Over the past decade or so there has been an explosion in the number of books concerned with various aspects of English identity and character. In this edition we look at four of the most interesting and rewarding, and talk to Kate Fox, author of Watching the English. From national identity to English social behaviour, here are books to appeal to many different areas of interest.
Kate Fox's Watching the English: Review and Author Interview
Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour Kate Fox (Hodder & Stoughton, 2004)
Kate Fox is a very brave woman. In order to research her new book Watching the English she made herself do things that most of us would shrink from, such as demanding to know exactly how much people paid for their houses, striking up conversations with complete strangers on the bus, and, most horrifying of all, jumping queues. Repeatedly. (If none of these prospects made you squirm, then you are simply not English.) Subjecting one’s self to this sort of agony warrants a medal, but Ms Fox has at least managed to get a well-written, perceptive, and extremely entertaining book out of it all.
Having said that, it is true that there is a little too much about her father and fiancé in the first few chapters of the book, which also throb with an apparent worry that we will either laugh or sneer on being told that she is a social anthropologist. However, here she may simply be following a combination of the modesty rule and the Not Being Earnest rule, as outlined near the beginning. Such ostentatious insecurity is calculated to make an English reader warm to her: “I am not all that good at diagrams –I tried to do one once of a particular kind of social network I was studying, and it looked like the webs produced by spiders on LSD”, she confides. Her tendency to explain the meanings of such phrases as “Marks and Spencer”, apparently with an eye to a possible American readership, can be a little irritating. Ms Fox's sprightliness seems to wear off somewhat towards the end of the book and be replaced by frustration at what she perceives as her subjects’ obliquity and obtuseness, but this is perhaps inevitable, for some of the behaviours displayed by her subjects would try the patience of a saint. She occasionally gets a little too caught up in the class associations of various words and objects, and seems to draw heavily (although by no means exclusively) on examples from the upper middle-class, to which she herself, somewhat self-consciously, belongs.
On the whole, though, the book is delightful, illuminated by flashes of uncannily brilliant insight and an uncommon felicity of style, as well as the author's thoroughly charming (and thoroughly English) personality. Although nominally a work of social anthropology, it is aimed at the general reader, and seeks to explain phenomena in which we all have an interest, including, among others, our fascination with our homes, our constant apologising, the centrality of the pub in English social life, our “excessive moderation”, and our discomfort with money-talk, all with the same perceptiveness and humour. Ms Fox is frequently roll-about-on-the-floor-funny; her idea of what a “typically English protest march” would be like brought tears of laughter to my eyes. If you’ve ever wondered why we queue for hours, are so polite, and react to alcohol the way we do, or even if you’ve never wondered and simply want a good laugh, you need to read this book.
We interviewed Kate Fox about Watching the English and her reasons for writing it.
How did you come to undertake such a challenging project as attempting to figure out the English?
Yes, it was a bit over-ambitious, wasn't it? I tend to be a tad too optimistic about these things. I had noticed that we seemed to be having something of an identity-crisis, and there were quite a lot of books trying to explain us to ourselves, but none of them really told me what I wanted to know. That sounds arrogant. It isn't really, I just mean that none of them really dealt with English behaviour, or the rules governing our behaviour, so I thought I'd better try and do it myself.
The English are not generally noted for their willingness to open up to strangers. Did this make researching the book difficult?
Did it ever! Yes. I could not have picked a more awkward culture to study if I'd tried! The English are not even keen on telling you their name, let alone divulging any more personal information. We have all these unwritten rules about not prying, minding your own business, not poking your nose in, and not washing dirty linen in public, not to mention not talking to strangers at all in the first place. The worst thing you can call someone is a nosey parker, which makes my life very difficult, as 'anthropologist' is really just a fancy word for nosey parker. On top of that, I was using informal, participant-observation research methods, meaning that I did not go out with a questionnaire and a clipboard, but rather tried to get into natural conversations with people. I had to use all sorts of tricks and stratagems to get them to talk to me, some of which are described in the book.
