Look at Life: Englishness

15th November 2013

What does it mean to be English?

Jo Plumridge

In days of yore – oh, those halcyon days – it was easy to tell if someone was an Englishman. There were generally acknowledged to be two types: your ‘salt of the earth’ working classes (whippet, flat cap and pint of half-and-half) and your upper-middle-class, bowler hat-doffing, suit-wearing, BBC-English type. Englishmen were polite, patriotic and everyone knew their place. The English were generally well thought of and they all knew how to pull together as a nation.

But all that was a long time ago and well before the advent of binge drinking, tracksuits, z-list celebrities and reality television. Nowadays, most people are confused about what makes someone English, including those of us who live in the country. It’s hard to keep your stiff upper lip while those about you are drooling incomprehensibly out of theirs.

I’m often baffled by what seems to characterise the English. There seems to be a ‘reality’ culture here nowadays, both on television and in celebrity magazines, where people seem to be famous – indeed, revered – for nothing more than wearing tight clothing and dying their skin some interesting shades of orange. Am I a snob because I find most of it somewhat repulsive? Or perhaps I’m just missing the morally improving benefits of features such as ‘Torso of the Week’’?

However, I don’t like to think that the quintessential Englishman is dead and buried. Those quirks that make so many of us English are still there, surely: just too restrained to come out…
… so here’s my essential guide to the old-fashioned English idiosyncrasies that still hold true and will, I hope, one day win out against the perma-tans of modern society.

1. As an Englishman, it is considered the ultimate compliment to give and be given a nickname by your friends and peers. Failing this, referring to one another by surname alone is almost obligatory – particularly if you are male. Being called by your given name is often seen as a borderline insult, or a subtle indicator that the person using your name is cross with you.

2. If passing a stranger in town it is essential to avoid eye contact at all costs. For the true Englishman, walking into a lamppost is preferable to accidentally engaging with said stranger in any way. However, once out in the countryside a cheerful ‘Hello’ should be uttered at loud volume to anyone you pass. Should said person not respond, it is traditional to become mortally offended at once and mutter loudly under one’s breath about ‘the rudeness of some people’.

Note – some confusion exists about where the cut off point between town and countryside lies. This can lead to excruciating situations, where ‘Hello’ turns into a sound little more than a muted cough, in case one’s would-be interlocutor is not observing the same topographical demarcation.

3. When travelling on public transport, complete silence must be maintained at all costs. The invention of mobile phones has been agonising for the Englishman who travels by train. Traditionally, an attempt to speak or laugh on a train has been met with a stern ‘harrumph’ and a rustle of The Times newspaper. Now though, it’s an insidious competition between mobile conversations and paper rustling to see who can make the most noise.

4. If an Englishman really likes you, he will make it perfectly obvious by being increasingly rude to you. This is always done in an ironic fashion. Unfortunately, many other nationalities are unable to grasp irony and the sarcasm that often accompanies it, which has been known to lead to confusion and, on occasion, attempted violence. But, rest assured that, if you’re being told how hopeless you are with a gently mocking tone, you’ve made a friend for life.

5. You might think it’s a cliché, but the English are genuinely obsessed with the weather. This is because they get a lot of it. Only in England will people classify two weeks on a windswept rainy beach as a holiday.

Despite the best efforts of modern-day trash television and its ilk, I’m fairly certain that the Englishman of old is still out there alive and kicking and keeping the good old aspidistra flying.

It’s just a shame that in our full-on 24/7 fast-forward culture the beer cans are usually flying too…

Find Your Local