Great Britain: the Land of Traditions
Every nation has a stereotyped reputation of some kind or other, partly good or partly bad. Roots of stereotypes. Studying some stereotyped images of the United Kingdom in 3 areas: the political system of the country, clothes, food and eating habits.
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Министерство Образования Саратовской области
Учреждение Лицей № 37
Фрунзенского района г. Саратова
Great Britain: the Land of Traditions
Саратов, 2009 г.
1. Roots of stereotypes
2. Parliament and the Royal Family
4. Food and Eating Habits
List of Literature
Every nation has a stereotyped reputation of some kind or other, partly good, partly bad. The French are supposed to be cheerful, sophisticated, intelligent people, fond of good food and the opposite sex. At the same time it is often said that they are intolerant, excitable and somewhat unpredictable. The Americans are said to be energetic, hospitable, mobile and sociable, but rather boastful and showy. According to the results of the survey conducted among senior students of Lyceum 37 85 per cent find the British even-tempered, modest, tolerant, 60 per cent believe typical Brits to be cheerful and generous while 5 per cent call them calculating and prudent.
We don't mean that national reputations are simply a matter of prejudice and false generalization. There is no denying that national differences in manners and outlooks do exist. There is no denying either that since these differences arise out of the specific development of each country they tend to change over time while stereotyped images remain unchanged. As James O'Driscoll puts it, “Societies change over time while their reputations lag behind”.
We decided to study some stereotyped images of the United Kingdom and try to understand whether they are true to life or have completely or partially changed. Since it is impossible to examine all aspects of public life in the country all cultural and socio cultural peculiarities, we have chosen only 3 areas: as the political system of the country, food and clothes. As political system of Great Britain seems to be rather complicated and deserves special studies we have only touched it upon focusing on a few changes. Besides the listed below our research is based on the studies by James O'Driscoll and David MCDowal.
1. Roots of stereotypes
Before we start examining stereotyped attitudes to the British political system, food and clothing we find it only logical to touch upon the most typical assumptions and make an attempt to trace their origin. In the introduction we mentioned a survey of senior students of Lyceum 37. They were asked what Great Britain is associated with. There were also required to make a list of 5 outstanding Brits and name 3 London tourist attractions. The majority of respondents call the country the land of traditions and say that it is mostly associated with rainy weather, the Queen, traditional ceremonies, music and football. Among the numerous London sights Big Ben, the Tower and Trafalgar square occur most often. A couple of students mention the London Eye. All the sights which appeared in the British capital in the 20ieth century remain obscure. Such results do not seem astonishing (do not raise the eyebrow) because “societies change over time while their reputations lag behind”. For example, the image of Britain as the country where it rains all the time is simply not true. In fact London gets no more rain in a year than most other major European cities, and even less than some.
Another example is an open fire-place which is called the focus of a traditional British home even in some recently published school course books. It is worth mentioning that open fire places were forbidden in London in the previous century which helped London residents get rid of pea-soup fogs described by English classical authors.
Even the popular belief that Britain is the land of tradition should be considered with a grain of salt. It is based on what can be seen in public life and on centuries of political continuity. At the same time one should not forget that most of the formalized rituals , for example the State Opening of Parliament and Trooping the Colour, were invented during the reign of Queen Victoria (not earlier) to generate a feeling of timeless tradition as a counterweight to the social shock waves of the industrial Revolution.
Nevertheless at the level of public life it is true. However, in their private everyday lives the British as individuals, are probably less inclined to follow tradition than are the people of most other countries. There are very few ancient customs that are followed by the majority of families on special occasions. The country has fewer local parades and ceremonies with genuine folk roots than most other countries have. The English language has fewer sayings and proverbs that are in common everyday use than many other languages do. No wonder the most popular well-attend festival in the whole Britain is the annual Notting Hill Carnival in London at the end of August which is of Caribbean origin.
Even when a British habit conforms to the stereotype, the wrong conclusions can sometimes be drawn from it. Let us take queuing, for example. The authors of the “How to be British” collection Martyn Ford and Peter Legon write, “It is not true that queuing in Britain has died out. Only the bus queue seems to have dissolved more or less into continental free-for-all. For to a post office, or bank, or supermarket check-out and you will find the custom is thriving, with special rails and tapes to keep the line straight.
