more boisterous, noisy, and chronically disobedient dogs, whose ineffectual owners indulge their every whim and laugh affectionately at their misdemeanors. And there is an unwritten rule that absolutely forbids any criticism of a person’s dogs. However badly someone’s dog behaves—and however much you may dislike being jumped on, climbed over, scratched, crotch-sniffed, leg-humped, and generally mauled—you must not speak ill of the beast: this would be a worse social solecism than criticizing that person’s children. 

We do, of course, criticize our own dogs, but this is always done in tender, indulgent tones: “He’s so naughty, that’s the third pair of shoes he’s destroyed this month, ah, bless!” There is more than a hint of pride in these sort of “Isn’t he awful?” complaints, as though we are secretly rather charmed by our dogs’ flaws and failings. I suspect that the English actually get great vicarious pleasure from our pooches’ misbehavior. We grant them all the freedoms that we deny ourselves: the most inhibited people on earth have the most blatantly uninhibited pets. 

Our dogs are our alter egos, perhaps even the symbolic embodiment of what a psychotherapist would call our “inner child” (you know, the one you are supposed to “get in touch with” and hug, or heal, or something). Only our dogs represent something more like our spoiled, ill-mannered, demanding inner brat. Our dogs embody our wild side: through them, we can express our most un-English feelings and desires; we can break all the rules, if only by proxy. 

This factor can also have beneficial side effects in our relations with other humans. An English person can even manage to strike up a conversation with a stranger, for example, if one of them is accompanied by a dog. (Although both parties are inclined to talk to the canine chaperone, rather than address each other directly.) Both verbal and nonverbal signals are exchanged via the medium of the blissfully oblivious dog, who happily absorbs all the eye contact and friendly greeting and touching that would be regarded as excessively forward and pushy between newly acquainted English. I always explain to foreign visitors and immigrants that if they want to make friends with the natives here, they should try to acquire or borrow a dog to act as a passport to conversation and facilitator of social interaction. 

But although dogs are universally popular, the type of dog you choose is a class indicator—and in what George Orwell rightly referred to as “the most class-ridden country under the sun,” this is not a trivial matter. The higher social classes tend to prefer Labradors, golden retrievers, King Charles spaniels, and springer spaniels, while the lower classes are more likely to have Rottweilers, Alsatians, poodles, Afghan hounds, chihuahuas, pit bulls, and cocker spaniels. 

English dog owners are highly unlikely to admit that their choice of pet is in any way class-related, of course. They will insist that they like Labradors (or springer spaniels, or whatever) because of the breed’s kind temperament. And they are probably telling the truth, as the class-driven element of their choice may be largely unconscious. But the higher classes will be looking at some of the dogs and dog owners in Martin’s images with a sense of slightly condescending amusement.

They will also be judging the social class of the owners by what their dogs are wearing. Upper-middle- and upper-class dogs wear plain brown leather collars, whereas middle-middles and below are inclined to dress their dogs up in colored collars, bows, and other twee accessories. Only a certain type of rather insecure working-class male goes in for scary, aggressive-looking guard dogs with big, studded black collars.

Generally, only the middle-middles and below are really keen on showing their dogs at dog shows—and only these classes would put a sticker in the back window of their car proclaiming passion for a particular breed, or warning other drivers that their vehicle may contain show dogs in transit. The upper classes regard showing dogs and cats as a bit vulgar—although they love showing horses and ponies. There is no logic to any of this, but again, the higher classes will be raising their eyebrows and smirking at Martin’s images of “show dogs.” 

The dogs’ owners wouldn’t even notice these snobbish microsignals, though. Like all English dog owners, they are happily getting in touch with their inner brat.

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