The English. If you’re Dutch you grow up with them . Or rather, with an image of them. Or even better, with several images of them. There’s the bowler-hat wearing, cane-wielding, moustached gentleman that strolls through country towns and engages in friendly and civilised conversation with miss Marple-like ladies. And there’s the binge-drinking, violent, union jack-boxershorts-clad, bald and tattood, vomiting hooligan.
And if you then actually move to England, what happens then? Am I, tulip-toting and clog-clattering, chaperoned on the streets by the sophisticated gentlemen that help me manoeuvre past the half-conscious hooligans? And how does society work if females do not exist? One realises of course the miss Marple-like lady is only scenery.
Cartoons are fun, but I wanted to know more about the real English. And you can only know so much, but I saw room for improvement. I already noticed all sorts of things in daily life. Brits don’t think it’s strange to not own a bicycle, they think crisps are a lunch dish, they call dinner tea, they surrender their towns on weekend nights to hoards of scantily clad, noisy women, they only dance when they are (or are with) scantily clad, noisy, under age women, they can’t let go of their imperial units, and so on. But I wanted to read more. I tried a historic book, and the memoirs of a confused British citizen from the outer regions of the Empire, but it was not satisfactory.
Neil heard of this and said he had another book about the English. My expectations had been lowered by earlier experiences, but I gave it a try. And from the first page it was a hit! “The angry island - hunting the English”, written by an A.A. Gill, an angry, eloquent Scot, who sees things crystal clear, but who at times cannot resist indulging in spacious arrays of disparaging, contemptuous, condescending adjectives. His hypothesis is that the English’ defining characteristic is suppressed anger, and he sells this concept well.
He covers more topics. The hysterical love for animals, the impeccable talent for creating good war memorials, the inevitable queue, the strangling nostalgia, drinking habits and all other kinds of things, but the central theme is anger. And as a matter of fact, it is all indeed recognisable. Neil even agreed; “it’s all true, and it makes me angry!”
Having read this, and recognising it in society, by the way does not make me dislike the English. At all. I do think they tend to stick to a fairly monotonous life of work and family and pub, and are difficult to persuade to do something outside that small circle. Beside that, they can be a tad evasive, but that holds for most people, in the eyes of the Dutch. And they live in the 19th century when it comes to gay emancipation. But above all that my overpowering impression is that they are friendly and polite. That is, when 20-ish or older; teenagers here can be as mind-bogglingly rude as everywhere else. But just bike through town here. If you’re used to Amsterdam you’re used to abuse. And here people smile at you! Make way for you! And outside traffic as well; so often I meet kindness where I expect rudeness. And I love the downright romantic way strangers treat you here. If I buy my lunch I tend to be greeted by “how are you, darling?” from the lady at the counter, followed by a “thank you, my love” if I hand her the money. If you come to the English and don’t expect them to follow you where you go, this place is a warm bath!