6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The idea of Englishness,
This review is from: The English. A Portrait of a People (Paperback)
This is a book which seems to have annoyed a lot of people; few bestsellers get such a low star rating. Why? Paxman's subtitle is "A Portrait of a People", and I suspect this may be where the problem lies. I cannot imagine anyone bought this book without seeing Paxman on television. His style, whether accosting politicians or taking ignorant students to task on University Challenge, is abrasive, opinionated and impatient. Also, of course, intelligent, witty and direct. So when we find these qualities in his book, it can hardly come as a surprise.
I've read "The English" three times now since it came out. It is certainly enjoyable, undoubtedly provocative. But it isn't so much a portrait of the English people as a collection of human beings, as a discussion of the IDEA of Englishness; the idea which English people have about themselves, and which foreigners have about us. This idea of Englishness, like most people's self-image, is only very slightly the product of honest self-examination, and consists in bulk of vanity, self-deceit and wishful thinking. Perhaps, when we see this self-image reflected back in such a harsh light, we are a bit taken aback.
Of course not all English people share the same view of what it is to be English, and Paxman gives a lot of time to the particular myth of Englishness which was developed to keep up civilian morale during the Second World War; the extent to which we embraced that image, and the way it has been undermined in the decades since. This is an interesting tale, but has relatively little to do with what "The English" are really like.
Paxman's jolly rant is highly amusing, and helps us see both the weakness and the strengths of this national mythology. Only by turning on it the same cool, appraising gaze that Paxman does will we be able to break free of our own PR and come to terms with our place in the 21st century. For a book on what "The English" are really like in their daily lives, try Kate Fox's gentle and self-depreciatory anthropological expedition through the country in Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour