01.08.1993

Through foreign eyes

Through foreign eyes
 
LYNETTE BURROWS
 
CAMBRIDGE is full of foreign visitors at pre­sent, and I am teach­ing a clutch of them in a sum­mer school. Very enjoyable it is too, and it strikes me again this year how alive and well are national stereo­types. It is part of our relent­lessly egalitarian culture to maintain that national char­acteristics do not exist, any more than sexual ones, except insofar as they are socially conditioned. One has to wonder, in both cases, whether those who believe this have eyes in their heads not to have noticed that there is a stereotype that is based on reality. It is not that most people in a coun­try conform to it; only that there is a large and consis­tent number that do.
 
Thus, it is perfectly true that the French are chauvin­istic and argumentative; that Spaniards have no idea of the time; that Germans are thorough and conscien­tious, and Scandinavians have very little personality, even when they are strik­ingly good-looking. Italians, when asked to describe their society, rattle off a list of criticisms of their character and government, while the Japanese, asked the same question, cannot think of a single thing that is less than perfect.
 
Foreigners too have ideas about what is "typically" British, which are gratifyingly temperate, even if not always flattering. They think we dress badly, have awful food and a great sense of humour; are polite, hon­est and rather poor. They are chiefly surprised to find how friendly and lively pubs are, and how uninhibitedly strangers talk to them. They are also amazed to discover that our students get grants they do not have to pay back. There is not one other coun­try that has such a generous system. Nor do most of them enjoy college life as British students do, because they do not have anything like the same range of cultural and social activities. Above all, they are impressed by the number of bookshops and the cheapness of books; and by the amount of music. Wherever they go, there are musicians in the streets, in pubs, in parks and in churches.
 
It is very revealing to look at your own culture through other people's eyes. It is doubly so when you realise that those things that other nationalities do not like
about us — our rowdiness when drunk, for instance, and our less-than-immaculate homes — do not bother us at all.
 
National Condom Week is nearly upon us. Whoopee! The British Safety Council is pro­moting it with the slogan that is an almost perfect example of Orwellian doublespeak. "Slip into something Safe and Sexy", it says. If they are talking about condoms, they must be joking.
 
St James University Hos­pital, Leeds, published research a few months ago showing that unplanned pregnancies due to condom failure had increased from 15 per cent to 40 per cent in a few years because of the increased use of these wretched contraptions. As for sexy — can you think of anything, except possibly a crushed snail, that less deserves the description? Since a leading condom man­ufacturers now include a leaflet clearly stating that their products are not designed to prevent the transmission of Aids homosexually, one wonders at whom this ludicrous prop­aganda is directed. Unfortu­nately, it is probably the very young.
 
THE quality of spinsters has improved tremen­dously in the past few years. There was a time when they were typified by a plain and rather fastidious type of woman who liked her own company and did not have much time for men. Somehow one could not imagine them ever leaving their worthwhile jobs to mar­ry and have children — and, for the most part, they didn't.
 
Now, however, there is a new type of spinster whose personal history is eerily similar wherever one meets her. They left University well-qualified and found good jobs which enabled them to buy a car and to go abroad often. They are lively, attractive and intelligent, and are usually found in the company of men at parties and social functions. They lived with boyfriends on and off for a number of years while pursuing their careers, before separating at about the time when people stopped calling them "girls" and referred to them instead as "women".
 
At 35 they look around and discover that the absolute equality between the sexes that they had always taken for granted appears to have vanished, and there is, instead, a very big difference between an unmarried woman of 35 and an unmar­ried man of the same age. The awful thing is that other women see it the same way too. A bachelor of 35 is sought after for every occa­sion by men and women alike, and they have a whale of a time. A woman of the same age is suddenly over the hill, with her direct male contemporaries looking at girls 10 years younger than themselves for company and fun, and never giving a thought, as the women do, to getting married and having children.
 
The men are quite honest about it too. "Why buy a book when you can use a library?", they say, and one can, unfortunately, see that they have a point. The diffi­culty of getting a man to relinquish his freedom, while contracting to support a woman who wants child­ren, is considerable in the present climate — which is no doubt why an increasing number of children are born to unsupported mothers. Something must have gone out of the arrangement to make it suddenly seem so unattractive to men across the classes. Whatever it is, we really ought to give it some thought, or the State will have to start offering dowries.