Saturday, 4 June 2016

Shoes, Hats, Class

If you move to another country, you really need to be rooted in reality. You need information, correct information, not only  to stay (e.g. how to renew your visa), but to thrive. You need to know how to get along with your neighbours, which means getting to know your neighbours, even if you are never introduced to 99.9% of them.  This means absorbing information--real, truthful information--about the culture. The real culture.  

In moving to Scotland, I had three advantages over many other migrants: I had married a Scot (the reason I'm here); my mother's ethnic background is 75% Scots (and 25% English ); I inherited the blue eyes and red hair of my Scottish great-grandfather---and therefore don't look foreign.

Not looking foreign has advantages and disadvantages. When I first voiced concerns about the UK's class system, which by mutual consent still exists*, I was told that I was exempt from its strictures thanks to being foreign. This is not entirely true, in part because I don't look foreign. I sound foreign, but in a country where people judge your background not only by ear but by eye, I may be mistaken for a weirdly behaving Scot. In general, people are less tolerant of weird behaviour than they think they are, and in the UK they can be brutal about people they perceive as trying to ape the clothing, manners, accent and tastes of a class to which they do not belong, especially if that class is perceived as having more privilege.

Incidentally, it is considered bad form to talk openly about class, even though class is one of the deepest anxieties of British life. (You're not supposed to care, but you have to care. Thus, you just have to look like you don't care--all while avoiding the 'wrong' supermarkets, etc., etc.) If I weren't a writer, I wouldn't do it, and if I weren't a foreigner, I probably couldn't do it.

I joke about the Rough Bus all the time, but as a matter of fact I resent the fact that I have to worry about what I wear on it, lest I offend some chippy class warrior who associates--for example--a vintage hat with a class of women he despises or assumes despises him. This class of women do not, in the main, take the Rough Bus (such women are presumed to have cars), so the woman who takes the Rough Bus wearing such a hat is probably "above herself", "putting it on" and "deserves to be taken down a peg."

"It wasnae me wha' spat in yer hair....!"

I wish I were exaggerating---and I no longer wear vintage hats. I also no longer wear fur, another symbol of upper middle class women and--worse--women who wish to appear upper middle class, who--as vintage fur is a tad beaten up--I much more likely resembled.

 I have not given up hats entirely, of course. When it is cold and windy, I wear a beret, and when  I am going to be out in the sun for a long time, I wear my French Scout hat or (very daringly) an enormous green straw hat I bought from a street vendor in Rome. In the Scottish context, the Scout hat looks weird and most definitely foreign, but as such it has no class indications. The enormous green straw hat is trickier.

"Don't draw attention to yourself" is a stricture of Scottish life so ancient and durable that it survived my great-grandparents' migration to Canada, and my mother drummed it into my ears when we travelled by public transit together. Unfortunately,  I couldn't help drawing attention to myself because I had (and have) bushy red hair and was dressed differently from my elementary school classmates. I gave up trying to be invisible or just unremarkable long ago. The laughter and jeers of boys ("Hey-you-need-a-haircut!") aged around ten seems to be my lot. I concentrate on wearing what I think looks good and protects me from the elements. This includes my green straw, which I wore to Tesco the other, very sunny, day with a tan linen shirt, spring green linen skirt, white ankle socks, sage green sneakers and a pair of sunglasses I bought at that self-same Tesco. Everything else but the hat and the socks came from charity shops. (Buying quality goods for as little money as possible is another East-Coast Scottish family value that survived migration to Canada.)

In the dairy aisle, a miniscule elderly lady caught my attention and told me how wonderful I looked. I thanked her. She continued. The hat, the skirt, the whole outfit, she enthused, was just so ... I forget what adjectives she used, but they were good. "How kind of you," I said. "Oh, how sweet."

But then, after I had left Tesco, had made a lightning visit to Iceland, and was crossing the latter's driveway, I heard loud, wild, ten-year-old-boy laughter, and a maternal voice shushing it. I turned to see a car, windows open, and the boy looking at his mother, who was now giving him a row. From long experience of this sort of thing, I assumed that he had been laughing at me. In his culture, large green straw hats do not belong in the vicinity of Iceland which, like all British supermarkets, has class associations.

