Watching the English (by Kate Fox)

A couple of years ago my older son - who was working on a ship at the time - came online, and guided me to Amazon, telling me to look for Kate Fox. I wasn't entirely sure where this was leading, until he told me I should order her book and charge it to his virtual account, as a late birthday present. He had read it, and highly recommended it.

I actually ordered 'Watching the English' from the Book Depository, which has free postage to Cyprus, and when it arrived spent several hours over the next few weeks dipping in and out of the book. Then decided to read it in its entirety, which I did over about a year - or a bit more, in irregular sittings. It's the kind of book that can be enjoyed all the more over a lengthy period, reading and pondering a chapter and then putting it aside for a while.

It's sub-titled, 'The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour' - and does exactly what it says on the cover. Kate Fox, herself English (note that her research is not about being British, but much more specifically about being English) spent a great deal of time and effort trying to work out what exactly it is that makes the rather diverse population of our small country so very 'English'.

In a nutshell, the author concludes that we tend to suffer from what she calls social dis-ease, which manifests itself in humour ('the importance of Not Being Earnest'), general moderation, a strange hypocrisy, class-consciousness (while denying that we care about such things), and an Eeyorish outlook. We do have a few positive traits: we particularly value fairness, politeness and modesty.

I was amused to read a couple of rather negative reviews of this book, one complaining that the author has no real credentials and can't seem to take herself seriously, and the other saying that the book was fine but the author went on far too much about class consciousness, which really isn't an issue any more. These comments were amusing because they actually reinforce what she says.... that we use humour at every possible time, that we tend to be over-modest and self-deprecating, and that for some reason our ancient class consciousness does still have many hallmarks, even while we deny that it matters in the slightest these days.

Topics covered in individual chapters include work, leisure, food, dress codes, rites of passage... and much more. There is a lot of research in this book - it's over 400 pages of small print, so far from a light read.

 It is, however, full of enjoyable anecdotes and examples of what the author is talking about, making it a most enjoyable read when in the right mood. I recognised myself and my English friends and family regularly, and - when I was totally honest with myself - couldn't find myself disagreeing with any of it.

I would recommend 'Watching the English' highly to anyone seeking to understand better how we English function.... if I can do so in a moderate and self-deprecating kind of way, aware that everyone has different tastes, so please don't blame me if you don't like it.

Available for the Kindle too.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 26th May 2011

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