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 ..."
"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.