Saturday, 26 March 2016

Customary Practices

I watched in amazement as a large lady, made larger by the several bags (and larger still by the two black bin-bags full of inflated balloons) she was 'carrying', squeezed herself and all her stuff into our already-packed rush-hour tube train. From where I stood the potential for a Benny Hill-style comedy sketch was obvious, but there was only po-faced disapproval among those in her immediate vicinity. For while her action was undoubtedly a triumph of determination, did it not also display a certain disregard for the comfort of her fellow passengers? There was, of course, no vocal condemnation of her apparently selfish behaviour. In fact there evolved a noticeable sympathy for her predicament when it became obvious from her embarrassed apologies that she was a foreigner and, as such, might be excused for not comprehending the local customs. Someone even offered up their seat so that the balloons might have sole occupation of the space above it.

Having received recently an invitation to a "black tie" dinner, I know that no such tolerance will be afforded me if I fail to observe the rules of engagement for the function: they are clearly prescribed by tradition and practice, especially in this case, given that the venue is Lord's Cricket Ground. I won't be able to claim cultural immunity as a foreigner. Also, I recognise that the invitation subtly embodies a challenge: to demonstrate one's English credentials in the matter of etiquette. Still, I have been well placed this past week to observe some other venerated establishments which are emblems of the English tradition and which appear also to be resistant to change.

A visit to Oxford one day took me to the Ashmolean Museum and the Bodleian Library both of which (and for all their oddly, foreign-sounding names) are revered as ancient pillars of Oxford University. Their collections are indubitably important, but I admit to spending very little time contemplating them since it was a crisp, clear, sunny day, ideal for strolling around admiring the architecture of the University's historic buildings feeling, all the while, proprietorial around the foreign tourists.

Then there was a tour of the Old Bailey, courtesy of a friend whose work there entitles him to an 'access all areas' pass. The old (1907) court building is imposing and, presumably, was designed as such to assert the authority of the judiciary. All but the most hardened of criminals would have been cowed by the architecture and, in case they were not, there was a final, symbolic flourish in 'dead man's walk', the gloomy external passageway leading to Newgate gallows. Here the condemned were obliged to walk through a series of openings in the building's buttresses, each one smaller than the last. It's no longer in use, of course, but many of the traditions of the institution have been preserved, thanks mainly to the owner of the buildings, the Corporation of London, whose vast wealth is deployed to offset the austerity of successive Governments.

But not all tradition is posh. Further down the social strata, another friend and I explored the state of some erstwhile working-class boozers on a pub-crawl along the Mile End Road. Some have been born-again in keeping with changing tastes and circumstances but, with the call to prayer from the East London Mosque echoing along the rows of oriental shop-fronts, the evening was tinged with exoticism. Mind you, this part of London preserves another sort of English tradition: that of accommodating displaced foreigners.

So, on checking the small print of my invitation to Lords, I note that, after the stipulation of 'carriages at 11.00', there is a concession to modernity: it asks whether one has any special dietary requirements. In the hope that my host is reading this, I would just like to say "Yes: a decent, traditional claret, please."

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