Last week, Britons celebrated or observed Guy Fawkes Night on 5 November, a date I usually try to do some English-themed reading around, just as I do readings for the Fourth of July and Bastille Day. This year’s reading consisted of my finishing off Bernard Cornwell’s excellent King Arthur trilogy, along with two nonfiction works: Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island and Kate Fox’s Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour.
To start off my set, I decided to take a tour of Britain with Bill Bryson, an American humorist author who lived in England for twenty years, beginning in the 1970s. Before returning to the United States, Bryson decided to mull over his adopted homeland by traveling over it, in part repeating the journey he made upon first arriving. Bryson is a riotous author for me, and here he’s of course an entertaining guide, cheerfully rambling through the country, offering commentary that varies from serious reflections on English culture to absurd thoughts and irrelevant tangents. At the outset, when repeating his initial 1970s travels, the commentary compares the Britain of his youth to Britain today, though the changes he notes (in the flowering of chain stores, the destruction of older architectural for modern boxes) are scarcely for the better. Even so, this is a delightfully fun book.
Kate Fox’s Watching the English takes a more serious tack, slightly so. The author has a earnest endeavor — scrutinizing English culture with an anthropologist’s eye — but she offers a spirited analysis. Although her intent is to discern the rules governing English behavior by watching how Britons act, she’s no passive observer, instead turning her fellow Brits into lab rats and experimenting on them. She devotes afternoons to jumping queues (cutting into lines) and bumping into people on purpose, noting how many of them automatically apologize. As she studies one area of English life after another — work, hobbies, sex, shopping — patterns emerge, rules which interact with one another, and eventually the patterns create a cohesive analysis of English culture. Fox declares that the English are fundamentally socially anxious, and that many English behaviors act to counter that awkwardness. The weather, for instance, is not actually all that interesting to English folk, regardless how how incessantly they speak of it: instead, talking about the weather is a way to be social without being impolite, to make a human connection without seeming weird. Fox sees her countrymen and women as being desperate for fellowship, but denied it by a culture that encourages emotional coolness — reserve, moderation, and the respect of privacy. Other aspects of English culture she touches on are the prevalence of class consciousness (which is ubiquitous, being expressed and betrayed not just by the word you use to describe household furniture, but which items you are willing to buy from a Mark’s and Spencer), English humor, and a fundamental belief in fair play. While I can’t judge her book against personal experience (not yet having traveled to England’s green and pleasant land), I found it utterly engaging and entertainingly written.