In the interests of full disclosure, I’m giving fair warning in advance that I’m about to have a little snigger at the expense of the English nation. Don’t get me wrong – I admire the English people group for many and sundry things. Their mallow tea cakes for instance. But for all their admirable qualities, they act downright strange when they are collected together in a crowd. I would go so far as to say they don’t know how to behave as a crowd at all.
Last year, Oxfordshire was having a celebration of 1000 years as a county of something. So in Broad Street in the middle of Oxford they had set up Luminox – a really unbelievable amount of “fire installations.” There was a terrificly huge chandelier, dangling from a crane and hanging out right over the street, and it was holding an outrageous number of fire pots. In what I thought was a little dubious taste, it was hanging almost directly over the spot in the street where Cranmer, Ridley, and Lattimer were burnt at the stake in the sixteenth century.
However, that is not the point. The point is that this huge chandelier hung over the street and there were flaming pots strung from wires all around the Bodleian Library. Large bonfires were raging away all over the road. The crazy firelight and shadows in front of the huge beautiful buildings created a truly amazing spectacle. But I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly was giving the whole evening such a creepy and ominous feeling until I realized that it was the crowd itself.
We were packed into the road like sardines – absolutely shoulder to shoulder. You had to literally shove your way through the group to move anywhere . . . . and yet the whole road was eerily quiet. People were talking to one another, but not loudly. Some people might have said, “ooh!” in a hushed tone as they looked at the displays but no one whooped, no one was yelling, no one was calling to their friends over other people’s heads. They just quietly walked around and admired the fires. But, I told myself, this was an unusual situation. These fire pots were not just fire pots, they were “fire installations” and they had been done by some team or other of French artists that took themselves entirely too seriously. Maybe, I thought, everyone was using their art museum manners in order to admire these fires with the full reverence and respect that they thought they deserved.
But no. Last night proved my theory wrong. It turns out that’s just what the English people do when they are all together in a crowd. Sometime coming up soon is Guy Fawkes day (tomorrow maybe?) and so there have been fireworks all over town for weeks. But last night there was an official, big fireworks display over the South Parks. As it happened, we were stuck at a red light right in the middle of the whole thing – crowds lining the sidewalks on our left, crowds covering the parks on our right, fireworks blazing away overhead. And yet, was anyone cheering? Clapping? Whooping? Music pumping? Absolutely nothing. Completely deadpan. They all stood looking in a sort of pleased way at the sky but that was it. There was even a carnival going off to one side . . . rides and everything . . . and not one scream.
It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever not heard. It’s terribly worrisome really. It makes me feel like something has gone horribly wrong and the crowd’s about to do something dreadful. I would feel so much better if someone, anyone, had their hands in the air . . . if anyone was running, or hollering, or cheering for something. But instead they all just stand coyly with their hands in their pockets and look vaguely pleased.
This is a little English quirk that I find highly amusing. But perhaps we’re actually the funny ones. When you look at it from a slightly different angle, do we Americans have some gene somewhere that gives us a terrible urge to whoop when we get around other people?