Saturday, 12 November 2011
I evidently have Outlook Express installed on my computer. I didn’t install it, it must have come with one of these software bundles no sensible person wants and presumably why they are given away for free. I also have Microsoft Office Professional which was bloody expensive and use Outlook as my default email programme. Why then, every time I start my computer do I get a window pop up offering to speed up Outlook Express by compacting my messages when there are no messages to compact?
Sometimes, I do not want my computer to make all those binging and bonging noises familiar to the owner of every American made car (to remind their no doubt dozy owners that they are in a car to encourage them to please try and concentrate), so I disconnect my speakers and another window pops up to say, ‘You have just disconnected a device’. If I decide I will listen to a bit of music as I tap away, the family now bored with soaps and cartoons and all in bed so I can kill the TV and connect my speakers again, I get another pop up telling me that I have just connected a device.
Are Microsoft engineers so firmly convinced that all but themselves suffer from advanced Alzheimer’s? Maybe this boils down to intimidated Microsoft staff who, every time they open an office door are brusquely told by a startled geeky boss and his embarrassed secretary, ‘You just opened my door!’
Clearly, this is something foreign and undeniably American. We English know when we are in a vehicle. We can recognise an open car door because velocity provides an accompanying blast of, if we are in England, invariably cold and damp air that demands more attention the faster we drive and even the dimmest of us can recognise, through the rear view mirror, a back seat denuded first of our briefcase and then the son that gamely tried to catch it without the benefit of another bleeding binging noise and all of us, honestly, know when we have opened an office door or connected or disconnected a pair of bloody laptop speakers.
Japanese cars are the same.
I live in Angola, where American and Japanese cars and recently Chinese ones too, are the market leaders. They all bing and bong and yet no-one seems to mind. Why?
I stand out a bit in my neighbourhood. Not just because I am slightly eccentric, it is far more obvious than that. If someone wants to find my house they ask for the ‘Old White Guy’s Place’. I have a man who delivers fuel for the generator. He refers to perhaps his best client as the ‘Velhoto Branco’. I can hear him shouting across the Bairro, ‘No, I can’t stop now, I am delivering fuel to the old snowflake’. Even the kids call me Mr Whitey. I am not offended in the slightest. The fact that they precede ‘Snowflake’ or ‘Whitey’ with Senhor is a sign of respect and the casual enquirer will always get accurate directions to my humble abode if they describe me as I am, an old white guy, rather than try to be politically correct and then die a lonely death lost in the bush as a result of inaccurate directions
'Do you think he meant the old white guy?'
'Well, he didn't say so did he?'
'Yeah but you sent him out to the old race track, he'll die out there'
But I differ in one far more fundamental respect. I remain resolutely English, which is rather ironic for a man born and brought up in Germany.
Having a cheap plastic dashboard remind me that my seatbelt is not fastened, that the keys are still in the ignition, the lights are on or my dick is hanging out of my trousers is an affront. I once spent a day, a whole day, trawling through the wiring of a brand new company car, a Toyota Landcruiser, snipping every wire that led to a bonger or a beeper just so I could sit there with the door open, keys in the ignition and listen to the CD player without that incessant ‘Bing, Bing, Bing’.
Angolans don’t seem to be bothered, they just turn the stereo up to full volume whereas I, perhaps being English, find it all a desperate intrusion into my privacy, my right to decide for myself and an impertinent slur on my ability to drive a car.
As I said, I was brought up in Germany and when I went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, I was in for a social shock. For a start, when an Englishman greets you with what to all intents and purposes sounds like a genuine enquiry as to your health and general wellbeing with a ‘How do you do?’, the natural response (assuming you are feeling pretty perky) is, ‘Fine, thank you’. Wrong. Amongst polite society in England, etiquette dictates you answer a question with a question, in this case, parrot like, repeating the question with another ‘how do you do’ delivered with much gravitas.
All well and good, I got the hang of that in no time. It was the next bit that seemed tricky for everyone, old hands and new boys (social climbers) alike. If it is considered bad form to march up to someone, anyone, shove your hand out and say, ‘Hi. My name is Tom’, how the hell do the English actually get to know one another? Clearly they do, and quite successfully as the Government is now considering ways to hold the population under 70 million a total which, for a tiny island, is admittedly rather a lot but they did not get into that situation relying on potential breeding pairs staring each other fixedly in the eye repeating, ‘How do you do’ (without the interrogative inflection because, as we have already established, it is not really a question) ad infinitum.
