October 31, 2015 § Leave a comment
The telephone brought a new urgency into communications. More than anything: a telephone rings and it has to be silenced. This is traditionally done by answering it or waiting until the caller rings off. The ringing telephone has always had priority. Do most people feel that the caller may be about to communicate something exceptional to their advantage: shares which were thought to be worthless have increased a hundredfold in value; someone is inviting them on an expense-paid holiday to Florence; they have won the literary competition they entered (most unlikely of all). Experience tells us all that the caller will say none of those things. Yet all over the world people, even though they are in company of their friends, will answer the telephone, thus giving priority to the ‘unknown’ caller.
Etiquette is a long way behind our use of the telephone. You are talking to people and their mobile phone rings. They take the call, sometimes, mid your sentence and without a word of excuse. The mobile-phone-answerers do leave their interlocutors in an awkward position: the interlocutors have to slink away, rather than listen to the call that was more important than their conversation.
It is the same too in queues. You join a queue at a reception. The telephone rings and the receptionist picks up the receiver and deals with the query. The person who rings has jumped the queue. In South Africa (or Harare), I believe, the receptionist may well answer the telephone but will then put the caller on hold and deal with those people queuing first. This more equitable system has not made its way over to England.
However, there were limits to how intrusive the ‘fixed’ telephone was able to be. The mobile phone brought ‘noise pollution’. How often are we walking in a secluded area when our peace is shattered by someone talking on her mobile phone? We have come for peace and quiet and are not going to get it. Why can people never be separated from their phones? If they are walking in the countryside, can they not be content to do just that. Can they not be without talking for forty minutes? And all those babies and dogs that once went on walks with their parents or owners, how their lives too are changed! The very time when their parents or owners could be totally devoted to them is not to be. We have all seen the buggy pusher, coffee cup in one hand (or dog lead with dog attached), buggy in the other and phone sandwiched between ear and shoulder.
Do not those babies and dogs deserve something better? Their parents or owners to be really present to them.
One can only wonder at people’s desperate need to talk, first thing in the morning too. Is there not a need for a phone ‘fast’, a national day of silence of, save in emergencies, no phone use?
And for all this talk, it isn’t as if we are listening or communicating any better.
July 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
When I read American novels I am struck by the number of products, food in particular, that are given their brand name. It is true that these ‘consumables’ are very common in America but are they quite as common as American novels would lead you to think? Identifying food or drink by brand is not as evident in English literary novels. The branded food, mentioned in American novels, is usually bad (unwholesome) food.
You will find brand-naming in novels written in the 1960s, perhaps earlier. And also in novels, set in 1950s, though written in the 1990s, for example, Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House and Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven. Why do American novelists advertise denatured mass-produced consumables that don’t do people or the environment any good?
Any Irish or English or Scottish or Welsh reader of American novels should be able to answer the questions below.
Give the brand name for the following:
A fizzy non-alcoholic drinks (four letters or two four-letter words)
A breakfast cereal (eight letters)
A biscuit (four letters)
A fast food ‘restaurant’ (nine letters)
A cake (seven letters)
Shouldn’t novelists be a little bit charier of mentioning branded products and so giving free advertising to companies who have enormous advertising budgets? And clearly are doing their jobs very well if the branded product has, in the consumer’s mind, become almost become synonymous with the biscuit or drink. Aren’t small ethical companies, aiming to give farmers a living wage, or trying to preserve traditional skills, or providing for the education of children, far more in need of novelists’ gratuitous advertising? Why must novelists always be helping those giant multinational companies?
Before your made-up character reaches for a very real and much-advertised cold drink, think.
March 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
When my mother was a child in the 1940s, she knew of four Sheehan brothers. The brothers were spoken of as coming from a family that ‘could not be straightened’: I take it this to mean that they were not susceptible to good influences.
The Sheehan brothers studied agriculture in Dublin. By the time Sunday came round, they had spent all their money, backing horses amongst other things, and pawned all their suits except one.
As it was necessary to go to mass, and go there dressed in a suit, only one brother was able to go to mass at a time. The first went, hurried home, took off the suit and gave it to the next brother who put it on and then went to mass. And so it went until the four of them had been to mass. It would be possible for a brother to attend mass at eight, at nine, at ten, and at eleven.
