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The Untold Sixties: When Hope Was Born

An Insider's Sixties On An International Scale

NOTE: The material in this section was written
during the early and mid-Seventies when it was still quite
fresh in the author's mind and is also based upon
his large collection of Sixties documents. For
further information, see the book outline by clicking here.

Learning British English as a Foreign Language
1963—65 (from chap. 7)

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Since  this book has now been published, many of its chapters have been abridged, though the summary and four chapters can still be found in their entirety.


I spent much of my time trying to infiltrate the English language and the thought patterns it seemed to impose, both in its written and spoken forms. I had the advantage of a literary background, considerable training in languages and linguistic theory, and, as I have mentioned, I also had several close English relatives. I nonetheless treated the local language as essentially a foreign tongue, which I believe it in many ways to be, and studied it carefully on this basis.

There are so many misconceptions on both sides of the Atlantic about the relationship between these two varieties of "English" that I will devote a later chapter to my own contributions to this continuing controversy. [This turned out to be How "Correct" Is British English?, accessible from this website.] My efforts in this area were in a remarkably short time to be crowned with success when I was invited to write for the English repertory theatre company commonly believed to best embody the true spirit of the English language.

I had sometimes been accused of "talking like an Englishman" before I left the States, but now my attempts to achieve what I, by my own exacting standards, considered a decent English accent were assisted by the very air of London. It is not sufficiently realized, I believe, that the so-called correct" throaty upper-class English accent owes much of its quality to that common English respiratory ailment called asthma, or to its even more common sister, bronchitis. The English do not talk as they do entirely as the result of good taste or breeding. Rather, they usually have little choice, as the cold damp air does not allow them to articulate much differently. Soon I was wheezing with the best of them.


And so, as I have said, since I had come to London I had given myself over to a careful study of the English language as though it were a completely foreign tongue, as I was beginning to suspect it might be. I based my tactics on what I had undergone in learning other European languages nearly from scratch and on my growing knowledge of linguistic principles. Granted, I was an American, and the experiment could not therefore be completely successful due to the close historical links between the two language forms, but simply making such an attempt was proving to be quite worth while.

Experience had taught me that the first requirement for learning a new language while living amid its native speakers was complete subjugation of one's self to the language. By this, I mean that one has to totally suspend one's critical apparatus while learning the new words, meanings and connotations. One's accumulated knowledge or skills should be used only as a technical tool in deepening this self-subjugation, not as a means of questioning or criticizing what one learns.

This is because it is the natives who know their language, and the student must learn from the native, accepting their words, phrases, syntax, and paralinguistic stratagems (such as tone of voice or gestures) completely and implicitly. There is no place for criticism in this process as the only goal is to learn and absorb the accepted standards and be able to reproduce them so accurately as to be taken for a native.

Only after one has passed through this process of submission may one allow the critical faculty to reemerge and begin to theorize about what one has learned). If this sounds laborious, far-fetched, or even pretentious, I nonetheless believe it is the only effective way of coming close to mastery of a foreign language. At least this has been my experience.

And it was around this time that I was beginning, so to speak, to come up for air from my linguistic researches. And I was also beginning to come up with a number of questions and criticisms about what I had found myself learning. I had learned, for example, that one rarely spoke loudly in correct English, an observation made no doubt by many others in the past, but one fraught with social and linguistic implications.

If you were in a lift with a friend—say one of the giant lifts at a tube station—and there were others present in the lift, assuming you had something of great urgency to tell your friend, you were of course permitted to do so. But you had to say it in a voice very close to a whisper, so that no one else would be disturbed (or perhaps so that others could not overhear).

But most probably you would say nothing at all—rather, you would wait until you had left the lift behind. There were exceptions to this, of course, but on the whole a loud voice was used only by youngsters, working class types, or what were then coming to be called 'mods' and 'rockers.'

