British Studies Web Pages


Book Review

Jeremy Paxman, The English, A Portrait of a People, 1998, Michael Joseph, London, Penguin Books Ltd. Harmondsworth. ISBN 0-7181-4263-2

This review has been written by Anna Tomczak, who teaches British Studies at the Katedra Neofilologii, University of Białystok, and is a contributor to the British Studies Web Pages.

The English are rather bad at visual arts, such as painting. They have not produced many outstanding artists, but they are very good with words and have given the world its greatest playwright and numerous excellent novelists. So claims Jeremy Paxman. Maybe that is why he has chosen to paint a portrait with words.

The English - A Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman, first published in 1998, is a mine of information and a very important book to read for anyone studying British culture. If you happen to teach British Studies it is an ideal book as a source of wonderful lesson openings. Take any page, and there are more than 260, choose any paragraph, any chapter and you have a wonderful scenario for a successful class. If you need something thought-provoking and controversial, something suitable for a heated discussion, how about this selection?

  • 'The capacity for hypocrisy among these people who have liked to claim that they are straightforward is stunning.' (p.101)
  • 'Once the country had gone through Reformation, it was impossible to be both a Roman Catholic and a patriot.' (p. 99)
  • 'The reason the country hadn't been invaded for a millennium was that it simply wasn't worth the trouble.' (p.116).
  • 'Britannia may no longer rule the waves, but the English can still make foreigners feel small.' (p.117).
  • 'While it may be true that snobbery became the English disease, the barriers between the English classes were never as unbridgeable as Marxists have tried to suggest.' (p.136).

If you prefer to fall back on some statistical data, here's a choice:

  • '[By 1998] over one third of inner London children did not have English as their first language.' (p.34)
  • 'There are more native speakers of Chinese in Northern Ireland than there are native speakers of Irish.' (p.52)
  • ' Abortions take place on a staggering scale - 177,225 in 1996 - which means that for every four children born, one foetus was destroyed.' (p.101)

But a good book is not just a series of memorable quotes. Indeed The English cannot be treated as a set of facts and anecdotes. Paxman attempts not only to inform, but also to explain. Instead of merely stating his observations he also asks many 'why' and 'how' questions, and, what's more important, answers them. How can you reconcile the image of an English gentleman with that of a football hooligan? Why do the English name their houses? Why do they talk about the weather? Why is Englishness often synonymous with the tranquillity and simplicity of rural life although the country is highly urbanized? How come the English show so much passion for amateur pursuits? The answers are all there. If you are interested in a particular issue of British culture, you are bound to find relevant information in one of the book's eleven chapters. A public school upbringing, the English love of sport, Princess Diana's funeral, Tony Blair's New Britain, John Major's famous quotes, the Church of England, their idiosyncratic intellectual tradition, English insularity, ethnic minorities, English-French relations, the Dissolution of the monasteries, the Blitz, images of Englishness, prostitution in England - take your pick. English stereotypes and symbols of identity are discussed in detail. Perhaps the book's greatest merit is that it makes a very clear distinction between what the English are like and what they think they are like.

One criticism may be that some of the author's ideas are not brand new. The English don't value industrialism. Wasn't that Martin Wiener's claim in his English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit? The English distrust intellectuals. Surely George Mikes observed that decades earlier. It may also be argued that quite a number of quotes by other authors writing on the subject of national identity have appeared elsewhere, in earlier publications. Philip Gibbs, Vita Sackville-West, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence - the same (but much shorter) fragments of their works have been chosen by Paxman as by the editors of Writing Englishness. And yet when it comes to quotes, Paxman's book holds its own. Whenever he refers to other authors, he does so to illustrate a particular point he is making. All the chosen fragments are commented on or interpreted. It is clear from a long list of references and a thoroughly exhaustive bibliography (more than 270 titles!) that The English is a well- researched book. Its strength is also a great diversity of sources. From the nineteenth century Polish exile, D.O. Sypniewski, to Dostoevsky, Maurois and Bill Bryson. Many writers throughout history have devoted some time to studying Englishness. One cannot take Paxman's words seriously that ' there is something positive about the fact that the English have not devoted a lot of energy to discussing who they are. It is a mark of self-confidence: the English have not spent a great deal of time defining themselves because they haven't needed to' (p.23), if at the same time he's also saying 'There is a vast number of books published on England and the English'. (p.283). Of some 250 names provided in a very impressive bibliography, the great majority are English sounding names.

It seems almost impossible for such a comprehensive work to contain mistakes. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Queensberry Rules relating to the sport of boxing were named so in honour of the Marquis of Queensberry and the name should be spelt with a double 'r', and not 'Queensbury' as in the book. (p.195, 306) But this is just nit-picking.

The English - A Portrait of a People is a portrait painted on a large canvas, (who said the English are better at miniatures than larger subjects), offering a panoramic scope - from Anglo-Saxons to New Labour. It's a picture painted with bold strokes - no meekness or escapism, the plain truth and harsh reality. It's a work of many different hues and shades - sarcastic and critical at times, humorous and witty but also passionate, full of empathy and dedication. And yet, it's a portrait with a flaw. Out of eleven chapters only one is about English women, the last one, and it's mainly about prostitution in England. Some females are briefly mentioned. Florence Nightingale and Mrs Thatcher appear in passing. Betty Boothroyd features in one of the anecdotes. What about others? Emily Pankhurst, Vivian Westwood, Mary Quant, Mary Whitehouse, the women of Greenham Common - didn't they make any impact?

'The English are not an easy people to love' (p.18), Mr. Paxman tells us. With this spirit of male dominance and that stance of 'gentlemen only' - small wonder.

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