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
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style