The English - A Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman

Essay, 2001

7 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)

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1. Introduction

About the book:

The English was published in 1998 for the first time. To write this essay, the second edition with minor revisions is used. It has been published by Penguin Books in London in 1999. The English is divided in eleven chapters. Each chapter is introduced by a short but pregnant quotation.

About the author:

Jeremy Paxman is born in Leeds/Yorkshire.

He regularly works as a TV-journalist presenting a news journal (Newsnight) and a gameshow (University Challenge) on BBC.

Paxman also has published other books before. Examples are Friends in High Places and Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life.

About this essay:

The present essay is divided in four parts. In the beginning a short introduction deals with basic and formal information. The second part sums up the book and its chapters, while the third is to extract the main thesises and point out the authors point of view and intention. In the last section I try to give my opinion to the book, its author and the previously presented details.

2. Summary

Paxman begins his presentation with a short preface. It deals with information about his intention which he discusses more detailed in the following chapters.

In the first chapter, The Land of Lost Content, the changes in Englishness after the Second World War are explained, but details are hardly given. Paxman points out, that there have not been important changes in the national character between 1800 and 1950.1 England almost has changed after the Second World War.

Just after creating an image of traditional Englishness, he shows how things changed.

While examples for English national symbols (e.g. an English anthem) are searched but rarely found, Scottish national symbols are widely known.2 This might mean - the author concludes - that the English feel or have felt to be very self-confident because of their leading role within the United Kingdom, which yet has been centre of a world-wide Empire.3 This is meant to be problematic to the English identity for globalism as well as federalism or the European Union are somehow finishing the British history. Now the disaster is that the English do not know where they are going and also who they are.4 Their believe in institutions (empire, church, parliament) instead of the nation-state has lost its basis for these institutions have become less important or disappeared completely. In the end of the chapter, Paxman argues geographically by pointing out that the English are islanders and that “their geography had given them the freedom to be pioneers in law and democracy”5.

This chapter introduces in the argumentation as it gives an idea of being English. The following chapters deepen it.

Funny Foreigners represents the English’s relations on and thoughts about foreign people, especially their traditional enemy France and the United States, which are said to have a special relationship to Britain.

According to Chapters three and four I have to say that their headlines do not match the contents of the text. They seem to be exchanged for each other. Nevertheless these chapters deal with arguments about the racial development of the English, who descent from the Celts as well as from Romans, Vikings, Normans, Anglo-Saxons and Jutes, who all conquered parts of the island, settled there and influenced the development of culture on the British isles. “England owes its existence as a single entity to foreign invasion”6, the author gathers. In chapter four the formerly conquered English are now shown as conquerors themselves. This is important, because “The Empire gave the English the chance to be blessed”7, and this strongly effected the English.

Later in this chapter the significant difference between being English and being British is distinguished. Coloured immigrants from former colonies call themselves British and also the Scots and Welsh might do, whereas only the English call themselves English (but also British), but interestingly manly those people are remarked to proclaim their Englishness loudly, who are white but whose descent often is not English at all.8

We Happy Few describes provincial people looking backward and stand against European integration which in their mind threatens Englishness. On the other hand it is says, that Englishness does not depend on being English for many Australians or even some Americans show characteristics of an Englishman. This means Englishness is more a question of a certain kind of behaviour than a question of race.

The English like to see themselves as brave people. According to this their patron is St. George and their history often tells the story of the few braves fighting the properly superior enemies.

The Parish of The Senses tells the story of the Church of England and its principals which have influenced the English for example by giving them space to believe without ruling how to do it9 or by cutting up English culture from continental culture10. It also has “provided the moral authority for the model Englishman and -woman”11.

Also the way of publishing the bible to be available for all is described as so as the political and social consequences to Englishness.

