Subtitled The Portrait of a People, this has been on my bookshelves for a few years and comes under the umbrella of my latest money saving scheme – reading all the books I didn’t finish the first time round. Or in this case didn’t even start.
Thinking back I guess The English was possibly left here by my American brother-in-law many years ago during one of his visits, but I may be wrong. Perhaps he was trying to come to terms with that grumpily endearing character that was me during the Christmas holidays. It could have helped, too, as The English is written by grumpy old Jeremy Paxman, another notorious misanthrope, known for his regular dissections of otherwise reasonably successful and self satisfied politicians.
The English is a detailed and well researched book about the history of the English in which Paxman tries to discover what it is that makes us, and what we really are. And I am English – I’ve gone right back to the 1840s and my ancestors were all born here, so I suppose the topic is of some interest, though perhaps I should know the answer anyway?
Paxman takes a series of themes which he explores in his usual polemical style: there never is a riposte to what he says, as he is of course never wrong. He opens with the view that the English have a self confidence borne of Empire and therefore have had no need to seek an identity through any of the usual forms of nationalist expression – music, clothes, nation days, flags. In any case English nationalism is subsumed into the Empire and the Union Jack in the way that can never be quite as true of the Welsh or Scottish.
He goes on to examine the response of the English to foreigners, to abroad. As has recently been confirmed by the Brexit debate, the English basically don’t like them. This view was summed up by a church friend recently, about the French, “What did they ever do for us?” Hmm! It seems the entente cordiale wasn’t helped by the tendency of the French peasants to rip off English soldiers during WW1, selling eggs and so on at exorbitant prices. But it’s not just the French – the yanks suffer our scorn too. Apparently Harold MacMillan thought we were to the American Empire what the Greeks were to the Roman: a dusting of culture, a flavour of intelligence and sophistication added to the barbarian stew. Paxman attributes much of this dismissal of foreigners to our island nature.
Of course no account of Englishness could ignore the Empire, the Victorians and of course the Battle of Britain. Paxman refers in detail to all of these, explaining how they have contributed to the formation of the national character. He doesn’t pull punches, examining the English tendency to drunken violence, their coldness and lack of passion, the failures of the post war settlement, as well as looking at other less damning aspects such as their love of hearth and home – he puts this, and other things, down to the atrocious weather. Jeremy, isn’t that such an English thing to do?
This book is great entertainment. It builds a coherent theory of nationhood out of a string of disconnected references sourced from the British Library reading room. As you would expect from Paxman it’s witty, funny and full of bite.