The English: A Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman - review by Raymond Seitz

Raymond Seitz

First Steps Towards an Urban Ideal

The English: A Portrait of a People


Michael Joseph 288pp £20

There are moments these days when the Sort-of United Kingdom seems to stretch itself out on a gigantic psychiatrist’s couch and mumble away about its various national anxieties, neuroses and hang-ups. Who am I? Where am I going? Can it be that God really isn’t an Englishman? Sometimes the British, especially the English, sound so woefully self-absorbed that you fear for a collective nervous breakdown.

On this psychoanalytical occasion it is the redoubtable Jeremy Paxman who has drawn up his chai, pulled out his notebook, furrowed his brow and muttered, ‘Now, vot seems to be ze matter here?’ This is not the Paxman whom comedians love to mimic – the bemused, laid-back, see-if-I-care inquisitor of late-night television (and now early morning radio). This is a more concerned, intense Paxman trying to get to the bottom of what bothers the British.

And it seems that what bothers the British is the English, and what bothers the English is also the English. The English, Paxman says, have no modern identity because they still live off an old notion of who they used to be. Their filmy illusions about the past cloud the new realities, and so the English are really neither here nor there. A bad case of schizophrenia, it seems.

Perhaps all this English angst is understandable. For centuries the British Empire defined what it meant to be British and made it unnecessary to define what it meant to be English. But the imperial era has come well and truly to an end, and few today have any first-hand knowledge of Britain’s grand imperial past. So England, Paxman seems to be saying, has been fooled by its own confidence trick and is now oddly disconnected from its history. The Empire made the ‘assumption of superiority’ an ‘article of faith ‘ for the English, and with its disappearance, all that is left is ‘the whine of a lost people’.

At the same time, England is under considerable structural stress, caught in the wash of constitutional dissolution. In one direction, centrifugal forces are clawing away at the Celtic perimeter – the Scots are teetering on the top of a slippery slope, Northern Ireland is in transition to something greener and even the Welsh are nurturing their language and preparing for their own ‘national’ assembly. In another direction, gravitational forces from the Continent are scooping out the national sovereignty into a sticky European gumbo for which the English, at least, have a notable distaste. In fact, writes Paxman, if there is today a rumble of inchoate English nationalism – fringe meetings at Tory conferences or the unfurling of St George’s flag at football matches – it comes less from internal inspiration than external menace.

So the English stand on an eroding island, wondering what will remain for them. But they can hardly answer the question, Paxman believes, until they sober up and come to grips with contemporary social realities. England’s system of cold-shower private education, for example, once produced generations of mono-dimensional administrators (whom Paxman labels ‘the Breed’). These schools taught the Youth of England how to play The Game, but now the game is over they have no purpose to serve and therefore no point. Worse, the English still cherish a national self-image which simply cannot be sustained in the modern world. This is a picture of a flowery, bucolic, cricket-on-the-green, Sir Arthur Bryant/Miss Marple countryside which nowadays has about as much to do with the real England as the Mojave Desert. This enduring English Myth, however, is drooled over in publications such as This England and tenderly massaged by the National Trust. The truth, Paxman argues, is that the idyllic English countryside isn’t much more than scenery, but the English nevertheless persist in indulging in a kind of rural necrophilia.

Mesmerised by this ‘pseudo-cottageyness’, the English have ignored what is their true environment, the cities. England is a deeply urban culture, Paxman writes, but there is no ‘urban ideal’. By way of illustration, he reflects (in his best chapter) on the self-satisfied, woolly, God-is-a-good-chap Church of England, which treats the nation like a big rose-covered vicarage and is utterly irrelevant to the municipal life of the vast majority of the English.

Unlike the cities of the Continent, England’s are bereft of urban spirit. There are no buzzing outdoor cafes, no bustling street scenes, no public places where city-dwellers mingle, no cosmopolitan intelligentsia, no multicultural yeast. Every English city, it seems, is less than the sum of its parts, and England’s urban history of spiritual blight is reflected in the present-day moral corruption of prostitution, drugs, hooliganism and gambling. Mean streets indeed.

This sorry state of national affairs Paxman presents with pace and style. He has a flair for the telling anecdote and the persuasive quote. Martha Gellhorn, for example, once told him that she loved living in England because of the ‘sheer indifference’ of the place. Some of Paxman’s judgements may strike the reader as a little peculiar, however. He writes that the English have lost control of their language (a fundamental ingredient of national identity), while most would say that the universal use of English is the way of national salvation.

In the end, this stimulating book disappoints. There is no sense of conclusion and there seems to be a chapter missing at the back. After many pages of exploration, Paxman is reluctant to say where he ends up. The English, he confesses, are ‘elusive to the last’, a people with many good characteristics and many bad ones, and they seem to have a passel of troubles. Still, a national psychiatrist would charge £60 an hour for his treatments whereas Jeremy Paxman’s book costs only £20 for the whole thing.

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