Queue jumping is a low and mean offence. Not fame nor wealth, not merit nor urgency will get you to the front of the queue” All this, however, does not mean that British people enjoy queuing. Many of them refer to it as a problem. Some banks promise to reduce the time they serve their customers from 2 minutes and 3 seconds to only 2 minutes. In fact the British hate having to wait and are less patient than people in many other countries,
Like many other stereotyped images and false assumptions (for example those of Russian people drinking vodka from samovars and eating caviar with wooden spoons) the British ones derive from books , songs or plays which were written a long time ago and which are no longer representative of modern life.
Many of them are preserved in order to draw more tourists to the country. The British themselves think that people from other countries should be cautious about generalizations as what is often regarded as typically British may in fact be only typically English or typically Welsh. Another reason for caution relates to the large-scale immigration to Britain from the countries-members of the Commonwealth. The new British have made their own contribution to British life and attitudes.
They have probably helped to make people more informal, they have changed the nature of the “corner shop”. The annual Notting Hill Carnival, mentioned above, is another convincing argument.
All the above mentioned does not mean the British are not what they have always been. They are. They may not behave in traditional ways, but still they appreciate symbols of tradition and stability. They value continuity over modernity and can be particularly and stubbornly conservative about anything which is perceived as a token of Britishness. In these matters their conservatism can combine with their individualism and result in great pride of being different.
Since the main objective of our research is to prove that many stereotyped images of Britain are not true to life any longer we are going to focus on a few out of date assumptions and generalization including the political system, food and clothing.
2. Parliament and the Royal Family
What most school students know about the political system of the United Kingdom is that the monarch is the official head of state and an integral part of Parliament in her constitutional role, who, in fact, has no real power but plays a ceremonial role and represents the country abroad. British Parliament, the lawmaking body, consists of two chambers-the House of Commons, the members of which are elected, and the House of Lords, the members of which are permanent. However British Parliament is no longer what it used to be even 30 years ago.
In 1988 a group of distinguished politicians, lawyers, academics, writers and journalists began to campaign under the title Charter 88 for wide ranging reforms. They called for Bill of Rights, to protect individual liberties, and for a written constitution to define and limit the powers of Parliament. This call could be explained by numerous facts of violations of human rights and personal liberties during the1980ies.As a result of this campaign in 1990 the European Court of Justice made a historic decision that British courts must suspend any act of Parliament which breaches the rights of citizens guaranteed by European Community Law. Parliamentary sovereignty is, therefore, already limited by European Union membership.
The House of Lords has also undergone dramatic changes. Although it consists of more than one thousand peers, average daily attendance is only about 300 and most of these are life peers who retain a strong interest in the affairs of state. The idea of life peerage was introduced in 1958 to elevate to the peerage certain people who have rendered political or public service to the nation in order to enhance the quality of business done in the Lords.
Among the numerous changes introduced to the activities of the House of Commons is “selected committee” system which was created to examine and monitor government departments and policies, and the manner in which ministers discharge their responsibilities.
The select committee system consists of 17 individual committees “shadowing” the expenditure, administration and policy of the main government departments. Each committee has a more or less permanent cross party membership, all of whom have acquired considerable expertise in their respective fields. They give an opportunity for MPs to act more independently of their party than they are able to do in the debating chamber. During the period of Conservative government in the 1980ies, for example, members of select committees, including their Conservative members, were strongly critical of the government.
The fact that Parliament debates are now televised in spite of the traditional British obsession with secrecy can tell volumes about the dynamic changes. Even the institution of monarchy has to get adjusted to the new conditions. For the last two centuries the public have wanted their monarchs to have high moral standards Queen Victoria as a hard working, religious mother of nine children, devoted to her husband, Prince Albert, was regarded as the personification of contemporary morals.
In 1936 Edward VIII, the uncle of the present Queen, was forced to abdicate because be wanted to marry a woman who had divorced two husbands. The government and the major churches in the country insisted that Edward could not marry her and remain King. In 200 Prince Charles , the heir to the British throne married Camilla Parker Bowles, a divorcee , who had been his lover for many years and the monarchy did not fall.
