Review of 'Watching the English'

Watching the English by Kate Fox

watching_the_english.jpg Kate Fox is a social anthropologist, co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) and a Fellow of the Institute for Cultural Research (thanks Wikipedia). In “Watching the English” she attempts to define the rules that constitute English culture following on from years of performing experiments on the English people. Each chapter various aspects of English-ness with various “codes” that are evident to Fox from her investigations leading up to a concluding chapter where she puts all of these things together into a set of general rules that define the English including a much-vaunted diagram (a slight letdown when it is finally revealed perhaps).

Fox touches on all manner of English (not British, it has to be said) life from birth to death: Alcohol (lots of it, used to release the English from the constraints of their normal lives and as a bonding mechanism), sex (not discussed but as horny as any normal human), grooming (understated yet making a statement at the same time), work (restrained by the constraints of the culture), and humour (dry and generally ironic, and which you will find used in most social occasions). An obvious touch of the culture she proposes to study, Fox herself is often quite self deprecating and belittling her work which, as it is revealed is startling in its earnestness and truth.

I found this book personally an interesting read as I have lived in England for something like 20 years now and coming from Canada I have always found the English intriguing and, at least initially, difficult to understand. Now I sometimes think that I am more English than Canadian in temperament so much that is stated here likely applies to me. In the book many of the things I have discovered over the years to be laid out in a set of well thought out statements. Things like the orderly queues the English form except when in a pub (a place where many rules of the English do not apply due it's perception as a place of relaxation and “letting down one's hair”) where customers are served in the order they appear at the bar which is likely extremely confusing to many foreign visitors. Throughout my read I found myself silently nodding my head in agreement as I acknowledged what I know to be true from my experience.

Though fairly easy to read in terms of staying away from too much technical jargon “Watching the English” it is quite exhausting as it does go into a lot of detail resorting only occasionally to specific examples which are a welcome relief from the theoretical but come far too infrequently to ease the tone. Fox also readily admits that she is far from a dispassionate observer being English herself yet attempts to distance herself from this to achieve her goal. Her comments regarding her discomfort when she experiments with “queue jumping” – where the very fiber of her being screams in protest – are amusing and perfectly understandable to anyone familiar with the English.

An interesting anthropological dissection of the English but definitely not a light read. There are some slightly humorous elements but make no mistake, this quite a serious take on defining English behaviour. A must read for those wanting to under the culture more.

Rating: “Really good but I have some issues”

Review Date: 2018-06-23

Genre: Non-Fiction

Publisher: Hodder

Publication Date: 2004

ISBN: 0340818867