Daily Archives: 2 July 2006

The Importance of Not Being Earnest

At the most basic level, an underlying rule in all English conversation is the proscription of ‘earnestness’. Although we may not have a monopoly on humour, or even on irony, the English are probably more acutely sensitive than any other nation to the distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘solemn’, between ‘sincerity’ and ‘earnestness’.

This distinction is crucial to any kind of understanding of Englishness. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: if you are not able to grasp these subtle but vital differences, you will never understand the English – and even if you speak the language fluently, you will never feel or appear entirely at home in conversation with the English. Your English may be impeccable, but your behavioural ‘grammar’ will be full of glaring errors.

Once you have become sufficiently sensitized to these distinctions, the Importance of Not Being Earnest rule is really quite simple. Seriousness is acceptable, solemnity is prohibited. Sincerity is allowed, earnestness is strictly forbidden. Pomposity and self-importance are outlawed. Serious matters can be spoken of seriously, but one must never take oneself too seriously. The ability to laugh at ourselves, although it may be rooted in a form of arrogance, is one of the more endearing characteristics of the English. (At least, I hope I am right about this: if I have overestimated our ability to laugh at ourselves, this book will be rather unpopular.)

To take a deliberately extreme example, the kind of hand-on-heart, gushing earnestness and pompous, Bible-thumping solemnity favoured by almost all American politicians would never win a single vote in this country – we watch these speeches on our news programmes with a kind of smugly detached amusement, wondering how the cheering crowds can possibly be so credulous as to fall for this sort of nonsense. When we are not feeling smugly amused, we are cringing with vicarious embarrassment: how can these politicians bring themselves to utter such shamefully earnest platitudes, in such ludicrously solemn tones? We expect politicians to speak largely in platitudes, of course – ours are no different in this respect – it is the earnestness that makes us wince. The same goes for the gushy, tearful acceptance speeches of American actors at the Oscars and other awards ceremonies, to which English television viewers across the country all respond with the same finger-down-throat ‘I’m going to be sick’ gesture. You will rarely see English Oscar-winners indulging in these heart-on-sleeve displays – their speeches tend to be either short and dignified or self-deprecatingly humorous, and even so they nearly always manage to look uncomfortable and embarrassed. Any English thespian who dares to break these unwritten rules is ridiculed and dismissed as a ‘luvvie’.

And Americans, although among the easiest to scoff at, are by no means the only targets of our cynical censure. The sentimental patriotism of leaders and the portentous earnestness of writers, artists, actors, musicians, pundits and other public figures of all nations are treated with equal derision and disdain by the English, who can spot the slightest hint of self-importance at twenty paces, even on a grainy television picture and in a language we don’t understand. [Unless, of course, it’s ideologically appealing self-important revolutionary sentimentalism from the lesser regions of the former empire, about which we remain sincerely, but just short of earnestly, laden with guilt.–J.]

SOURCE: Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior, by Kate Fox (Hodder, 2004), pp. 62-63

When I was a teenage thespian, I played the part of Lane the manservant (and understudied for Merriman the butler) in a high school production of The Importance of Being Earnest. The last exchange before Lane makes his final exit is much quoted.

ALGERNON: I hope to-morrow will be a fine day, Lane.

LANE: It never is, sir.

ALGERNON: Lane, you’re a perfect pessimist.

LANE: I do my best to give satisfaction, sir.

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The English Shipping Forecast Ritual

Our peculiar affection for our weather finds its most eloquent expression in our attitude towards a quintessentially English national institution: the Shipping Forecast. Browsing in a seaside bookshop recently, I came across an attractive large-format picture-book, with a seascape on the cover, entitled Rain Later, Good. It struck me that almost all English people would immediately recognize this odd, apparently meaningless or even contradictory phrase as part of the arcane, evocative and somehow deeply soothing meteorological mantra, broadcast immediately after the news on BBC Radio 4.

The Shipping Forecast is an off-shore weather forecast, with additional information about wind-strength and visibility, for the fishing vessels, pleasure craft and cargo ships in the seas around the British isles. None of the information is of the slightest use or relevance to the millions of non-seafarers who listen to it, but listen we do, religiously, mesmerized by the calm, cadenced, familiar recitation of lists of names of sea areas, followed by wind information, then weather, then visibility – but with the qualifying words (wind, weather, visibility) left out, so it sounds like this: ‘Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Fisher, Dogger, German Bight. Westerly or southwesterly three or four, increasing five in north later. Rain later. Good becoming moderate, occasionally poor. Faroes, Fair Isle, Cromarty, Forties, Forth. Northerly backing westerly three or four, increasing six later. Showers. Good.’ And so on, and on, in measured, unemotional tones, until all of the thirty-one sea areas have been covered – and millions of English listeners,* most of whom have no idea where any of these places are, or what the words and numbers mean, finally switch off their radios, feeling strangely comforted and even uplifted by what the poet Sean Street has called the Shipping Forecast’s ‘cold poetry of information’.

* Not just the nostalgic older generations: the Shipping Forecast has many young devotees, and references to the Shipping Forecast have recently turned up in the lyrics of pop songs. I met a 19-year-old barman recently with a dog named Cromarty, after one of the sea areas.

SOURCE: Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior, by Kate Fox (Hodder, 2004), pp. 34-35 (For what it’s worth, George Walden in New Statesman hated the book.)

What better way for this American to mark July 4th than to take a light look at my heritage, which is mostly English – with all the reticence and clumsy ritual that implies – although the soothing weather incantation I grew up with was hare, tokidoki kumori ‘clear, occasionally overcast’.

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