When I was young, England was a much odder country than it seems today, and every now and then – much to the delight of its inhabitants – its oddity was celebrated in print by some fond but puzzled foreigner. The England they examined was essentially that of the aristocracy and upper middle classes, and much was made of our liking for clubs, cricket, draughty country houses, animals, waterlogged cabbage and unintelligible currency, and of our embarrassment when it came to sex, the speaking of foreign languages, and unseemly displays of emotion. The Dutchman G J Renier probed our idiosyncrasies in his bluntly titled The English: Are they Human?; among the most popular books of my childhood were Pierre Daninos’s accounts of Major Thompson, a dapper Englishman of the old school who came complete with furled umbrella, bowler hat, chalk-striped suit and bristling white moustache; and now – albeit posthumously, and in more critical vein – Elias Canetti has come up with portraits of some of the men and women he came to know during his fifty-odd years in this country, ranging from a street-sweeper and a prophetess to Bertrand Russell and William Empson, all designed ‘to make up a portrait of England as it was in the middle of the century’.
Best known for his novel Auto-da-Fé (now reissued by Harvill) and his study Crowds and Power, Canetti was born in Bulgaria of Sephardic Jewish parents in 1905. As a child he spent some time in Manchester, learning to speak fluent English and acquiring an idealistic ‘moral’ vision of what England