Watching the English by Kate Fox, book review: Simplified views of a vibrant race

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Saturday 26 April 2014 00:00 BST

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.

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