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Divers observations and your Rural Life report - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Divers observations and your Rural Life report


As some of you will recall – I trust – I was recently forced to ask advice of my friends in this House – sorry, wrong page.  Ah.  Here we are.  I was forced to ask advice of my friends recently regarding how best to assist a young protégé of sorts in making his debut amongst certain professional circles.  I took that advice.


We shall return to the ensuing anecdotes shortly.


Ad interim, as others of you will surely be aware, I chanced recently to set off a discussion regarding the responsibilities of writers quâ writers.


I should also note, by way of scene-setting, that I have of late had occasion to be copied on correspondence between two acquaintances of mine, one an American lawyer from one of the louder and more colourful Southern states, and the other a Continental gentleman.


Finally, as I may have mentioned, I signed on some months ago for an H/D ’zine that seems to have sunk in harbour, and one of the things I was to have done was to write a monthly Britpicking article.


Why, yes, there is a common thread here.


In what should have been my first article (of thirty-nine, naturally: I am nothing if not orthodox), I wrote,


I begin with an anecdote that will be familiar to everyone who has been an expat for any amount of time.  Not at all that long ago, in one of my sadly common and prolonged periods of exile residence in Places That Aren’t the UK, I was in a large ‘supermarket’ (nothing all that super about it, actually) in a provincial city.  The local inhabitants spoke a dialect of English.  The supermarket, and the city, was sufficiently large and sophisticated to have a section devoted to ‘ethnic’ and ‘foreign’ foods, and, of course, when one is abroad, apparently ‘British’ is ‘ethnic and foreign’.  I was swearing to myself at the evident depredations to the ‘British foods aisle’ (located between the ‘European’, ‘Oriental’, and ‘African’ sections).  Shortly before, I had walked past a tiny woman with an untidy nest of grey hair, who was evidently from somewhere in Central America.  In my peripheral vision, as I muttered, I saw a tiny, elderly lady with an untidy nest of grey hair, who then startled me by asking, ‘Are you trying to find the British foods, dear?’


I at once realised this was not the same woman.  I did not at first realise that her speech was not that of the local population.  I stood (the biscuits were on a very low shelf), smiled, and said, apologetically, ‘I’m sorry, I was fussing, rather, wasn’t I.  It’s only … well.  Some bloody sod’s nicked all the chocolate digestives.  Nothing left but the Rich Teas.’


Her face lit up, and her accent – like mine – suddenly deepened.  ‘Oh!  You’re British, also!  Have they really pinched all the chocolate digestives?’


For the next ten minutes, the old dear (from rural Cheshire, not a million miles from Nantwich) and I nattered away, on topics ranging from the manifest shortcomings of Gordon Brown to the common experiences of expats to Test cricket to the(wait for it) shocking shortage of chocolate digestives.  Her husband, also from Cheshire, had been an executive director of a major oil company, and they’d lived in Singapore, HK, California, Texas, and Nigeria, as well as several tours in the Gulf.  And we both noted, with rueful smiles – as others, shopping, paused as they went by, evidently wondering if we’d been hired by the British Council to stand next the tinned Spotted Dick and the HP sauce, and Act English – that the accents that we’d subconsciously dampened around and amidst the natives were back now in full force, and perhaps a trifle over.


It is not at all a remote or tenuous association of ideas that leads us from this, surely common, experience to two recent instances of observed behaviour.  Or possibly three, as we shall see. 


Firstly, I have noted with some interest that the philosophical divide (not to say, two warring camps) evident in the responses to my most recent controversial essay, on the responsibilities of writers, is largely although imperfectly congruent with the Channel and the Pond.  By and large, to use an appropriately nautical metaphor, and without regard to whether the commenter is a friend of mine or not, most of those who agree with me are British, although joined by at least one American and one exemplar of the classical French tradition of letters; most of those who take issue with what I have said, are American, although there are at least two Britons who join them in arguing against my position.  Partly, of course, this may indeed reflect a difference in reading what I wrote – nations divided by a common language and All That – but I rather think it goes beyond that, to what one must call, however reluctantly, national attitudes and ways of thinking about things.


Secondly, I have noted with no small amusement that, after the initial, formal exchange of letters between my Continental friend and my American friend, the latter, at least, is ‘down-homing’ and ‘good-ol’-boying’ his diction as, it seems, a sign of friendliness and intimacy.  ‘Hell, neighbor [sic]’ to paraphrase his most recent correspondence, ‘I try not to get involved in these here calf-scrambles, but this ain’t my first rodeo….’  And this is a man who is a cadet of some of the oldest and most distinguished American families, and educated at one of North America’s oldest and most selective universities.


Bearing in mind the curious ways in which people chose to present themselves, let us next consider the late Christmas luncheon, in my next post.

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