Review: The English, Jeremy Paxman

Before we get to my thoughts on this book (short version: not as enjoyable as Watching the English), let’s take a moment for a little segment I like to call PRAISE PLEASE.

I am tearing it up re: reading and disposing of my huge stacks of TBR books. It is my most successful reading project ever, and I only started it a couple of weeks ago. I have read half of two books and decided I never wanted to finish them. I have elected to discard two books that I feel would only piss me off anyway (Perelandra and That Hideous Strength). And I have read six of the books. So this project, which has run for about a fortnight as of this writing, has disposed of ten books already so far. (Update: Between the first draft of this post at the start of this week, and now, the end of the week, this number has been bumped up to twelve altogether.)

Praise please.

In Watching the English, a book about what the English are like, the author frequently referred to the much better-known (and, she implied, better full-stop) book on the same topic, Jeremy Paxman’s The English. I got it at a book sale for two dollars and have been intending to read it ever since. And now I have, and I think Watching the English is a better book. It as least more consonant with my own impressions of the English, and it doesn’t do that thing Jeremy Paxman is prone to where it makes enormous leaps from a specific instance of something to a huge generality. Paxman can be cheerfully self-satisfied in an arena that maybe he shouldn’t be so pleased about, and bitterly self-critical of another arena that maybe is not so bad — in both cases, it’s a problem of the qualities he highlights being not quite so unique to the British as he’s claiming.

For instance, this, about British people forming mobs at sporting events:

The problem is not exclusively English — Dutch and German fans have developed their own versions of the sickness in which puffy-faced young thugs proclaim their loyalty by kicking or stoning anyone who speaks a different language or wears different colours. But the truth is that the English gave the world soccer. They also gave it hooliganism.

Which, just, no they didn’t. They did not. The world had hooligans long before England came into the play. Still, though, I don’t know that much about international football matches and what fans from different countries have acted like, historically. I’d be willing to be convinced of this claim. I am amenable to many arguments that seem insane on first glance. But you have to prove it; you can’t just make a claim, quote some randos from history who also thought England was thuggish, and withdraw. You could do that for any quality in any country.

Or like this about racism:

Generally the English can be proud of their achievements in the field of race relations. Sudden, large-scale immigration was not something that was thought through, and, without wanting to minimize the real problems that can still face members of ethnic-minority communities, the tensions could have been a great deal worse.

Again, sure, maybe! But prove it to me. The Brixton riots? Those happened; why aren’t they a consideration? Is there census data showing the integration of England versus other countries? Anything would be less maddening than leaving it, as Paxman does, at “The country’s exuberant youth culture is largely colour-blind.”

It was particularly frustrating to me because Paxman is able to make a good case for his points, and he sometimes does it, but often not. I was in for believing what he said about the dominant narrative of Britain being this tiny underdog triumphing over impossible odds. That is a narrative. Britain likes that narrative. (I like that narrative too, it gets me teary-eyed.)

Well, never mind. I am sure you have paid no attention to any of these remarks because you are so VASTLY IMPRESSED with my book-cull reading project. That is fair, although I shall modestly acknowledge that I started with a bunch of the shorter books rather than leaping straight into the huge bulky ones. But you should feel free to praise me anyway.

25 thoughts on “Review: The English, Jeremy Paxman

  1. I loved Watching the English and had hoped this one would be just a good. Sorry it didn’t quite work, but it still sounds as though it would have enough to interest me.

    and yes…I always praise those who have the courage to abandon books. Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks! I will keep up the great work! I’m on a brief hiatus from it now so I can catch up on some NetGalley books, but pretty soon I’ll be right back with the TBR pile.

  2. I am glad that you are having success at a project that is important to you. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t moved in 20 years and I have a large, sprawling space for books rather than an urban apartment, but I don’t really get the sense of accomplishment at going through and seeing that there are that many fewer books already on your shelf that could be full of delights.

    • Ah, yes, it is because I love getting rid of things. In regular life, books are not the main thing I enjoy getting rid of (quite the contrary); but I live in New York and have a very small apartment. If I get rid of some of my current books, I’ll be able to store more of the books I own (and am storing at my parents’ place) in my New York place.

      Also, I love getting rid of things. Also, you can sell books back to the Strand, and then you have more money for new books you haven’t read yet.

  3. So much praise! I read your posts all the time but comment here only occasionally, and would like to tell you that I also gave away Perelandra and That Hideous Strength on the strength of your very blog post. I read them as a teenager and rather liked Perelandra for its wondering depiction of alien worlds (I am a sucker for that) but in hindsight you’re right on about the sexism. That Hideous Strength I always found pretty weird.

    So what were the books that you got halfway through and didn’t finish? Inquiring minds want to know! Or anyway I do, because I want to cultivate this habit myself but haven’t gotten the knack yet.

    • Oh yes my friend. All the praise is warming to my heart.

      I felt anxious about the responsibility of getting you to give away books, until I learned that you had read them before. I feel terribly guilty about getting rid of them myself without having read them.

      The books I got halfway through — I don’t even remember. I have sold them to the Strand since writing this post. :p

  4. So much praise! Gushing praise! FULSOME PRAISE. My own TBR pile is looking very intimidating, so I admire you all the more. I still want to read Watching the English – didn’t we get that when we were there together? – but I think you took it with you when you moved,right? And now, if I had it, it would only make my TBR pile higher. :/

    • THANK YOU. I did get Watching the English when we were together, and if you’d like I can bring it to you when next we meet. (Or at Christmas? Whatever you want.)

  5. Well done! I could never (or at least not at the moment) abandon books I’ve started, which I see as a flaw in myself, so yes, well done. There’s something about those quotations that sounds silly, sarcastic somehow. If this is Jeremy Paxman from the TV I think I’d like it.

  6. Well done you! May the progress continue.

    As for Paxman I always get the feeling that he’s very fond of his country but not very fond of popular culture and perhaps that combiation can make even the steeliest (which Paxman has a reputation for being) a little partial. But I don’t really follow him, it’s just a feeling.

    • I didn’t even know until I posted this (or only very vaguely) that Jeremy Paxman was from the television. Interesting. I wonder if I watched his program a few times, would I have a better feeling for the kind of thinker he is and would it affect how I felt about his book.

  7. Aw, maybe you’ll still read the Lewis one day, just not own it. I think it’s worth it — you know how good he is with allegory. Anyway, how satisfying and wonderful that you’re getting through your TBR so fast! Well done you! I’m having fun doing the same thing, only mine’s a virtual TBR, not a physical stack. Books I’ve been meaning to read for years. Such fun.

    • I miiiiiiight. And I might not. I’ll probably at least try to read Perelandra at some point, since I can get it so easily from the library for my ereader. And then we’ll see.

  8. Jeremy Paxman is terribly smug and can be terribly critical. This combination can be awful, so your review pleases me. As for the TBR pile, Jenny!! *fallstoknees* We are not worthy! We are not worthy!

  9. Praise Jenny! Praise! I’m actually back to hoarding my owned TBR, because I’m planning to move w/in the next year, and the place I’m moving to *charges* for holds. *shudder* So instead I’m reading as many of my library’s free holds as I can & ILLing things w abandon (the new library charges for ILLs too)! Which I would say is a project, except that’s been a description of my reading life for years now, so yeah. 😉

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