“An Open Letter to Posh Guys,” by Erin Clune

Jan 16th, 2013 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

In re: my posh (former) boyfriend’s statement that “Nobody wants to look at history books in the living room.”

Dear Posh Guys:

I had no idea.   I’m not dumb, or uneducated.  I’m just American.  We shy away from words like “master.”  We eat a lot of desserts, but call only one of them pudding.  We like tea, but mostly we drink coffee, no variety of which is named after our country, members of our peerage, or our former colonies.

Given our quirky interest in brewed breakfast beverages—and other cultural exotica, too numerous to mention—the books were an accident waiting to happen.  There I was, unpacking my box, when the boyfriend looked up, took off his reading spectacles, and rushed over to stem the tide of disaster.

“What?” I exclaimed, looking around in embarrassment. “Oh my God!  Nobody Wants to Look at History Books in the Living Room!?”

At first, I could scarcely believe my ears.  But as his words sunk in, I realized I just had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

I grasped for an explanation.  Maybe he was speaking rhetorically.  Like a poet. As in: Nobody can give you freedom!  Be nobody but yourself! Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen!   But do posh guys recite Negro spirituals by shrieking in an angry, high-pitched voice?   I just wasn’t sure.

So, maybe he was being literal.   Like: Nobody lives forever.  Or, nobody’s home.   No, I thought, that can’t be right.   Because I’m a person.  In fact, I’m a history teacher.   Those are my books.   I live here.

Then—out of nowhere—it hit me.  Like a bolt of lightning.  Or a mercantilist tax on tea.   He wasn’t talking about me.  He was talking about you.  When he said “Nobody,” he was speaking the language of upper class universal.  That rarefied dialect used by a narrow subset of fancy, educated English people to explain things that are patently obvious only to themselves.  Examples include:

Don’t be daft, dear. Nobody favors Winchester over Eton

Balderdash, Rowan Williams! (tisk) Nobody speaks the Queen’s English anymore!

Independence?  Rubbish!  Nobody Believes The Natives Are Truly Ready For Self-Government!

Do those sentences make sense to you? Of course!  Since other people have no bloody idea what you’re talking about, they may sometimes mistake your words for self-serving opinions.  But do those people share their surnames with a large country manor?  Or take afternoon tea?   Of course not!  So who the hell cares what they think?  No need to answer that.

Did I find it arrogant when he moved my books, and replaced them with his own glossy hardcover books?   Perhaps, and I suppose—But enough about me!   Did the world call you arrogant when you drafted the Magna Carta?   Or when you shepherded in the English Reformation and its flagship idea—the monarch’s right to serial divorce?  Sure, you take our books.  And sometimes cut off our heads. But you’ve given us so much in return!  Refined sugar, and the mechanical pencil.  Greenwich Mean Time, and Worcestershire sauce.  Many of the world’s finest fruit chutneys.  Say what you will about that zesty condiment.  But from the moment it was bottled– in those brilliant hexagonal jars – overcooked mutton was never the same.

Yes, we do have lingering concerns.  Like, how in the world have you accomplished so much?  Superior personal hygiene?  Uncommon emotional intelligence?  It surely didn’t hurt that for some time, your strongest national rival was the French.

But above all, it must have been your unfailing standards in drawing room décor.   You don’t attend the Royal Ascot—in full morning dress and top hats—simply because you have eugenically uniform doughy white skin, and a rigidly intact social hierarchy.  You triumphed over natural selection because—while other classes and sexes were flinging their reading materials around the house, all willy-nilly—you were sorting your books with utter taxonomic precision.  Nobody gave you this privilege, posh guys.  You earned it.  With tidy books!  Well done!  Carry on!

Yea, some in this world would choose to qualify your great nation with the farcical insult: “once.”   Well, empires may fall.   Powerful rulers are overthrown.  But Evolution marches on.  And when Evolution isn’t marching, he is almost certainly reading.  And Evolution definitely doesn’t want you to sully your flawless shelving with an appalling display of slippery, soft, and lightweight—double entendre intended—paperbacks.

The weaker sex may not mind reaching up to a bookshelf and pulling down a PAPER book.  With a silly, ephemeral title like Democracy in America, or The Market Revolution.   But you don’t sit on the sofa—with your hot toddies in one hand, and your spotted dicks in the other—because you want to look at feminine literature.   Nobody goes to Oxford to learn how to be a pansy!    You go to read hard covers, which—if they’re about history—are sensibly hidden from public view.  Like a personal photo of your mum.  Or a ruddy Irish servant.  Or the loo.

Now, sirs and sons of sirs, you are also an inquisitive, intelligent lot.   You may sometimes wonder why in this day and age—when you are literally the only people still going to school in pin striped pants and starched white collars—you must follow these domestic conventions.  Maybe you live with a modern, reading type of girlfriend, in an urban loft apartment.  Theoretically, that apartment could be right downstairs from a famous rapper’s stash spot.   Technically, your living room may just be a “nook,” between the bathroom and the stairs.

The reason, dear lads, is tradition!  Should women suddenly stop wearing their hair in high tidy buns like Queen Victoria?  Should the Hindoos be left to take over India, and build their own roads?   Does anyone really want to end the triangular trade in sugar, rum, and chattel slavery?  You observe tradition for tradition’s sake because it is the glue that holds your noble civilization together!   That, of course, and an almost pathological aversion to hugging.

Were the books the only winter of our cohabitating discontent?   Nay.  There was my grubby teapot.  And my needy character.   And my desk, which evidently looked like cheap fiberboard crap from IKEA.   Well, he totally called that—it was cheap fiberboard crap from IKEA.  It’s also true that I can be a willful, defiant woman.  I sometimes open doors for myself in the presence of able-bodied men.  I once went to a movie alone, and didn’t really mind.  I’ve dabbled in some of the legal benefits of second-wave feminism and have been known—on occasion, when confiding in my diary—to refer to them as rights.

Should I have cared less about my books?   Perhaps.  After all, I’m no Iron Lady.  If anything, I’m much closer to a merchant’s wife, who hides the unpleasant markers of her middle-class upbringing behind a head of healthy hair and a heart of gold.  But I did move out.  In the end, I decided that we were like two nations, divided by a common bookshelf.

If you ever run into him, while you’re out walking your sheepdogs near Gosford Park, please tell him it was for the best.  Because he was right.  I do have rather lowbrow taste.  And a lot of ugly paperbacks.  And I really am kind of needy, even for a chick.  But I am also a casual student of history.   I know a little bit about the American Revolution.  And really, lads, there’s a lesson there too.

Because Nobody thought that would work out either.


Erin Clune is a writer and public radio contributor living in Madison, Wisconsin. Her humor essays have aired nationally on To the Best of Our Knowledge and All Things Considered.  She writes local food stories for Edible magazine and WPR’s Wisconsin Life.  She also writes essays for her blog, “Life After NY: Musings from the Third Coast,” which can be found on the internet.  She recently won the first place humor prize from the Wisconsin Writer’s Association.

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