If present times are anything to go by, the Sheehans’ quick change would not have worked in England. The celebration of the mass takes about an hour in England, and about three quarters of one in Ireland.
Even up to the 1960s, my mother recalls being asked, Where did you go to mass, I didn’t see you at [such and such a church] ?
Today we, Catholics, are still obliged to attend mass on Sundays and certain holy days. However, the societal pressure to go to mass has gone. Even some respectable people do not go to mass today, never mind wild men like the Sheehans.
Parents, I believe, no longer insist that their teenage children ‘get’ mass. Nor do they quiz them about the priest’s sermon (homily ) to ascertain if they have ‘got’ mass.
That is not to say that the behaviour of mass-goers in the thirties and later, was such that became them. Some smoked during the celebration. Yet Jonathan Swift would have shown more leniency towards the smokers than the sleepers:
But of all misbehaviour, none is comparable to that of those whom come here to sleep Opium is not so stupefying to many persons as an afternoon sermon. Perpetual custom hath so brought it about that the words of whatever preacher become only a sort of uniform sound at a distance, than which nothing is more effectual to lull the senses. For that it is the very sound of the sermon which bindeth up their faculties is manifest from hence, because they all awake so very regularly as soon as it ceaseth, and with much devotion receive the blessing, dozed and besotted with indecencies I am ashamed to repeat. ‘ On Sleeping in Church ’
The attitude to mass-going has changed. Mass-going in Ireland is not unquestionable as it once was. If you looked the length and breath of Ireland, you would find no equivalent today of the four Sheehan brothers.
March 6, 2013 § 2 Comments
Charles Dickens is reputed, when handed a hot drink, to have responded along these lines: If this is tea, take it away and bring me coffee, and if this is coffee, take it away and bring me tea.
I believe he was in America, at the time. However, you don’t have to travel to America to get a terrible cup of tea. When you cross from Fishguard to Rosslare, or back again, all prospect of a decent cup of tea will be lost to you.
When I am offered a cup of tea, I usually opt for herbal tea. The herbal tea will be drinkable whereas the tea may be weak and tasteless. The tea bag has contributed greatly to the decline in the standard of tea. And then there are tea bags and tea bags. Is it not astonishing that these big tea companies employ tea tasters? Have these weak insipid concoctions passed some kind of test? Have these teas not been randomly selected? What would the tea be like, if it had not been tested? It is hard to imagine that it could be worse than it is.
In contrast, coffee-drinking (not on the Fishguard-Rosslare crossing) has changed beyond recognition. My mother tells me that in the remotest parts of Ireland a cappuccino is to be had. The variety of coffees increases, and the making of coffee improves, but the same could not be said of tea. Yet more tea than coffee is drunk in Ireland and England. (The Irish, apparently, drink more tea per capita than any other nation.)
People, who would not baulk at making coffee with ground coffee in a cafetiere, baulk at making tea from loose tea in a pot.
The English and Irish may find it amusing that French people don’t boil water to make tea. Boiling the water may be all the Irish and English get right. The tea they often use is so deplorable that it needs more than boiled water to make it taste good.
Besides I would not even bet that the water is boiled. A friend of mine’s fledgling relationship was snuffed out when he offered to make her tea, or warm up the tea she was drinking, and carried out his offer by turning on the hot tap. When I was in Paris an English girl told me that they made tea from a defective hot tap; the water came out at, or close to, boiling point. You get used to it, she assured me. Get used to it? I can’t even get over the shock of anyone making tea from water, however hot, direct from a tap.
What would the French, so much more the connoisseurs than the English or Irish, have made of tea if it had been their national drink? Could the French have sunk to the low level of the dreary tea bag, so unsightly looking when it is used?
St Augustine, I think, stated that though people may be unable to fast, or give alms, they should forgive those who have offended them. So I would say that though you may resist loose tea (less paper used) and find it too much trouble to put tea leaves in your compost, could you, at least, buy fairtrade tea bags?
January 15, 2013 § Leave a comment
Many years ago I was using a public telephone in Newport, Rhode Island. I was making a call to a woman who did not know me to ask her if she could put me and my friend up for the night. It was then late in the evening, half past ten or so. My connection with the unknown woman was this: an Irish girl I knew had been a paid boarder with her the summer before.
