A few weeks ago I attended a Champions League football match between Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. For those not in the know, the latter are from Western Germany, while the former are a fairly multi-cultural bunch from North London. During the match, the 7,000 German fans roared their team on in thunderous voice, to the extent that it was difficult to hear the person next to me speak. It very nearly put me off my prawn sandwich. The most impressive thing, however, was the organisation and unity of the Germans fans. A group of English fans will achieve some sort of unity during a game, maybe at a push resembling a bunch of drunks who have discovered “You’ll Never Walk Alone” on the pub jukebox at 11:30 on a Friday night. But these Germans were like a choir. They probably had tenors and altos, and conceivably had congregational practice on Thursdays. It would have been interesting to get closer and see if they had sheet music in their hands. But you couldn’t, because they were so fucking loud. You would have been blown backwards like the hapless victim in a cartoon.
It did make me think, on leaving the game, about how national identity imprints itself on a microcosm of a country, and how there is usually a certain amount of truth in a cliché. I’m not about to make some sort of lazy, Germanophobic statements about how any more than 10 of them in one place turns into the Nuremburg Rally. But there have always been jokes about the Germans and their love of organisation, and here it was in front of my face.
Everyone knows a nation’s identity. The clichés, the jokes, the stereotypes: Oh, how you’ll laugh when you get an incompetent Spanish waiter in a restaurant, conveniently forgetting that the last 50 Spaniards who served you were a marked improvement on the useless, surly English bastard who ruined your dinner last night. It doesn’t matter. You have proven the stereotype. Likewise, you’ll smile knowingly as some cheesy Italian lothario tells 15 different girls in the same bar that he loves them, conveniently forgetting… Actually, scrap that, all Italian men ARE like that.
You get my gist though, all nationalities have stereotypes that people like to pigeon-hole them into. But what of the English?
The classical English stereotype resembles the picture below. Stiff upper-lipped, bowler hat-toting, sexually repressed, but most of all, unreservedly polite. Now, no-one has worn a bowler hat for years, while you only have to look at the X factor (where people routinely break down in tears for no reason at all) and the numbers of Brits who holiday in Pattaya for evidence that the upper lip is softening as the sexual repression disappears. However this association with politeness is more entrenched.
The English fascination with manners is a strange one, as in London you could easily be forgiven for failing to notice any at all. Within the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life, it is truly incredible how feral people become. When an underground train approaches a packed platform in rush-hour, the resulting carnage could not be more of a scrum if the station announcement shouted “touch, pause, engage” instead of telling us to mind the gap. Similarly, once cocooned away in the safety of a car, the vast majority of the populace display all the awareness and social grace of a rutting Wildebeest. These are, however, pressure cooker situations. While not excusing them, they can be written off as anomalies as they do not display the true Englishness that people display on a daily basis.
Since I started thinking about this, I’ve lost count of the number of times that my intrinsic English politeness has come out, often absurdly. Last week, while out on my lunch break, I found myself in the strange situation of vocally thanking a cash-point for returning not only my card, but also paying me handsomely for the privilege of having borrowed it. Seconds later, I realised the folly of my action, and how wasted my gratitude was on this robotic alcove. It still made me feel strangely British though. I mean the machine had merely done what I had asked of it, nothing more, nothing less, and yet you wouldn’t think twice about thanking a supermarket cashier or the Polish women in Pret for extending the same courtesy. It’s just built into our psyche.
Additionally (and here’s one you can try at home, kids), see how many times you say the word sorry, when there is absolutely no need to apologise. It’ll amaze you. Every time you greet someone in a position of authority you instantly grovel with them, apologising for wasting their time by speaking to a mere mortal like you. Crossing a crowded bar? No problem, just crab-walk along with your pints, machine-gunning apologies to the seething hoards, who appear to be stopping little short of actively trying to spill your drinks. I swear the only people on earth who say the phrase “I’m sorry” more than me are working as vicars in crematoriums.
It’s funny though, this combination of intrinsic manners and the ability to forget them in the heat of the moment. At no moment was this more obvious than during the London riots in August. I was (naturally for a national crisis) out the country at the time, but watching on the telly it was a wonderfully English revolt. At the start, tempers flared and everyone broke loose. Rioting, arson and looting spread all over London as social unrest boiled over… Then the police came out, Cameron made a speech telling everyone how awful they were, and the troublemakers just went home, presumably muttering apologies as they went. As if this wasn’t English enough, the following day everyone came back out onto the street and helped tidy everything up again, like some sort of New Years Eve party that got a little out of hand. It warmed the cockles of the heart.
Compare that to the next time the French have a protest. They do them properly, as there’s something inherently anarchic in their personality. In many ways it’s just a modern translation of the two countries’ revolutions. France got rid of their monarchy for good, deciding to be ruled by a succession of democratically-elected midgets, whereas when we did it we all got frightfully embarrassed and re-instated the deposed king’s son a few years later.
But anyway, I digress, next time the French have a protest take a close look. Not only for an example of how to really disapprove of something, but also because I’m sure if you look closely, amid the burning tower blocks and barricades, you’ll see that a good number of them are riding around on bicycles, wearing berets, with a string of onions on their shoulder. Because that’s what they’re all like, right?
by Harry Harland