Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Guest Post: Katie Kotting of The Unsamaritans Book Group

Book: Watching the English (Kate Fox)

Date: Thursday 12th May 2011

Venue: Clare C’s lovely new pad by candlelight

Attendees: Clare C, Clare S, Frances, Geoffrey, James S, James M, Jo, Katie

There tends to be a bit of scepticism in the group when we agree to read a non-fiction book – will anyone bother to read it? In this case, most of us had, if not all of it then at least enough. Watching the English is written by social anthropologist Kate Fox, an in depth study of average people, based primarily on observation, to try and uncover the hidden rules of being English.

For the most part, the book was well received, with one notable exception which we’ll get to later. James S, had enjoyed the book so much on first reading a couple of years ago he had brought it to the group’s attention. Frances, one of the few non-English members of the group present (interestingly neither of our Scottish members attended), noted that it helped her to see the bits of ‘Englishness’ that she had adopted over the years. Katie also found that reading about the characteristics that were suggested as quintessentially English helped her to differentiate between her English and German heritage. Clare C wondered whether some of the behaviours attributed to ‘Englishness’ were really ‘English’ or could they have been more universal?

There was much discussion about her comments regarding class – how did we feel about this? The general consensus was that her observations were interesting, astute and inoffensive as she was not judging or commenting on her findings, merely stating them.

Geoffrey, on the other hand, was thoroughly unimpressed with the book. He thought it was an overwritten 50 page loo-book/stocking-filler. He found it long-winded, self-indulgent and smug. There was a general agreement that perhaps the book could have been a bit shorter, but that many of the insights and nuances would have been lost or over-simplified in a stocking-filler version. Ultimately she is an academic and the book bears the hallmark of this.

As an in depth study of the rules of English behaviour it certainly resonated with us and we could all recount times when we had witnessed or displayed the behaviours that Kate Fox singled out as being common to English folk. So what was her conclusion about the essence of Englishness? If you’re keen to know I suggest you either follow her lead and spend the best part of ten years watching and listening to people’s conversations and interactions in pubs, busses, business meetings, tea-parties, work places and more, or take the easier option and read ‘Watching the English’.