cover image The English: A Portrait of a People

The English: A Portrait of a People

Jeremy Paxman. Overlook Press, $29.95 (309pp) ISBN 978-1-58567-042-0

As the last of the United Kingdom's protectorates--Scotland, Wales, Ireland--are wiggling free from their imperial mother, a question poses itself: What does it mean to be English these days? That's what journalist and TV quiz master Paxman (Friends in High Places: Who Runs Britain?) wonders in this study of British identity. A humorous, ironic, nostalgic, skeptical, dilettantish, mildly eccentric, self-deprecating and proud account (like its subject), the book surveys the various aspects of stereotypical English identity one by one--in realms ranging from sex to food. Although he occasionally gives too much credence to flimsy stereotypes and is unnecessarily harsh on the subject of the cult of the English countryside, on the whole, Paxman offers an intriguing investigation. His sociohistorical survey rambles through characteristic attitudes toward foreigners, the weather, religion, the home, sport, language and the countryside--sometimes fondly, sometimes iconoclastically. He finds evidence of the English spirit (if not the English identity, which he considers to be historically underdeveloped) everywhere: in the National Trust's successful efforts at historic preservation, the classically British propensity toward certain S&M practices and the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary. Based on book research, personal observation and Paxman's interviews with Brits including John Cleese and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, this odd collection of theoretical musings, historical tidbits and quirky observations should serve as both a corrective and a comfort for Anglophiles--in Britain and elsewhere. (July)