Godfrey Smith's The English Companion: An idiosyncratic A-Z of England and Englishness
Old House Books, 1996
A quick glance at the dust jacket reveals a photo of someone who looks rather like an extremely jolly modern-day incarnation of John Bull, complete with beer tankard and cricket club jersey, and apparently roaring with laughter. The same expansive personality illuminates every page of this eccentric, big-hearted, and hugely enjoyable work.
The book does not claim to be a complete guide to English culture. As Smith points out in the introduction, "to attempt to deal exhaustively with English preoccupations would need a dozen volumes". However, after browsing through this book the reader may well wish that a dozen volumes of it were to hand, full of such entries as "Pets: The code-name given by the English to the animal master-race which has taken them over". The writing has the atmosphere of a leisurely and liberal afternoon tea spent in the company of an entertaining raconteur. Smith's style combines classical correctness with jovial heartiness, occasionally softening into lyricism, usually when he is writing about the English countryside or English seasons: "English air in autumn is ichor, and the buttered light, filtered through mist, gives the English that gift for allusion and ambiguity which their enemies call imprecision and deviousness", he writes, under Autumn (and then goes rollicking on to 'Baked Beans'). Especially good on cricket and poetry, particularly Shakespeare's sonnets, he is also skilled at capturing the zeitgeist of various English decades. Underlying the whole text is a deep and unsentimental love of country, which Smith does not allow to prevent him from seeing his native land objectively. He regards his compatriots with an affectionate but clear-eyed gaze, and is harsh when necessary (defining class as "The English pox"). This balance results in a humane and often tender celebration of England and its people.
Nevertheless, there are some problems with the Companion. Although the author maintains that he has tried to soften what one critic felt was the overly masculine tone of the first edition, women still get short shrift. This is a significant shortcoming, given that the Companion is supposed to concern itself with the English in general. Smith's tendency to invoke 'the Englishman' ("It is so self-evident to the Englishman that his apples are the best in the world that he considers it unnecessary to labour the point"), even supposing that he is using the phrase in its so-called generic sense, manages to make female readers feel left out. No doubt we are meant to be consoled by the fact that we get an entry of our own under 'Women', which informs us that Englishwomen are still, as far as the (here obviously non-generic) 'Englishman' is concerned, "very much his cup of tea," mainly due, apparently, not to any positive characteristics on our part but to a lack of behavioural extremes. Smith's endorsement of equality would be more convincing were more than a few notable Englishwomen given their own entries, and were there less of an enthusiasm for off-colour songs in evidence.The book is extremely enlightened in other ways, however, refusing to focus only on the stereotypical provincial C of E version of Englishness. Thus Smith takes account of the Jewish experience in England, warning against complacency over the English record on anti-Semitism by pointing to examples of casual anti-Semitism that have unfortunately been common enough in English literature, while Gujarati Londoners have an entry that views them with affectionate respect.
The author is undoubtedly a Character, which goes a long way towards excusing some of the book's obsessions (Louis MacNeice, not an English but an Ulster poet, is mentioned rather more times than even his considerable gifts warrant) and omissions. The Companion is one of the most individual and enjoyable reference works available on English culture, containing passages of such beauty or humour that they haunt the mind long after the volume has been put back on the shelf. This is a delightful book, to be kept by one's bedside, to pick up during tea-breaks and leaf through again and again, or to read in front of a blazing fire with some hot chestnuts handy. --Isabel Taylor
Richard Lewis's The Magic Spring: My Year Learning to be English
Atlantic Books, 2005
Richard Lewis' The Magic Spring: My Year Learning to be English is one of the most unusual and delightful books of 2005. Its main objective is to introduce novices to the glories of English folk culture as a means of getting in touch with their roots, and there is no doubt that, on the whole, Lewis does an admirable job of it. The author had been having a problem with identity all his life, something he connects to a wider cultural malaise: “We –I mean the English—had done a good job of burying our fundamental ways under a veneer of sherry and industry. We’d hidden ourselves behind war, empire and a flawed notion of cultural superiority. The embrace of progress meant we had stifled our folk traditions.”
