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"The English - A Portrait of a People" by Jeremy Paxman, published 1999 by Penguin, ISBN 0-14-129040-0, 308 pp, GBP 5.99

Spurred on by the end of the Empire, the unravelling of the UK, fundamental changes in Englandís relationship with Europe, and increasing globalisation, broadcaster and writer Jeremy Paxman has decided that it is high time for some national stocktaking, "something the English can no longer avoid". However, if youíre looking for clear-cut answers to the big question of Who We Are, be prepared for disappointment; the picture that emerges is shifting, confusing, and sometimes downright paradoxical. It is also, though, extremely colourful. As is the style of writing, which is shot through with waspish humour and telling phrases: Francis Drake, we are told, was a "nautical gangster", the Church of England "a comforter of the comfortable", and the inhabitants of the cities of the Industrial Revolution "a deracinated, brutish horde". The book draws on an admirable range of sources, most of which (though not all, despite the explicit claim to the contrary) can be found in the otherwise excellent fourteen-page bibliography, and is packed with fascinating insights, anecdotes, opinions and nuggets of information; if you like weird truths like the facts that the quintessentially English character of John Bull was created by a Scot and that there are more native speakers of Chinese than Irish living in Northern Ireland then youíll love this book. There is plenty here to delight and appal Anglophile and Anglophobe alike, as Paxman takes the reader through our past, our present, our future, our relationships with ourselves, our neighbours, and the world at large, and much else besides, in an even-handed manner that avoids tub-thumping patriotism and sentimentality but is not afraid to give credit where he feels it is due. An Englishman myself, a descendant of the deracinated brutish horde but also "fearless and philistine, safe in taxis and invaluable in shipwrecks", I recommend it. You have my word.

This review first appeared on ELTECS-L on January 5 2001

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