I am not sure what part of the call I had reached when an American man, waiting to use the phone, asked me: ‘Will you be long?’
I had been on American soil for only a few days but I knew the man’s question was to be taken literally. If my phone call were to be a short one, he would wait; otherwise, he would find another phone.
If an Irishman had asked, ‘Will you be long?’ I would have understood that I was to get off the phone at once and not keep him waiting. Had an Englishman asked the same question, I would have been uncertain what he meant: but I would have known better than to take the question at face value.
Americans may run into a little difficulty in England, if they take things too literally. Some years ago, a young American student was working temporarily in an architects’ London office. One morning, a superior of his asked him a question, along the lines of ‘Would it be convenient for you to prepare the room for lunch?’ The young American indicated that it would not be convenient. He was in the middle of some other work.
The Englishman regarded the American’s response as a piece of cheek. What the Englishman had meant, and what every other Englishman would have understood, was: ‘Please get the room ready for lunch immediately.’ The mention of convenience was just, as Henry James would say, “the mere twaddle of graciousness”*.
The American student would probably have been appalled if he had understood how his answer had been interpreted. He had not refused to get the room ready (as the Englishman thought) but was only postponing doing so, until he had finished the work in hand.
The English and the Irish are not always to be taken at their word.
December 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
On my first visit to Paris in 1989, French shop-assistants initially disconcerted me by saying Bonjour when I entered shops. They further surprised me by saying Au Revoir when I left without buying anything. It soon became clear that this greeting was nothing more than an acknowledgement of my presence in the shop: not a preliminary to forcing a sale.
Why was I so disconcerted by a greeting? Because I was used to something else. In Dublin, it was not customary for shop assistants to call out Good Morning or Hello. Assistants, in a clothes shop, might ask if they could help you but in a newsagents shop assistants were unlikely to proffer any help. There was no occasion to speak until you went to the counter to pay. So it was awkward, if I browsed but did not buy. Then, and the same applies today, I felt furtive leaving the shop. The shop assistant might have thought I had stolen something whereas if we had exchanged a greeting, we could have been at ease with each other.
Bonjour said the shop assistant, and Bonjour I said in reply. And later: Au Revoir said the shop assistant: Au Revoir, I said in reply
These words defined our relation. We both acknowledged each other but did not impose on each other. Going back to Irish shops, I missed this politeness.
The English and the Irish have not formulated a way of behaving towards strangers. For most of the time, strangers are merely strangers. But in lifts (elevators), strangers are uncomfortably close. We try not to catch their eye; we don’t know what to do: we wish the lift were empty.
One word is all it would take to dispel the tension.
Back in Autumn 1989, Marx Dormoy was where I lived. Marx Dormoy was no tourist’s idea of Paris. (I have recently seen it described as: Marx Dormoy, the real Paris of the people.) Did any native French people live there? I recollect mostly immigrants or Afro-French, hanging out in the streets, wearing casual clothes, more cool than chic, and life played out to the sound of Ghetto blasters. I might have been in a poor suburb of New York, so far did I seem from the world of the Sacré Coeur Basilica.
The flat I occupied was on the sixth, or perhaps the eight, floor of a block-like building without any beauty. One October day, I stepped into the lift, and wished straight away that I had not. I had been in bigger more crowded lifts (Covent Garden, London) but never in one where I was the only white female. An only female shut up, in a private lift in an obscure building in Paris, surrounded by tall African men.
So tall and similar did the men look to me that I wondered if they were as much strangers to each other as I was to them. Anything could have happened to me, and no one would have known. I hadn’t a friend in Paris. Who would have missed me?
The doors closed behind me. There was no getting out then. Had my apprehensions communicated themselves to those young men that loomed around me?
One or perhaps more of the young men said, Bonjour. Bonjour was not what I had expected, but it was what I wanted to hear more than anything else in the world. Bonjour in the lift meant the same as Bonjour in Paris shops: it was a golden word.
When the tall young man said Bonjour, he aligned himself with civilised members of society. He had acknowledged me but would trespass no further. Bonjour was a beginning and an end. No signed agreement, nor written guarantee could have given me the same sense of security as that greeting. I said Bonjour in reply. We all knew then where we stood. A world of civilisation was contained in one word: Bonjour.