Friday, February 5, 2016

European RC #1

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

The English:  A Portrait of a People – Jeremy Paxton

When I lived in Latvia (1994-97), I went to parties that mixed North Americans, Englishmen and –women, and Irishmen and –women. Drink flowed at the party but – so? -- many eye-opening conversations were to be had.  A British diplomat who was a Scotswoman raised my eyebrows with her plan to be the Scottish ambassador to Russia after Scotland gained its independence.

Another time a bank examiner from Louisiana was stunned to be informed by an Englishman that an American was not only a native or citizen of the United States but also a native or inhabitant of any of the countries of North, South, or Central America. The Louisianan looked at me in shock and exclaimed, “I never knew that” as if I, a bad English teacher, had neglected to tell her this through sheer incompetence.

Anyway, if I can’t travel or be an expatriate anymore, I can read books like this one to expand my horizons. It examines stereotypes, subjective assessments, historical myths, misconceptions, various phobias and criticisms related to England and its English inhabitants.  Be clear that the writer purposely focusses on only the English, not the Irish, Scots, or Welsh. He clearly distinguishes English (a people) from British (a nationality). He identifies the English national character as having “a quizzical detachment, tolerance, common sense, bloody-mindedness, willingness to compromise, [a] deeply political sense of themselves [and above all a] sense of 'I know my rights.’” He also grants what I always felt, “hard to know.”

Writing about national character is a dicey thing. Readers feel left out, claiming the writer is talking about a socio-economic class that does not include them. Some readers will see irony, humor and anti-Celt chauvinism between the lines, while others will not. Other readers will say the book – published in the late 1990s – is dated by now, that it does not help us understand the English since the world changed after 9/11 and protracted land wars in Asia, not to mention the 2008 global economic meltdown. Though he has read a lot, he does not use insights from sociology or economics. He doesn’t touch on the bane of the UK and US – prejudice about skin color. Recall Ellis in Orwell’s Burmese Days who “hated [blacks] with a bitter, restless loathing as of something evil or unclean.”

So, my advice is to read it for entertainment and in any case not as absolute truth. Paxton, by the way, is famous as a TV interviewer whose dogged style of getting after politicians to answer the goddamned question should be imitated by the lapdogs and lickspittles who work for US networks.

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