Sunday 12 October 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

What is the true nature of the UK as a country? By which I mean what is the natural disposition of the inhabitants of these islands? I don’t just mean in a political sense, although politics does play a part in our social and cultural make-up, but also from an identity point of view.

It is a tough question to ask and even tougher to answer. It is the kind of question that circles my head like a vulture flying up above eyes always ready in case it spots carrion. In my case the prey is a better understanding of the country in which I chose to live many years ago. One of the stages in the process of integration for immigrants is to cast off old prejudices. Though exciting, this is also a daunting exercise. Prejudices sometimes provide a comfort zone even if in the long term they cause untold harm. Rid yourself of them and you suddenly have to deal with a different mind-set. As it is the case for me now.

One of the myths I always heard about Britain when I still lived in Cuba was that it was a hard-core, right-wing, individualistic society with very little space for liberal ideas. True, these notions were based on a narrow, Castro-led, ideologically-driven agenda that sought to masquerade socialism’s excesses with capitalism’s flaws. My lectures in uni on history, life and culture in the UK reinforced this thesis, ramming home the point that the United Kingdom was all about hooligans, the monarchy and the stiff upper lip.

As soon as I arrived in London and after an initial cultural shock I made it my mission to try to get under the skin of this country. Even if it took me a lifetime. By the looks of it this will take me three or four more lifetimes and I don’t believe in re-incarnation (at least re-incarnation in the sense of coming back as a human being. The soul and all that, let’s leave it for another post, shall we?). That meant that I had to confront my old prejudices head on and expose myself to concepts with which I might not feel comfortable.

The first idea I chucked away was that Britons were inherently right-wing. There is a strong liberal tradition in this country. From John Stuart Mill and his defence of the freedom of the individual to Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan who introduced the National Health Service in 1948 the UK has a progressive tradition of which to boast. That brought me some solace as I particularly found myself on this side of the social and political spectrum.

Yet, with each passing year I noticed a phenomenon that continues to this day to puzzle me, hence this column. At the same time that I noticed a forward-thinking and left-of-centre tendency in British society I also spotted a similarly conservative mind-set. This conservative trait was small “c” conservative and not linked necessarily to Tory/Conservative party values. It is rather conservative-lite. A low-level, unobtrusive, tucked-away-in-a-corner type. More related to the Latin “conservatus”, meaning someone disposed to preserve existing conditions and institutions than Cameron’s privatisation-obsessed political manifesto. In fact, many of these small “c” conservative attitudes were sported by people who would otherwise call themselves liberals.

Take the monarchy, for instance. If there were to be a vote tomorrow on whether the UK should become a republic or carry on being led by a queen or king, I think we could see a similar mood to the recent one in Scotland on the Yes or No vote. However, in the absence of a plebiscite of this kind (and I can’t see one happening in my lifetime) most people in this nation, even those who hate the monarchy and what it stands for, are happy to coast along with it. This is the sort of conservatism I am referring to. I know there is a pro-republic movement in Britain but I do not think this has necessarily translated into an overt call for the immediate termination of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor’s reign and the abolition of royalty. For some reason it is OK to keep Lizzie on the throne. After all she is only there in the background, quiet most of the time, keeping herself to herself, not butting in. Put your placards down (if you went as far as to make one), calm down and have a cuppa.
Beautiful contradiction: liberal and conservative

Another example of how this small “c” conservative attitude manifests itself is the way the UK sells itself to people from abroad. Both to visitors to GB and when it exports its culture  to other countries. In this case what gets trotted out straight away are stereotypes, of which the mumbling, stammering Hugh Grant figure is the more easily identifiable. Implicit in this cultural offering is the class system, a structure that although politically many of us (born here or not) oppose, socially we accept.

For what are we doing when we lap up the Downton Abbeys, the Upstairs Downstairs and many other period dramas of similar DNA? We are tacitly agreeing with a status quo that is more interested in preserving the same power structure than in bringing in much-needed radical changes.

There is no right or wrong in this post. Small “c” conservatism is prevalent even amongst those of us who were not born here. Every time an independent shop or a small café closes down I mourn their disappearance as if they had been part of my childhood landscape. One of the reasons why I think there is an in-built conservative trait in the UK is due to the cultural and historical wealth this country has. If I may touch briefly on Politics (capital “P” there) and with the recent Clacton-on-Sea result still fresh on my mind, this is one of the reasons why the far-right UK Independent Party (Ukip. I know that some will disagree with me on the “far-right” bit but to me Ukip is the BNP with suits instead of boots. Thugs with suits, you could say) has done so well in the last year. They have managed to tap into that area of the British psyche that is still firmly moored to that distant past.

As are the hipsters of Shoreditch and Dalston and the “spornosexuals” of Essex. Though modern-looking, they, too, are moored to a past that perpetuates the “upstairs” and “downstairs” structure. That past is present in the vintage fixed-gears bikes that populate the roads of Hoxton and Hackney (irony included in the ride) and the last night of the Proms and its sea of Union Jacks celebrating Britain. The same sea of Union Jacks celebrating the marriage of Kate and William. The same sea of Union Jacks rising in unison to cheer on Mo Farah at the London 2012 Olympics. As I mentioned before, there is no right or wrong in this post. The small “c” conservative attitude is about preserving institutions (even when sometimes people might not agree with them) and keeping certain traditions alive. For me personally it is another small step in understanding the United Kingdom. Now, if only I could rely on those three or four more lifetimes to finish the job.

Occasionally I like sharing passages of the books I read in the same way other posters do on their blogs. This time I would like to bring to your attention a beautiful sentence I read recently in The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel. For me this was a re-read as I had already devoured the text in Spanish when I was a teenager. However, on reading the novel a second time now I realised that my younger self had perhaps missed out on some of the book’s better-known traits, i.e., its humour and lyrical language. I hope you enjoy it. Have a good week.

The thunderstorm had passed without leaving a trace, and a multicolored rainbow had formed an arch over the entire city and was drinking water from the Moscow River.

© 2014

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 15th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Ugg you could spend 50 lifetimes trying to figure that all out and then 50 more watching as it changes even more. Nice sentence passage to.

  2. I finished this post on Thursday evening, waiting for the results of the Clacton by-election to update it on Friday. Then, I got my copy of the New Statesman on Friday as well and I read Grayson Perry's magnificent, thought-provoking and controversial essay called The Rise and Fall of Default Man ( Please, do yourselves a favour, click on the link and read it). Suddenly everything that I'd written in this post made more sense. This small "c" conservative trait I described in my post is innate in Default Man. It's almost like his sails and rudder. And because we follow where he goes, well, you can guess the rest.

    Still, the forum is up for debate. I would love to read comments especially from the Brits who visit this blog regularly (and if you're British and new to this space, welcome!).

    Many thanks for your comemnts so far. Have a great rest of the weekend.

    Greetings from London.

  3. Interesting post. I am quite surprised that Britain has come over as right wing abroad. I feel a sort of built in liberalism is quite strong here and has been for many years, but combined, as you say, with a sort of small-c conservatism. It usually manifests itself as a rather grumpy "live and let live".

    I was surprised that you have entirely left out class though! Most UKIP supporters I know would never have supported the BNP, and I think the reason is partly that the BNP come over as vulgar, loud and not the kind of people you'd want living next door in a nice calm street. But someone who stands in a pub or golf club and yaks away like a "normal person" seems at last like a politician who understands the voters and COULD live down one's street. (OK, forget that Farage comes from a banking background, we could still be OK living in a posher street than ours so long as its' full of normal people who go to the pub.) He doesn't frighten the horses or belong to the Bullingdon Club, he is an individualist and has the common touch. Without him, I don't think UKIP would be anything - he's a really gifted politician.

    And he is starting to say the unthinkable ultra right wing and downright fascist stuff which many people have traditionally shied away from. I've noticed this kind of view appearing in the Telegraph now and I feel some of the present Tories - notably IDS - have taken things worryingly far to the right and not been corrected. This is worrying and may indicate a sort of shift in "Britishness" if it becomes acceptable. We'll see!