And if you saw a friend on the other side of the street, it really wasn't correct to shout at him to catch his attention. It wasn't the done thing. You had either to cross the street, catch up with him, and finally greet him face to face, or you had to do without the greeting altogether. These are only two such instances I observed—I will save others for my later chapter*—but they spoke volumes to me about the relations between people in England during the early Sixties.

There was also a physical rigidity necessary to speaking correct English—whether it helped the production of the voice or was caused by it I was unable to determine—but it definitely helped if you held yourself quite stiff at all times, whether in the lift or walking along the street, so that you were in the right posture for speaking correctly.

This is far from being unfounded linguistically, as various other languages encourage a specific posture for their correct enunciation, especially in their more ritualistic utterances. I had much earlier spent a year and a half in Spain and had noted something of the same requirements for speaking good Castilian Spanish. Psychologically, the language came out feeling more correct if one assumed a rather formal relationship with one's body.

 A Few Lucky Breaks
(London, 1964-65, From Chapter 8)

The work that I wrote during my first months in London bore more the character of exercises than actual plays or essays, though some of them fall technically into either category. As I say, I was trying by these exercises to mimic what I considered a "correct" English style, should any opportunity come my way to write for the English stage or for British publications. No doubt what I then wrote was precious and pretentious beyond belief, but it served its purpose well enough.

My labors over the English language belonged to my more serious hours, which interrupted our many evenings of play-going and other pleasures. I was busy reading every book in sight that could give me some insight into the strangely exotic workings of the English mind and social system. I would underline all the words and usages which were relatively unfamiliar to most Americans, and I soon found there was scarcely a page of any average English book which did not contain some such usage.**

As I had majored in English literature at college and had fancied myself (and been fancied by my peers at that time) as knowledgeable in this area, I was positively amazed at how many opportunities there were—as I could observe now that I was part of the English environment myself—for an American to misunderstand, partially understand, or totally miss out on an English word or usage. The problem lay not so much in the obviously different words in use in use on either side of the Atlantic—Fowler and others have made check lists of these—for their mastery requires nothing more than a feat of memory.

The real difficulty lay partly in syntactic differences and partly in the many words and expressions common to both countries that had either a slightly or totally different implication in the two countries. Many of these implications were dependent on differences in the two social systems and hence could not readily be listed or catalogued. But this topic requires an entire chapter to itself* and could even provide, in the right hands, the makings of an entire book.**

My first break into print came only a few months after our arrival in England in the form of a prolonged letter to the editor of a radical theatre journal called Encore. It was edited by three of the enfants terribles of the English theatre and had managed to create something of a scandal in the more peaceful days before the real Sixties began by endorsing the need for more sex, radicalism, and experimentalism in English theatre. I had sent in my letter as a contribution to a debate then raging in England about "happenings," as they had just been introduced there from America.

An innovator named Ken Dewey, whose name will recur several times in this story, had just created a scandal at the stately Edinburgh Festival by staging a happening in which a nude girl was briefly seen carried across the stage. As Ilene and I had made something of an impact at one of Allen Kaprow's first happenings in New York a few years earlier by getting up and creating our own improvisations when we found the action rather tame, and as this in retrospect had been one of the factors which had led to more improvisation and audience participation in happenings, I felt myself knowledgeable enough to write a letter on this subject and was gratified to see it published. 

But although I also had a few other sundry letters to the editor published in the English Sunday papers at that time—which proved to me that I was at least beginning to put words together in a coherent order—my plays were being sent back by agents, and I seemed to be really getting nowhere.

(And to continue the theme of learning British English as a foreigner, the narrative now skips to Chapter 9, which the author begins to examine British social differences mirroring the linguistic ones. The stroke of good luck described in the first sentence is described in greater detail in the section on London theatre.)

