English Passive Aggression

This piece grew out of a gently amusing thread I’d posted to Facebook on the subject of English passive aggression. Why?

Well, there can be something exhilarating or even chilling about that English expressions ‘a nice cup of tea’. It’s usually the precursor to the re-establishing of boundaries typically decided by an affronted person of late middle age. In my case, usually white.
I awoke this morning giggling. Now, that’s either a good sign or unhinged. Perhaps the memory of Stourhead which awoke me might amuse you and go some way to explaining why.
But before I do, here’s a wee list of some perfect examples of English passive aggression – you may recognise then.

Here’s goes:

1) The A21, from a four lane highway, narrowing down to a winding country lane at Blue Boys Inn. That’ll teach you.

2) In homage to H L Mencken, the dim view taken of anyone having a good time, to the extent of spoiling one’s own as an act of censure. BREXIT anyone?

3) Food crimes, too numerous to list, including:

  • Bread sauce.
  • A fondness for prepared food borne of a ‘food as fuel’ philosophy, especially microwaved meals or take away left overs hastily combined with a stomach blocking and dehydrating quantity of flour, sugar and salt and then served as ‘dinner’ to someone who can cook.
  • Taking food from another culture, food created with love and eaten there as a delight, is here turned to grey mush the consistency of wallpaper paste. I’m referring to Daal, anything with aubergines, indeed vegetables and pulses of most types. How can the English – alone among people – turn good ingredients into such a hideous and flavourless paste. And why?!
  • Buying wine just because it’s cheap. Then drinking it. And in addition, mixing wines on the basis they’re the same colour.

I have many, many more which give me hours of amusement.

4) The English love for small government which invariably leads to the exact opposite just as everyone reassures themselves that it hasn’t and they they’ve never been happier paying sky-high taxes neatly diverted to private companies (see 2 above).

And now to the experience which awoke me today, giggling …

Before its refurbishment 15 years ago, the grotto at Stourhead was a delightful example of passive aggressive architecture and landscaping. I shall explain …

On entering you were plunged into unforgiving gloom.

Worse. Underfoot, to your sides, and from above seeped and dropped what one hoped was just water. It was hard to tell. The smell muddled every sense. And I certainly wasn’t about to taste!

On hot days, as this was, the damp was so cloying it was guaranteed to crease linen at 20 paces. And the smell of damp earth, dank water, and a hint of drains … all set in a landscape garden of exquisite taste.


It gets worse.

Having laboured through the seven circles of hell, slipping on the uneven, slimy cobbles, trying not to graze yourself on the rough walls, and of course all the while trying to see, you were faced with a narrow and steep ascent back to light and air.


Almost. But not quite … 

Untitled design (11)
Stourhead, with the dome of the Grotto just visible to the far right

At the summit of the stairs, where each riser was of uncertain and unpredictable height, and each stair of a whimsical width dictated by the mood of the 18th century maker, you faced a thick hedge growing over the exit at 45°. By performing contortions, involving leaning backwards at an unnatural angle, an increasingly desperately escape from the grotto’s final clutches was achieved.

Now, pristine as I always aim to be, the combined trauma of avoiding getting my clothes dirtied and maintaining some dignity on exit assumed the grim significance of sheer survival.

Rage saw me through.

Finally, and in a supreme act of very English passive aggression, for it was needed, I deliberately ordered the wrong tea for the person who had suggested this torture. Watching all the while over the rim of my cup and with a benign smile to see whether they would object or meekly drink it.

They drank the tea.

All was well with the world. Strangely, I felt a little better. The magic of Stourhead had asserted itself.

PS – I should add that I love Stourhead, and the grotto now is a delight to visit, and not at all as described above from an experience at least 15 years old.