So Lewis embarks on various miniature odysseys in search of real English folk traditions, in the process encountering a range of fascinating and often eccentric characters, and uncovering a lot of (to most people) strange and obscure rituals and customs: Morris dancing, hobby horses, real ale, mumming plays, bonfire nights, Gloucestershire cheese-rolling, and other folk traditions too numerous to catalogue here. His lucid and often poetic prose captures the surreal aspects of some of his experiences nicely: “A trio of banjo players slipped in and out of the pillars, and a miniature Straw Bear scurried across the cobbles.” Lewis is highly sensitive to what is sometimes called the genius loci, showing the ways in which culture reflects the spirit of a place; Molly dancing, for example, is described as “gruff, aggressive dancing, as bleak as the January fens.”
There are personal reminiscences scattered throughout the text, sometimes relevant to the main subject and sometimes not. One of the best is a sobering account of his experiences with the homeless when he worked as a busker on the London Underground. His is a narrative bristling with working-class pride and distaste for the Establishment, enlivened by an extremely keen sense of humour (it made me laugh harder than any book I’ve read this year) and informed by uncommon sensitivity, a deep appreciation of the land, and a classically Radical interpretation of English history.
However, there are flaws. Lewis is far too fond of sentence fragments and has an unfortunate tendency to repeat himself, particularly small anecdotes and incidents connected to the folk revival. (Cecil Sharp is castigated repeatedly for his intransigent opposition to the performing of Morris dances by mill girls, which, Lewis believes, was responsible for the recasting of the Morris as an exclusively male activity, and worsened the exclusive masculinity of many aspects of English folk culture. He certainly has a point, but there is no need to belabour it again and again.) The writing deteriorates a bit in the second half of the book. Here the chief problem is that Lewis becomes too preoccupied by the "Pagan or Christian?" debate surrounding the origins of folk culture, and whether or not certain folk traditions are genuine. He frets about these issues extensively, to the detriment of the narrative and his lovely sense of humour. The modern world is sometimes too much with him; it is disconcerting, for example, to find the Bush administration intruding into a book on English folk culture. Nonetheless, this is the best introduction to English folk culture around for general readers, packing the basics about the English folk revival into a fairly compact volume. It is likely to win many over to folk-dancing, chuffy squeeze-box music and warm real ale, and for that alone it should be applauded. Seasoned folkies will probably learn a thing or two as well, for when Lewis is on the ball, he is brilliant; his dissection of the difference between stage and folk drama is almost eerily insightful. Here is a book full of many of the most basic and yet most enjoyable things in life.--Isabel Taylor
The Xenophobe's Guide to the English by Antony Miall and David Milsted
Oval Books 1999
Although this guide is not ostensibly aimed at English readers, we simply couldn't resist it. Do you know a foreigner who seems to have trouble understanding your behaviour or that of other English people, or simply appears to feel downright uncomfortable in England? Perhaps you yourself are such a foreigner? In either case, the solution is this tiny but invaluable book, one of a series of useful little guides written by natives of various cultures for the help and succour of bewildered foreigners trying to get to grips with, to them, bizarre and confusing patterns of behaviour. (The title, it should be pointed out, is not meant to cast aspersions on the reader's attitudes.)
This guide contains, in potted and engagingly-written entries, nearly all the usual suspects of Englishness (the cults of common sense, pet-worship, sense of humour, tea, the pub, eccentricity, 'niceness', and so on). It is extremely insightful and funny: "Even if you have conquered the Atlantic in a small boat, if you are English you are expected to do no more than comment: 'I do a little sailing from time to time."' There are times, in fact, when one feels that the book gives almost too much away.
The authors are nearly always dead-on. In fact, the only thing that could be quibbled with is their assertion that "For most, childhood is something to be got over as quickly as possible. To be an English grown-up is reckoned a great and glorious thing." If this is true, it is very hard to explain the prodigious amount of children's fiction written and published every year in England since the mid twentieth-century, or the fascinations of many grown-up English people with model-building and other childhood pursuits which, in other countries, would be written off as childish obsessions. It has often seemed to this reviewer that, in fact, many adults secretly miss their childhoods, or long for an idealised version of an English childhood.