It could be, however, that his mother liked my hat, and here is the really sad thing: even if she did, she might be too afraid to wear it. To wear it could be to court family displeasure, to cause comment at home, to become the butt of banter. To wear this hat, this harmless, simple, practical, inexpensive, straw hat.  I love Scotland, but how stupid is that? And it doesn't stop at hats. You would think that the entire male population of Scotland would don tweed jackets, as they are warm, water-resistant, hard-wearing, good-quality and good-looking. But no. If you are to the tweed born, you could probably get away with wandering through Craigmillar (for example) while wearing one, but if you are Craigmillar born and bred--forget it.

I broke down and bought a new pair of shoes, by the way. They came from a shoe shop B.A. likes on Rose Street. My gift of love is now that I spent only £75, ignoring PPS's advice to buy from the small selection of women's shoes offered by top English men's shoemakers. I was feeling particularly embarrassed about the bony deformity and annoyed by banter about women who wear "comfortable shoes", so I bluntly told the saleswoman about it. (Very North American, reassuringly foreign.)  The saleswoman brought me the feminine-shaped shoes I liked best and they fit, so I bought them. And on the walk home, I began to examine women's feet.

To my surprise, all the women walking near the Edinburgh Bridges were wearing comfortable shoes. Sneakers, ballerina flats, ankle boots, trainers. Not only were they not wearing high heels, hardly any of them were wearing  low heels. A few pairs of boots had low, squarish heels. Of course, I was in the university neighbourhood, but as all the shoes looked relatively new, student poverty probably had little to do with it. Still, a university neighbourhood has a character of its own. "Perhaps in the New Town....?" I thought. But I couldn't recall. It struck me that I notice high heeled shoes, usually stilettos, only at night, only at the weekends.

Could it be that, far from being the anamoly, most women wear comfortable shoes?

Eventually a pair of heels did catch my eye. Their owner, aged about 60, was wearing a wiggle dress and an updo.  A small voice in my head muttered, "Mutton dressed as lamb", but a louder one said, "Good for her! Let her wear what she likes. Attagirl!"

*I used to think that class was an illusion, akin to those in Plato's Cave, and--as I told my future M.P.-- if everyone in the UK would just wake up, they would see that, too. However, I now see that class is real,if only a social construct, as our characters are all made up of our decisions, tastes, values, and we pick our friends, spouses and as many associates as possible based on those decisions, tastes and values. That said, one of the great gifts of traditional religious faith is that adherents are expected to put class distinctions aside, at least for the length of public worship. There the only distinctions are spiritual, i.e. between clergy and laity, and biological, i.e. between men and women. The way one dresses for church reflects an honouring of these distinctions.

Note: Lest this put people off Scotland, I should mention that I am faced with these social difficulties primarily because of the neighbourhood in which I live. However, as an England-born neighbour is completely mystified by all the unpleasant social encounters I experience, I have to say that a strong second factor is that we do not have--as she has--a car. If you have a car, you never take the Rough Bus, and you always drive, never walk, past the 'wrong' supermarkets, whatever the 'wrong' supermarkets are for you.

Note 2: American university students in the UK, anxious to reap the benefits of the privileges they perceive among the soi-disant "upper classes", sometimes consciously attempt to develop an "upper class" accent.  This is a serious social faux-pas, and everyone notices. Everyone who grows up in this system has an ear perfectly tuned to such fakery.  If you are such a student who has stumbled upon this post, for the love of heaven, just be the best American you can be.

Note 3: I go to each and every supermarket I feel like going to, thanks very much.

UPDATE: I seem to have confused my North American readership, and no wonder. The British class system is intensely complicated and embarrassing to talk about. For the record, the entire island (plus Northern Ireland) did not give me a hard time for my feathery vintage hats and elderly fox fur stoles. I would have been quite all right in many a neighbourhood, even in Edinburgh, and perhaps particularly in some neighbourhoods in Edinburgh. The people I am complaining about are people whose great-grandfathers probably were of the same social class of my Scottish great-grandfather. All things considered, this particular (and local) culture is shared by a relatively small group of people. That said, it has much in common with other groups of Britons who lack, or whose ancestors lacked, social privilege.

For a lighthearted take on the different classes to be found in Edinburgh, and their various neuroses, I recommend the "44 Scotland Street" series by Edinburgh superstar Alexander McCall Smith. For the nightmare version of what Edinburgh was like (for some people) in the 1980s, try Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting.


