Sunday, April 23, 2006


(For Part 1, click here)

A curiously pronounced fear and awkwardness of touching and kissing. The legacy of curtained tablelegs. (I have never seen a curtained table leg, but I have seen the legacy, indeed, lived it.) The famous lack of style or flair in the sexual and sensual – all stemming from the Great Victorian Inhibition. Contrast with France – wine, perfumes, provocative style, la fine cuisine. Indeed, in French culture almost everything is mediated through the senses. In the English, almost nothing is. (For some readers, this huge generalization may seem absolutely baseless: for me in Montreal, the contrast is experienced every day…)

The word, “indeed”.

The word “rather” (used as adverb).

The terribly frequent use of tag questions like, “isn’t it? Don’t you think?” “Shall we?” and all the peculiar nicety, inner doubt and hesitation that conveys. (Here in Canada, by the way, we replace most of those with, “eh?”)

The adverb “terribly”.

A certain harmless eccentricity one can only describe as “dottiness”.

Little poetry readings with a dais and a mike stand where you are supposed to stay behind that dais. (Big poetry readings with the same setup are also Frightful! -- if rather less dotty.)

Describing new poets as “budding poets”.

Inviting writers to a networking shmoozathon with “Be sure to wear your poodle skirts and spats!” (This actually came out of our own QWF… Poodle skirts, I’m quite sure, are deep American, but, nevertheless, without that Frightfully English! legacy…)

Of course, those within the culture who revolt against the Great Inhibition show they have also absorbed it to the core. If D.H. Lawrence’s romanticisation of sexuality reached an almost grotesque extreme, his Frightful English!ness that gave him that edge. It can’t just be natural. They aren’t relaxed about it. The Great Repression lead to the hilarious neuroticism of Monty Python -- also to the viciousness of Sid Vicious. We have the whole culture of “dirty” jokes, betraying what still remains an underlying reserve of hysteria about sex that simply doesn’t exist in, say, French culture. American raunchiness has roots not only in its Puritan past, but in the Frightfully English!

Frightfully English! authors include Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling, George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray, Arthur Conan Doyle. Auden and Spender and Wilde are Frightfully English! despite themselves. Although Hardy or Dickens offer up plenty of Frightfully English! in their texts, I don't believe they are Frightfully English! to the core. (Let me think again about that...) Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe are not Frightfully English! They predated The Great Inhibition.

There is a certain undeniable sense of fairplay in this Commonwealth. A decency. Hypocrisy requires the presence of moral standard: that Mahatma Ghandi could not deny – after all, he parlayed it into India’s independence.

Weak (with a handful of notable exceptions) in visual arts, but great in drama: I teach ESL, and the most marvelous communicative teaching materials still come from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Many are conceived with the same sense of fun as quintessentially British shows like “My Word!” (Hey, what is the origin of these shows, as well as much of the contemporary method of second language teaching? Parlour games of the English aristocracy!) Fussy fun, but fun. Although frequently, for North American use, I have to edit my text materials for sentences like, “They had quite a row, and were throwing crockery about!”

Here in English Canada, although watered down by a North American accent, we still have, deep in our core, the Frightfully English! … in spades. Upper Canada (Now Southern Ontario) welcomed the United Empire Loyalists – indeed, could have been called the United Loyalist State of America. Until relatively recently – the living memory of certain older folks – the Daughters of the British Empire were a force (The likes of Richler and Layton had things to say about that). Liquor in Ontario can only still be bought at the LCBO. We had our Lord Thompson of Fleet. We have our Lord Conrad Black (although now they have him, and they can keep him). When I listen to or watch CBC, I often wonder, is this my culture? The Royal Canadian Airfarce – in my pre-cable three channel days, that one frequently made me want to throw my shoe at the television. (I remember a phone-in show on CBC Radio that lasted over an hour on reminiscences of drinking tea.) Speaking closer to home, Westmount (Montreal's oldest and wealthiest English enclave) is itself a highly characteristic expression of Frightfully English! As well as, of course, North Hatley. Just go to summer theatre at the Piggery, or Lac Brome.

Of course Frightfully English! is worldwide, vast as The Empire. New England has it as much as us. We need only think of poor Emily Dickenson.

As for myself, my ancestry is truly mongrel: Scottish/Irish as well as certain mongrelian tribes of Central Europe. But I'm hopelessly -- Ontario -- English.

My French Canadian girlfriend continually reminds me of it.

This of course keeps me humble.

All of which is of course jolly good… wouldn’t you say? (Eh?)


C. Dale said...

I love this, even if it points out the Frightfully English! tics I have, no doubt provided me by my mother.

Lo said...

All of which is of course jolly good… wouldn’t you say? (Eh?)

Oh yes, frightfully so!!
< grin >