Monday, November 05, 2018

Culture and Preservation

The speaker in the video clip under Culture I mentions some cultural hot points. He refers to eel pie, a traditional dish of the poor in the East End of London. It does not sound attractive, and ironically, it is less and less popular even there and is becoming hard to get. It evokes the past, just hanging on in the present. He is from Bermondsey for several generations, an area that had been a (literally) Dickensian slum which started to make a little money in the early 20th C as the home of the more noisome factories – tanners, fish processing – but bombed severely in WWII and even those industries collapsed.  It was already considerably razed and gentrified by the time Laurence Bright is speaking before the group. This Englishman is also at pains to describe the names that have come down in his family and continue -George, Victoria - British rulers of the previous century, associations to conjure with. Note again that few in Britain are using those names for babies anymore. Finally, he refers to the employment they have had, father to son, preparing fish for market. That too is going out.

No need to bring in immigrants for this discussion.  He is describing a subculture that is expiring entirely on its own. People from other countries are at worst only hastening this, not creating it. I wonder how much the screenwriter intended that, painting this nationalist as a sort of bitter clinger to an island that is already slipping beneath the waves. Whether that would be fair or not I don’t know, but I do think he is slanting the argument by painting Laurence thus.  Not everyone who wishes to preserve their culture is attaching themselves to a dead letter.  The writer, in fact, also has a culture that he clings to just as tightly – one that is newer and more fashionable and perceived as an anti-culture, not one of its own.  All cultures were anti-cultures once, descending in rebellion as much as development from earlier versions.

As I noted in the previous post about tipping points, culture does change, right under the feet of those who think they are preserving the ancient. An additional irony about the culture that this nationalistic Brit is trying to preserve is that these things are new. Eel pies became popular in the 19th C, as eels survived better in polluted waters. The names George and Victoria were also 19th C common, not 9th C. Bermondsey was a fashionable area until the early 19th, and while the fish-processing trade is old, it wasn't common there until that time.  Laurence Bright is not only hanging on to a culture that is disappearing, it has also only recently appeared. There is some defense, by reading and preserving or reviving older material, but that is not common.  More on that later.

These are the common cultural items that groups fasten onto: food, location, naming, inherited trades. Language, or less dramatically dialect or accent, can also be a focus.  If you take an anthropology or sociology course…well, if you took one in the 1970’s anyway, I don’t know if it’s still true…you will get a list of folkways that go into a culture. Patterns of courtship and marriage, how children are educated, how the dead are regarded and treated, arts and entertainments are all in there, and you can let your mind drift to those aspects as you contemplate culture in general.

Culture is transmitted in a hundred ways, but we can artificially divide them among those that occur within the family, outside the family, and in combination.  Laurence Bright’s example of culture are from within the family, and he references them at every turn.  Church or private school would be examples of combinations. They exist without need of any particular family, but need some families of like mind to attach themselves to it. They teach values and support a culture that the family more or less agrees to.  What we read or see in the movies, what we hear from friends at school and work, what we get from the news, those are from outside the family.

So.  All that by way of introduction.  This has all been a mere excuse to begin to talk about my friends and family.  It could have been worse, I could have used this as an excuse to talk about myself. Which still might happen. Right now, I am long overdue for going face down again.


Jonathan said...

Spitalfields Life blog may be worth noting if you haven't seen it.

james said...

Part of culture is the courtesies; when these are lost or radically changed those on either side of the divide don't feel as connected. I still say that courtesy is an attenuated form of love, and without it a society loses an important part of "we're all in this together" that helps hold it together.

Another part is the "who you can trust" and "what you can trust them for." We see changes in this as loss--and they are real losses. When you can't leave your door unlocked anymore, that's a real loss. Perhaps you have gained something: the city has more niches--you can trust someone to show up to repair your furnace and actually have the parts.