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The Family

Annual holidays apart, the English do not tend to spend much time with their families. Once the tiresome business of childhood is over, they set out on life's journey largely unhampered by considerations of siblings or parents. Free at last, they can apply themselves to cultivating that most English talent - not getting on with others - and to starting their own uncommunicative families.


Anyone who has tried to get lunch for a small child in a pub on Dartmoor in the depths of winter, will know the despair that clutches the heart at the sight of that notice - "No Children, No Dogs."

Although the two nuisances are lumped together in this instance, they are seldom mentioned in the same breath for while most English people like dogs, not many of them like children.

Children make them nervous. They are unpredictable. Where should they patted? On the head, perhaps: "Well, well, my little man - and what do you want to be when you grow up?"

The implication of the question is clear. An English childhood is something to be got over as quickly as possible. To be an English grown-up - that is the only really glorious thing. No wonder the English child is in such a hurry to be one.

English embarrassment about sex is nothing to the embarrassment they show about its consequences. Pregnancy is not considered a fit topic for conversation.

The sooner a mother is back on her feet (or back) after childbirth the better and, despite the best efforts of feminism, breast-feeding is still seen as almost as private a bodily function as the others.

Only when the baby is beautifully dressed in a christening robe will the English outside the immediate family deign to acknowledge its existence. Then they will tell it that it looks just like its mother or father - never like itself.


It is an English maxim that a person who likes animals cannot be all bad for the English adore animals - all kinds of animals. They keep them, not, as other nations do, primarily to guard their property, for scientific interest or for status, but for company.

For while they are not always very good at talking to each other, they excel in conversation with their animals. Although they are not often successful at forming tactile bonds with their children, they continually chuck the chins of their lap dogs and whisper sweet nothings into their hairy ears.

This is because, unlike people, the wretched things cannot answer back. If they could the English might learn quite a lot about themselves. As it is, they are assumed to be in total agreement with their masters and mistresses and consequently enjoy an unrivalled position in the English affection.

Pet owners' homes are shrines to their animals. The best seats, the warmest spots, the choicest morsels are handed over to these household gods as a matter of course.

Cats and dogs, parrots and guinea pigs are excused behaviour which if seen in the children of the household might well end in assault. They are deemed, by their owners, to be incapable of almost any misdemeanour. So when dog bites man, it is always man's fault, even if he is just a passer-by. Everyone in the vicinity will sympathize with the owner's disclaimer: "Fang wouldn't hurt a fly!"


The English, by and large, find their elderly as difficult to deal with as their children. An awkward minority group, they are often ignored by their families and, funds permitting, banged up in twilight homes. Every so often they will be visited by their relations who check that they are basically healthy and happy and that the security systems are in good order.

Other races find this attitude puzzling. To them the idea of the extended family with its inherent benefits for all generations is the norm. It is not for the English. With their children at school and their old people out of harm's way, they can get on with the real business of life, with which, they believe, neither youth nor old age is equipped to cope.


To the rest of the world the entire English race is eccentric. To the English themselves, the concept of eccentricity is a useful way of coping with the problem of anti-social or un-English behaviour in one of their own kind. Solidarity dictates that all the English, whether sane or not, are basically good eggs and worth any ten foreigners at twice the price.

So, to a certain extent, the English cultivate the idea of eccentricity as agreeable and even admirable.

The phenomenon of the eccentric does exist in its own right. Class and money have a lot to do with it. Mental affliction, usually described as lunacy in the poor, is grandly referred to as eccentricity in the rich.

It is all a question of scale. Thus non-threatening dotty behaviour, such as Lord Berners' predilection for travelling about the country in a motor-drawn horsebox filled with butterflies, and playing a grand piano, was met with a kind of admiration. He was, after all, a Lord.

The builders of batty follies and underground ballrooms are considered eccentric and applauded provided they spend enough money on their creations.

All these eccentrics are excused de facto from many of the conventions of correct English conduct.

However enjoyable they are, eccentrics do represent an element of danger to the English, for they flout convention. So to have a few is all very well, but only a few.


The English have always been among the first to accept refugees from less enlightened countries. But they do not see why any immigrant should expect to become part of the community within a matter of days, months or even years of their arrival. Any such ease of assimilation would, after all, fly in the face of the thousands of years it has taken to produce England and the English proper.

They are, however, generally a tolerant people, their attitude to minority groups being kindly if condescending. Anyone visiting an English town cannot fail to be aware of the rich mix of nationalities on view. This is because the English are better hosts to foreigners than most other nations. They are used to having aliens about the place and usually accord them just enough civility to make their lives bearable.

In many ways foreigners are treated rather like English children. That is to say they are seen, but not heard.

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