Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Inescapable Class

September 13th, 2009 · 1 Comment

This summer I went to my local bookstore to pick up some of the summer reading for this course. I also decided to splurge on some travel essays and one very large guidebook. One of the books that caught my eye was Kate Fox’s Watching the English. In this tome of valuable information, Fox breaks down the hidden rules of English behavior…everything from food rules to dress code. Fox is not only an anthropologist, but also an English woman and her ability to laugh at herself and her people make her observations both accurate and amusing. I was laughing the entire time I was reading. The way she writes is so witty and entertaining that I found myself both apprehensive and even more excited to come to London. How was I going to survive in a place where it was not socially acceptable to smile at strangers as I walked down the street? I was also particularly worried about my laughter. As most of you now know, when I find something funny, I will laugh… loudly and for a long time. I can’t control it. I was worried everyone in England was going to think I was just the stupid American who is always loud. More about that later…Fox concludes that all these behavior rules revolve around class. You do things the way you do because of your class, plain and simple.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this theory has to do with language. I’m sure most of us have noticed that even though we are in England, there is not one generic English accent. And, according to Fox, “one cannot even talk at all without immediately revealing one’s own social class.” The indicators are in both the pronunciations and word choice. I’ll elaborate on one of my favorites…. ‘Pardon.’ The English apologize for everything, even if it’s not their fault. If you bump into an English person on the street, they will probably apologize anyway. However, the word they use is an immediate indicator of their class. A lower-middle of middle-middle person will say ‘pardon.’ A upper middle will say ‘sorry-what?’ and an upper class person will simply say ‘what?’ Ironically the same response of ‘what?’ is also used by the working class, although they may drop the ‘t’ to make it ‘wha-‘

So, we have leaned that speech is the most immediate and most obvious way to place a person within your class GPS system. In Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters, one of the first interactions between Mr. Lyons and the group of pitmen involved differences in speech. Mr. Lyons could not understand their thick accents and different pronunciations. Obviously Mr. Lyons was speaking what is commonly known as “Oxford English” whereas the pitmen were speaking in their own regional dialect. The Ashington group was a group of brilliant artists who just happened to be pitmen. But the people around them would often jump to conclusions when meeting them due to their speech. In Blood Brothers twins Mickey and Eddie were split up at birth and raised apart. Mickey remained with his biological mother in a working class environment. Edward (Eddie) was raised by the upper class Lyon family. Mickey points out the language differences from the first time he speaks with his brother by making fun of Eddie for his ‘posh’ phrases like “shag the vicar” and “smashing.” It’s the little details reveal the most about class differences. Although the brothers were great friend in their youth, it was the struggle between their classes that eventually led to tragic downfall. Your accent and speech does not reveal anything about your accomplishments but it does place you somewhere on that class scale. In a nation where verbal culture is prized over any sort of palpable or physical expression, language is the primary tool for recognizing social status.

The one place where all these class rules are put on ‘hold’ (well, I’ll let you decide) is the pub. The pub is a place with its own customs and is the main place of social bonding. Like in most cultures, the drinking-place tends to be socially equal or at least the differences are based on separate rules from the rest of society. Therefore, the pub is not really place of social or class equality, but the class differences are judged differently or are suspended whilst inside the pub. Only the English would have a completely different set of behavior rules specifically for the pub. I can’t believe these people sometimes. In a striking contradiction the rest of England, the pub is one of the few places where you can start a conversation with a complete stranger…as long as you’re not too forward and ask their name. This rule only applies at the bar counter and the fact that you go to the bar to order food and drink (rather than having someone come to your table) forces one to be social. It just keeps getting more and more strange. The art of queuing is quintessentially English. Always respect the queue, at the store, at the tube stop, wherever. But in the pub this rule changes. Instead of the usual neat and orderly structure, the thirsty pub goes all hang around the counter. This is what Kate Fox calls the “invisible queue,” where both the publicans and the customers know their positions in the waiting line. Everyone knows who is next and if you try and get service before your turn, the bar staff will ignore you the rest of your stay. One evening last week was a part of a group who decided to grab a drink at The Court, a local pub on Tottenham Court Road.  We accidentally placed ourselves outside the range of the invisible queue to disastrous consequences. Not only were we yelled at in front of the entire pub, it was hard to get service the rest of the night.

