National Stereotype Conformance Syndrome

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People tend to conform unconsciously to their national stereotypes when they are abroad or when they are interacting with foreigners. The Italians behave excitedly; the Germans are stolid and efficient; the British are polite and orderly (unless they are football hooligans, who constitute a special case outside the scope of this post).

I saw a great example of this today. Mrs SG and I are on a cruise in the Baltic and this morning we went ashore in St Petersburg. We had already gone ashore in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, where immigration formalities were handled by P&O and we just tripped down the gangway clutching our cameras, but in Russia we had to go through Immigration Control. I cannot speak for all the immigration officers but ours was straight from Central Casting: she was surly, unsmiling and rude.  (This is a stock photo of a male immigration officer, just to add a little atmosphere and colour.)

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That may be her natural disposition of course, but I prefer to believe that she is normally sunny, charming and witty, given to practical jokes and uploading kitten videos to YouTube. It’s only when she puts on her uniform and has to represent her country to a shipload of foreigners that a voice in her head says, “Now then, Natasha, you are a Russian official. You know what people expect from you. Don’t let them down!”

I have met one immigration official who was ruder than Natasha (that’s not her real name by the way – or perhaps it is, I don’t know her real name). It happened when I crossed the border from Ukraine into Transnistria. Transnistria is a sliver of Moldovan territory occupied by rebels who, since they are of Russian ethnicity, enjoy Russian Government protection. National Stereotype Conformance Syndrome again.

Have you seen other examples of NSCS? Please share them!

PS I should add that we encountered only friendly people once we had passed through Immigration Control. There was the man at an open-air bar beside a public toilet, who didn’t want to change a dollar bill but gave us 20 roubles out of the till so we could have a pee. Three young soldiers were happy to pose for a photo with Mrs SG beside the historic warship Aurora. When we tried to blow our few remaining roubles on ice-creams outside the Hermitage our three scoops weighed more than we could afford – so the man carefully scraped some back into his tub and re-weighed. When the bill came to less than our little pile of notes and coins he insisted on giving us the proper change (which was enough for another pee-and-a-half).

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Council Cuts and Churchill

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Mrs SG and I are visiting Southampton, on the south coast of England. This afternoon we went to the art gallery. Seeing something resembling a pay-point we asked if there was an entry fee.

“No,” said the man on duty, “It’s completely free. But I should warn you that we close at 3 o’clock.” I glanced at my watch. It was 2:40.

“Is that because it’s Monday?” I asked.

“No. We’re open from 10 to 3 Monday to Friday, and to 5 on Saturday.” Seeing my expression he added apologetically, “Council cuts.”

We nodded to show our understanding and hurried off to see as much as we could. Beside one painting was a Churchillian quotation that was new to us:

“The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them. Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which is their due.”

There’s an irony there, I think.

I also think it insane to invest huge sums of money in great public buildings, fill them with valuable works of art, and then open the doors for only 32 hours per week to the people whose money paid for those investments.

Churchill

Churchill said and wrote a lot of very wise things; if you click here you’ll see a selection.

Georgian Theatre Royal

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I used to think that the real Richmond was in Surrey, on the Thames, with a park full of wandering deer. But as we wandered northward, from Beccles towards Scotland, Mrs SG and I found ourselves near a little town called Richmond, not far from Scotch Corner. According to our guide book it has a Norman castle – not unusual in the UK – and the world’s only surviving working Georgian theatre. We were intrigued and aimed our little rental car in that direction.

A charming volunteer guide took us around the theatre, explaining things and giving us rich historical context. Apparently the people in the cheapest seats, in the gallery, really were uncouth and rowdy. They even peed on the floor so that the people in the choicest boxes below were rained upon. If the audience showed sufficient dislike of a performance the actors often called it off, changed their costumes and performed a different play – more of a crowd-pleaser.

And did you know that the process of reserving seats is quite new, and originally applied only to the boxes… hence the term ‘box office’?

The exterior of the Theatre Royal is pretty dull (see below) but the interior is a delight. It lacks the curlicues and gilt cherubs of the West End theatres and it seats only 261 patrons (and therefore was never obliged to have a fire curtain), but like the bluff North Yorkshire farmers who were its patrons when Samuel Butler opened in 1788 it is eminently fit-for-purpose.

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The next time you’re in that part of the country, take the time to drop in and have a look. Better still, check online and time your visit when there’s a performance. We didn’t but we will next time. We may not be able to reserve the royal box (as patrons Charles and Camilla did) but the annual pantomime is not to be missed, we’re told.

Postscript

Both Richmonds and much else besides formed part of the 250,000-acre land-holding (known as ‘the Honour of Richmond’) that William the Conqueror gave to his kinsman Alan Rufus of Brittany. Alan’s job was to keep North Yorkshire under control, which he seems to have done pretty well: the castle is dilapidated, but through neglect rather than bombardment. It played an interesting role in the First World War, which you may like to learn about here.