Investigating the infra-ordinary

A new batch of books on everyday life in Everytown – where literary types deign to mix with the natives – shows just how disconnected ‘they’ have become from ‘us’.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Books

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‘Here on Braithwell Road I had a curious sense of being somewhere that was at once entirely familiar, and at the same time utterly alien. And absurdly, these confused emotions were being stirred in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.’

So the pop philosopher Julian Baggini begins the account of his brief life in Everytown: a six-month experiment in which Baggini uprooted himself from his metropolitan media world for an immersion in the life of the most ‘typical’ town in Britain. When a search through demographic profiles gave this town to be Rotherham, S66, he duly rented a house, started frequenting the local supermarket and pub, and produced a book marvelling at the experience of being a foreigner in one’s own land.

Why would anyone do such a thing? Baggini wanted to reveal the ‘national philosophy’, to go beyond the ‘caricatures’ and ‘unsatisfactory’ descriptions of the British character generally on offer. And like a gap-year student on an extended trip to Asia, his quest was also an exercise in personal self-development, gained through re-examining his own prejudices. So Baggini disarmingly recounts how, after spending six days in Everytown and hearing the word ‘Paki’, he wrote, Adrian Mole-like, in his diary: ‘Racism. I’m afraid it’s rife.’ And then later he came to the realisation that ‘I hadn’t stumbled across the village racist – I had simply discovered how many people normally speak’, and that those people weren’t all actually being racist.

Well, you might think, duh. But at least Baggini has the guts to own up to his knee-jerk myopia; unlike the ‘professional urbanites’ he left behind in London, who joked about sending him food parcels filled with ‘such staples as balsamic vinegar and buffalo mozzarella’. While Welcome to Everytown can be painfully earnest and naive in places, it does reveal something of the ‘English mind’, something of the metropolitan mindset upon which newspaper columns are written and government policy based, and rather a lot about the gap between that mindset and everyday life. For when Baggini talks about Rotherham seeming more foreign than any tourist destination abroad, he could be speaking for a whole gaggle of politicians and commentators.

When the Tory Party unveiled its creepy ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ slogan for the last General Election, spiked pointed out that the party’s real message was ‘What on Earth are you thinking?’ The Tories’ incoherent copy-catism has left even their own members unclear as to what they, as a party, believe – the idea that anybody might spontaneously share those non-existent beliefs is extremely wishful thinking. The same insecurity is apparent in New Labour, with its relentless policy churn and undignified scramble for connectedness. What the political class is desperate to discover is what the rest of the country might think – about anything.

Gone are the days when class loyalties, workplace solidarities, and demographic characteristics could act as a reliable indicator of what made a particular community tick. Now politicians and the media set flail around in their self-made ideological bubble, simply unable to comprehend why, for example, teenage girls get pregnant, mothers feed their children frozen food, people might object to road pricing or terrorists might want to blow up London. Insofar as there is an attempt to define any kind of national identity, it is at the level of ‘us’ (policymakers and the media set) trying to work out what ‘they’ (the millions who make up Britain’s population) think and do. Which is why Baggini’s attempt is laudable, if ultimately unconvincing. After all, you wouldn’t get a policymaker spending six months actually talking to a group of voters, let alone trying to understand them.

What you might get is a Westminster intern charged with the task of reading market research literature and reporting back on the tastes and lifestyles of Citizen Consumer: and for that, they may well reach for Joe Moran’s Queuing for Beginners. This study of the British people is less grandiose in its intentions than Baggini’s: Moran provides ‘the story of daily life from breakfast to bedtime’, by drawing upon what has changed over the twentieth century in the things people buy and the habits they have.

Queuing for Beginners is based on the approach taken by ‘Mass-Observation’ studies that began in the 1930s, to uncover what people did on an everyday level. As Moran notes, this form of ‘domestic anthropology’ was displaced by the growth of market research, which ‘studied consumer lifestyle choices rather than our less conscious daily habits’, to the extent that ‘Mass-Observation itself became Mass-Observation UK Ltd, a more conventional market research company doing consumer surveys on products like toothpaste, fizzy drinks and washing powder’. Moran’s examination of British habits in everyday life is an attempt to provide an ‘alternative history of postwar Britain’ through an examination of the ‘infra-ordinary – the unremarkable and remarked upon aspects of our lives’.

Queuing for Beginners has received some rave reviews, which isn’t surprising. It’s a fast and funny read, filled with nuggets of information about, say, the birth of the TV dinner and the introduction of the duvet into British homes – guaranteed to delight your inner nerd – mixed up with the kind of ‘I Love 1975’ nostalgia that delights your inner child. (Remember the BBC test card? And so on.) It is also – and this is its weakness – pretty damn unthreatening. Moran’s story of daily life is big on stories and light on analysis, with his view on the significance of each development squeezed into a self-consciously witty half-paragraph at the end of every chapter. This is sometimes quite insightful – concluding the chapter on desks and the recent trend towards hot-desking (or ‘no-desking’), Moran remarks:

‘When firms try to wrestle their employees from their desks in the name of creativity and innovation, the employee is entitled to respond: work is work. It is fine to make it more pleasant and agreeable, but dishonest to pretend that it is something else entirely. If you want me to work, I need somewhere to do it. So please, if it’s not too much to ask, can I have my desk back?’

But after 16 chapters, all this jokey pithiness gets on your nerves, and Moran’s unwillingness to draw more links between the ‘infra-ordinary’ and its meaning in broader social, cultural and political terms makes the book rather like the literary version of a TV dinner – tasty, quickly consumed, but all a bit unsatisfying.

