Parsing the Endless Nuances of British Stereotypes
And What it Means For Writing British Characters
English people are hard to write, as an American novelist. I’ve lived in London now for most of the last 20 years, but I still hesitate to put them into fiction, mainly because it’s difficult to avoid slotting them into categories. “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth,” George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Which also means there are some advantages to being an American in Britain—you can operate vaguely outside class-cultural lines.
Of course, British people are also totally capable of despising Americans. All you have to do is say BernARD, for example, with the stress on that second syllable, or “Mos-cow,” to rhyme with “how,” and wait for the flicker of suppressed amusement. I should add that my exposure to Britishness is really to a fairly specific pocket of north London, and I don’t want to make grand claims. That’s the trouble. It’s very easy to get this stuff wrong.
Part of the puzzle of Brexit, for Americans, is that so many of the main players represent barely distinguishable but traditionally opposed British types. In American terms, both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May would probably belong to a generic upper middle class. Both were raised outside London, in comfortable country houses, and have a bit of private schooling in their backgrounds. Corbyn and May also spent time in state grammars, highly selective public schools, which have become a bone of contention between left and right wing views of progressive education policy.
Corbyn represents the borough next door to mine, Islington, which is the poster borough for a certain kind of cosmopolitan elite. Just the phrase “North London” tends to serve as code for various semi-contradictory things. It can mean “Jewish,” but it can also mean the sort of muesli-eating, Guardian-reading, Labour-voting lefties whose reasonable objections to Israeli policy sometimes shade uncomfortably into anti-Semitism. You can see these people in Mike Leigh movies. They keep allotments, ride bicycles, even into their seventies, and carry their groceries in Daunts Books tote bags, except that they would never say “tote,” which is an Americanism.
But the culture divide between Corbyn and May is stark—you have only to listen to their accents. Some of that can be put down to regionalism, even though it’s only two hours in the car between the towns where they went to school.
The pressures of class affect people in complicated ways. I’ve written before of my old Etonian roommate who refused to help me tie a bow-tie for an Oxford ball. His mother lives in a beautiful rambling 15th-century farmhouse in Berkshire, one of those commutable-to-London counties that still looks genuinely rural, if you squint a little. (Kate Middleton’s parents live there, too.) My English wife gets nervous when we visit them, because they’re “posh,” and she worries about doing or saying the wrong thing. This used to baffle me. Both of them went to private schools and Oxford, they have recognizable upper-middle-class accents… they seem equally posh to me. But Ned’s family reads The Telegraph, not The Guardian, cooks on an Aga, has pelmets over the curtains, and a carpeted house where it’s not a bad idea to take your shoes off. It turns out all of this is stressful for London liberals.
Two typically English phrases sum up the difference. Theresa May’s Tory colleague Ken Clarke—the sort of old-fashioned conservative who says what he thinks, independent of party lines—once called her a “bloody difficult woman.” That’s not the phrase I mean, though May has often repeated the remark, proudly, because it gives her a kind of vividness or identity; it places her in a tradition that includes Margaret Thatcher. It also suggests the natural evolution from the vicar’s daughter—dutiful, diligent, hard to distract, conventional in her way, but also single-minded. In other words, she’s the kind of woman who might have been described once as a “girly swot.”
To swot is to study hard for an exam, to sweat for it, to strive. “Girly swot” is a phrase I’ve most often heard women use about themselves. It’s a kind of humble-brag, though maybe it’s really the opposite, a form of boast whose real purpose is to self-deprecate. Because underneath the boast it also means, I only got where I am through extra hard work, I’m not necessarily talented or original, but I put my head down and plough on, especially when there’s a set task. And yet inside that self-deprecation is another level of boast. I do my job, I do my duty, I earn my success—and there’s also a hint of the implication that maybe things like creativity and originality are shallower virtues, not quite to be trusted.
This has been May’s line on the referendum from the beginning: we will honor it, we will finish the homework assignment we’ve been set by the British people, whether we believe in it or not. (May, of course, voted Remain.) We will pass the test.
Corbyn was not a girly swot. He left school with two E-grade A-levels, the lowest possible passing grade, and never finished university—he dropped out after a couple of semesters at North London Polytechnic. (May went to Oxford.) But in its own way, Corbyn’s background is just as conventional. He joined the CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), wrote for a local newspaper, got involved in union politics. And in his case, the phrase that comes to mind is “right on.”
It usually goes alongside some kind of left-wing cause, and, like “girly swot,” is hard to parse in terms of mockery or admiration. Partly because the people who use it often share to some extent the views they’re describing. To be “right on” shows enthusiasm, it shows energy, it suggests a kind of enviable thoroughness or depth or correctness of belief. Yet there’s a sting in the tail, too, because it also suggests a lack of irony or self-awareness or real self-doubt, and, like “girly swot”, indicates an excess of conventionality at the expense of true thought or feeling. To be “right on” is probably to go “by the book”—to accept received views and embrace them in a way that might be a little embarrassing, even to people who basically agree with you.
Both of these politicians, in other words, come straight from central casting. I can’t even tell if that’s an English phrase or not anymore, I’ve lived in the country too long. You really couldn’t make them up, because you don’t need to; they’re all stock cultural figures. From May to Corbyn, to Jacob Rees Mogg, the leader of the hard Brexiters, whose double-barrelled name belongs in a John Mortimer novel and makes him sound like the kind of privileged man-child, who goes straight from prep school, to boarding school, to Oxford, to the bar or some private bank, and still defers to Nanny at home.
I don’t mean to make fun of any of them, just to show how dense with types the culture is, and how the only reasonable response to that density is to retreat into subtleties or ironies. It makes satire easier, and realism harder for novelists, at least the kind of realism where you want your characters to wear a looser skin, to have a little room for maneuver underneath all the descriptions you throw at them. And I wonder if the fine grain of British class and culture mean something similar for non-writers, too—I mean, for the people who live it, and are going to have to get along with each other again, after Brexit happens or doesn’t happen, in whatever form.