  4. PS I greatly admire Grayson Perry and also often agree with him, because he's sincere and humble and perceptive. But in fact, I'm quite a fan of Default Man. In fact, I think the danger in Farage is that he has hijacked Default Man, who is usually, at least, a reasonably safe pair of hands.

  5. PPS and I should have said that I think Default Man is deadening and complacent too,entirely agree with Perry there. I suppose the reason why I'm reasonably well disposed towards him is that there isn't a group I can think of that I'd particularly prefer to see in his place, given that there will always be a ruling elite anywhere.

  6. Hello! Great to be in contact again.

    I've been reading the abbreviated version of Winston Churchill's "History of the English Speaking People." What a trip he was!

    I'm not sure his view of history is exactly true, but you surely can feel the energy of his passion for the green and pleasant land and its people, you sure can.

    I hope to get to London in the next year or two. Would love to meet and have a cuppa.

  7. I am feeling well enough to do some reading of my favourite blogs (at last). I especially appreciate the quote on your header pic. Thank you.

  8. it is a cool sentence...i like the personification of the rainbow...why do we keep doing what we always did and expect something different...the States has similar...we are a farce in many ways...

  9. Once again, CiL, you have written a post which makes me feel like I am on the outskirts of a city (or a country) looking toward the center in the distance and unable to decide if I wish to enter it in daylight or in darkness. Will it be hostile or friendly? So, I will camp on the outskirts for now.

    Anyway .... I think your description/analysis probably is pretty much accurate for most Western counties, not only for Britain. To understand the nuances, one must not only reside there (rather than viewing from afar), but must be observing and (hopefully) understanding the movements of the social and political currents under way, which often have historical roots extending back before the arrival of any of the cast members currently on stage. I also think social and political forces often are moving in opposite directions, and can confuse issues.

    Actually .... your closing remark/quote about/by Mikhail Bulgakov's, "The Master and Margarita," so distracted me from the bulk of your post that I have been off in the clouds lost in thoughts about it and the era in which it was written. I have not read it, and think I must. Literature about social and political (and religious) currents trumps the actual events of them any day of the week for me.

    I liked your music, CiL, but I think the band needs to change its name.

  10. It's interesting that you mentioned the TV show Downton Abbey, as it is aired in my area (Montreal, Canada), but believe it or not, I have never watched it!

    Not sure if you are familiar with the politics of Quebec, but I was born in Montreal, Quebec and have lived here all my life and am proud to be Canadian. I find it sad that SOME (not all, and certainly not the majority, thankfully), wish to make Quebec a country and separate from the rest of Canada. Thankfully they haven't had the opportunity to, because the majority of us happen to like being Canadian, are happy and proud to be Canadian, and like the unity and multilcultural aspects of this fine country. Sorry, I just had to say this. LOL! :)

  11. I agree - and wish I didn't. Alongside conservative, I'd add complacent and uncurious (I'm not sure that's a word, but you know what I mean). This clinging to a Britain as they think it ought to be rather than the exciting, challenging and complex place that it is leaves me with my head in my hands.

    And as for UKIP - they are enough to tip me back into manning the barricades.

  12. nice on the rainbow sentence... made me think of the scorpions because of the moscow river... and it takes quite a bit of time to really get underneath a country's or city's skin

  13. Thanks to you all for your comemnts.

    Jenny, I will be popping back to your blog because your long answer deserves an equal long response. I agree with most of your points.

    On the perception of the UK as a rightwing country, remember this is from a Cuban perspective. Ask any Cuban or ex-citizen from the former socialist bloc and you will get a similar reply. You and the US and the rest of the capitalist world were the evil that we had to fight. I majored in English from Havana Pedagogical University and not once did we touch on your liberal and proegressive political and social movements. Which was a shame but not a surprise.

    On class, you're spot on. I did mention class but did not want to expand on the topic as it would have made the post longer. I try to limit myself to 800 words but on this occasion I went well over. I had to. As I wrote before Britain fascinates me and I feel that I have a front-row seat I want to take full advantage of.

    On Perry's essay, you're right about Farage. In fact he has always been a Default Man. Will default Man still be here a hundred years from now? Yes, especially in a classist society.

