Miles Kington: Stand well back to fathom the essence of the English

Outsiders, such as Bryson and Brooke, see things afresh. They see things that the natives cannot see
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I was telling you yesterday about Joe Bennett's new book, Mustn't Grumble, in which he sets out around England to follow in the footsteps of H V Morton (In Search of England, 1926).

There were, as Bennett found out, certain drawbacks in following Morton. One of them is that Morton didn't like the North, and barely includes it in his book. But then Bennett isn't sure he likes the North much either. When he gets to Chester, he says, he suddenly realises he has left the South. The accent is different, the food is heavier, and his heart seems to sink a bit.

(This came as a shock to me. I grew up 10 miles from Chester, and it never occurred to me I was anywhere near the real North. I still don't think I was. Mark you, I was growing up in Wales, despite being English, so going to Chester was even more dramatic for me than for Bennett. Never mind about North and South - I was passing from one country to another. In that 10-mile journey, I was passing from Welsh Wales to old England, from the coal mines and hills to the luscious plains, from abroad to home...)

But the place up north that Bennett was determined to get to was Wigan, because H V Morton had been unexpectedly impressed by Wigan in 1926 and had said to a man in the street, "This town has been badly libelled," and the man had said, "I'm glad to hear you say that".

It was Bennett's ambition to go back to Wigan and say that unsayable sentence to local people. And he gets to Wigan and he does tell people that Wigan has been badly libelled, and, as one, they all move silently away from this nutter...

I bring up the subject of Bennett's tour of Britain again today, only to wonder how far he was the right person to write the book. We sometimes assume that the best person to anatomise a country and its people is someone from the place - Luigi Barzini Jnr on the Italians, Priestley on the English, for instance - but the very best books are usually written by outsiders. De Tocqueville on America. Bill Bryson on Britain. Heinrich Boll's Irish Journal, and so on. This is because, surely, an outsider sees things afresh. He sees things that the natives cannot see, as in Letters From America.

(One of my favourite quiz questions, that. Which famous writer wrote Letters From America? No, not Alistair Cooke. Long before him, it was the title of a book by Rupert Brooke.)

Bennett falls oddly between these stools. Not an outsider, because he grew up here, but away so long in New Zealand - nearly 20 years - that he spends some of the book wrestling with his own memories, and trying to square the country he finds with the country he left. But he has also become enough of an outsider to see clearly how much of English life is still based on class, which most of us do not, unless we stand well back, which we seldom do. And for me, the final scene in the book overcomes any reservations I might have.

Bennett fears he will never end the quest - and his book - in Morton's style, because Morton ended his search for England in the happy framework of a quintessential village he found, which he does not name.

While looking for a similar village on which to work his caustic wit, Bennett happens across the filming of an episode of Antiques Roadshow, in Norwich. He suddenly realises this pantomime is nearer than any village could be to summing up the ghastly charm of what it is to be English. His deadpan description of it is lovely.

If you don't buy the book, at least slip into a bookshop and read the last chapter. Then buy the book.

It's called Mustn't Grumble. (So, oddly, is the new autobiography by Terry Wogan. Now there's another foreigner who came over here to look at the English... Some other time perhaps.)