The English: A Portrait of a People, by Jeremy Paxman: A Review

The English, by Jeremy Paxman (Penguin Books, 1999)

The English, by Jeremy Paxman (Penguin Books, 1999)

Jeremy Paxman, formerly the bulldog of the BBC’s Newsnight but as of this writing relegated elsewhere, wrote this book about the mythical “Bulldog breed”over fifteen years ago, in the opening years of the brave new world of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” Britain (although this is a book focusing solely on the England part of that model). Reading The English now, in the encompassing gloom of a rainy late spring and a second, outright Tory victory for the pudding-faced David Cameron, I’m struck by all of the things that Paxman missed about the years that were to come.

The historical analysis presented by Paxman is pretty much one which charts the course of accepted English history told from the traditional, small-“c” conservative viewpoint. The familiar themes of English (again, not “British”) identity are examined in terms of the Monarchy and the Empire (RIP), the mythical countryside, the English language (which has survived by absorbing and coining words left, right, and centre, even if most of the coinages don’t originate in the UK), the Blitz spirit of the Second World War, a stiff-upper-lip and a cup of tea.

While Paxman’s reported conversations are interesting, they often appear to miss the bigger point of who “the English” are as a whole, rather than as the Monarchy, some toffs, and, oh yes…the rabble. Unfortunately, the masses of the wider swathe of the English are mostly represented in the remarks on football hooliganism, and occasional references to labourers. But reviewers who are surprised by Paxman not having spoken with the “man in the street” have clearly forgotten who he is more likely to have consorted with from day to day. Although many commentators have had endless insights into the man, I don’t recall him ever being said to be “accessible” or to have had “the common touch.” Clearly, you sacrifice something in life for the ability to endlessly grill Michael Howard with the words: “did you threaten to overrule him?”

What’s more interesting is what Paxman misses. He almost completely fails to spot the importance of the Internet, not only to language (there have genuinely been so many changes in Anglo-British slang that there are parts of London that are completely incomprehensible to the uninitiated), but to the internationalization of culture which, for better or worse dominated by American-ness, renders something like English nationalism that much more obscure (and perhaps therefore all the nastier when it does arise). He also misses the potential for the uglier side of English nationalism to re-emerge, whether it be in the form of UKIP (rooted in the nastiness from which its daytime-telly presenter godfather, Robert Kilroy-Silk and his “suntanned faction” rose) or its still-nastier older cousin, the BNP. He almost missed the Little Englander spirit of popular television programmes like Midsommer Murders, which would have already been up to its third or fourth series at the time of writing. He can be excused, perhaps, for having miss the vast wasteland of panel shows, talent contests for the mediocre (viewers and participants), and lavish historical dramas: I can only assume that people who work in television rarely watch it unless they are contractually required to sit on a sofa and have their brains sucked out with a straw.

Of course, only intelligence experts and keen international observers would have predicted the terrifying savagery of the events of 2001 and 2005, so Paxman can be forgiven having missed them as a mere journalist. But the reaction both in the West and in Britain generally and England particularly seems to belie one notion that the author suggests in the closing pages:

“Might it not be that individuality, firmly rooted in a sense of individual rights, is preferable to the conformity that occurred when the great boys’ schools were turning out thousands of as-near-as-possible-identical young men to run an empire which no longer exists? Once such a master-class existed, everyone else knew their place in the pecking order.”

The reaction of a free and individualistic people to acts of savagery by villainous “outsiders” has been far different from the reaction to, for example, the IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and ’80s. Taking its domestic policy cues from America rather than home, the British government (and here I do mean British), like the Americna government, went completely mental. A perceived threat melded with the trauma of real and horrific events, then combined with the sinister growth of genuinely Orwellian (one of the few instances where this usage isn’t hyperbolic) surveillance technology meant that so many of those traditional “English” values, that “sense of individual rights,” have gone right out the window. The trampling of individual liberties under New Labour and then the reborn ConLibDem cum Conservative governments, the attempted dismantling of the NHS, government defiance of popular movements against pointless wars and pyrrhic victories, the complete erosion of the integrity of public institutions, and the selling off of everything that wasn’t nailed down to the private sector seems to fly in the face of Paxman’s rosy-cheeked optimism and warm, fireside-and-a-cuppa Country Life pullout supplement England.

Altogether this is an interesting book, but unfortunately it is not one with any new insights, and now suffers from having dated as well. Three stars.

Originally reviewed 4 June 2015.

Find your copy of The English: A Portrait of a People on AbeBooks.com.

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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