At the end of the 20ieth century the members of the royal family made the headlines of nearly all the country's tabloids. The year 1992 was called “annus horribilis” by the Queen and the fire at Windsor Castle was hardly the worst of the Queen's troubles. In January the Duchess of York, Prince Andrew's wife, popularly known as “Fergie”, was reliably reported to be having an affair. In February Princess Diana on tour with her husband in India, posed alone in front of the Taj Mahal, conveying the unmistakable message that her marriage was also in trouble. In March the Duke and Duchess of York announced their separation. In April Princess Anne and her husband divorced. In June, a young journalist, Andrew Morton, published a book entitled “ Diana: Her True Story” which made public Charles's long standing relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles.
Further revelations came in quick succession as the newspapers competed to buy the most lurid stories, photographs and tapes of telephone calls involving various members of the Royal Family. It was little wonder that the Queen publicly referred to 1992 as her “annus horribilis”
Diana's tragic death in 1996 made another blow to the image of the Royal Family. It revealed the latter's lack of warmth, frankness and spontaneous compassion. No wonder Tony Blair who at that time held the position of the Prime Minister advised the Royal Family to abandon protocol and show greater public feeling.
After Diana's death the Royal Family began to modify its image in order to survive. It has become less grand, a little less distant. Only few can say whether it will help return people's love and admiration.
Another area in which stereotypes and modern life, traditions and innovations come into conflict is clothes. For modern Russians a typically British gentleman is hardly associated with John Bull as the name and the character seem rather obscure , but the stereotyped image of the London's city gent' includes the wearing of a suit and a bowler hat , holding a walking stick and smoking a pipe or a sigar. The stereotyped image of the lady of the manor is something between Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher and Miss Marple. When Madonna bought an ancient mansion in England she did her best to look like a lady wearing a woolen twin set and a thread of pearls.
In fact, a photograph taken at random in a busy street on a Saturday, would tell an observer very little about the lace, the season, the social class or the work done by the people, so diversified have the clothes worn by the British become. One can make the generalization that people over 50 tend to dress more traditionally and formally at least when on a visit to “town” , whereas the population under the age of 45 to 50 presents a variety of costume that, at its extreme , turns the street into a fancy - dress parade . There is no uniformity of skirt length, trouser width, or of style in general beyond some vague similarities of detail that allow one to characterize some as “Punks”, others as “Goths” or as executive types.
It is true that a small number of the upper and professional upper middle class, for example barristers, diplomats and Conservative MPs dress in specially tailored suits. Yet how they dress is wholly unrepresentative of whole society. In general the British are comparatively uninterested in clothes. It all depends on whether a person is playing a public role or a private role. When people are “on duty” they have to obey some quite rigid rules. A male bank employee, for example, is expected to wear a suit with a tie, even if he can not afford a very smart one. On the other hand, when people are not playing a public role- when they are just being themselves - there seem to be no rules at all. You may find, for example, the same bank employee, on his lunch break in hot weather, walking through the streets with his tie round his waist and his collar unbuttoned. He is no longer “at work” and for his employers to criticize him for his appearance would be seen as a gross breach of privacy.
Perhaps because of the clothing formalities that many people have to follow during the week, the British, unlike the people of many other countries, like to “dress down” on Sundays. They can't wait to take off their respectable working clothes and slip into something really scruffy. Lots of men and women who wear suits during the week can then be seen in old sweaters and jeans, sometimes with holes in them.
The British spend a lower proportion of their income on clothing than people in most other European countries do. Many people buy second hand clothes and are not at all embarrassed to admit it. There can be few countries where people who can afford new clothes deliberately choose to buy the “cast-offs” of others. It is true that many who buy their clothes from charity shops are genuinely needy. But equally, many are not. They choose to buy their clothes in these shops because they are cheap and because they sometimes find wonderful bargains, almost new high-quality items that cost next to nothing. Sir Paul McCartney, one, of the richest men in the UK, boasts of such purchases. David McDowall, the author of “Britain in Close-Up” writes, “There is a tolerance, shabbiness and inventiveness in the way some, particularly the young, dress.”
We have touched upon shabbiness and tolerance, now we are going to focus on inventiveness. Since the 1960ies the British and not the French or Italians have set fashion for young rebels all over Europe. It is not accidental that a mini skirt which made not only a fashion revolution but a revolution in our minds was designed by a British designer Mary Quant. It is not accidental either that she was awarded the O.B.E (Order of the British Empire) given by the Queen, which she collected in Buckingham Palace dressed in a many skirt.
