“Ask any man what nationality he would prefer to be, and ninety nine out of a hundred will tell you that they would prefer to be Englishmen.”
In 'The English' Jeremy Paxman sets out to find about the English. Not the
British overall, not the Scots, not the Irish or Welsh, but the
English. Why do they seem so unsure of who they are?
Jeremy Paxman is to many the embodiment of Englishness yet even he is sometimes forced to ask: who or what exactly are the English? And in setting about addressing this most vexing of questions, Paxman discovers answers to a few others. Like: Why do the English actually enjoy feeling persecuted? What is behind the English obsession with games? How did they acquire their odd attitudes to sex and to food? Where did they get their extraordinary capacity for hypocrisy?
Covering history, attitudes to foreigners, sport, stereotypes, language and much, much more, The English brims over with stories and anecdotes that provide a fascinating portrait of a nation and its people.Buy Book
I set out to try to discover the roots of the present English anxiety about themselves by travelling back into the past, to the things that created that instantly recognisable ideal Englishman and Englishwoman who carried the flag across the world. And then I tried to find out what had become of them. Some of these influences were relatively easy to spot. Obviously the fact that they were born on an island rather living on a continental land mass had had an effect. They came from a country where Protestant reformation hadliberty.
But this curiously, retiring, unintrospective, pessimistic people cannot continue as they are for much longer. They find themselves governed by a party whose organising principles come from across the Atlantic and whose leadership caucus comes from north of the border. The belief that something has rotted in England is widely held: a people cannot spend decades being told their civilisation is in decline and not be affected by it. We might as well admit that the English are not an easy people to love. They have none of the charm of the Irish, the affability of the Welsh or the directness of the Scots. Even the quieter English possess that veneer of manners which conceals an infinite capacity for contempt.
To be fair, they have a more attractive side to their character as well. They tend not to proselytise aggressively about their way of life any longer. And does any other society put such a premium upon having a sense of humour. If you want to find out about what makes the English who they are, you quickly make two discoveries.
First, that this offshore island has been sufficiently intriguing to attract quite awesome numbers of foreign visitors eager to share their impressions with the rest of the world: there are libraries filled with books of reminiscences and travellers' tales. Second, very little at all has been written on the subject of English nationalism. Some of the reasons you can guess at quickly; no foreign occupation, no attempt to extinguish indigenous culture.
something positive about the fact that they have not devoted a lot of energy to discussing who they are.
“ Once upon a time the English knew who they were. They were polite, unexcitable, reserved, prone to melancholy and had hot-water bottles instead of a sex life: how they reproduced was one of the mysteries of the western world ”
recognised by their language, their manners, their clothes and the fact that they drank tea by the bucket-load. It is all so much more complicated now. When, occasionally, we come across someone whose stiff upper lip, sensible shoes or tweedy manner identifies them as English, we react in amusement: the conventions that defined the English are dead and the country's ambassadors are more likely to be singers or writers than diplomats or politicians.