What is it about the English? Not the British overall, not the Scots, not the Irish or Welsh, but the English. Why do they seem so unsure of who they are? As Jeremy Paxman remarks in his preface to The English, being English “used to be so easy”. Now, with the Empire gone, with Wales and Scotland moving into more independent postures, with the troubling spectre of a united Europe (and despite the raucous hype of “Cool Britannia”), the English seem to have entered a collective crisis of national identity.
Jeremy Paxman has set himself the task of finding just what exactly is going on. Why, he wonders, “do the English seem to enjoy feeling so persecuted? What is behind the English obsession with games? How did they acquire their odd attitudes to sex and food? Where did they get their extraordinary capacity for hypocrisy?” He ranges widely in pursuit of answers, sifting through literature, cinema and history. It is an intriguing investigation, encompassing many aspects of national life and character (such as it is), including the obligatory visit to that baffling phenomenon, the funeral of Princess Diana. Yet Paxman finds something fresh and interesting to say about even that now rather threadbare topic. In the end, he seems to find further questions to ask instead of answers. But why not? To him it is a sign that the English are acquiring a new sense of self. And some indication of this might lie in the obvious response to his remark that the English, being top of the British Imperial tree, had nicknames for the fellow nationalities– Jock, Taffy, Paddy and Mick–but there was no corresponding name for an Englishman. Of course, there is now, and it comes from one of the bits of empire to which so many undesirables were exported: Whinging Pom. —Robin Davidson