I’m a dual national, born and raised in America but settled in Britain nearly 30 years ago. The little differences in language and culture are endlessly entertaining to me, and I think by now I have a pretty good understanding of both countries, though I’m still learning.
Anyone with an interest should read Kate Fox’s amazing pop sociology book, Watching the English. I read it about 12 years ago, when I had already been here a very long time, but it taught me things I had never fully grasped. For example, she sets out a template for male pub conversation which I swear I have heard repeated practically to the word many times in my life. It’s still irritating, but less so now that I understand the cultural context.
But the thing I think about most often from that book is the different societal concepts of politeness. In England, they mostly practice negative politeness: don’t bother other people, don’t pry, don’t step over invisible boundaries. Of course we have that concept in America too (good fences make good neighbours), but it tends to be outweighed by the imperative for positive politeness: make people feel welcome and included, provide help and support. It’s not that British people are unable or unwilling to provide these things, but they are afraid it would be intrusive to offer. An obvious superficial difference is sales assistants: British people often feel harassed and appalled by the constant “Can I help you?” in American stores, while Americans look around British stores thinking, “Does anyone actually work here?”
So how do people manage to form friendships over here? I must admit I’m still slightly mystified, even though I do have some. Kate Fox recommends joining clubs and interest groups – the guarantee of something in common helps break down the social barriers and allows more substantive conversation. There’s certainly a lot in that; however, I have another option too. I can choose to step over the boundaries, counting on being excused as a foreigner. This worked well for me in the early years: over time I’ve gone native to a distressing extent, so I’m too conscious of the offence I might be giving. But I should practice it more often, because I can probably still get away with it better than I think. Probably most Brits secretly want their space invaded. Or, I might be run out of town on a rail.
Just when I thought I couldn’t get any more depressed, Donald Trump won the White House.
I’m quite active in politics, running the Cambridge branch of Democrats Abroad, and Tuesday night I was co-hosting a party for hundreds of people. At midnight I did a live video interview with the NY Times, although I don’t know if it ever was shown. More merciful to sweep under the carpet my optimism of that particular hour. Probably the journalist was only even doing the interviews as an excuse to come to the party, which she had adored as a student in 2008.
But these are different times, as it slowly and painfully became clear. For the next 24 hours I dragged myself through work and didn’t even have the energy to watch TV in the evening. I went to bed at 9PM and slept for 10 hours.
Then I got up and started a political movement. The Simpsons foretold a Trump Presidency 16 years ago, in an episode where the grownup Lisa becomes President immediately following Trump, so I registered on Twitter as @Lisa4_President and started her campaign. I posted policy statements as Lisa Simpson and started assembling her cabinet for 2020. The campaign slogan is “Sensible policies for a post-apocalyptic America”. I already have more followers on Twitter as Lisa than as myself.
Obviously this is a joke, but if I had the commitment to follow it through, who knows where it would lead? Who can say that a nation who elected Trump wouldn’t vote for a cartoon character? Who can say that a cartoon character wouldn’t do a better job at the Presidency than The Donald?
Last week I blogged about the possible psychic damage I might have suffered through exposure to Charlie Brown when I was 5. I continued rereading my Peanuts Treasury, and toward the end came across this strip from 1963 which suggests it was too late anyway. My character was formed already. Thanks Lucy!
I’ve slowly been bringing across from America to Britain some of my favourite books from my childhood. I missed the chance to pass them on to my nieces and nephews, who are in their 20s now, but my best friend has kids who are 7 and 5 and keen readers, so I wanted to share with them what I could of my childhood.
Given the somewhat troubling race relations of the 20th century, I decided it was best to vet the books before passing them on. Many were actually already dated when I first read them, and indeed I’ve come across many gratuitous shifty Arabs and African American stereotypes. My latest disappointment was Rabbit Hill – OK, it was written in the 40s, but how bad could something be where the main characters were all woodland animals? Not bad at all until the arrival of the long-anticipated new owners of the local farmhouse. There had been much speculation about what sort of garden they would plant and what sort of garbage they would put out and whether there would be traps and poison. The animals’ fears are put to rest when a huge Black maid steps out of the back seat, because people of her shape and colour always put out the best garbage. No, I really can’t give that to modern children to read.
I felt more optimistic about my Peanuts Treasury. I recently came across a lovely correspondence with Charles Schulz about whether he should introduce a Black character, with his sensible worries about being seen as patronizing. The eventual progressive if somewhat bland result was Franklin. And indeed, there is nothing too worrying in the race relations in Peanuts, and although the gender stereotypes of the 60s are evident they are generally undercut.
But what I came to realize with growing horror as I read is how very similar to Charlie Brown I am. Which came first? Was I a good-natured but bullied and depressive child who found a mirror in Charlie, or did I pick up traits from him? I started reading Peanuts when I was probably 5 or 6, when my world view was surely still malleable. Did my whole character end up being moulded to fit the shape of the round-headed kid? Good grief!
I don’t keep many mementos at work, but one of the few personal items on my desk is a dollar bill folded into a bow tie the way Aunt Judy taught me to do when I was around 10. It’s a reminder for me that the most mundane subject can be made remarkable if you lavish on it a bit of attention and inventiveness.
Judy died last month, shortly after her brother (my Dad). I always admired her keen interest in the world around her and her commitment to making that world a better place. After college she worked for the Department of Labor in DC, with a particular focus on regulation of child labor. Her own father, my grandfather, had been sent to work in a cotton mill at the age of 6. Her work helped ensure that no longer happens in America.
Of course, if President Cuckoobananas gets elected, those days might come again. Teach your children origami now – a cottage industry craft might come in handy.
My sister Sandy and I cleared out my father’s dresser drawer of knick-knacks after his funeral. Some things we set aside for the whole family to go through later and decide who gets what: his wedding ring, personal notebooks, pocket tools, photographs. Some things we threw away: free sewing kits he would never have dreamed of using, perished rubber bands, cheap giveaway key rings. We agreed between us that Sandy’s son, as the only smoker in the family, could inherit the collection of cigars and matchboxes. And I was clearly the logical recipient of this, my own letter to Santa from the mid-70s.
It’s written on the back of a mimeographed PTA circular from 1973, which would fit with when our old dog died. However, that would make me 6, and it’s hard to believe even I was reading Little Women and competently using colons at that age. (Little Women was crossed out because Mom pointed out to me that we already owned a copy). I can’t remember actually receiving a single thing on this list, so it makes it hard to date more precisely: it could have been anything up to a few years later.
Clearly Dad was tickled by the small details: the guess at a precise mailing address on the envelope, the attempt to sneak in a puppy at the end of the list. He himself loved dogs and would have been an advocate for this gift, but he acknowledged that Mom had a right of veto as the actual picker-up of poop.
Sandy and I laughed until we cried at grade-school me, and then I cried a bit more at the thought of him keeping my letter in his dresser for 40 years. To him I think I always remained that droll, precocious child. I miss him and her. And I still want that puppy dog.
American patriot, master of the atom, scourge of the despot. Such was the self-written epitaph of Charles Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons, but it’s not a bad fit to my father. Edgar Alexander McLean was a nuclear physicist, a veteran of WWII, and a tireless campaigner for the local community. But I think he identified most closely with Homer Simpson, an ordinary Dad just trying to get through his days without screwing things up too badly. He could generally be brought to see the funny side of life, and I have fond childhood memories of laughing with him until we could both hardly breathe over episodes of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and more recently The Simpsons. I owe him my sense of humour, along with so many other things.