    Fram, good point about the band's name. I used to like them back in the 90s. Don't you think that the intro sounds eerily similar to BB King's The Thrill is Gone? Down to the guitar and vocals. Hmmm...

    Thank you all for your comments. Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  14. As for putting up with royalty, maybe it is another small "c" (consumerism) because the queen excites the many Americans who love to the excitement of royalty despite getting rid of the king in the 18th Century.

  15. interesting always fun to hear your views on my people ha :-)

  16. You are absolutely right, CiL. That might explain why I did a double-take when I heard the feminine voice begin singing the first time I listened to it: I was totally expecting another, more familiar voice.

    And now, I think I am hearing more than a bit of Led Zeppelin in "Lay It Down."

  17. I dread to think what my country would be like if headed by a dictator.

  18. I am fascinated by global politics. I'm always curious as to how it differs from here in the states. You can't do it any worse than we do LOL

  19. Ha...none of us could fathom it out if we had another thousand lifetimes...I know I couldn't!
    The politics of this land are a minefield to me. There are so many shades of grey...and I am confused as to what I do and don't agree with. I love those period dramas, old and new...but at the same time, I would absolutely hate to live in those "upstairs, downstairs" conditions - on either side of the stairs!
    I do really like that sentence...the personification of the rainbow...brilliant!

  20. I heard a joke once about Britain's royalty--basically it stated that British people pay people to act better than them. (The King and Queen!) Of course, over here in America we pay movie stars ridiculous salaries to act better than us, so I guess it's the same thing--they just aren't ruling us!

  21. Hello Cuban,
    Saw your comment on O Mighty Crisis and had a pang - it's been so long since I've visited old blog friends like you. No comment to make on this post as I'm much too far removed from British culture and politics to having anything informed to say, but I did enjoy reading you again. All the best, Deborah (ex-Temptation of Words)

  22. You always give me much to think about. And listen to. I love that.

  23. I´m not sure why but your music today sent me back in time. :) A lovely song.

  24. "Put your placards down (if you went so far as to make one)" - hee hee hee!

    Interesting post. I don't have the time or the intellectual chops to address all of it, but it did spur a few thoughts.

    I don't know what all you mean by liberalism. Seems like it includes being against tyranny, but also maybe pro-redistribution of wealth?

    I've heard of this thing called "classical liberalism" which is against tyranny, but pro individual rights and private property. Today in the U.S., classical liberals would be called conservatives. :) But the basic seed of classical liberalism (the idea that power is not absolute, but should be ruled by law and some element of the consent of the governed) goes all the way back to the Magna Carta and English Common Law, right? That is a heritage I very much appreciate the Brits giving us.

    Thanks for your visit to my blog, Cubano. Very long time no see.

  25. I was surprised to see your comment. It’s such a long time since we’ve been in touch. Thanks for visiting.

    I think I have more or less sussed out what it means to be British. (That’s the first joke already : British? What’s that? Only the English are British, the Scots are Scots, the Welsh Welsh and the Irish Irish)

    I have come to terms with attitudes, almost, although I sometimes feel obliged to prick the odd bubble.

    The one thing which really riles me is the permanent assumption of being, and spouting, “leading he world”, "best in the World”.

    In the depths of the countryside Conservatism and conservatism are both rife, liberalism is only for professional incomers from the big cities.

    UKIP frightens me, they seem to speak for a broad swathe of working class and lower middle class (ha, the class system) people, who openly show their mean and nasty sides now, finally having found a respectable figure to lead them along in Farage.

    I am very fond of this country and many of its inhabitants, I just hope I won’t ever have to apologise to people of other nations for having chosen to remain here.

  26. Thanks. A beautiful line for sure. I lived in Britain for about nine months many years ago--it was very hard for me for some of the reasons that you mentioned--well I was very earnest and rather intense probably (and lonely) and the conservative or reserved part was very foreign to me at that time. (I really wasn't adequately self-sufficient probably.) I feel kind of terrible when I think of it, because if I could have managed some slight switch of understanding, I would have had a wonderful time, as I really do love the country and the people. k



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