A contemplation of England's people

June 18, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff

"The English: A Portrait of a People," by Jeremy Paxman. Overlook Press. 320 pages. $29.95.

What does it mean to be English when the empire is gone, business rules, Europe beckons and the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish lead increasingly separate political and social lives? That's the issue Jeremy Paxman confronts in 'The English: A Portrait of a People."

Witty, withering and filled with a sense of wonder on how the English have gotten to the state they're in, Paxman serves as an erudite tour guide to this perplexing subject of a people in search of themselves. An Englishman who is one-quarter Scot, Paxman is part of Britain's media elite, a renowned newscaster known for his sneer and bullying interview style.

But here, Paxman displays heart and passion, analyzing the English through the ages.

"Once upon a time the English knew who they were," he writes. "There was such a ready list of adjectives to hand. They were polite, unexcitable, reserved and had hot-water bottles instead of a sex life: how they reproduced was one of the mysteries of the western world."

A British best seller, the book matches a mood of national introspection triggered by decades of decline and great constitutional changes unleashed by Prime Minister Tony Blair. In forging local governments for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, Blair and Labor are attempting to rope together the disparate parts of the United Kingdom, to keep the whole intact by giving power to the people.

But with power spread, what's to become of the historic masters of these crowded islands, people who "have not spent a great deal of time defining themselves because they haven't needed to?"

Traveling, interviewing and reading widely -- the bibliography runs 14 pages -- Paxman leisurely takes on the subject and reveals the English in all their glory, from pubs to playing fields, churches to bedrooms.

He dissects the two great English passions of weather and words, visiting the Meteorological Office and the Oxford English Dictionary. He meets the founder of the nostalgic This England magazine ("three union flags and a Cross of St. George on his bookshelves, a photograph of the Queen on the wall, and plenty of books about dance bands"). And he peers into the lives of William and Valerie Plowden, who are moving out of the family's 800-year-old country pile so their son can move in.

The Plowdens are firmly against Britain being swallowed into the 15-member European Union -- an opinion displayed on a homemade bumper sticker.

"In the rolling hills of Shropshire, the heart of England still beats," Paxman writes. "It is driving around with a sticker in the back window telling the rest of Europe to sod off."

Some of the characters he introduces the reader beggar belief, such as the merchant banker who "likes to be spanked until the blood runs," and "has had a bottom transplant." When it comes to sex, well, the English are English.

Most of the people Paxman meets are like the wealthy widow in Dorset who sips tea, and laments "the whole country's just one big suburb now."

Paxman gets it right when he says, "the English have found themselves walking backwards into the future, their eyes fixed on a point some time at the turn of the twentieth century."

American readers might find some of the going slow, especially when Paxman piles up the quotes and history lessons like a pupil out to impress his college professor. His conclusion that "the English are simultaneously rediscovering the past that was buried when 'Britain' was created, and inventing a new future," seems, at best, pat.

But for those who love England and the English, this is a book worth reading and re-reading.

Bill Glauber is The Sun's London correspondent. He covers Western and Eastern Europe.

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