It may seem astonishing at first sight but in fact there is nothing odd in it. The British have always been known for their individualism and independence. One can find the freakiest freaks, Freaks with the capital letter, even among the characters of Charles Dickens. So those who sold and bought clothes in Carnaby street in the 60ies (Freddy Mercury was among those who frequented it) simply followed the tradition.
Thus love of second hand clothes can be explained not only by traditional British thrift but by a strong desire of the most dress-conscious young people to find astonishing apparel and look sensational, almost unique.
Thus slowly but surely London is becoming the fashion capital of the world and St Martin's school has already become the fashion mecca. The label “Made in UK” does not mean only high quality and traditional cut. It also means the latest fashion and revolutionary design.
At the beginning of the chapter we mentioned the image of a typical British woman that resembles the Queen, Lady Thatcher and Miss Marple at one and the same time. The only thing Vivienne Westwood, a famous British designer, has in common with the above mentioned ladies is her age. But in spite of her age this red-haired woman always dressed in clothes of her own design and accompanied by a very young boyfriend represents a new, more sophisticated attitude of the British to fashion. May be soon their reputation for being the worst dressed people in Europe will cease to exist.
4. Food and Eating Habits
Perhaps, there is no other area, where stereotypes and change can be traced more vividly than that related to food. In their book “Managing Cultural Differences” Harris and Moran state, “The manner in which food is selected, prepared, presented, and eaten often differs by culture. One man's pet is another person's delicacy …
Feeding habits also differ …Even when cultures use a utensil such as a fork, one can distinguish a European from an American by which hand holds the implement”.
However , as it has been mentioned before , societies change over time and food and eating habits are not an exception .If we compare traditional English food to what the majority of the population (residents of big cities in particular) eat now the changes will be dramatic .
If we ask middle-aged English -learners (we refer teachers of English to this group as learning a foreign language is a life-long process) what textbook was extremely popular in the 60ies, 70ies and even the 80ies of the previous century, many of them are likely to name Essential English by C.E. Eckersley .At that time it was the most relevant (reliable) source of information. According to the book “the usual meals are breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner or in simpler homes, breakfast, dinner, tea and supper. The usual English breakfast is porridge or Corn Flakes with milk or cream and sugar, bacon and eggs, marmalade (made from oranges) with buttered toast, and tea and coffee. For a change you can have a boiled egg, cold ham, or perhaps fish”.
In fact, only about 10% of the people in Britain actually have this sort of breakfast. Even those who do eat cereal instead of Corn Flakes and a fry-up instead of bacon and eggs, a fry-up being a mixture of such ingredients as eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms and even bread fried together. Two-thirds of the British have cut out the fry-up and just have the cereal, tea and toast. The rest have even less. What the majority of British people eat in the mornings is much closer to what they call a “continental” or European breakfast than to the British one.
The image of a British gentleman eating an underdone beef steak is also out of date. Since most people have afternoon meals at work they have to do with what the nearest eating place offers. James O'Driscoll mentions two types of eating places used during the day, both of which are comparatively cheap. One is a workman's cafй (pronounced `caff') frequented by manual workers who want a filling or substantial meal. It offers mostly fried food. The other popular place is a fast food outlet. Surprisingly as it may seem fast food outlets are now more common in Britain than they are in most other countries. Although it may contradict the stereotyped idea of British conservatism and hatred of all foreign or American, the popularity of fast food restaurants can be explained sociologically. They have no class associations and as a result are visited by people of various backgrounds.
The only eating place which can still be called typically English and can hardly be found anywhere else is the fish-and-chips shop, used in the evening for “take-away” meals. The fish is deep fried which contradicts another stereotype that the British eat everything boiled. In fact typical British cooking involves a lot of roasting.
