The Unimpassioned English by Richard King

Story type: Essay

I have just been to see the latest musical comedy. Of course, I feel in love with the heroine. Could I help myself? Even women have fallen in love with her–so what chance has a mere male, and one at the dangerous age at that? But what struck me almost as much as the youthful charm and cleverness of the new American “star” and the invigoratingly “catchy” music, was the way in which all the young men on the stage put both their hands into their trouser pockets the moment they put on evening clothes! They didn’t do it in their glad day-rags . . . or, at least, only one hand at a time, anyway. But immediately they appeared en grande tenue, both their hands disappeared as if by magic! C’etait bien drole, j’vous assure! Perhaps . . . who knows? . . . they were but counting their “moneys.” . . . For the chorus ladies are certainly rather attractive, and even a svelte figure has been known to hold a big dinner! But the fact still remains . . . if one night some wicked dresser takes it into his evil head to stitch up their trouser pockets, every one of the young men will have to come on and do physical “jerks,” or go outside and cut his own arms off!

But then, most Englishmen seem at a loss to know what to do with their limbs when they are not using them for anything very special at the moment. Have you ever sat and watched the “niggly” things which people–especially Englishmen–do with their hands when they don’t know what to do with them otherwise? It is very instructive, I assure you. I suppose our language does not lend itself to anything except being spoken out of our mouths. Unlike Frenchmen, we have not learnt to talk also with our hands. We consider it “bad form” . . . like scratching in public where you itch! Well, perhaps our decision in this respect has added to the general fun of existence. In life’s everyday, one doesn’t notice these things, maybe. One has become so habituated to “Father” drumming “Colonel Bogey” on the chair-arm; or “Little Willee” playing “shakes” with two ha’pennies and a pen-knife–that one has ceased to pay any attention to these minor irritations. And, when we are among strangers, we are so busy watching that people don’t put their hands into our pockets, that we generally put our own hands into them for safety. . . . Which, perhaps, accounts for the Englishman’s habit . . . who knows?

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But on the stage, this custom is an almost mesmeric one to watch. We certainly do see other people at a disadvantage when they are strutting the Boards of Illusion . . . men especially. But to a foreigner, who is not used to seeing a man’s hands disappear the moment he is asked to stand up, the sight must come with something of a shock. For my own part, I think his amazement is justified. Surely God gave a man two hands for other needs than to pick things up with or hide them?

Personally, I always think that it is a thousand pities that men are not expected to knit. They grew up to be idle in the drawing-room, I suppose, in times when every other woman was a “Sister Susie.” But the “Sister Susie” species is nowadays almost extinct. It requires a German offensive to drive the modern woman towards her darning needles.

In a recent literary competition in EVE, the subject was “Bores, and how to make the best of them.” Well, personally, I could suffer them–if not more gladly, at least with a greater resignation–if I were allowed to recite, “Two plain; one purl” so long as their infliction lasted. As it is, I am left with nothing else to do except furtively to watch the clock, and secretly to ring up “OO Heaven” to send down a bombing party to deliver me.

Men of the Latin races are far more wise in this respect. If you tied the hands of a Frenchman, or an Italian, or even a Spaniard, up behind his back, the odds are he would be struck dumb! But we Englishmen–we only seem able to become eloquent when, as it were, we have voluntarily placed our own hands into the handcuffs of our own trouser pockets. Even Englishwomen are singularly un-self-revealing with anything except their tongues. You have only to watch an Englishwoman singing to realise how extremely limited are her powers of expression. She places both hands over her heart to represent “Love,” and opens them wide to illustrate every other emotion.

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And this self-restriction–especially when you can’t hear what she is singing about, which is not seldom–leads more quickly to the wrinkles of perplexity than even does the problem of how to circumvent the culinary soarings of Mrs. Beaton, and yet obtain the same results . . . with eggs at the price they are! If some producing genius had not conceived the idea of ending off nearly every musical-comedy song with a dance, and yet another genius of equally enviable parts had not created the beauty chorus, I don’t know how many a prima donna of the lighter stage would ever be able to get through her own numbers. For, to dance at the end of her little ditty, and to have the chorus girls relieve her of further action at the end of the first verse, brings as great a relief to her as well as to the audience, as do his trouser pockets to the young man who makes-believe to love her for ever and for ever . . . and then some, on the stage.

And, because we have taken the well-dressed “poker” as our ideal of masculine “good form” in society, English men and women always seem to exude an atmosphere of “slouching” indifference to everything except their God–and football. It has such a very chilling effect upon exuberant foreigners when they run up against it. Emotionally, I am sure we are as developed as any other nation . . . look at our poetry, for example! But we have so long denied the right to express it, that we have forgotten how it should be done.

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I shall love you on and on . . . throughout life; after death; until the end of eternity . . . !” declares the impassioned Englishman, the while he carelessly shakes the dead-end off his cigarette on to somebody else’s carpet.

And for you, Egbert, the world will be only too well lost. I will willingly die with you . . . at any time most convenient to yourself,” answers his equally-impassioned mistress, gently replacing an errant kiss-curl behind her left ear.

Well, I suppose it does take another Englishman to realise that these two are preparing for a crime passionel. But a simple foreigner, more used to the violence of the “movies” in everyday life than we are, might be excused if he merely believed them to be protesting a preference for prawns in aspic over prawns without.

Not, however, that it really matters . . . so long as the lovers, like Maisie, “get right there” at the finish. For, after all, does not passion mostly end in the same kind of old “tripe” . . . either here in England or . . . well, let us say . . . the tropics?

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