Overall, though, this is the best quick demystifier of English culture available. It is especially helpful for anyone who wants to learn how to master the code and intricacies of English social interaction. And for English readers, it offers more than a few chuckles of recognition, for example at the bishop who claimed earnestly in 1948 that "If Stalin had learned to play cricket, the world might now be a better place."--Isabel Taylor
Christopher Winn's I Never Knew That About England
Ebury Press, 2005
A hundred years ago compendiums of factoids and information were hugely popular, but they have not been as much a feature of recent publishing as lovers of reference texts could wish. Thus the appearance of this charming little volume is good news for anyone who enjoys trivia, particularly trivia about various places in England. Did you know, for example, that the countryside around Birmingham provided some of the inspiration for Tolkien's Shire? That the Angel of the North has only been there since 1998? (I don't know about you, but it seems now to have always been there.) Or that one of the most important Paris couturiers of all time, Frederick Worth, was born in Bournemouth? No matter how much you may think you know about England, this book is guaranteed to present you with more than one tidbit that you have never come across before. The book is organised on the basis of England's 39 traditional counties. Winn recounts interesting and sometimes very funny stories associated with hundreds of places, even some of the tiniest villages, bearing out his observation that "England packs a tremendous diversity of scenery and heritage into a tiny but ravishingly beautiful space." Central London is omitted for reasons of space, but there are also some other, mystifying exclusions. There surely must be something to say about Sheffield, for example, and Hull is similarly neglected, as are some delightful mediaeval towns like Rye. The book does not reflect the diversity of modern England either; a foreigner could read the section on Leicester, for example, and be none the wiser about its famous curry houses.Nevertheless, I Never Knew That About England is packed with useful and entertaining information. Ghost stories, historical anecdotes, and facts about all sorts of notable people, living and dead, mingle on its densely-printed pages. An especially attractive feature, the Gazetteer, contains a list of interesting places in England that are open to the public, which adds to the guide's usefulness on holiday. (One of the book's many virtues is that it is small enough to tuck into a satchel on a rambling or motoring expedition.) The volume is enhanced throughout by the graceful line drawings of the author's wife, Mai Osawa. Her contribution really merits a mention on the title-page, and gives us hope that the age of book illustration is not altogether gone.--Isabel Taylor
William Black's The Land that Thyme Forgot
Bantam Press, 2005
Although this book is about British food, it contains a large section on English cookery. The title is not hopeful (seeming to suggest that British food never contains thyme, which is nonsense, as anyone who has ever consumed savoury pudding can testify), and the book bears out its promise. Purporting to be an 'investigation into the heart and soul of British food,' it is written as a travelogue, covering two or three dishes per chapter, with the result that it in fact does little more than scratch the surface of the various cookeries that make up the culinary heritage of Britain.
Our concern is with the chapters on England. Black begins with the subject of tripe; one feels that describing some tripe laid out for sale as "a slab of slime" is not likely to help him succeed in his professed objective, which is to interest more people in our traditional food. The section on oysters is enough to make even those with strong stomachs queasy, and this is not good in a food book. Worse, Black is sometimes condescending (making reference to "everyday obsessive rural folk" in his section on the Lake district, remarking that his Cantonese hosts in Manchester had "the snappy names of Wong, Pang and Tang," and spelling Dorset "Dorzit"). A preciousness of style, occasional vagueness, unnecessary sarcasm, and patches of purple prose also do not help at all, and neither do the strange digressions about many things that have only a very tenuous connection to food. Thus Black extemporises on the subject of cows ("I suspect that cows are psychic. But where does all the energy come from? Can it really be just from grass? Grass certainly doesn't have that effect on people"). The frustrated reader often suspects that Black is quite aware of how he comes across; after a particularly odd change of subject, he interpolates in brackets ("Eh? Has he finally gone mad?").
The author spends far too much time on meat-based dishes, ignoring grains almost completely and thereby contributing to the impression that there is no such thing as nutritious English food. Some of the dishes he covers require such difficult-to-find ingredients that it hardly seems worth-while talking about them. There are times when the reader suspects that Black cannot make up his mind whether the book is aimed at the food historian or the cook.
Black does occasionally writes well and informatively, and the sections on tea, cauldron cooking, kitchen gardens, ale, and curries are interesting. There are some recipes scattered throughout the book, but not nearly enough, and many of them not doable at all (try finding capons at your local supermarket). It is also annoying to be told, with regard to sticky toffee pudding, that "you feel you could almost make it yourself. Well, you can. If I can, you can," and then to hunt vainly for the recipe.
On the whole, the book does not fulfil its promise. We are still waiting for a thorough, respectful overview of traditional English food, updated for modern nutritional requirements, with many more recipes than this has. Perhaps one of Black's main difficulties lay in trying to cover three different national cuisines in one volume. --Isabel Taylor