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3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
The English: A Portrait of a People
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on 20 June 1999
About two years ago, a Romanian friend of mine asked me for some help on a dissertation she was preparing called 'The National Identity of the English'. This, to her was a completely natural request for help: she could have easily answered, as could any half-intelligent Romanian, the reverse question on Romanian national identity, even in these troubled times. However, to me, this 'simple' question posed enormous problems. I could not find one book to help me. Scotland... yes, Wales... yes and even Britain but not England.
Eventually, after weeks of fruitless search, the best I could come up with was a book on the 'Empire English'. However, even here, it was a story of the British national identity which bears little resemblance to the England of today with a 'crisis' of devolution of Britain and prospects of further 'encroachment' on our England from Europe.
So, her question had raised many questions in my head about the new nature of England: questions of what the English identity really is. Paxman, in this book, answers many of these questions whilst raising many more.
This book takes us on a journey through time. The move from the typically British identity to a new English one of today. Paxman's sharp, if journalistically cynical, observation and writings lead us towards the recognition of a new English nationalism and the picture of one that will emerge after Britain has finally separated. It could be recommended to any Englishman or women who want to express their idea of England and to any foreigner who wants to know who we are.
In the future on being asked the question 'Explain the National Identity of the English' I will have no hesitation in giving this book as the best answer available today.
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on 21 July 2006
As a non-English reader, I found this book not only fascinating but widely enlighting for as to understand much more clearly the "why's" of Englishness. Through a recent business trip in England, I found this book in a convenience store and immediately found myself reading the most reveling story of the origins, habits, customs and even vices of this incredible culture that has given so much (in good and bad) to the world. For the first time I could krystal clear comprehend the differences (huge) between Scots, Irish, Welsh and English, which as a foreigner are not always clear (from the outside, you are in great risk of believing for all of your life that Jack's Union flag is the English flag, and never understand either the difference between St. George, St. Andrew and / or St. Patrick). Take the case of Renaissance; this is the first time I understand why are there so many outstanding representatives of literature or choral music in England and not so sculptors or painters for instance. Why French food is an art and not so English food is was another interesting discovery. Being "English" as a choice vs. being British as a convenience, well, fascinating hipothesis. It definitely is a "must"; read it.
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on 4 January 1999
The book deserves only one crown.This is because the title "The English - A Portrait of a People"is to a large extent at odds with its content.Paxman's portrait pays scant attention to the English working class.His touchstones of Englishness are primarily about the average middle- or upper- classs Englishman.Paxman says very little about the defining features of the working class.In this respect the book is a real disappointment.Paxman's background suggests he knows very little about the English working class.The fact that he lives on the border between Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire and presents University Challenge says it all.
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on 1 May 2000
Paxman leaves the reader with the firm impression that they are simply not well enough read to be thumbing the pages of The English. It is a very densely written book, packed full of annecdotes and asides, and I enjoyed reading it. But it is more of a water-colour than a sketch - the author applies layer upon layer upn layer of detail, and the reader is given the feeling that neither he, nor Paxman, knows exactly what the English are really about. This may be Paxman's point - nationhood is too dense a subject to be delineated in simple terms. Maybe...
I enjoyed the book, but it is not an intuitive read. Dense, witty, but generally a little confused - Paxman's sharp wit, of the genre displayed on Newsnight, was sadly lacking as a punctuation to a rather rambling tome.
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on 22 November 1999
Paxman's excellent and definitive book is painstakingly researched and certainly belies his aggressive TV persona. A deft touch with the humorous mores of the English as well as an excellent insight into the "real" character of us Brits. A great read for a foreigner who sometimes wonders what makes us tick........
