Hodder & Stoughton, £25. Order at the discounted price of £20 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop
Watching the English by Kate Fox, book review: Simplified views of a vibrant race
Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Known for her sharp commentary on issues of politics, race and religion, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown won the George Orwell Prize for political journalism in 2002 and the Emma Award for Journalism in 2004. She is also a radio and television broadcaster and author of several books including the acclaimed 'The Settler's Cookbook: A Memoir of Migration', 'Love and Food' and 'Who Do We Think We Are? Imagining the New Britain'.
Thursday 24 April 2014
I read this book when it was first published in 2004. It was amusing, chatty, bursting with flavour and zesty as an energy drink, but, as a study, neither illuminating nor convincing. Fox is a leading anthropologist who seems to have decided that her subject is just too dreary and needs to lighten up. She metaphorically burnt her blue stockings, donned cocktail dresses and heels and wrote a populist, skittish tract. She has not sobered up in the new, updated edition.
The English are, for the first time ever, searching for and shaping a meaningful cultural and political identity. They are apprehensive about devolution, the European Union and globalisation. Fox agrees but then breezily concludes it's just a "wobble". Really? Significant opinion shifts, Ukip, the English Defence League are no more than that? These momentous times deserved a more considered account.
The author is observant, particularly about what she calls "the grammar of behaviour", like, for example, English "onedownship", the false modesty not found among the more direct Germans, Indians or Americans, and the nation's unique sense of irony. But these remain endearing unexamined curiosities. Jeremy Paxman's portrait of the English was witty and deep, so too Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island. Fox's book is not deep.
Much patronising guff is aimed at outsiders: M&S is "a sort of department store" we are told and "pleased to meet you", still used in the higher social classes, is best avoided. Talk about the weather is fine, but foreigners must not criticise the Royals or ask people what they do. They must understand that "... the bar counter is the only area in which mainstream rules on talking to strangers may be broken ...[but] such conversations are conducted in accordance with strict and quite complex rules". I can imagine a Goodness Gracious Me sketch of social climbing Indians following this useful advice.
Englanders in the book are pre-war caricatures – repressed, ultra-cautious, risk-averse, hypocrites.
Some folk may still be buttoned up, but most are free, adventurous and culturally voracious. England is where the swinging Sixties broke out, where the Paralympics started, where Marx lived for 30 years, where curry is the national dish, where gambling and drunkenness are rife, where we have more mixed-race relationships than anywhere in the western world, where the Jeremy Kyle show is on every day, where you find edgy fashion and music and hyper-sexuality too.
For all her vaunted research, Fox missed or left out these characteristics. Like she cares. The original Watching the English was a bestseller, as she informs us several times. Grayson Perry and Jennifer Saunders loved it. Professors did too – hilarious, they said, and brilliant. Her cup runneth over. Smart lady.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 California man brutally beat 82-year-old Sikh grandfather he mistook for 'one of those people'
- 2 Gay teenager 'forced to have sex with his own mother' to 'cure' his homosexuality, campaigners in India say
- 3 Charles Kennedy 'had better judgement drunk than many sober politicians' says Ian Hislop
- 4 Fifa corruption: Qatar says investigations are racist, anti-Arab and show 'ugly face' of countries who lost 2022 World Cup bid
- 5 We have six months to save the world, says leading economist
Game of Thrones season 5's 20-minute Battle of Hardhome took a 'solid month' to film
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 9: 'The Dance of Dragons' sees Jon Snow return to The Wall after epic Battle of Hardhome
Britain's Got Talent final 2015: 90 viewers complain to Ofcom about Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden's 'revealing' dresses
Ed Sheeran debuts new song 'Sweet Mary Jane' about his love affair with weed
Black Angel: Lost Star Wars precursor to be made into crowdfunded feature film
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Church of England 'one generation away from extinction' after dramatic loss of followers