Books: The dreadful truth about Surrey

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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.