Friday, 29 January 2010

'The English', by Kate Fox

This is an anthropological book on the tribe known as the English, purportedly explicating the ‘hidden rules’ of their behaviour. It is not in an academic mode, and is clearly pitched at selling good numbers to the public. The author tries hard to entertain and provoke, and ends up giving a fairly subjective view, which can hardly qualify as cool objective scientific research.

I found it repetitive. She has themes, which emerge repeatedly in examining different contexts, such as home, food, pubs, dress and so forth. The concluding chapter ‘Defining Englishness’ is yet another repeat, and offers nothing new. It has a diagram “of Englishness”, bringing together her theses in one flowing system. According to Ms Fox, the central driver is ‘Social dis-ease’. From this psychological core emanate ‘Reflexes’ (Humour, Moderation, Hyprocrisy), ‘Values’ (Fair play, Courtesy, Modesty) and ‘Outlooks’ (Empiricism, Eeyorishness, Class-consciousness).

This list does not do justice to the colour and humour of the many observations and anecdotes. Many of the comments are piercingly accurate – Pub culture is brilliantly explained. However she does not reflect on the philosophical problem of Induction – drawing conclusions from evidence. She makes generalisations which seem somewhat false, trite, conventional or just plain irritating.

Underlying the book is a journalistic need to paint the English as particularly weird and embarrassed by everything. This strikes me as exaggeration and inaccurate. I wonder if the English are really so special. It seems a kind of egotism – Ms Fox is herself English. What about the quirks of say the South African Dutch tribe? Also I wondered if many of the social phenomena she observes are really human universals. So I was somewhat disappointed, and judged the book lightweight.

At several points she likens the English to the Japanese. Indeed, I have long thought the two races/cultures have many mirror points. Since these are the two tribes I know best, maybe I am conditioned into thinking our quirks are normal human behaviour.

Still one can come away from this book with edification. Certainly observing one’s fellow human beings in an anthropological manner is highly entertaining.

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