When you published Watching the English, were you at all worried about what the reaction would be to your central thesis that the English suffer from a 'social dis-ease'? Do you think that it has offended people at all?
No, to be honest. I wasn't very worried because I knew that the English are quite good at accepting criticism, much better than we are at accepting praise, particularly if the criticism is presented in a humorous manner. Inviting the English to laugh at themselves is never a problem. Sure enough, most reviewers described my take on the English as "affectionate" or something similar, and seemed actively to enjoy the fact that my more pointed observations on our flaws and foibles made them "cringe and wince". When I was writing the book, I was more worried about the reaction to the few bits where I say nice things about the English, and felt obliged to hedge these about with all sorts of qualifications and caveats (see the various sections on courtesy and modesty, for example). Some people still felt that I had been too charitable, and accused me of painting too rosy a picture of the English.
Although most other recent books on Englishness seem to be aimed at an exclusively English audience, your book appears to have been written with foreigners in mind as well as English readers. Do you think that there is much interest outside of England in what makes the English tick?
I hope so, and I think there is. I have certainly had lots of nice letters from foreigners who have read the book, saying that it has helped them to understand the English, and to deal with all sorts of social situations which they had previously found difficult. Despite all my criticisms of the English, many foreign visitors and immigrants also say that they like and appreciate the English more after reading the book. I've had letters from EFL teachers telling me they are insisting that all their students read the book and even using it in their classes, and one review said that the book should be distributed to all immigrants to this country, so I suppose there must be a need for this kind of explanation of English behaviour. I don't think we realise quite how weird and baffling we can seem to outsiders. It's not that my book is so great, just that we have a lot of hidden rules that can make life very difficult for those not familiar with our culture and customs.
How do you respond to criticisms that your book is not multicultural enough and has too much of an upper middle-class focus?
I try to explain my approach to class and race in the introduction. It's not a simple answer, but I don't think that I do have too much of an upper-middle-class focus. There are sections on class differences and class issues in almost every chapter in the book --not surprising, as class pervades every aspect of English life (food, sex, pets, homes, gardens, talk, hobbies, cars, clothes, etc.)-- and I always specify when a behavioural quirk or trait I am describing is most common among a particular class. On the whole, I was trying to find the core qualities of Englishness, the ones that transcend class and sex and age and region and other social differences, and I think the final list of 'defining characteristics' cannot be said to favour any one class. We certainly all suffer from social dis-ease, and class-consciousness itself is one of my 'defining characteristics', so I don't think I can be accused of ignoring the issue. My main point regarding race and so on is that Englishness is not a matter of race or birth or colour or creed. It is a mindset, a behavioural 'grammar,' a set of rules and codes that anyone can learn and apply. I point out that among my own close friends, the two that I would most readily describe as 'very English' are a first-generation Indian immigrant and a first-generation Polish refugee. I feel very strongly about this.
Did the project give you a new perspective on your own behaviour as an English person? Have you experienced any difficulty since in switching off your Englishness radar?
Yes, it did give me a new perspective on my own Englishness. For a start, I hadn't realised quite how English I was, quite how deeply ingrained some of the reflexes were. Some of the experiments I did turned out to be a test of my own Englishness; I found things like the queue-jumping experiments horribly traumatic. I almost abandoned the whole project rather than put myself through such an ordeal. To be honest (and as a social-science researcher I really shouldn't admit this) I'm not even very good at talking to strangers. I find it terribly embarrassing and would much rather hide behind my newspaper and avoid eye contact like everyone else. To answer your second question, I find it almost impossible to switch off my research radar generally, but especially the Englishness one. I still find myself making notes (usually on the back of my hand, like a teenager) when I come across an interesting example of weather-speak or something.
I imagine that the research has given you a lot of good stories. What is one incident that stands out in your mind?