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on 20 January 2006
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" - Henry V, according to Shakespeare, on the eve of Agincourt
"... the English have found themselves walking backwards into the future, their eyes fixed on a point some time at the turn of the twentieth century." - Jeremy Paxman
THE ENGLISH by Jeremy Paxman is an erudite, thoughtful, and thought-provoking essay on what it means to be "English". Jeremy addresses eleven general topics in the same number of chapters. The post-WWII loss of identity concurrent with the divestment of Empire. The English attitude towards foreigners. The submergence of English identity in Empire. The nebulosity of the attribute "true-born Englishmen". The English affection for being beleaguered against overwhelming odds (as at Agincourt, Khartoum, Rorke's Drift, Mafeking, Dunkirk, and during The Blitz). The Church of England. The English as misanthropes. The enduring fantasy of rural England. The "ideal Englishman", anti-intellectual and with stiff upper lip. Sex, and the status of women in society. And, lastly, dragging England out of its glorious past into an uncertain future.
Paxman volunteers insights that I, a visitor to England (and Wales and Scotland) multiple, but all too infrequent, times, would never have thought of:
"The picture of (arcadian) England that the English carry in their collective mind is so astonishingly powerful because it is a sort of haven ... a refuge conjured up in the longing for home of a chap stuck deep in the bush, serving his queen ..."
Or, this:
"The English fixation with weather is nothing to do with histrionics ... The interest is less in the phenomena themselves, but in uncertainty. ... It is the consequence of genuine, small-scale anxiety. ... life at the edge of an ocean and the edge of a continent means you can never be entirely sure what you're going to get."
Paxman's narrative is always interesting, and occasionally witty in a dry, English sort of way. Whether his conclusions are correct or not is best left to the judgment of the reader. (Indeed, anthropologist Kate Fox, in the first chapter of her book, WATCHING THE ENGLISH, maintains that Paxman missed the point with his weather observation.) For the most part, however, they seem eminently reasonable to me, although I might have encompassed one or two peculiarities that have become apparent during my lifetime love affair with the country, e.g., that the English seem to lavish more affection on their pets than their children.
Finally, I applaud the author's attempt to tease apart national characteristics of the English from the "British" overlay. Mind you, "English", "Welsh" and "Scottish", are all lumped under the political construct "British", which is oft wrongly equated with "English" by both ignoramuses and those that should know better. After my many visits to the island, what I remember most vividly (and superficially) are: "Mind the gap!", Cadbury dispensers on railway platforms, Marks & Spencer, the smell of coal smoke on a rainy day, the fluttering and cooing of doves in abbey ruins, roundabouts, kippers for breakfast, Indian take-away, the cold mustiness of the cavernous cathedrals, Scotch eggs, London Tube maps, the low-ceilinged (ouch!) gun deck of HMS Victory, time-warped floor boards in ancient wooden inns, gravestones in isolated cemeteries, and the pre-dawn departure of fishing boats from Portree on the Isle of Skye - only a few of which are unique to an English experience, but all are British.
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on 20 January 2000
I enjoyed this book, Paxman examines many influences on the English nature, the Church, Schools, the Empire both in its accumulation and its decline, geography, women, war, Europe, to name but a few, more than giving us the English now it shows us where we were and why, perhaps now, there is this crisis of identity. Paxman indicates where we might go, but the book is mainly historical. To answer our German friends crticism, the reason no identification is given, is because the English are lurching between the old ideals and something new. It is just that we do not know what that is yet, but Paxman does give us his thoughts on this point. The witty observations and style of the book, make what could be a heavy subject a first class read.
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on 30 July 2013
In a world where peoples are on the move in ever greater numbers, nations are becoming less and less the people they once were. Jeremy Paxman's beautifully written book is a humorous and timely reminder of how the world sees and saw the English, and how, to some extent, the English still see themselves.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 May 2012
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
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on 11 October 2003
Having not read anything by Jeremy Paxman I was a bit worried I’d just picked up an academic read with lots of words I would need a dictionary for. I was pleasantly surprised to find this book to be a very easy read.
In this book Paxman asks the question what does it mean to be english? He investigates some of the things that make up english life – the loss of the Empire, cricket, attitudes to sex, cricket, and lack of understanding of foreigners.
I strongly recommend this book – it’s highly original and yet reading it you can’t help but think “oh yeah, I wondered about that”. I look forward to reading more books by Paxman in the future.
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