Home Alone is about typically English individualism and its appearances such as privacy or architecture. Home is pointed out as the English people’s substitute to a Fatherland.12 In the following chapter (There Always Was an England) the English are told to have a schizophrenic view upon their country. They speak either about the country they really live in or the image of a country they would like to live in. The first one is urban and modern and real, the second one more rural and actually past and promises haven.13 In The Ideal Englishman the so called “breed”14 is examined. It is understood as the “embodiment of the ruling class”15 which is educated in a certain tradition for which names like Eaton stand. But the breed is obsolete for it has been created for the Empire. Other typical characteristics are described then by redrawing the caricature of John Bull 16 or narrating the story of the legendary Jack Mytton 17 or by giving examples of archetypes of English sportsmen like C.B.Fry 18. By the way the English are told to be rather practicing than thinking. And they are obsessed by sports and the idea of the game.19

Meet The Wife tries to show the women’s role in society for it totally changed since the beginning of the 20th century. Many men have used to enjoy special services but Prostitution, though wide-spread, officially never has existed for a long time. On the other hand, selling women has been “considered as legally as a conventional marriage ceremony”20 and still was no rarity in the late 19th century. Men have ruled society and men have decided how to behave as a woman: Women have been to stay home and care about household and family life and not to be taught too much. This “strict hierarchical division between the sexes” is described as a “consequence of the invention of the Ideal Englishman”21, but he has been bred for the Empire - so she has been, too. For the Empire has past now, sexuality changed as much as women “have increasing parity with men in public life”22.

In the end the last chapter Old Country, New Clothes again says that the end of war marks the last time, when “the impression of England matched the reality”23. Currently geography, history, religion and politics are told not to exert influence like it did in the past. What is left, is the English language that is spoken all over the world. It is the very last significant remainder of the Empire outside England. The English people has obviously changed. But it is the “Zeitgeist24 that changes: “[E]ach post-war generation has turned out more self-obsessed and selfish than the last”25. At least nearly everything has changed in England. England now is much more British than it ever has been before, because 'Britishness' allows diversity, especially to the plenty of immigrants living there including Indians and Africans.26 But rests of Englishness are left: personal liberty, the believe in fair-play (and sport), tolerance, easy- going and also individualism are basic to the English mind. Many other examples are added by Paxman.27 Last but not least, Paxman finishes that (English) nationalism according to increasing individualism is substituted by identifying with regions, cities or even dresses, football teams and so on. This leads him to his final conclusion that this “[i]n an age of decaying nation states .. might be the nationalism of the future.”28

3. Extraktion of the authors main thesises and arguments.

Paxman’s thesis is that the end of Empire at the same time means the end of the archetypal Englishness embodied by the ideal Englishman or -woman. Englishness, the way Paxman understands it, has been a creation of the fact that the English are islanders. Paxman asserts: “The adage is that geography makes history. But if such a thing as a national psychology exists, it too may be made by geography.“29 This, I would like to say, is one outstanding thesis. Geographical arguments are often used later on, as these examples make plain:

- There is evidence of geographical influences on English military behaviour: Primarily a strong navy was built to protect the island, whereas continental powers also needed vast armies. The Empire based on this naval superiority and gave the English the opportunity to chose involvements in wars; Besides England was less an European power than an Asiatic. That also influenced English towns which usually were not protected by walls and fortresses like continental towns.30

- Geographical (which means sea bound) security gave the English early self-confidence; but it also meant separation from continental developments in arts and sciences causing a separate intellectual tradition; besides separation meant that the English didn’t ever care really much about foreigners and a good example for this is the refused attempt to build a railway-tunnel under the Channel in 1882, which would have taken away spatial isolation on which the English’s self-confidence has been found.31

- Nowadays, the most important spatial fact is that in a globalising world England is almost in its centre; Paxman correctly explains:

“One of their [the English - M.B. ] main assets … was that they spoke the global language; Another was the accident of geography that placed their country in a position where it could do business with Asia in the morning and North America in the afternoon; … another consequence of empire [was] a network of connections across the world and a capacity for assimilating other cultures; …”32

Based on the geographical argumentation history and religion are discussed, too. Both are different to their continental counterparts.

The Church of England is the origin of the liberal view being typically English. Its difference to other Christian religions and churches is explained by quoting the Bishop of Oxford:

“An evangelical church will say you need to be sincerely converted. A traditional Anglo-Catholic church will teach you a Christian orthodoxy … [but] [t]he Church of England doesn’t believe in laying down rules, … [i]t prefers to give people space and freedom”33

Besides is mentioned that the Church of England “provided the moral authority for the model Englishman and -woman.”34

Historical arguments are given frequently. They need not to be pointed out for they are well known on the one hand, while on the other hand they are used to create pictures of circumstances in which certain social, religious, political, military or other cultural developments are shown. But one important exception is made: When Paxman writes about the magazine This England, he points out that its readers (a quarter of a million - four editions a year) are looking backwards. The way England is pictured does not match reality. Here history itself and the way to deal with it are described as an important influence to the modern (which means “nowadays” but not “up to date”) English people.35

In the preface, Paxman asks what the end of the British Empire, “the cracks opening in the so-called United Kingdom”36, European Integration and globalising economies mean to the English People.37

In the end he tries to give himself the answer: “The English are simultaneously rediscovering the past that was buried when ‘Britain’ was created. … The new nationalism is less likely to be based on flags and anthems. It is modest, individualistic, ironic, solipsistic, concerned as much with cities and regions as with counties and countries. It is based on values that are … embedded in the culture … In an age of decaying nation states it might be the nationalism of the future.”38

4. Final observation

I really enjoyed reading this book. The author succeeds in trying to combine giving serious arguments as well as funny, entertaining historical examples to underline or introduce his argumentations. The picture he creates about the English is new. I do not think that many others would have seen the English the way Paxman does it, except parts. For his arguments are understandable and most of them are hard to deny, reading “The English” in my mind is a properly good way (possibly one of the best) to deepen ones knowledge about the English although it is not suitable to begin studying the English by reading this book. The English people becomes less separate to others, for the English are ‘X-rayed’ by this book.

To me the language Paxman uses is harder to understand as other English books that I have read before. But at least it is funny and informative. That makes one to continue reading though later parts of the book are not as interesting and funny as the first chapters. All in all I like the book, and I think there should be a similar book be written about all other important peoples for this makes differences and communities between them visible, understandable and comparable. This is most important in an age of globalism!

One very last remarkable fact to be mentioned is that while writing the present book the author changed the way he thinks about himself: Earlier he thought himself to be English, now - though not expressed in this term - he feels British.39


1 see: PAXMAN, J.: The English. A Portrait of a people; 2nd edition, London 1999, p. 6

2 see: ibid., p. 10-11

3 see: PAXMAN, J.: The English. A Portrait of a people; 2nd edition, London 1999, p. 23

4 see: ibid., p. 15-16

5 ibid., p. 22

6 ibid., p. 54

7 ibid., p. 65

8 see: ibid., p. 74-76

9 see: PAXMAN, J.: The English. A Portrait of a people; 2nd edition, London 1999, p. 95

10 see: Ibid., p. 109

11 ibid., p. 96

12 see: ibid., p. 140

13 see: ibid., p. 143 ff.

14 ibid., p. 176 ff.

15 ibid., p. 177

16 see: ibid., p. 184 f.

17 see: ibid., p. 186 f.

18 see: ibid., p. 199 ff.

19 see: ibid., p. 195 ff.

20 ibid., p. 216

21 PAXMAN, J.: The English. A Portrait of a people; 2nd edition, London 1999, p. 228

22 ibid., p. 231

23 ibid., p. 232

24 ibid., p. 238

25 ibid., p. 265

26 see: ibid., p. 240

27 see: ibid., p. 260 f.

28 ibid., p. 266

29 ibid., p. 24

30 see: PAXMAN, J.: The English. A Portrait of a people; 2nd edition, London 1999, p. 31-34

31 see: ibid., p. 34 f.

32 ibid., p. 239

33 ibid., p. 95

34 ibid., p. 96

35 PAXMAN, J.: The English. A Portrait of a people; 2nd edition, London 1999, p. 77-81

36 ibid., p. viii

37 see: ibid.

38 ibid., p. 265 f.

39 see: PAXMAN, J.: The English. A Portrait of a people; 2nd edition, London 1999, p. ix

7 of 7 pages


The English - A Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman
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English, Portrait, People, Jeremy, Paxman
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Michael Birklein (Author), 2001, The English - A Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 4/17/2008

    nice book.

    I red the book after I discovered it here and I have to say a big "thank you", cause it's great! ;)

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