Oh gosh, there are so many! Most of them are described in the book, which is as much an account of my research as an analysis of my findings. I think probably the funniest were the bumping experiments, when I spent days wandering around crowded public places (train stations, shopping centres, etc.) accidentally-on-purpose bumping into people to count how many of them said "sorry". I was trying to test the stereotype that the English apologise when someone bumps into them, even when the collision is clearly the other person’s fault. I devised a way of doing this that involved pretending to be fumbling around for something in my shoulder-bag, with my hair over my eyes, but actually calculating my trajectory quite carefully to achieve a relatively gentle bump (which believe me is important, if you are going to do hundreds of bumps) while making sure the thing looked accidental. The trouble was, I am so bloody English that I kept spoiling the experiment by blurting out "sorry" before the other person had a chance to react. In the end, I found I could only stop my "sorry" reflex by biting my lip, quite hard, as I did the bumps. To make the experiment scientific, I had to bump into a representative cross-section of the English population, in a representative sample of locations. Then I had to do a cross-cultural sample, diligently bumping into as many people as possible in France, Belgium, Russia, Poland and Lebanon, and then bumping into tourists of different nationalities in tourist-trap locations in London and Oxford. I ended up covered in bruises, but it was worth it.
Are you planning on doing any more work on Englishness, or does Watching the English mark the end of this kind of research for you?
I'm a bit of a dilettante, I'm afraid. I have a rather short attention-span, and tend to get bored with a subject once I've researched and written about it, and want to move on to something completely different. I've just signed a contract to write another book, about shopping, another subject nobody really understands, myself included (although goodness knows I do enough of it), so I'm hoping the research will enlighten me! The interview was conducted by Isabel Taylor. Many thanks to Kate Fox for her time.
Krishan Kumar’s The Making of English National Identity
Cambridge University Press, 2003
At the beginning of this timely and insightful book, Professor Kumar makes an observation of the kind so obvious that it never occurs to most writers, with the result that we do not have a chance to realise the truth of it: the English do not like, and never have liked, the idea of nationalism. This is, apparently, abnormal in any modern nation-state, and the author focusses most of his investigations on discovering the reasons behind this immunity. His main conclusion is that the experience of Empire required the English to subsume their national identity, and in particular any nationalism that they may have felt, beneath something bigger, and that, unlike the Scots, Welsh and Irish, they never had as much incentive to preserve their original identity in the face of anything that could be made to look like foreign oppression, largely because of the ambiguous relationship, a not-quite-equivalence, between Englishness and Britishness. It is a provocative thesis, but many would argue as well that the English dislike of nationalism also stems from a horror of “isms” of all kinds, part of a distinctively pragmatic and empirical turn of mind.
Kumar’s arguments are largely convincing, although, for our interests, he spends far too long examining pre-modern English history (his account of the period before Alfred the Great is muddled and muddling, which may have something to do with the era's labrynthine complexities) in order to refute scholars who have argued for a nascent English nationalism in, variously, the Anglo-Saxon era, the Norman era, the Tudor era, and so on. (It does not appear that he is trying to deny the Englishness of any of these eras in English history, although it is distinctly odd that he does not allow the Anglo-Saxons to be “English” in terms of their sense of themselves, while referring to them as “English” in the context of their encounters with the Scots. Overall, however, the author’s fairness and balance is remarkable, unparalleled by most other writers on the subject.) Kumar argues, instead, for a “moment of Englishness” during the late Victorian age as a certain national insecurity began to set in, and it is hard to dispute the evidence, from Vaughan Williams to A. E. Housman, that he summons. However, whether this was the only moment of Englishness (understood in terms of self-conscious national awareness) may be disputable.
