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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project