  1. Maybe the Americans are consciously faking accents. How could anyone distinguish the conscious fakes from the people who are picking up sounds from the world around them and unknowingly speaking more and more like them? Americans who move to different US regions change their accents slightly over time. Plus, if we don't, people are kind of rude about it. My dad changed his southern accent just because he was sick of telling off irritating northerners who would make idiot comments. His voice, his choice. Being the best Americans we can be means not fretting constantly re: maintaining the accent of our home town.

    Give me the French any day. They like it when people work on pronouncing words like they do. Nothing I've ever heard about the UK culture has convinced me I would get along with anyone there for even a short visit. Spitting on women because of hats? Weirdass grocery store gauntlets? Smirking at people's accents, real, fake, or accidentally changed? Shameful. Where I grew up, people just shoot or stab each other under the influence of meth and/or alcohol. We're a simple, wholesome folk, far from the Old World constrictions. En bas, les anglais! Au port, leur thé!

    1. They know. They can hear honest "transatlantic" hybrids, and they can hear fakery. They just can. I'm not sure why, except that they must begin learning from birth how to recognize all the UK accents. Meanwhile, they have no problem with each other's accents, as long as they were real. Nobody from Edinburgh would ever expect someone from Newcastle to some like him. That would be really weird. That said, if someone has a chip on their shoulder against someone from some area, then there may be an unpleasant social interaction. That said, so far no-one has given me a hard time about my accent. (As far as ethnicity goes, I've only faced unpleasantness when I've been mistaken by a socially deprived Scot for a Pole.)

      As for getting along in the UK, I'm sorry if I didn't make it clear that the UK has dozens and dozens of indigenous British cultures (besides a host of imports), thanks in part to class. One VERY important distinction is between the Scots and the English. The socially deprived neighbourhoods I reside near are Scottish, and not les anglais. And although I moan about the antics of those on the Rough Bus, they really were ripped off by history. Collapse of local industries + collapse of the British working class family = serious misery. I find it helps to calm me down to remember this.

      The important thing for American to remember about the British and class is that it is a lot like Americans and race. It's complicated, it's pervasive, you only really understand it if you've been living in the situation your whole life, and foreigners think it's just insane.

      The whole American race-obsession drove me insane when I was at Boston College. Ugh. The memory of all the highly racist and paternalist anti-racist measures still make me shudder with embarrassment. However, I was foreign--who didn't even look or sound foreign, which was a problem--so maybe I just didn't get it.

    2. I know Australian children who've moved to the US and have been mocked about their accents by American children.

  2. Every Canadian or American I have ever known who went to live in Britain changed his/her accent as a result of relentless teasing about it. I don't doubt that there are people who did so out of social ambition, but the ones who did so out of sheer survival instinct cannot be discounted. Oh, and wherever they live/work, they will pick up the dominant accent, not the most posh one.

    And sciencegirl is right that some people pick up accents UNconsciously, without any special effort or motivation. (That is why some of them are good at getting foreign languages right.) I am one of them, and have suffered the consequences, which were not exactly severe, but sufficiently unpleasant.

    I have the greatest admiration for the various peoples (and accents) of the British Isles (a phrase carefully chosen to include all the region, but no doubt some will find it offensive), but I baulk at this kind of thing. It is an early form of political correctness and it is poisonous to honesty. Stuff accents, high and low, as marks of either social position or character.

    Alias Clio

    1. My two eldest children, then aged 2 and 3, spent a year in Cambridge and attended a playschool there. They did not pick up an Oxbridge accent, rather a Cambridgeshire one, the dominant rather than the posh one. The youngest lost that accent almost immediately once back home, but it took nearly another year before the eldest regained her native vowels.
      Aged P

    2. Hello Aged P. We met once, although I would not expect you to remember me. Children tend to imitate what they hear and see most often, which is one of the reasons why adults ought to watch what we say and do, in their presence and out of it.

      I spent my formative years, linguistically speaking, in diplomatic enclaves where English was a lingua franca but seldom the native tongue of its speakers. I ended up speaking it with the long vowels and over-articulated consonants of a foreign speaker. Canadians accused me of having an 'English accent', but I doubt it. Years later, an Englishwoman who called the office I worked in, asked if she had the right country because she thought she was talking to an Irish girl! No doubt she caught the Ottawa Valley lilt I had acquired by that time, which has a distinctly Irish component. Another reminder of how accents are mutable and their acquisition unintentional, at least where there's no social penalty attached.

