Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

October Books 9) The English

9) The English: A Portrait of a People, by Jeremy Paxman

As you would hope from the author, this is a witty, erudite, but very readable book about the English. Anyone who has contact with English people on a regular basis should read it. It is written, of course mainly for them, but we who observe them at close quarters will be amused and perhaps enlightened by Paxman's analysis of his own people.

I admit that that paragraph was a bit provocative. I'm not English; I have lived in England for only five of my 41 years; none of my ancestors, as far as I know, in the last 300 years was English. Of course I married an Englishwoman, and my father and his parents (one Irish, one American) were educated in England, as was I myself for the five years of my various Cambridge activities. I remember once having an earnest sherry-fuelled discussion with the Master of my college as to whether or not the Irish were foreign. Paxman's book reminds me that the English are definitely foreign. It was very interesting as an intellectual exercise to separate out England and Englishness, to acknowledge the fact that I am an outsider to both, and to consider them as phenomena in themselves.

Having said that, I found myself in silent agreement with an awful lot of what Paxman writes about the English attitudes to history, the countryside, religion, sex, food, property and history again - so much so that I'm not going to recapitulate it, just urge you to read the book. There were just two points that jumped out at me as especially thought-provoking.

First, a rather technical historical point, and one that is not original to Paxman. The dissolution of the monasteries and Henry VIII's breach with the Pope, it is argued, had deep effects on England's cultural psyche; a rich mainstream (Catholic) European artistic heritage was literally destroyed forever, and the new concentration on the Word of scripture, translated into English, created the intellectual space for Shakespeare, etc, while England was unable to match the continent in the more visual arts. I suspect one could find plenty of opposing evidence if one wanted, but I sense there may be something there, and I should read more about it.

The second, more general point I picked up from Paxman's book is this: that for many English people, national identity is not something that actually has to be considered at all. Going back again to my Cambridge days, I remember one friend from Essex assuring me, "I daon't really 'ave an accent!" Of course he did, but he had never thought of it in that way; he just though he talked normal, and that I talked funny. We who come from smaller, or indeed just other, countries and nations are constantly (made) aware of our origins when we are in England. Other nationalities (certainly everywhere else I have lived, including even the US) accept that they are themselves a distinct and particular group of people, and that other countries are the same; in England, we visitors sometimes feel that we are weirdly and perhaps quaintly deviating from the default state of humankind, which is only found locally.

("Yet, in spite of all temptations / to belong to other nations / he is an Englishman! / He remains an E-e-e-e-e-e-englishman!")

Paxman then goes on to suggest that because the English sense of Englishness (or Britishness) is poorly or even unpleasantly articulated, it becomes much more difficult to have a rational discussion of European integration. To expand his point, the Belgians, Germans, Latvians, and Portuguese all have a good idea of where they are starting from, so are less worried about and more interested in going down the European track. Going back to Paxman, the British (and that largely means English, with certain peculiar exceptions in the territory where I was born) sense of mission collapsed with economic austerity and the loss of Empire after 1945, without anything much to replace it. Yet paradoxically the civic liberal tradition which is one of England's most admirable contributions to the world makes it almost impossible to construct a replacement national ideology. And even if that were possible, it's difficult to see how the Scots and Welsh might buy into such a project; consider how silly Gordon Brown's recent pronouncements on Britishness sounded, especially coming from a Scot.

Anyway, that's what I thought. I hope none of you English people reading this are offended - I like most of you and I love some of you!
Tags: bookblog 2008, world: england

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