Monday, July 12, 2004

Delving into the psyche

Time for another book commentary. Finished Kate Fox's Watching the English, which is an anthropological guide to English characteristics and mannerisms designed for the lay reader.

Hugely enjoyable, although it didn't get to the causes of why the English are the way they are: reserved and socially inhibited, keen for personal privacy and space. While she seemed to nail the features of Englishness quite well, and uncovered a 'grammer' or set of rules through which English people behave (prevalent humour in all social interactions, the use of alcohol to shed inhibitions - and which encourages our loutish side - our acute class consciousness and the importance of the pub), I did feel a little cheated. I wanted to know why we are this way. But even Fox admitted defeat on this one.

Nevertheless, I was struck by how many of the mannerisms and behaviour outlined in the book I am guilty of doing. It was like being asked to take a step back and observe yourself and the people around you. Very un-nerving, although I can sense a degree of satisfaction in knowing why I behave in the way I do - and like Ms Fox, I am sure I will never look at a queue in quite the same way again.

Even though Kate Fox's style veers between the almost-but-not-quite-academic (which could present problems for family members I intend to buy copies for) and being written for an ordinary person, she does suffice it with humour throughout - and her comments on the use of participant-observation based research would be easy to grasp by any reader.

While I read it from cover to cover, I suspect that many readers will be more inclined to dip in and out of the book. And given the failure to provide any reasons why the English are the way they are, this does seem to make sense. Reading about the rules of the pub, round-buying and male arguing are subjects which can be explained and analysed for what they represent, even if not entirely understood as to why they originated.

Nevertheless, compared to other, recent books on the English character, most notably, Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, and Jeremy Paxman's The English, Kate Fox's is by far the best for explaining away our peculiarities. Bryson's is more a travelogue around the British Isles, while Paxman, who set out to find out what makes the Englishman tick, was most disappointing. He gave us the stereotype, but didn't dig deeply enough (but then isn't that the way with Paxman? His most recent book, The Political Animal, also left me with a sense that there was something 'missing' in his analysis and conclusions too).

One final, parting point, which can in no way be blamed on Kate Fox (whose other books I will now be seeking out with interest): I would have read and reviewed this book far earlier, had it not bee for the publishers, who failed to answer my phone calls and requests for a copy. Eventually when I got through, they seemed to raise doubt over the value of writing a review for a publication like the Liberator and never sent a copy. So I had to go out and shell £20 of my own money for what is a hardback (but I hope will be a paperback by Christmas).

Consequently, this review will sit here with my two readers, rather than in the Liberator, with its several thousand subscribers.

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