Books: The dreadful truth about Surrey

The English: A Portrait of a People

by Jeremy Paxman Michael Joseph pounds 20

Is anyone interested in what it means to be English? We are supposed to be in the grip of an identity crisis, provoked by political events in Scotland and Wales. But if there's one thing that does define the English, it is their indifference to such matters. In this we resemble those tribes who call themselves "the people" and everyone else "the others". We are the norm: everyone else is a deviation. And we didn't get to be that all-encompassing, elusive, protean norm by defining ourselves.

Jeremy Paxman offers plenty of defining characteristics, culled from centuries of admiring or hostile commentary, and assesses them judiciously. We are cold, polite, sexless, plucky, philistine, repressed, fair, wedded to bad food and worse plumbing, and so on. The resulting caricature leads a full life in Hollywood and American television, but he rarely comes close enough to hurt.

This is a thorough, dutiful book with few surprises. Our racial origins, our empire, our language, our Church of England, our intense, sentimental relationship with the countryside, all are explored, but in the manner of one working through a check-list.

Paxman boasts that he interviewed 200 people in the course of his book but those he chooses to quote come from a remarkably shallow stratum: a couple of journalistic bigots, John Cleese, Bernie Grant, George Steiner, Simon Raven, all much-quoted Establishment figures. He might have done better to interview none, but to let his own interests and insights lead the way.

There is a sort of an argument here, best brought out when he teases out the connection between the English weather, the English obsession with home and privacy, and the English dedication to clubs, societies and social gatherings on neutral ground. But mostly what is on display is strenuous research: the amusing quote, the marginally relevant anecdote, but nothing powerfully evoked or analysed. Too often the result is an anthology of England with linking passages. And so much of this material is familiar, perhaps because there is actually so little for an anthologist to choose from. It was good to have Dostoevsky's comments on London, but most of us could live without Orwell on the perfect pub.

It would have been nice to hear more "Why" and "How" and less "Who", "What" and "When". Paxman gives us, for instance, figures for the extraordinary global dominance of the English language. But he doesn't attempt to explain why it happened. Elsewhere, he observes a people moving from licence to prudish sobriety and back again, but omits to wonder how it came about.

And there are surprising gaps. He is good on literature, tracing our enthusiasm back to our early involvement with the vernacular Bible, but vague about theatre. He takes at face value the "land without music" jibe, but has nothing to say about either Dowland and Purcell at one end of the void or Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Cecil Sharp at the other. When it comes to pop music, he name-checks the Beatles and seems to suggest that our expertise is a result of the inclement English weather, something that would surely have made Tromso the capital of rock 'n' roll.

While he is unfailingly polite to the mad, bigoted and defeated, from Michael "Peter Simple" Wharton to the merchant banker who likes to be spanked, he stays well clear of English nationalism in its overtly racist dimension. And he treats the great bulk of the English population, in all their regional, linguistic and occupational variety, as little more than noises off: we don't like foreigners, we don't care about food, we don't riot, but we do like a fight after we've had a drink. To have a starring role in Paxman's cavalcade of Englishness, it helps to own a stately home, or to have published your memoirs.

Nonetheless, the book has lots that is of interest. I had certainly never grasped that one in seven of the population of Surrey is a member of the National Trust. And it was a pleasure to read, on p253, what may be George Steiner's first recorded joke.

The book also conveys, quite often, the impatient, lordly tones of its author: "Look at the Last Night of the Proms. How many of those joyous, nerdish faces belting out 'Land of Hope and Glory' believe a word of it? 'Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set?' Come on."

You can almost hear the snort of derision.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment