Aug 2008 Journal

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Getting to know the natives

The English: Are They Human? is the title of a book by a Dutchman called Gustaaf Renier published in the early 1930s. Well, are they? My first real chance to get to know the citizens of my host country came in the spring of 1942 when, a fresh-faced 22, I arrived in Maidenhead. Up to then, since my deliverance from domestic servitude, I had shared a room with a relative, but now I was to live in a completely English ambiance in a boarding house owned and run by a formidable lady – aptly named Miss Bull – who presided over breakfast and dinner with great decorum.

Most of my fellow-boarders worked for firms that had been evacuated from London. There was Hibbs, the wag, with his grey-haired, grey-faced wife. There was middle-aged, overweight Helen with her aged parent – in her case, her mother – over whom she fussed and worried endlessly. There was sylph-like Edna, who was having a hopeless affair with her boss. And there was Mrs Smith, a businesswoman.

From their point of view, I was at best a Jewish refugee, at worst an enemy alien. Either way, I was foreign, and they might have been forgiven if they had treated me, if not with hostility, at least with reserve. In fact, they did not just accept me but welcomed and even spoilt me.

Work, too, was agreeable. As a shorthand typist in an engineering firm, I was now officially ‘helping with the war effort’. (Misquoting the government, the workers’ mischievous slogan was ‘Give us the job and we’ll finish the tools.’) I shared an office with a few other girls and, apart from the usual office intrigues, we got along fine. I had long since adopted the shorthand typists’ motto ‘What you can’t make out, leave out’ or ‘What you can’t make out, make up.’

There were aspects of the English that puzzled me – some amusing, others less so. Everyone I met was conservative, both with a big and a small C. Even charladies voted Tory because ‘With them you know where you stand.’ And only the most exclusive private schools were public. Also, why should a man put in seven years’ hard work to become a Dr only to study for several more years to revert to being a plain Mr? And where else would a public employee end an official letter as ‘your obedient servant’?

The attitude of the English to dentistry also bewildered me. In Vienna, even in the thirties, the emphasis had been on saving teeth. Here, ‘having one’s teeth out’ was as much of a treat as going to the pictures. My dentist, who had an excellent reputation, was scathing about the dangers that lurked beneath the Continental crowns and bridges. He also refused to fill wisdom teeth. I lost three of mine to his zeal; the fourth escaped and survived for another 50 years or so.

But what really shocked me was that, in the middle of the twentieth century, English children were still subjected to ritual beatings in schools and, even worse, that judges were still able to sentence offenders to physical punishment.

So, are the English human? Renier doubted it. But they are - of course they are. I’m fully aware that antisemitism and xenophobia have always existed in this country. I still remember the ads in local papers in the fifties when ‘gentiles only’ were considered desirable tenants. And even now the BNP, if not exactly thriving, is making its presence felt. And yet. I can’t help loving the inhabitants of ‘this sceptred isle’. I’ve always admired their stoicism, their dry sense of humour, their understated decency. Perhaps I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, but I have never encountered anything but courtesy, tolerance and friendship in my dealings with them.

Edith Argy

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