Healthy lifestyle obsession which seized thousands of British people in recent years has made many of them vegetarians or even vegans. Their diet does not include such typically British foods as beef, mutton, bacon or eggs. James O'Driscoll write, “There are quite a large number of vegetarians in Britain and an even larger number who are aware of the implications for their health of what they eat.” Health food shops are as abundant in the country's high streets as delicatessens. In spite of their reputation British people are more tolerant and more open to new experiences including the cuisines of other countries. In the 1960ies the first British tourists in Spain not only insisted on eating (traditionally British) fish and chips but also on having them, as was traditional, wrapped up in specially imported British newspaper. By now, however, the country's supermarket shelves are full of the spices and souces needed for cooking dishes from all over the world. There is no town in the country which does not have at least one Indian restaurant and probably a Chinese one too. Larger towns and cities have restaurants representing cuisine from all over the world. It can easily be explained by the increasingly multicultural nature of the population and the cosmopolitan character of such cities as London.
All the above mentioned stereotypes can be referred to as minor and unimportant in comparison to the stereotyped image of the British as the greatest tea drinkers in the world. May be about 50 years ago this statement (assumption) was true. It is not accidental that the English language is so rich in idioms related to tea. One can hardly imagine an English man or woman without a cup of strong tea they enjoy sitting by the fire place. However, this may seem a bit out of date. It is true that tea is still prepared in a distinctive way (strong and with milk), but more coffee than tea is now bought in the country's shops. As for the tradition of afternoon tea with biscuits, scones, sandwiches or cake, this is a minority activity, largely confined to retired people and the leisured upper-middle class.
More people have “elevences” rather than five o'clock tea. Elevences is a cup of tea or coffee at around eleven o'clock. In fact, people drink tea or coffee whenever they feel like it. This is usually quite often.
For the urban working class (and a wider section of the population in Scotland and Ireland) tea is the evening meal, eaten as soon as people get home from work. More often than not this is called supper.
Although modern Brits are not the world's biggest tea drinkers, they take the first place in the world in consuming sugar- more than five kilograms per person per year. It is common in most households for family meal to finish with a prepared sweet dish which is called either “pudding” or “sweet” or “desert”. Sugar is also present in almost every tinned food item and sweets which means both all kinds of chocolate and also what Americans call “candy”.
Our research would be incomplete if we didn't mention a pub, one of the strongholds of British traditions, but even this has yielded (surrendered) to the time. Traditionally pubs used to serve almost nothing but beer and spirits. These days you can get wine, coffee and some hot food at most of them as well. While in1980 food accounted for only 10 per cent of profits now it accounts for more than 30 per cent.
At one time, it was unusual for women to go to the pubs. These days, only a few pubs exist where it is surprising for a woman to walk in.
Even beer served in modern pubs is not what it used to be. Since most pubs are not privately owned and belong to huge breweries they offer their customers what is known as keg beer, a pasteurized brew containing Carbon dioxide, which is easier to store . Another threat to pub quality is the noise of loud music making conversation harder with a counterfeit atmosphere of conviviality.
It has become a commonplace to say that studying a foreign language is impossible without studying a foreign culture. Although food and clothing peculiarities we have examined in our research may seem unimportant at first sight their significance can't be underestimated. A lot of people still fail to understand that cultural differences arise out of the specific development of each country and tend to assume that the manners, customs and habits of their own country represent more or less absolute norms. When they hear, or discover for themselves, that people in other countries act and think differently, they assume that this is odd, unnatural or even abnormal. Then it's only a small step to regarding their own nation superior to all others. When these people leave their home country for another one “culture shock” is the merest problem they are destined to face.
Civil society is based on four crucial notions: diversity, tolerance, respect, and consensus. Without an awareness of diversity and tolerance it is difficult to develop respect. Without respect it is impossible to achieve consensus. It is our hope that the present research gives an opportunity to go beyond stereotyped images, to examine the more complex realities of modern Britain and its people. It also attempts to assess the changes taking place in modern Britain, at least, in some areas of activity. Consequently it may be viewed as our contribution to the development of modern multicultural multi polar society.
List of Literature
1.Adrian Room, An A to Z of British Life, Oxford University Press,1990
2.Ford Martyn, Legon Peter, The How to be British collection, Lee Gone Publications, 2007
3.McDowall David, Britain in close-up , Longman, Person Education Limited 1999
4.O'Driscoll James, Britain, Oxford University Press , 1995
5.Polhemus Ted, Street style: From walk to Catwalk, Thames and Hudson
6. Silk Paul, How Parliament works, Longman 1987
7. Sampson, Anthony , The Essential Anotony of Britain : Democracy in Crisis , Hodolerand Stoughton 1992.
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