Book Review: Watching the English by Kate Fox

Before I begin, it’s worth noting that there are two versions of this book around. One has a cover of two people under an umbrella, reading a newspaper on some green seats, seemingly in some kind of sports stadium. The latter is more pale and has seagulls and fish n’ chips on the cover. The version I am reviewing is the earlier one with the green cover.

I had expected this to be something like the literary equivalent of observational comedy, perhaps in the spirit of Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island. So it was something of a surprise turn to find out that the premise is meant to be one of anthropological study. Yet this isn’t exactly a full on academic study. It’s more like an anthropologist’s holiday. At home.

It’s also worth noting that this is specifically about the English. It’s not a study of British behaviour, because Fox believes that the Welsh, the Scottish and the Northern Irish have their own distinct identities and even that when most people speak of “Britishness” they tend to refer more to something specifically English than to any of the other nations that make up the union, let alone any blending of the cultures. So it’s a slightly controversial start. Another issue that ought to be dealt with is that of the multicultural nature of Britain. Now while Fox acknowledges this in her introduction, she seems to pay scant attention to it in the main body of the book. If anything, I think this may be due one major oversight in that she doesn’t acknowledge the differences between life in cities, towns and the countryside. If anything, her study rather excludes those who live in urban environments, particularly with a population that contains a high number of people who come from other cultures, other countries. Instead, we get a fairly middle-class suburban portrait of the English.

One of the overarching themes is that of the English sense of humour. In looking at this there has to be a contrast, so Fox takes on board the critics of English humour or those who are just simply flummoxed by it. The tendency is for humour to be in the very air that we breathe. It is not necessarily that we feel the need to make a joke out of everything, but rather that we choose to look to find the amusing, the quirky or the ironic in any situation. This is linked the idea of the English underplaying a lot of things. One might think of any number of guides for American tourists who don’t understand that the phrase “that’s not bad” is a statement of praise, not criticism. So while this Englishman finds the hyperbolic brashness of American adjectives over the top, I am aware that I might be viewed as being dishonest if I don’t jump up and down in ecstasy if I am pleased with something.

The other theme that is spread throughout the book is the idea of the class system. Despite her anthropological background, she refrains from using the obscure categorisations one comes across occasionally. Instead she sticks to talking about working class, middle class and upper class, as well the subdivisions within each. One cannot help but think as one reads whereabouts one fits. I would state that my family were probably lower middle class with the majority of my schoolfriends also lower middle class with a few upper class. At university, this shifted rather where the majority were middle-middle to upper-middle. These days, I continue to be lower class than my peers, mainly due to my lack of property and my preference for reading books than driving cars or going on overseas holidays. I’m sure you can think through your own circumstances and consider where you fit.

The first half of the book is devoted to conversation; an area that I am in no way skilled. So while I recognised much of what was discussed, it was as looking through the glass at a zoo to a familiar but dangerous beast who I have no desire to get into close contact: small talk.

The second half is much more structured by looking at specific set of “rules” such as those for humour, work, home, sex & relationships and travel. Again, many of these were recognisable if sometimes loosely. There was much to smirk at when one recognises either oneself or acquaintances who are described with eerie accuracy, though this was tempered by the sense that some nuance was lost in favour of a humour borne out of generalisation.

With that critique noted, I would still recommend this an astutely observed book written with a most enjoyable verve. Or perhaps a bit of English understatement is in order by declaring it to be: not bad.

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One response to “Book Review: Watching the English by Kate Fox

  1. I read the book nearly 10 years ago – I remember a phase when just about everyone wanted to read it (our copy was on almost permanent loan for a while).

    You make a good point about cities – she doesn’t really seem to delve into the difference between city / suburban / etc living.

    At the time I felt she made far too much of class, although perhaps with a bit more life experience under my belt now I might revise that a bit.

    I also felt that the book was a bit too long, I think she repeats herself quite a lot by the end of the book.

    Still, good review, having read this I might go back and re-read it!