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Jeremy Paxman


A Portrait of a People

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).

As the title of this book indicates, its subject is the English, not the British. This important distinction is not always appreciated by people of other nationalities, and indeed, until recently "British" and "English" were virtually interchangeable. The fact that this is no longer true today is just one of the many changes in national consciousness that Paxman seeks to describe and understand.

There can hardly be a country in the world that has not experienced great cultural upheavals during the twentieth century and England is no exception. But the English were able to hang on to their illusions about themselves longer than most—as late as the 1960s, in fact. Paxman quotes the author Simon Raven as saying that Englishness meant "gentle manners, cricket, civility between the classes, lack of malice towards others, fair dealing with women, and fair dealing with enemies." John Buchan's Richard Hannay in The Thirty-nine Steps might be taken as an embodiment of this ideal, I suppose (though Hannay was actually Scottish). But, as Raven and others interviewed by Paxman lament, all this seems to be disappearing fast. The old certainties are no more.

Of course, the idealized Englishman that people like Raven had in mind was always a stereotype confined to a particular class. The English public schools in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were adapted to turning out the colonial administrators needed by the Empire, and with the disappearance of Empire the need for administrators disappeared as well. However, that type of Englishman was himself a replacement for an alternative and earlier version of the breed who flourished in the eighteenth century, exemplified by John Bull: hard-drinking, hard-headed, averse to intellectualism, fond of dogs, horses, ale, and country sports. One of the merits of Paxman's book is the long view he takes of his subject; although his concern is with the present, he constantly brings in comments and quotation from the past to lend depth to the picture he presents.

A recurrent theme in this book is the contrast between myth and reality: between the idea the English have of themselves and what actually obtains. This emerges in popular ideas of the Second World War, which Paxman sees as the most recent occasion on which the English had a clear sense of common purpose; and it found recent expression in the rhetoric of Prime Minister John Major with his talk of village cricket and warm beer in his now notorious "back to basics" speech. It appears perhaps most clearly of all in the illusion which many Englishmen suffer from: that England is still predominantly rural. In fact, of course, England was the first country to undergo the industrial revolution, and since the mid-nineteenth century an increasing proportion of the population has become urban, so that today almost everyone is a city dweller; yet the myth persists that all English people have their roots (the word is doubly significant here) in the country.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Paxman concludes, "Respectable Society has evaporated"; the English have become less gentrified. Materialism and selfishness are rampant. There is a seemingly unstoppable wave of drunkenness, loutishness, and other undesirable manifestations of apparent social deterioration. In fact, however, there is nothing new about all this. For centuries past, foreigners have been commenting on the English fondness for hard drinking and fighting. Modern football hooligans are heir to a long tradition of rowdiness; football crowds were already fearsome in 1903, and in the village of Malmesbury, where there was a fight in 1641 resulting in several serious injuries, a local saying ran: " 'Tis no revel unless there be some fightings". In earlier times, too, the English were famed for their emotional nature. It is the nineteenth-century stiff-collar stiff-lip Englishman who was the aberration.

Paxman has given us a witty, amusing, and sometimes quite profound analysis of what it means to be English today. He identifies the most characteristic qualities of the breed as "a quizzical detachment, tolerance, common sense, bloody-mindedness, willingness to compromise, [a] deeply political sense of themselves [and above all a] sense of 'I know my rights' ". Naturally, it is a personal view, but probably many English readers would agree with most of what he has to say. At any rate, they will be entertained by reading it, while the book would be a good choice for any non-English reader who wanted to gain an insight into this often mysterious and baffling society.

11 July 2004

%T The English
%S A portrait of a people
%A Paxman, Jeremy
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 1998, 1999
%G ISBN 0-14-026723-9
%P ix + 308 pp
%K history, sociology
%O paperback
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