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How English am I?

  Link: Sinclair's Musings: Fixing Democracy?

Matthew Sinclair has made me think, with his comprehensive fisking of my piece on the failings of British democracy. He concluded that I am suffering from libertarian pessimism of  the "our country is going to the dogs" variety. I hope he's right. Follow the link above to get his side of the story. You can get Devil's Kitchen's angle on it here, though I furiously deny the allegation that I have started a "meme". I hate memes.

StgeorgeMatthew also made me think by saying that my concerns are those of a typical expatriate who thinks the home country has gone to hell in his absence. He may, on reflection, have touched accidentally on a truth.

I have just read a hugely entertaining book called "Watching the English" by anthropologist Kate Fox. She sets out to analyse our behaviours as another anthropologist might study a tribe of Amazonian Indians. What I have taken from it so far is that my behaviours are not very English.

When I worked as a lawyer in London, I noticed that foreign clients - especially Americans - thought more highly of me than English ones. I put this down to class prejudice. As Fox says, quoting George Bernard Shaw;

"It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate him or despise him"

At the time, I assumed the English businessmen were repelled by my flat Northern vowels, but that foreigners neither noticed nor cared. I was wrong, of course. I have since learned that all class wounds in England are self-inflicted. If you don't care, neither will anyone else. If you want to be a victim, then people will happily give you a metaphorical kicking.

Several times during my life abroad foreigners have "complimented" me by saying, "you're not typically English." As a patriot (another unEnglish attribute) I was hurt. I laughed it off by saying "We are not all Hugh Grant, you know. There are plenty at home like me." Reading Fox's book, I am not sure that's true.

Maybe the "otherness" Matthew detected in my attitudes did not develop in my time abroad. Maybe I am not "unEnglish" because I am an expatriate. Maybe I am an expatriate because I am unEnglish?

So what are the characteristics of Englishness that I don't possess? As you may have noticed, I fail to grasp what Fox calls "the importance of not being earnest." An Englishman should speak lightly of every subject, however serious. He should not persist with any topic long, for fear of being thought a bore. If England were to fall like Ancient Rome a real Englishman would have to make light of the matter, even as the barbarians set upon him with fire and sword. This leaves me wondering how we can resist tyrrany, when - as Kate Fox puts it - "the English have satire instead of revolutions."

I don't chat about the weather. I take clothes too seriously. I have bought new watches and cufflinks that should apparently only be worn if inherited. I am not prepared to buy them in pawnshops and pretend they were inherited. I despise such deceptions. This is (unless you are from Yorkshire) apparently also unEnglish.

I am happier talking big political issues than making small talk. The only points I scored in a pop-quiz "How Polish are you?" set by my language teacher were for saying that politics, religion and sex were suitable topics for dinner party conversation. My attempts to persist in serious discussion of "ishoos" often got me into trouble in England.

It's hard to be sure though that my unEnglishness is what keeps me abroad. There are aspects of expatriate life that would benefit anyone. In other cultures, you get a "free pass" on sensitive issues. You can't give offence as easily, because the locals make allowances for you as a foreigner. So they let you off. It's brilliant; almost like being an American in London (which I have long thought would be my perfect existence). Maybe that is the attraction of "abroad" for me? Maybe I am not as repelled by British political authoritarianism but rather attracted by the opportunity to be my unEnglish self abroad, without being written off as a bore?


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Nigel Sedgwick

@Ian Grey, a contrary view, with h/t to Tim Worstall.

Best regards

Ian Grey

Back in 1982, I was astounded at how many British ex-Pats in Saudi told me that Britain was going to the dogs.

25 years later, it still isn't too bad...


In Arizona I was mistaken for an Australian, in Western Australia they thought I was a Kiwi and in France an American. In Barcelona and Monte Carlo they thought I was German.

The only characteristic common to all Englishmen that I can detect, whatever their colour, ethnic background, religion or political creed, is that we are all a bunch of bolshy bastards (if you'll excuse that expression.)


Maintaining the perfect balance of non-earnestness and political knowledge sounds exhausting. Who knew Englishness was so complicated?

Like you, I wouldn't mind being an American living in London. This is more plausible for me than for you, I suspect, since I am American.

Welshcakes Limoncello

Great post, Tom. I've read the Kate Fox book too and enjoyed it immensely. Where I don't fit into the "English" pattern, I make the excuse that I'm Welsh, which you won't like! It is rather nice being British abroad, I agree. And I also agree that being an American in London must be a pleasant existence, too, though perhaps it was more so in another era. Plenty to refect upon in your post, as always.

Nigel Sedgwick

Tom wrote, paraphrasing Kate Fox:

An Englishman should speak lightly of every subject, however serious. He should not persist with any topic long, for fear of being thought a bore.

Does this explain the drop-off in election turnout?

Best regards

Colin Campbell

I can identify strongly with much of what you say. Having lived out of the UK for over 20 years now, I enjoy not being judged by where I am from. Lots of people cannot work out my accent, because of some of the American influence. Here in Australia, people do not care where you are from, just how you behave with them. In America, I often got people on the phone, who just wanted me to talk (about anything), just so they could listen.

I laugh when people talk about living abroad. I have lived abroad for over half of my life and I like it. I love to go back, but am comfortable wherever I and my family are.

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