Monday, 30 April 2007
7. Watching the English - Kate Fox
Just to prove that a book needn't be/be about literature in order to interest me. Fox's book is pop-anthropological, though with a staggering amount of research, and manages to be both highly informative and incredibly funny.
Her objective is to discover what it is that characterises the English. Here's the catch - she's English herself. And a lot of the experiments she conducts involves breaking every tenet of Englishness, to find out how this goes down with those around her. Generally, not well. She even jumps queues.
Fox looks at pretty much every aspect fo Englishness that she you can think of - starting, of course, with 'Weather-Speak' (no, we aren't obsessed by the weather - we're obsessed with avoiding personal interaction), and covering gender, dialect, clothing, driving, holidays, furniture, sport, food, offices, pets, tea, whether to say serviette or napkin... all heavily laced with that most important of all English traits: 'The Importance of Not Being Earnest'. What makes this book successful is how funny Fox is - in the self-aware, self-deprecating, laughing-at-nothing-in-particular way that enables English people to have even the slightest amount of social interaction.
Now, I've only ever lived in England - I've covered most of the West side, having gone from Merseyside to Worcestershire to Somerset, but certainly haven't been in any other culture for a particularly long time. When reading this, I kept thinking "well, yes, of course - that makes sense", wondering how the book could be received by non-Brits. Until I got to the section on Pubs. I very rarely go into pubs, and certainly don't count myself a 'regular' - so reading this section opened a whole new world to me, and must be like most of the rest of the book, for unEnglish people. Instead of "well, yes, of course" I started uttering "Do they? Really? How absurd". But, while Fox never justifies our more stupid habits, she does make them seem extremely endearing. Like a small animal which hasn't quite learnt the most sensible way of getting around.
My favourite section is on queueing (or 'lining up' if you're American, I believe). Is anything more English? Or more outrageous if contravened? But it is apparently a matter of wonderment for foreigners, the way in which we can deal with multiple tills, several toilets, the bus turning up at the wrong spot, a pub counter, a wake - an appropriate queue for every occasion. I love the bit where Fox talks about a 'one person queue' - it is so true. If I am alone at a bus stop, I will stand by the pole, facing the right direction, as though an invisible queue were behind me, and threatening to take my place.
You'll love this book if you're English - but it is also a wonderful tome of information and amusing trivia for our weird little nation, if you're not.