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Sunday, 7 May 2017

Election: Brits explained

My post, Rather marvellous, mentioned a small singing lesson triumph. Marly commented: V (my teacher) must be pleased. I replied: V was pleased... she said "Well done you." Marly re-replied: That seems so British.

Which was nice of Marly. Many Americans can't decide whether British under-statement is a character flaw or a ploy to confuse foreigners.

A bit of both. Something similar happened yesterday.

The doorbell rang and VR (the first V; my wife of 57 years) answered. The caller was Jesse Norman, a fella not a lady opera singer, our Conservative member of parliament (see pic), asking for support in the forthcoming election. VR recognised him immediately and said, "I'd like to thank you for helping my husband, with his driving licence. But my family has a mining background and I'll be voting Labour."

Jesse said: "I perfectly understand."

Then stayed on.  VR told me: "He talked about canvassing in the nearby Welsh valleys (formerly the heart of Britain's mining industry) where Conservative voters are rare. He laughed a bit. We were polite."

As I hope I would have been. As an abstraction (Old Etonian Tory, son of a baronet, etc) Jesse represents the UK I detest. In reality (philosophy teacher, book writer, married to daughter of one Britain's most humane judges,  helped me storm the DVLA a fortress-like institution) he is admirable.

Politeness, used genuinely by VR, can also be a social weapon for Brits, as can under-statement. Both are lies disguised as self-abnegation. We admire others’ “authentic” modes of speech while secretly disparaging their inarticulacy. Giving to charity implies pea-nuts; adding “modestly” suggests hundreds. If a Brit, casually met, says “You must drop in some time.” he means “Not on your Nellie.”

Not for nothing did the French call us perfidious.


  1. Politeness is valuable on country walks. As I approached a gate in a field on a public footpath the farmer was coming through on a tractor. Thinking it would make a good photo I snapped away.

    The farmer leaped down and came up to me in aggressive mode, “what are you doing that for? Are you going to report me for blocking a footpath?”

    Within less than a minute of my calm and polite reply we were talking about his grandchildren and where he goes for holiday, and the approaching lambing season.

  2. How different would this story be had you BOTH been home?

  3. Sir Hugh: I was trying to imagine the roles (ie, you and the farmer) reversed. Not you being photographed walking - you'd have been only too pleased. But suppose you'd been at home at the computer, writing up one of your walks. You look up and there's the farmer, pointing a camera at you through the window. What might your initial reaction have been?

    MikeM: We were at home together. But I was upstairs and VR was downstairs; she got there first. I listened from the top of the stairs for a while and then stole back to my study. On reflection I'm rather proud of this. I felt sure VR would do us both proud politically - and politely - and that I'd merely be underlining what she had said. A reasonable reaction to the last 57 years.

  4. Jesse Norman is a good sort. That too is an epithet of the kind of veiled 'faint praise' you describe, often preceded (not followed) by a 'but' following a more qualified evaluation, as in 'he's a Tory, but...'. Joe was in some correspondence with him, I recall, about that book he wrote on Burke, rated him and his writing highly. He strikes me rather as one of those Tories from another age, not free-market liberal, genuinely decent, not just personable and polite, cultured and with a big hinterland, Rory Stewart is another. I once rather enjoyed him (JN) in a shared interview with Polly Toynbee roundly refusing to be patronised by her 'you're not so bad for a Tory' line.

    When I've tried to allude to Albion perfide in French company they generally look a bit blank, might be my crap French of course. In my opinion they're no better than we are like that - someone described the debate between Macron and Le Pen as the longest and most comprehensive display of passive-aggressive smiling ever. The Dutch and Germans I know, however, really do find us slippery and insincere in our disingenuous politeness. On the other hand, I find them rather rude.

  5. Lucy: I think they're called One-Nation Tories. These days that phrase is likely to be misunderstood (taken as a synonym for Brexiteers). Chris Patten was one. Also MacMillan. I think "good sort" carries the unspoken judgment: decent but no great thinker. I agree entirely with your view of JN.

    Marquis de Ximen├Ęs (1726–1817) was the apparent originator of L'Albion Perfide (in a poem too). I was glad to see someone picked up on Marine's smiling; her old man used to smile but always menacingly. But tell me this: Marine has her hair dyed blonde but cheaply, dark roots are always visible. Is this significant?

  6. Oh, it's not so very different from many deep South ways of the elder generation. Yankees often completely understand Southern politeness, especially a certain kind (the "bless your heart" business is now a cat out of the bag, though) where the Southerner becomes more and more polite as the Yankee violates all Southern decency.

    My children had some rocky times navigating new manners (or the lack thereof) when we moved from South Carolina to New York. Suddenly things that were natural in our neighborhood (like calling a neighbor "Miss Susan" or saying "yes, ma'am" and "no, sir") were reasons for other children to mock.

  7. Marly: That's a pretty wide culture jump: NC to NY. But I suppose Tennessee to NY would be wider,

  8. My part of western NC slides right underneath Tennessee. They're fairly the same when you're talking the mountain areas.