Monday 30 April 2007

50 Books...

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 am
ount 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 m
uch 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.


  1. I loved it too Simon, although I'm quite an Anglophone Australian. Her excruciating experience of trying to bump into people and having them apologise to her was fascinating. I'm also a very orderly queuer, especially when alone.

  2. Grumpy Old Woman here.
    Well I don't know where you queue for your buses but young people in Kingston don't seem to have any understanding of the word at all.
    It isn't cool to queue. It is obligatory to lean against the wall of Talbots or the Bentall Centre and smoke or snog. Then when the bus arrives you barge your way straight to the door or, if you are at the height of teenageness, attempt to get on the bus by the exit door thereby ignoring the check-in point at the front!!!
    Also you go around in gangs of at least 3-abreast and sweep along the pavement mowing down all in front. My response is to put my hands together in front of my chest and perform something akin to the arm movements of a swimmer doing breastroke whilst in my best mad women voice I exclaim " e x c u s e M E."

  3. Oh, this sounds wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing this book.

  4. Another one I hadn't come across but which sounds fascinating. Thankyou again, Simon

  5. I'm intrigued as to the pub etiquette that laves you baffled - although an infrequent pubber, I've probably been more times than yourself.

  6. the etiquette of round-buying, how to do it, and what drinks one is permitted (by class) to drink... all might be a mystery to a tee-totaller like yourself, oh Carbon Copy

  7. to be fair, you have never in your life bought a drink permitted by your class or, in fact, gender. ;o)

  8. Highly enjoyed the book, (as a foreigner living in Britain). But it came as a 'deja-vue' experience - check this little book - How to be an alien:
    , I am sure it did provide some inspiration :).

  9. Thanks for the review, I think Kate Fox is a fascinating author. I'd definitely try to get a copy of this book.

  10. Just added that to my wish list. I'm not English but I love England and I think I will enjoy it. I'll let you know.

  11. I found your site through the marvellous Miss Darcy's Library and very much enjoy what I've read so far.

    I really like your comments on this book - it was recommended to me by a colleague who said it had really helped him understand living here - I found it incredibly funny and a tad embarrassing as I recognised all our little foibles writ large. (you are so right about the bus stop queue!)

  12. Was recommended this by a colleague who said it had really helped him on moving to England and found it very funny. It's amusing (and a bit embarrassing!) to see all our unconscious foibles laid out like that - I'm completely with you on the bus queuing thing!


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