It is perfectly possible for a young, single chap, however keen to make friends, to go through a whole dinner party not having been introduced to anyone (etiquette precluding him introducing himself) and leave, exhausted, having discussed only the variable English weather with a succession of women he would dearly loved to have bedded amongst whom there was probably at least one who would have welcomed a decent bit of sex instead of meteorological speculation and the fruit of the host’s dubious wine cellar.
The English are sometimes appalled by the Americans. George Bush actually touched the Queen! Being English HRH had the good grace to appreciate that the man was merely demented, no doubt woeful that he wasn’t one of her subjects so she elected not to have him beheaded on the spot but then the English are like that, rightfully disdainful, yet simultaneously compassionate to those less able than themselves.
Magnanimous as we English are, it is still a shock to discover that foreigners can afford tickets on British Rail and also insist on conducting that most vile practice of testing their execrable English on anyone within earshot. Despite ruffling our Times newspapers and responding to impertinent attempts at interlocution merely with a ‘Hmmn’, we have to endure the life history of our temporary travelling companion all the way to Luton (no-one to my knowledge has, under such intolerable duress, made it further than Leicester before hanging themselves with their own tie).
The rest of the world calls our natural, well bred reticence arrogance but it isn’t. Just look at us in a social environment. The English display a degree of social ineptitude that educated foreigners find bewildering but this is due to our love of privacy and an inherent shyness.
For many it would seem that when a number of strangers gather together, an obvious ice breaker would be to ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ But this would be to commit a faux pas guaranteed to exclude anyone from every future dinner party invitation. Far better, therefore, to discuss the weather. If the English are so reluctant to reveal their own occupation, imagine how they react to the American telling them over a plate of delightful Amuse-Bouche about his wife’s recent hysterectomy?
I keep banging on about the English, ignoring that the United Kingdom, a realm under one monarch, consists of not only the English, but also the Welsh, the Scots and a still occupied portion of Ireland, regions the populations of which still have a recognisably individual identity. But with typical sang froid, the English (some of whose proud families trace themselves all the way back to the Norman French) can easily dismiss the victims of their ancestors. The Welsh are generally all ex miners or sheep farmers who burn holiday cottages in their spare time (only those owned by the English foolish enough to buy the wrong side of the Long Mynd) and are all descended from Irishmen who could not swim. Scotland is a northern province of England inhabited by a population who refuse to wear knickers under their skirts (I am talking about the male population, if you want to find females of a similar inclination you should return south to the English county of Essex where, it is alleged, the only difference between the girls and shopping trolleys is that the trolleys have minds of their own. Get fresh with a Scottish lass on the other hand, and she’ll split your lip with an infamous Glasgow kiss). The Scots are only tolerated as part of the Union because they, irritatingly like the Welsh, occupy the same small island, albeit the rougher, less fertile extremes but unlike the Welsh, invented whisky and have a decent bit of oil and gas. The Welsh did give England the coal and more than a few men to fuel her territorial ambitions. We should not overlook that.
Even the Germans, and I know because I grew up there, can distinguish between the English and the Welsh, the Scottish and the Irish (with whom they have much sympathy) so those Northern and Western tribes can consider themselves excluded when I say that the Germans, not generally noted for a refined sense of humour and considered by the English at least, as even more stiff and arrogant call us Brits ‘Insel Affen’. Island Apes.
Now that’s bloody funny and a damn sight wittier and imaginative than our calling them ‘Square Heads’ and demonstrates that they too have the disdain, almost a contempt surpassing our own for all things foreign. Yes, I agree that Wogs begin at Calais but just compare a BMW, a Mercedes, a VW, Audi, Skoda, Rolls Royce, Bentley Aston Martin, even, dare I say it, the sublime French Citroen C6 with the equivalent English product and you might just start to appreciate whatever vague, meandering point I am trying to make.
Like any old man whose only intention was to stroll down to the corner shop and buy a paper but was then easily distracted by that rich soup of acquaintances and memories so spent his time discussing, as we English do, the weather instead (such dawdling being inconsequential if you had the foresight to bring an umbrella), I digress.
The point I am making is that one, clearly identifiable trait of Englishness is our reluctance to wear our hearts on our sleeves as well as a revulsion for personal disclosure. Combine this with an abhorrence for those being earnest rather than sincere and it is evident why Baptist preachers never made it big in England (we threw the last lot out on the Mayflower and banished the rest to Wales and Scotland leaving Ireland to the Pope) and we cannot make our minds up whether Presidential speeches are risible or an emetic.
