17 September 2007

This Sceptred Isle

Penguin have just reissued a number of popular paperbacks with gorgeous vintage covers (I haven't yet been tempted by any of the mugs, pencils and other paraphernalia they have been adorning with Penguin covers for the past few years). Unfortunately, a quick trek around Borders made me realise that I already owned all of the reissues I would want to read. In the end, a BOGOHP offer persuaded me to buy The English by Jeremy Paxman, which has been on my medium priority list of books to acquire for a while now. I'm finding it compelling enough at the moment, although I much prefer Kate Fox's anthropology-based Watching the English.

Paxman, for the most part, speaks very fondly of England and of the English and although I do have warm, fuzzy feelings with regards to my country, when it comes to elucidating specific examples of what I like about it, I realised that I'm not really very loyal after all. Removing friends/family/acquaintances from the equation, this list is about all I was able to come up with; in no particular order:

1. Oxford. Especially in autumn when the golden leaves fall around the yellow, stone buildings on Magdalen Bridge and the High. The autumn evening light definitely becomes Oxford.

2. The Backs in Cambridge in the summer. Much as I malign Cambridge, you can't beat lazing on a sunny afternoon in the summertime, sprawled out on the grass next to the river drinking Pimm's and laughing at the tourists' attempts to punt.

3. Woodlands and other non-dramatic, non-OTT scenic areas, such as Shotover, in the village of my youth. Not that I ever go for long walks that much these days. It is, however, nice to have the option.

4. Bangers 'n' mash. The French have a mashed potato equivalent but it's far too liquidy and has a funny taste about it. Also, their bangers are too seasoned for my sensitive palate.

5. Not being harassed by the staff on entering a shop/restaurant/any other public venue. Nothing wrong with friendliness when motivated by the right reasons; working on commission doesn't count.

6. Clive Owen. Of course. Enough to make one refuse to skip the country.

7. The OED. A linguist's dream come true and now online too! Oh, how I miss my Athens account!

8. Waitrose. Inspires me to cook properly. Almost.

9. The Beeb. Not that I watch TV, apart from Have I Got News For You (which would make the list in its own right were I capable of remembering to watch it more than twice a year).

I feel rather embarrassed that this is the best lot I can conceive; perhaps I should add this to my long-term project list. Paxman also talks extensively about the lack of understanding about what makes something English, taking the rather holistic view of concepts. A concept should be seen of as more than the sum of a list of necessary and sufficient conditions; someone or something is, thus, English because she or it has an intrinsic Englishness about her/it. I'm sure I should be more loyal. I take little interest in the government of my own country but stay up all night to watch the results of the American elections come in.

The grass is, of course, always plus verte and I'm sure there are plenty of things I take for granted in England that wouldn't be the same in, say, the U.S. or in France. I suppose that at the moment, I have the best of both worlds: living in good old England and frequently visiting America and France. Maybe patriotism is simply a quality one grows into over time.

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