The author's treatment of the relationship between the English and the Celts, both within Britain and in the construction of the British Empire, is, in general, one of the most refreshing and just accounts of the subject that this reviewer has ever read. He is also brilliant and crystal-clear on current issues; the second half of the book ought to be required reading for anybody concerned by the constitutional dilemma (and opportunity) that we are faced with following the devolution of Scotland and Wales. In this context, the last two chapters alone are worth their weight in gold for their measured, detached analysis of our confused times. Professor Kumar examines immigrants’ input into the great identity debate, and remarks that, faute de mieux, the Conservative party may well become “the English party” –a prospect that should concern anyone on the left. As an expatriate of many years, Professor Kumar effortlessly combines the perspectives of insider and outsider, and this is one of the book’s peculiar merits. Although it is an academic work, it is very clearly written and (except perhaps for the initial, rather abstract discussion of different concepts of nationalism) highly accessible to the non-academic reader.
It could be argued that our lack of nationalism is a strength rather than a weakness and has allowed us to accommodate to new political realities more gracefully than would otherwise have been possible, but the author’s final contention is undeniably thought-provoking. It is that, to meet contemporary challenges, the English need to evolve a “truly civic” nationalism that will embrace everyone in England, regardless of origin. There is an up-side to our lack of nationalism, in his view, and this is that our very lack of conscious nationalism in the past has made us especially capable of doing this. Kumar concludes on the hopeful note that perhaps we could lead the world in evolving this type of nationalism. That would certainly be something to be proud of. (Oh dear. Did that sound a bit nationalistic?)
Peter Ackroyd's Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination
Chatto & Windus, 2002
Peter Ackroyd’s Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination begins with a poetic meditation on the English reverence for trees, a perfect start for a book that goes on to examine a plethora of topics with great erudition, including Anglo-Saxon poetry, Gothic literature, and the “sinuous line” as employed by English artists from the Tremulous Hand of Worcester (read the book) to Hogarth and Turner.
This is not just an investigation of but a monument to the English imagination, weighing in at a massive 449 pages. Nonetheless it is compulsively readable and provides some of the best insights into our culture that have ever been penned, even though among these there are scattered others that may be slightly fanciful. Written in the form of interconnected essays, it sets out to determine what makes the English imagination uniquely English. In the process we encounter not only all the usual suspects (a pragmatic turn of mind, discomfort with displays of heightened emotion, a love of the domestic and familiar, etc.) but also not-so-usual ones, including a new, and much-needed, emphasis on the conflation of the Saxon and the Celtic in the English temperament, based on new scholarship which, according to Ackroyd, shows that there was a lot more peaceful co-existing between the two groups in England, especially in the North, than scholars previously thought.
In fact, one of Ackroyd’s emphases throughout is precisely on our ability to assimilate foreign cultural forms and turn them into something peculiarly native, and he gives examples of this that range from poetry to drama. Another major theme concerns what he regards as our latent Catholicism, which, he believes, has persisted in various ways in mainstream English culture since the Reformation. There is no doubt that he has a point here; the English never did break as profoundly with the Catholic church as did many other Protestant countries, particularly not in terms of ritual, and Catholicism remained strong in many working-class areas, particularly in the North. This particular thesis, however, becomes something of an obsession, leading Ackroyd to make some connections which appear to be rather tenuous (a fault which occurs in other contexts as well), and begs the question: if English culture was so deeply imbued with Catholicism prior to the Reformation, what was it that also, at the same time, made it eccentrically different from other Catholic cultures (and, of course, what made and makes them different from one another?) Religion is not everything in a culture, especially not in one as resolutely unexcited about matters of faith as ours.
Another criticism can be made with regard to Ackroyd’s sources. Except for occasional references to mystery or mumming plays, practically no examples are drawn from English working-class culture, and none from more recent working-class sources. Given that the book sets out to examine “the English imagination”, it seems peculiar, to say the least, to ignore the imagination of the majority of the population. The oversights in terms of twentieth-century culture (which, to be fair, Ackroyd rarely mentions in any context) are particularly stunning: no Beatles, no cinema, no Angry Young Men. Perhaps it is time for a book on the Englishness of English working-class culture, or a book which will encompass all of English culture, including that of the modern age.