"The Scarlet Banner's Stained with Blood"
London 1964-65, From chapter 9

In a sense I had served a two year apprenticeship in the English literary world before my stroke of good luck came with Jeremy's phone call, but not all of this time had been spent with my nose to the grindstone. I had found time for a few diversions—or at least for such projects as I considered diversions. One of these took me with fair regularity each Sunday to Speakers' Corner to listen to the soap box orators and join in the repartee. Not even Henry Higgins could have found a better locale to study the varied accents and rhythms of British speech, and I became a habitué after my first visit.

At Speakers' Corner it was possible to hear, within a few yards of each other, every possible political view proclaimed in almost every regional accent of the British Isles, as well as many from beyond it. Socialists and anarchists of every possible tinge were a regular feature, as were all manner of evangelists and self-proclaimed prophets, while a Conservative member of the London County Council came each Sunday to upbraid the masses for their sloth and ignorance.

Some of the orators specialized in inspired (and less than inspired) nonsense, and a few simply came along to recite poetry or sing hymns and folk songs. Among the politicians, the most vibrant oratory was to be heard from the West Indians and some of the other blacks. Though much of the talk was boring or repetitious, these Sunday afternoons were a great gift to anyone interested in the convergence of language and ideas.

I was not only able to sharpen my control of spoken English here, but I also gained considerable insight into English thought patterns, for I imposed upon myself the condition that in all verbal exchanges I must make myself pass for English both in accent and point of view. And I also received a liberal education in the manifold ills and agues plaguing the British body politic and the many large and small injustices borne patiently or otherwise by Britons. It came as a surprise to me how intense racial antagonism in England had become, for I had grown up accepting the boastful claims of my own British relatives that race prejudice was a cancer limited to America and could never fester in the rosy bosom of purest Albion.

Class hatred—not the witty parody of this attitude one is accustomed to shrugging off in the works of Shaw or Kipling—but the real thing, hideous and putrescent, was also a major trait of many of the exchanges at Speakers' Corner, either in the attitudes of the speakers themselves or those of their hecklers. Anti-Americanism was another popular theme—I usually managed to back away from this issue, lest I commit the cardinal British error of appearing to be emotionally involved and thereby revealing my nationality in the process.

But sometimes I would rise to the occasion by egging the speakers on to even greater orgies of hatred for America, catering to their ingrown paranoia and readiness to believe the worst until the edifice of their loathing became so unwieldy that it collapsed of its own one-sidedness. Alternately, I would take the mickey out of them in my best upper-class clipped tones by demonstrating to them that they hadn't the faintest notion of what they were talking about.

The communists were there in considerable force each Sunday, and I took great pleasure in arguing with them in impeccable English and correct radical terminology, as though I were a communist myself, but picking them up on small and not-so-small points of fact and interpretation. In fact, one of the reasons I finally stopped going was that I had done such a good job of convincing the communists of my sympathy that they wanted me to come to their regular meetings.

The anarchists were the ones I found most fascinating and/or amusing—I could never tell which. Listening to their speakers or reading their little home-made pamphlets, I would find myself in agreement with 90% of their principles and still come away telling myself there wasn't the slightest chance this small, ragged group could ever implement a fraction of their program. They were so disorganized and split into so many factions that on many Sundays they were not even able to field a speaker. Some of the faces I had first seen at Speakers Corner—anarchists, poets, black spokesmen, and just plain crazies—were to re-emerge two years later when the English underground press was born.

It was at Speakers' Corner that I saw my first two English May Days and became aware of the extent and character of formal British radicalism. My first May Day in 1964 was a prolonged joke that finally began to weary. There was an interminable parade consisting mainly of perfectly ordinary Englishmen, mostly middle-aged or older types tending to corpulence, marching with no particular style or distinction, carrying banners identifying this or that organization or trade union. There were very few bands in the march, and what little music they had was provided by scratchy loudspeakers on wagons. Most of the accompaniment to the march was in the form of chanted slogans, dealing largely with wages, prices, and the guilt of the capitalist class.

[This chapter has been abridged pending publication...]

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COPYRIGHT STATEMENT:
This book excerpt is Copyright © 2000
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.
All Rights Reserved.

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