That aside, I have had a great time every time I go to a pub. It’s a great place to people watch (one of my favorite pastimes) and see the rare interactions between the English. Of course, all pubs are not created equal. I will agree with my classmates that The Court caters to a younger crowd and is the kind of place where our American volume is somewhat more acceptable, whereas the Marlborough Arms is great place to grab a meal and to catch up with your fiends. Nothing against pubs like The Court, but I prefer places where I can sit down and not have to yell across the table to be heard. I guess that’s my inner 60-year-old woman talking. Besides, the chicken and leek pie on Sunday nights at the Arms is fantastic! Pub culture is a valuable part of life in England, and most people have found a pub that really fits their personality or lifestyle. You can lean a lot about the English by observing what goes on in a pub, and at the same time, you have to leave the pub to fully understand the culture. This place is full of contradictions. While I am yet to become a ‘regular,’ I hope I can investigate more of this strange phenomenon of the England when I get to Norwich… I might even find a football team to support.

To recap, everything is about class. Each social class has identifying elements that place one in a certain class. Don’t say ‘pardon’, avoid using fancy French words like serviette, and mind the invisible queue at pubs. We will all be reading Watching the English once we get to Norwich so now you all have something to look forward to. Keep an eye out for these hidden behaviors. I find it all quite fascinating. Also, if anyone feels like pie tonight, meet me at the Arms.

Tags: Grace

Give us the money Lebowski (and bourgeois?)

September 11th, 2009 · 3 Comments

So it seemed like everyone was enthralled by the play, The Pitman Painters, last night. It was amazing, simply put.  However, as I have already mulled to a few of my classmates, I am uncertain of its socialist/communist tendencies. I felt more like it was a critique of socialism (which I realize is not the historical case). It ended up just feeling very nihilistic to me, rather than inspirational. Maybe nihilism isn’t the best word but if nothing else the play was laced was dramatic irony. I look at the play, and I think of all the dreams, passion, and attempts to stand up on one’s own feet, and all I see is failure. Small details like the unemployed guy (dies when he enlists) or Oliver (stays a pitman; I’ll talk more on this as it is arguable he succeeded), or even their teacher (who gets the great position yet will soon be forgot and left to obscurity) are quite noticeable; however, it is the grander theme of a system or dream letting us down is what leads me to feel this falls into the realm of nihilism rather than a socialist commentary. The last scene in particular shows this I think. Oliver has turned away from the bourgeois’ attempt to enslave him with money (hurray for the working class!), and he paints a banner for the socialist movement. Everyone is having a beer and cheering, saying “surely they’ll have to listen to us now.” But we as viewers know this not to be true. And then, when you think it is only a subtle joke between you and the playwright, the projector lights up explaining to us that there was never and academy at Ashington and the group broke up soon after the play took place. We further understand that the socialist movement in Britain did not succeed; they probably all died poor miners. In all likelihood (as Paul pointed out) Margaret Thatcher personally beat up each of the Pitman Painters.

The only thing I could think of as a positive explanation was this: the play was supposed to represent a moment, a snapshot, of human existance where people got it right. Just like in a painting, for one second the world is still and clear. We have no idea what Mona Lisa did right after her portrait was taken; she could have been attacked by wild dogs. However, in that one moment truth was found. And then the moment passes, we become disillusioned, our skills fail us, or our dreams betray us.

But onto happier things: I loved the accents, not just because linguistic anthropology has always given me goosebumps but also because I thought it is an interesting device to show class struggle and friction; it is something we rarely get to play with in the United States (other than your usual southern jokes). What I liked best was how we as the audience were able to understand the pitman more clearly as the play went on, as if we were becoming part of their group, integrating as the art instructor did. This might have been done on purpose, or their might not have been any change at all to the dialogue and I was simply able to understand more easily. Either way, it was a neat technique.

Anyway, cheers

Tags: Andrew R