The narrative also suffers from a certain circularity and repetition (which can, however, be excused if we see it as evidence for Ackroyd’s claim that the English love pattern). Overall, however, it is an intelligent, sensitive, and ambitious work, with many good things along the way. From our love of heterogeneity to our humour and our sensitivity to nature, Ackroyd has it covered. His uncanny ability to put the ineffable into words means that this work will probably not be equalled for a long time to come.
Michael Bracewell’s England is Mine: Pop Culture in Albion from Wilde to Goldie
If you want a breathtakingly eccentric read, try Michael Bracewell’s England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie. Taking as his subject “pop”, through which, according to him, English rebels always define themselves, Bracewell leads us on an idiosyncratic hopping tour of English popular culture in the twentieth century. Any book which can mix together Powell and Pressburger, Enid Blyton, and Kate Bush (not to mention Dexy’s Midnight Runners) must be interesting, you might think. Well, it is; but it is also one of those books that only make any sense if you read them in a certain frame of mind, and a rather peculiar one at that.
The English rebel dominates the book, from Malcolm McDowell’s character in O Lucky Man! to Morrissey. As the archetype of all these rebels, Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar looms over the text in a way that is faintly ridiculous and probably disproportionate. The English rebel, Bracewell argues, is always and ever in revolt against, and interacting critically with, the English dream of the pastoral paradise, Arcadia, which itself persists throughout English culture, sometimes in perverted and rotten form (as in its Tudorbethan suburban incarnation). These main themes of Arcadia and rebellion against it allow Bracewell to take in a staggeringly large swathe of territory, ignoring, as is now fashionable, any distinction between high and low culture. Chief among his investigations are the development of masculinity and femininity in English pop culture, and the space devoted to this seems a little over the top. (As Western cultures go, we are not mammothly obsessed with gender). He is much better on the evolution of that modern phenomenon, the teenager, from those of the Beatles age to the insecure products of Thatcherism, applying liberal doses of Morrissey, angry angel of the north, like balm to their souls. (One warning about this book: the style may be catching. Whether or not this a good thing depends on your personal taste.)
Punk, not surprisingly, is one of Bracewell’s chief concerns, and he considers a wide range of punk artists, from famous groups like the Jam to more obscure figures (the Television Personalities, anyone?) However, if you are not well-informed about punk to begin with, or, indeed, most of the cultural movements described in these pages, Bracewell's narrative is unlikely to leave you any the wiser. He assumes a great deal of background knowledge of pop culture, some of it fairly esoteric, on the part of the reader.
The book swims from muddle to brilliant clarity and then back again. An example of such clarity occurs in the following observation, startling in its precision: "In England, where culture seems concerned with depth (in America it seems more in love with breadth), one begins with a local sense of place --which absorbs patterns of experience like a psychic tape recorder, listening out for errant bleeps and squeaks which denote disturbance." This clarity, however, diminishes as the book progresses, until the last chapter, Lipstick and Robots, which becomes hopelessly confused, mixing up Englishness and Britishness everywhere and waxing on alarmingly, as well as bewilderingly, on the connection between dialogues of Englishness and the far right during the eighties. The language also often leads the reader unversed in the language of cultural criticism to suspect a leg-pull, as when we are cheerfully informed that "Bowie was the Pied Piper of Handbag to a younger generation out of patience with cheesecloth."
Nevertheless, this is a display of frequently revelatory intellectual fireworks. If you have the patience for this sort of thing, you will find much herein that is worthwhile and thought-provoking, and sometimes almost eerily on the money. Readers will especially appreciate the fact that, unlike many other surveys of Englishness, this one is not at all class-bound. Wild, brilliant, and bizarre, this is one of the oddest books ever written on English culture.--Isabel Taylor