Angolans are completely different.
Recently, a frustrated neighbour and wife stood in the middle of the street and speculated, at the top of her voice ,how a man with such a small dick and so useless in bed (evidently her husband) could possibly service the young lady down the road with any degree of satisfaction. Even I could see that she was bloody angry.
We all like to gossip and men do it as much as women, about two thirds of our conversation is gossip of one form or another but men and women do it in different ways. Especially in England.
Men will never admit they gossip but they do. They will stand there at the bar supping their pints and one will, in a dour voice say, ‘Old Jonesy has fucked himself’
Another will draw deeply at his beer and venture, ‘How so?’
‘His Missus caught him fucking the Au Pair’
Now notice the brevity of the conversation and the liberal dose of macho expletives yet it imparted everything one needed to know in a male bonding way. Let’s look at how the women handle it.
First of all, the girl about to impart the information must be breathless and excited and, according to English etiquette, her companions must respond accordingly, willing fish rising to the bait.
‘You’ll never guess what!’
‘What?’ All her audience with the ‘Please tell us, we are dying to know’ expression.
‘Sarah threw Alan out on the street!’
‘Oh my God! Why?’
‘She caught him bed with the Au Pair!!!’ (much intake of breath and patting of palpitating bosoms)
‘I told Sarah right at the beginning that the bitch was a slut’ etcetera.
Now fortunately for pub landlords, this is good for another hour or so of sophisticated social interaction and countless dry sherries but if a man pitches up, the conversation will stop dead.
In England, privacy is sacrosanct and by gossiping, we stray into the excitement that only being ever so slightly naughty provides. Between a man and his wife we may have a male, female gossipy interaction, but under no other circumstances can males and females gossip. To do so would mean breaking a rule of etiquette and the English, whether they know it or not, live by rules. The same ingrained rules I live by.
I was banging out a few emails on the laptop when a neighbour came by, looking pretty miserable. I said ‘Hello’ and then went back to my work leaving her to settle down in the lounge with Marcia.
I don’t, ever, listen to other people’s conversations but there were certain key words that pierced my consciousness. Like ‘Sex’. There were other words of the same ilk but you get the idea. I may not have turned my head from the keyboard but my ears had swivelled like a horse’s in the direction of the two chattering girls sat behind me.
You know that ‘Fight or Flight’ response that is ingrained in all of us? Well I was mentally pulling on my running shoes when Marcia suddenly turned to me stopping me in the starting blocks by saying, ‘What do you think?’
Bearing in mind I am now hard wired to only reluctantly hand over my name and restrict conversation to the weather with strangers, it was with some trepidation that I ventured a rather weak, ‘Think about what?’
‘Her husband!’ Marcia said with some irritation and then, recognising the usual blank incomprehension went on, in horribly graphic detail to explain that the husband of our poor dear neighbour had arranged a girlfriend as his wife, the forlorn figure now in our company, was useless in bed.
Now I am a bloke and I know that many will rise up in frothing indignation when I say this but even if a girl is comatose, she isn’t entirely useless in bed. Clearly there was more to this than I dared to know.
I knew this undoubtedly attractive lady on nodding terms. If I saw her on the street I would pay her a compliment and wish her ‘Good Day’ but now she was sitting in one of my armchairs with an unforgivable Earnest expression no less, asking me for advice on how to encourage her wayward husband back to her bed. I am supposed to be English. I am English so I am not supposed to be thinking, ‘Bugger yer husband, get yer kit off and let’s talk about the weather’, especially with Marcia within reach of the kitchen knives.
With two pairs of eyes staring at me (earnestly and possibly sincerely) this was no time for flippancy so my default reaction of, ‘Well let’s go and beat him up’, would have been, perhaps inappropriate.
Inspiration came from an unlikely source and confessing its origin means an admission that not only do I read the Daily Telegraph on line, I also read the Daily Mail. Coverage of the recent Victoria Secrets Lingerie show was far better in the Daily Mail and it was those images, transposed across the morose young lady now before me that gave me the answer.
I have been able to finish my emails and write all this while Marcia and our neighbour are out shopping for sexy lingerie. I did offer to go along with them so I could venture the impassionate but considered opinion of a man but it was Marcia, I noticed, who turned that offer down with alacrity. Maybe there is some English reserve in her after all.