Wednesday Book: Same old upper-class wits

Pat Kane
Tuesday 20 October 1998 23:02




THE FIRST reaction to this well written but deeply unsatisfactory book on Englishness is to dismiss it as a cuttings job, appended to the climbing star of a metropolitan media celebrity and timed to historical perfection. Jeremy Paxman, the BBC's impeccably modulated inquisitor- general, has brought out an inquiry into the national identity he clearly exemplifies in the run-up to the official break-up of Britain - that is, the date of elections to the Scottish Parliament next May.

As titbit after titbit of Englishiana (or Anglology?) tumbled off the page, my puzzlement grew. How can the Corporation produce such first- rate synthesising minds that can come only to such second-rate conclusions? Perhaps ideological toothlessness is contractually compelled by the BBC.

All agree that the brittle imperial construct of Britishness is crumbling. What does Paxman discern as the England that remains? The answer is what every other modern Western nation - including Scotland and Wales - would like to think of themselves as being. Paxman's New England is "modest, individualistic, ironic, solipsistic, concerned as much with cities and regions as with counties and countries". In short, Englishness should ideally become a kind of boutique nationalism, casually composing its differences within the capacious mall of an ever-more integrated European Union.

We get to this pleasant, painless terminus via a snowstorm of anecdotes and research. Yet it ends, essentially, in banalities. The Empire gave England (and particularly its males) a ludicrous superiority complex; its Protestantism encouraged a love of words, a pragmatism vis-a-vis the state and a "glorious, fundamental cussedness". Oh, and the English still dream of a pre-industrial Arcadia that never existed. Which developed country has not, or does not?

Paxman's inner England becomes more evident when he does a bit of real- life reporting. The locations he chooses reveal more about his flexibly clubbable conception of Englishness than 100 pages of exegesis.

We meet Michael Warton (or "Peter Simple") of The Daily Telegraph in his Buckinghamshire cottage and the editor of the decorously xenophobic magazine This England in his Victorian mansion at Cheltenham. George Steiner is bearded in Cambridge, Martha Gellhorn at Knightsbridge and Simon Raven at Le Caprice. Paxo dreamily shares tea with a Dorset widower in her country pile, observes the pheasants at the 800-year-old Plowden Hall and discusses "le vice anglais" (flagellation) with the head of a City merchant bank.

One of the few vaguely ordinary locations is the Met Office in Bracknell, Berkshire. This venue enables some mild sneering about supermarkets, car parks, housing estates and dual carriageways. But even here, where everything is "drab, functional", he casts the weather-watching bureaucrats as "reticently civilised... jackets a bit too short for their arms" - all radio hams, hydrangea-growers and rambling enthusiasts.

This is straight out of the John Major book of perennial stereotypes. However much Paxman brings his journalist's objectivity and magpie learning to bear on the English question, his language only really comes alive when he tries to characterise - perhaps one should say Orwellise - his countrymen and women. Yet he mostly describes those of his own class and background (father in the Navy, brother in the FO, flogging-and-fagging at boarding schools, Oxford, the BBC). The non-elite English appear as a mob: either marauding football hooligans or Budweiser-swilling theme- pub hordes.

In short, despite its title, the people's England is almost entirely absent - except as a nostalgia for the Dunkirk spirit or as platitudes about multiculturalism or city life. Instead of wandering languorously across the Home Counties, why didn't Paxman meet the communities that stand behind our soap operas - the mutable, aspirant working-classes that populate Brookside, EastEnders, Coronation Street? And if Englishness is such a cussed, anarchic endeavour, what of the national pride in such institutions as the National Health Service?

Paxman's ironic Englishness is perhaps not surprising - for it is the irony of an establishment that knows that its capital, both cultural and financial, is fading fast. What it cannot yet imagine is a post-British English nationalism which might make the same collectivist claims on behalf of "the English people" that Scottish nationalism has for the past two decades and which promises that a genuinely social-democratic culture may yet flourish on these islands.

As the most urbane of patriots, Paxman's belief in "my country, right or wrong" should be recast - my country magnificent or silly, inspiring or bathetic. But it is when the rights and wrongs within England take centre stage that its "national question" will become politically urgent. When that happens, I think you will find Paxman musing in his waders.

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