Tuesday, September 5, 2017


There’s something about being English. Well, let’s qualify that: there’s something about being English of a certain generation, a certain social standing, a certain education... and even then, to blame it all on being English is to play the victim, which I have no desire to do. Even so, there is something about being English.

I noticed again the other night. Ellie and I went with friends to see “A Night with Janis Joplin”...

... at our local theater, the Laguna Playhouse. And I noticed how uncomfortable I am with a couple of things I should perhaps have learned to accept with equanimity by now, if not outright enjoyment. The first is the unvarnished, unabashed and public display of powerful emotions. The second is the bid for audience participation.

The real Janis Joplin...

... sang her heart out, of course, and the singer who played that role in this performance did an excellent job of channeling that spirit of unreserved emotional abandonment. She tore into songs like “Cry, Baby” and “Pieces of my Heart,” calling on powerful reserves of inner pain to capture her audience as Joplin must have done in her day. To root her artistic origins in the black American heritage of the blues, the performance included spot-on impersonations of Odetta, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin.

I could not watch these magnificent performances without noticing, somewhere deep inside, along with the genuine lump-in-the-throat emotional engagement, a tiny, unwanted voice that cautioned me, Hold back, Peter, don’t do anything that might embarrass—like sing along, or tap your feet, or rock to the music. And the voice persisted no matter how much I rebuked myself for being self-conscious, silly, stand-offish… in a word, English.

That same voice grew even louder and more importunate when, at the end of the first act, the ensemble cast broke into dance and song and asked me—with the rest of the audience—to participate. Sorry. Couldn’t do it. The rest of the audience were having a great time, rocking and rolling, cheering, singing along in raucous disharmony. But not English Peter. Well, not English Peter of this generation, this social and educational background. This Peter who would have given the proverbial eye tooth to be able to let go, to join in with the general celebration.

Do you remember the scene in “A Fish Called Wanda,” where John Cleese, who plays the archetypal Englishman, caught in the nude...

... in an apartment that not his own, with a woman who is not his wife—but after whom he lusts with undisguised libido. A libido, be it said, released for the very first time by the American sex pot played so beautifully by Jamie Lee Curtis? Where he tries to explain to her the desperate need of people of his kind—well, of my kind—to avoid embarrassment at any cost? It’s a great scene.

But if I remember it so clearly it’s because it told me so clearly something about who I am: upper middle class in origin, public school and Cambridge, with a command of the Queen’s English and an accent beyond reproach. I was taught by my parents and at school, to be unfailingly polite, to never ruffle the surface of social propriety. To never cause, or expose myself to embarrassment. For the longest time, as I have acknowledged on occasion in the past, I was unable to recognize, let alone give expression to the inner life of the emotions. (At boys’ boarding school, it was even dangerous to do so!) Since learning to recognize this in myself, I have worked hard over the years to get the English out of me, but a good part of it stubbornly remains. And there it was again, the other night—a small voice, unwanted but refusing to be silenced. Refusing not to be obeyed.

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