Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: The English, Portrait of a People

In Jeremy Paxman’s The English, A Portrait of aPeople, the author attempts to establish a national identity for the English, not British, people. With their Celtic roots, he argues that the Welsh and Scots have a strong “national” identity. The Welsh have managed to hold on to their language and their songs while the Scots have their bagpipes, Parliament, legal system, and field their own football teams in World Cup competitions. So what about the English?

Paxman traces the history of the British stereotype, beginning with the obese, meat-eating, ale-drinking John Bull in the 18th Century followed by the stiff-upper-lipped Englishman of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The latter stereotype is the result of the British public (private in the U.S.) school system in which boys are treated badly as a matter of course, made to eat vile or tasteless food, and are expected to just “take it.” Their training served them well in the two world wars. But what about their 21st century identity? That is the essence of the book.

For 266 pages, Paxman wanders the country in search of a national identity for the English, and in some cases, with amusing results. An editor and uber patriot, Roy Faiers, contends that you don’t have “to be English to be English.” “The actor James Stewart was an American, but he has Englishness.” By the time you get to the end of the book, you still have no sense of who a late 20th-Century Englishman is (other than he loves football and prefers lager). But in a country as ethnically diverse as England, is it even possible?

In the U.S., I have lived in the Northeast, Mid Atlantic, Southwest, and Texas (which is its own region). In Arizona, many of my friends are from the Midwest—refugees from the region's harsh winters. I can tell you that, like the English, it is difficult to say what a typical American is like. There are generalities: we are very patriotic and more religious than most Western nations, but you only have to look at our politics to see the great divide.

Although I enjoyed Paxman’s book, I was looking for something to hold on to—a Eureka moment where Paxman would reveal the true Englishman, but it never came. And so I ambled along. Because it was written 14 years ago, it is dated. But even in 1998, Paxman came up with very little to show for his efforts to find an English persona. I would think his task would be impossible today.