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Watching the Father: the Hidden Secrets of an International Family

Illustration by Ellen Charlesworth

To pip

One of the reasons of my moving to the UK five years ago was to explore the British side of my identity. Having inherited a British passport from my dad, born in London fifty years ago, I did not feel that my upbringing in Paris was particularly British. Nor that my dad was British, to be honest. As part of a family made of first generation and second generation immigrants, we both lived most of our lives in a Parisian social sphere were having foreign origins and speaking foreign languages, whilst identifying as primarily French, was definitely the norm. In that respect, we were well-suited and integrated in our environment, albeit in different ways.

As the question of where I stand now, five years into my British socio-anthropological journey, is raised daily in all sorts of discussions – whether others see me as French, Italian, European or simply foreign,[1] I thought of reopening the book Watching the English: The Hidden rules of English Behaviour to look for an answer.[2] The discovery was ground-breaking: instead of finding tips to unpack my own behaviour, I came across signs of my dad’s Britishness, which appeared in their true nature for the very first time in my life. Here are but a few telling examples.

My dad’s love for his cats is second to none. In the six-page sub-section Pet rules and ‘Petiquette’ of her book, Kate Fox describes in clear terms the English relationship to domestic animals: ‘Keeping pets, for the English, is not so much a leisure activity as an entire way of life.’[3] I am sure about Scottish and Northern Irish families but my Welsh family ticks that box with flying colours. For my dad in any case, the cats are as much part of the family as his children; he gives them the same amount of love and ‘quality time’ than to us, if not even more. At least he has the honestly to acknowledge it himself!

Another British flag of my dad’s cultural identity is his infamous passion for newspapers. Fox describes the English love for words as so pervading as to feature on racks and bookcases in their toilets.[4] According to her, this phenomenon, like the social status of pets, is not exclusively English, but is widespread across social classes and therefore telling of some broad, cultural feature. My dad, for example, enjoys taking incredibly long baths whilst reading the news, in the mist. Another cue at the cultural origin of his hobby is the fact that he only ever reads British newspaper, in English! Yes, in our globalised economies, national broadsheets can make their way into a French bathroom with incredible ease so that, for most of my life, I unconsciously took their presence for granted.

Broadsheets also contribute particularly well to the worldly-renowned English social awkwardness and need for privacy, and my dad is again no exception to that hidden rule. By observing English commuters reading broadsheets on public transports, Fox came to the conclusion that: ‘the point is clearly to have a newspaper large enough to hide behind (…) Not only can one conceal oneself completely behind [their] outsize, outstretched pages –effectively prohibiting any form of interaction with other humans, and successfully maintaining the comforting illusion that they do not exist – but one is enclosed, cocooned, in a solid wall of words. How very English.’[5] I suspect this is fundamentally why my dad is so fond of them too for, as far as I remember, there was nothing more difficult in my childish world than to get his attention or a sound from his mouth when he was holding a newspaper on his lap.

Luckily for me, my dad is not only British! which means that communication is possible, in some other contexts. ‘Awkwardness’ for example was not part of my vocabulary before I moved to the UK. However, I am now more than ever aware of where my dad comes from, probably even more than he would ever admit it himself: as a wonderful mix of British and French cultural features, there is one thing he is adamant about: being (self-)critical of the Brits!

[1] Note that no British person, whatever their origins might be, will willingly see me as British and I do not suspect this to change in the next fifteen years or so, even if I stayed in the UK. This is in sharp contrast with my experience of being from an international background in Paris. For me, this is another peculiarity of the social understanding of national identity in the UK: who is (entitled to be) British and who is not seems to be extremely codified and unflexible. The unwritten rules of why I should never be considered British remain unclear to me to this day, which is why I italicise the word as I cannot fully define it.

[2] Kate Fox, Watching the English: The Hidden rules of English Behaviour (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2005).

[3] Fox, Watching the English, p. 234.

[4] Fox, Watching the English, pp. 220-2.

[5] Fox, Watching the English, p. 223.

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