It might be unfair to blame Moran for this, as the dearth of analysis is a broader problem, resulting from the fact that nobody really knows how to make sense of the times that we live in, so most have given up even trying. The recent revival of interest in Mass-Observation perhaps reflects this trend: when you can’t say why, just describe what is. This is fine when it comes to, say, the comedian Victoria Wood’s BAFTA-winning Housewife, 49, a two-hour dramatisation of the life of a wife-and-mother during the Second World War, based on the diary she wrote for the original Mass-Observation project. Wood’s brand of gentle, bittersweet humour shapes the ups-and-downs of everyday life into some sense of what life might have been like for that woman at that time. But when it comes to explaining history, observation alone doesn’t cut it. Moran’s description of our daily habits shows how subtly they develop and change, which might act as a welcome reminder to policymakers that daily life is not lived according to official diktat. Still, you can’t help thinking that there must be more to life than shopping habits and management trends.

Which is why, if you really want to understand the English, you have to go back a few years to Kate Fox’s 2004 book Watching the English. Fox, an anthropologist and co-director of the rather brilliant Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, sets out to uncover the ‘hidden rules of English behaviour’ – or, more ambitiously, to ‘sequence the English cultural genome’, by identifying the ‘“cultural codes” that make us who we are’. Watching the English is not an academic book – Fox explains that it is written for ‘the intelligent layman’ – but it is the kind of thing that policymakers would likely avoid, being made up of over 400 densely-packed pages based on a solid, social scientific method and making extremely uncomfortable reading for practitioners of the politics of behaviour.

Many of Fox’s themes are identical to Moran’s: our national obsession with the weather, the daily commute, the central importance of the pub in English culture, and, of course, queuing. Rather than describe how these things have changed over time, however, she sets out to interrogate what they mean to us, through a combination of close observation and deliberate experiments. Fox’s attempts to determine the English reaction to queue-jumpers, for example, or to people who directly ask what you paid for your house, might not seem as brave as Baggini’s six-month immersion in the Northern world of Unknown, but you cannot help but cringe with her as she goes about deliberately bumping into people to test the hypothesis that the English always apologise when you bump into them (though such a thing would never occur to foreigners). Given that Fox has come at all this with a keen understanding of the hidden rules of everyday behaviour and the importance attached to them in everyday culture, setting out to break the rules takes some balls. Particularly when it involves talking to people on commuter trains.

On one level, Fox’s account of the English is a shrewd observation of manners and class – a sort of non-fiction Jane Austen. On another, it is a devastating critique of the perils of cultural regulation by external, official forces. Fox probably would not describe the book in these terms; but it is implicit in the seriousness with which she takes the unwritten codes and rules that govern our everyday behaviour, developed over centuries and often completely mystifying to tourists and recent immigrants. Diagnosing the English with what she calls a ‘Social Dis-Ease’ – crudely speaking, an inability to interact spontaneously with our fellow man outside of certain exceptional environments, such as the pub, the front garden (which nobody ever sits in, but in which it is acceptable to converse with one’s neighbours, unlike the back garden), and so on – Fox’s analysis highlights the painstaking, understated, often quite barmy but centrally important ways in which forms of social interaction are developed, and our (often quite unconscious) reliance on these codes.

So, for example, the macho posturing that our feminised, politically-correct culture finds so upsetting is in fact, according to Fox, a form of male ‘social bonding’, a competitive ritual called the ‘Mine’s Better Than Yours Game’, which often involves noise, swearing and name-calling, but which nonetheless is ‘good-natured and amicable, always with an undercurrent of humour’. The pub is a site of ‘legitimised deviance’ where normal social controls do not apply – but other, quite specific ones do. These include the fact that you can sit at the bar and talk to anybody (whereas if you sit at a table you are assumed to be with your own friends); the tradition of round-buying (to be done when the majority of glasses are three-quarters empty, to avoid people having to wait for their pint); the long, endless, ‘free-association’ arguments, which might sound loud and aggressive but are really just a means of people interacting with friends, acquaintances, strangers.… The list goes on. Anyone who has spent a decent chunk of time in pubs will readily identify with the rules of behaviour that Fox de-codes, while realising that they probably never thought about them as such. And that, of course, is the point.

Most of social life is governed by unspoken, often unrecognised but mutually-agreed codes, that have grown up over centuries to facilitate people’s interaction with one another. This goes for the pub as much as the dinner party, the commuter train, conversations with strangers about the weather and discussions with neighbours about the other neighbours. It’s just life. But once you realise how intricate and deeply ingrained such codes are, doesn’t it make you worry a bit about the impact of, say, the smoking ban on pub culture, or speech codes upon relationships within the workplace? How did policymakers and their ‘right-thinking’ friends get the authority to wade into such intimate areas of human history and start prescribing how people should relate to one another in matters of everyday life?

A truly tolerant society is one that has the arguments out, rather than suppressing them under a new kind of speech-code etiquette. And a truly multicultural society is one that accommodates and appreciates other cultures, rather than one that goes into an aggressive spiral of rejection about its own. Much of what it is to be English is, to use a favourite word of Kate Fox’s, really quite daft. But it’s a daftness born out of the history of human interaction, rather than an uptight repression foisted upon us by the self-appointed behavioural psychologists in Westminster and White City. And you can’t say fairer than that.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked. She is a freelance writer and researcher, and editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review. Email her at {encode=”” title=””}.

Welcome to Everytown: a journey into the English mind by Julian Baggini was published by Granta Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

Queuing for Beginners: the story of daily life from breakfast to bedtime by Joe Moran was published by Profile Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour by Kate Fox was published by Hodder and Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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