      Alias Clio

  3. This post struck a chord, as I'm seriously considering moving to London from the US. I'm sure London is very different from Edinburgh--but is any of this applicable?

    1. London is very different from Edinburgh. In London, you are much more likely to overhear a Polish conversation than to overhear two Scots talking. Actually, you are probably more likely to overhear two Americans talking than two Scots in London. There are gazillions of foreigners, including Americans, in London. What will be interesting is if you make any English friends, or if your friends will be mostly other ex-pats.

      Very young Continentals who move to Scotland and move in with Scottish boyfriends or girlfriends begin to sound Scottish. However, English is their second (or third, fourth, etc.) language, so that is different. I think it is possible also that Canadians and Americans who come to the UK as teenagers (at the latest 19) may UNconsciously start picking up the local accent or at any rate the accent of the majority of the university students they are around. However, after the age of 25, and if the accent is--mirabile dictu--super-posh, for sure the non-British anglophone is putting it on.

      I've been here for seven years, and I haven't a trace of my husband's accent. However, I use British nomenclature for things, including various idioms.

      Meanwhile, class stuff does not apply to visiting Americans or any other foreigner. If you settle down here, then it may become an issue. But you will be a foreigner for the rest of your life, which has its good points and its bad.

    2. Oh good, I'm glad if class stuff won't apply! I expect I'll find most congenial acquaintances and friends in the English traddy crowd. Actually, I think of the English all being that way, since I only know traddies. But I've been instructed that being Catholic and chaste, sober, etc., let alone traddy are qualities as rare as hens' teeth among the general population!

  4. Amused, if you already know people in the traddy London set, that's great, and we may have acquaintances in common. If not, you may find it a longer process than usual to make friends because conservative English (and old-fashioned Scottish) people take longer than Americans to make friends. Some British, of course, find American friendliness refreshing and exotic, but others take time to get used to you. Young people--as everywhere--tend to be open to other young people, thank heavens, but in my experience most ex-pats hang out with other ex-pats. My one born-in-Scotland, sounds-Scottish female friend moved to England, so now I don't have any female Scottish friends here. The women I know best in Edinburgh are English, Australian, Italian, American and Polish. And this is a town that is 90% Scottish.

    As for London, English people now make up less than 50% of the population. So whereas it is true that the English-in-general are not famous for chastity or sobriety, there are tens of thousands of people in London, especially South Asian women, who do indeed intentionally practice these virtues. A lot of them are Muslims, of course. Over 40% of England's Muslims live in London, and on any given day you can see women in full-on Saudi rig-out in the parks.

    London has undergone a fascinating transformation since I was there in 1996, that's for sure. In 1996 it was much different from when I was FIRST there as a child, but now it is ... Well, it's like the buildings and bridges are still there, but the people have been taken out and replaced with other people. You will see what I mean. And the weird language you will hear again and again, as you take busses and trams, is Polish. Naturally, there will be a gazillion tourists speaking their own languages, but the most frequently spoken language in London after English is Polish. And from a Catholic point of view this is great because Poles start out Catholic, and a lot still remain Catholic even after coming to the UK. Oh, and I see that the largest number of Americans in the UK are in London. Actually, I met an American among London trads the other day!

    If you want information about the TLM in London, send me in an email.

    1. *Not trams. Trains. Last time I was there, I had an eavesdropping bonanza on the trains.

  5. How would the bogans on the Rough Bus react to a woman dressed in something like an expensive business suit?

  6. I can't remember seeing a woman in an expensive business suit on the Rough Bus. (Bogans is the wrong word, I think. These are, after all, descendants of the original inhabitants of the area. As much as they annoy me, they were shaped by the misfortunes of 20th century history, which began with the poor starving in the streets and ended with needles and AIDS.) The victims of the resentments of the Rough Bus that I recall were an African chap, Poles, my sister and her son, and me. The Rough Bus itself used to get rocks thrown at it by young men in one of the tough neighbourhoods along the route. One day a rock smashed through a window a few seats ahead of me, and it's a miracle no-one was injured or killed.

  7. I did enjoy this BBC article about Scotland "A tiny country of creative geniuses" :-)