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.