Almost every nation has a reputation of some kind. The French are supposed to be amorous, gay, fond ‘of champagne; the Germans dull, formal, efficient, fond of military uniforms, and parades; the Americans boastful, energetic, gregarious and vulgar. The English are reputed to be cold, reserved, rather haughty people who do not yell in the street, make love in public or change their governments as often as they change their underclothes. They are steady, easy-going, and fond of sport.
The foreigner’s view of the English is often based on the type of Englishman he has met travelling abroad. Since these are largely members of the upper and middle classes, it is obvious that their behaviour cannot be taken as general for the whole people. There are, however, certain kinds of behaviour, manners and customs which are peculiar to England.
The English are a nation of stay-at-homes. There is no place like home, they say. And when the man is not working lie withdraws from the world to the company of his wife and children and busies himself with the affairs of the home. “The Englishman’s home is his castle”, is a saying known all over the world; and it is true that English people prefer small houses, built to house one family, perhaps with a small garden. But nowadays the shortage of building land and in-flated land values mean that more and more blocks of flats are being built, and fewer detached and semi-detached houses, especially by the local councils.
The fire is the focus of the English home. What do other nations sit round? The answer is they don’t. They go out to cafes or sit round the cocktail bar. For the English it is the open fire, the toasting fork and the ceremony of English tea. Even when central heating is installed it is kept so low in the English home that Americans and Russians get chilblains, as the English get nervous headaches from stuffiness in theirs.
Foreigners often picture the Englishman
dressed in tweeds, smoking a pipe, striding across the open countryside with his dog at his heels. This is a picture of the aristocratic Englishman during his holidays on his country estate. Since most of the open countryside is privately owned there isn’t much left for the others to stride across. The average Englishman often lives and dies without ever having possessed a tweed suit.
Apart from the conservatism on a grand scale which the attitude to the monarchy typifies, England is full of small-scale and local conservatisms, some of them of a highly individual or particular character. Regiments in the army, municipal corporations, schools and societies have their own private traditions which command strong loyalties. Such groups have customs of their own which they are very reluctant to change, and they like to think of their private customs as differentiating them, as groups, from the rest of the world.
Most English people have been slow to adopt rational reforms such as the metric system, which came into general use in 1975. They have suffered inconvenience from adhering to old ways, because they did not want the trouble of adapting themselves to new. All the same, several of the most notorious symbols of conservatism are being abandoned. The twenty-four hour clock was at last adopted for railway timetables in the 1960s – though not for most other timetables, such as radio programmes.