‘The Angry Island: Hunting the English,’ A.A.Gill
My recent reading has been considerably skewed by my decision to finally plunge back into the world of work and become a tour guide again. Back in 2006 I led walking tours of central Berlin lasting anything from four to six hours, and as a result every spare minute was spent reading up on the Nazis, the Communists, the Iron Curtain and the astonishing statistic that 97% of all workers in the German capital were, whatever the actual job they were doing at the time, really DJ’s. (Well,every spare minute which wasn’t already dedicated to wandering the dull, grey, fascinating streets aimlessly; eating obscenely cheap döner kebabs; and drinking cold, local beer in ad hoc riverside beaches).
This time, it’s London, and for the past two weeks I have been snapping up every book I could find on the town, its history, the royal family and various people’s opinions on my country and its citizens. I began with the monster 800-page biography of London by Peter Ackroyd, which was simultaneously incredibly detailed, fairly dry and top of my reading list; the shorter, more concise and enjoyable miniature version of the same by A.N.Wilson; and a vast array of the surprisingly excellent ‘Horrible Histories‘ series of cartoon histories recommended by a friend from Canadia.
But the one I’ve enjoyed most over the past 14 days has been an afterthought, picked up in a charity shop for 50p simply because it was 50p, and because I’d bought one of A.A.Gill‘s books a few weeks earlier, (on travel), and there’s nothing I like more than collecting things, (and once you have two of something, that officially makes it a collection).
A.A.Gill is renowned in the UK as a restaurant and TV critic but has written several books which, according to the very opening lines of his Wikipedia entry, have led to him offending all manner of minorities. (This helps explain a line I was unsure whether to laugh out loud at or be offended by, that he drinks “…like an Aborigine,” not to mention the opening line of the forward that: “This is a collection of prejudice”). Born in Scotland, but having grown up with an English accent in England, he takes this opportunity to offend the majority for a change with a brutally honest, aggressive look at just what makes the English English and, according to his thesis, just what makes them so angry.
The book is divided into sixteen short chapters each of which is fascinating in its own way, be it for its insight, its dubious premise, or the fact that it seems Gill was following me around on my tour and decided to write a chapter on it.
1. The Angry Island: in which he lays out his theory that the true nature of The English, despite all claims of gentlemanliness, is in fact being angry: everything else, including their addiction to fair-play and stiff-upper-liposity, springs from their (our?) constant attempts to keep our (their?) true nature in check. There is also some very interesting stuff about our pride in our history, negated by the observation that we haven’t actually experienced as much history as many other European countries.
Favourite quotes? On neighbours:
“For the Scots, as for so many countries with powerful neighbours, history is something that’s done to you. For the English, it’s something you do to others…”
On fetishising history:
“In England, changing the shape of a telephone box evokes a fury that might be justified by grave-robbing…”
And a taste of his (somewhat accurate but nonetheless vaguely racist) penchant for stereotyping:
“When the national characteristics and talents were being handed out and the French got style, and the Germans got order and the Italians got being Italian, the English got history…”
2. Face: In which Gill provides a potted history of the National Portrait Gallery in London, (the first in the world and, incidentally, one of the stops on my guided tour), and through the portraits also skims through the history of the British Royal Family. Most interestingly, he has a theory that the English fear art, but that portaiture is a perfect fit for our character, our ‘timid philistinism’:
“[The English] like a thing to mean the same thing to everyone, like a chair or a steam engine does…”
3. Voice: An offshoot of class, this was a fascinating chapter on the prejudices lurking behind RP, (Received Pronunciation, aka The Queen’s English, aka Oxford English, aka the accent you need to be ‘received’ into polite society, although I could see that being more true in the 20th century than present day England). Top fact:
“Britain has over 200 identifiable accents, probably more than any comparable country. English, outside Britain, has hundreds more, and every single one of them makes someone else laugh…”
Most incisive of all is Gill’s comment that the English are less expressive, in face and action, than most other cultures, with the stunningly true observation that:
“If you watch American films with the sound turned off, you can usually tell what’s happening…But with an English film, it’s almost always impossible…”
4. Memorials: A spooky chapter, where Gill stands in a spot on central London and explains, in depth, the history and philosophy behind each of the war memorials to be found there. It just happens to be the place where my guided tours begin.
5. Class: In which Gill espouses a fairly radical belief that the class system no longer exists in England, based solely on the fact that classes are apparently a bit difficult to define. This was the point in the book, (almost halfway through), when I feared that the book may have peaked. I was right.
6. Humour: Rather than an in-depth look at the (in)famous English sense of humour, this chapter involved Gill attending a few back-room comedy clubs in London. He clearly disapproves of England’s funny-bone, (deeming “much of it dreadful, repetitive, derivative, pointless, unpleasant and unfunny.” Has he not seen ‘The Office,’ ‘Monty Python’ or ‘Blackadder’? Is his TV stuck on…I was going to insert the name of a universally acknowledged awful English comedy show, but I can’t even think of one!). Ironically, I found much of his book funny, but as he says:
“I write humour for a living. There’s no reason why you should have noticed. I don’t do comedy or jokes. I suppose you might call it wit, and the definition of wit is a joke that doesn’t make you laugh…”
7. Cotswolds: A forgettable chapter, name-checking Morris dancing and Aga cookers. I can’t tell you any more: like I say, it was forgettable, and I’ve forgotten it.
8. Sorry: A mini chapter which packs a punch, rising to the heights of the earliest sections of the book: the theory that ‘the S-word’ is the English equivalent of the Inuits’ ‘snow,’ their very own f-bomb: a word with a million meanings:
“sorry, I apologize; sorry, I don’t apologize; sorry, you can take this as an apology but we both know it isn’t one; sorry, will you shut up; sorry, empathy; sorry for your loss; sorry, I can’t hear you; sorry, incredulity; sorry, I don’t understand you; sorry, you don’t understand me; sorry, excuse me; sorry, will you hurry up; sorry, I don’t believe you; sorry, I’m interrupting; sorry, this won’t do; sorry, I’ve reached the end of my patience; sorry, sad and pathetic – as in, sorry excuse or sorry little man…”
If I was only still teaching, Im not sure I could think of a better game to demonstrate inflection and emotion. As Gill concludes:
“If you’ve learnt the language abroad, or don’t speak it very well, then you just think the English are cringingly, obsequiously apologetic all the time and are possibly the politest people in the world.”
Now I know how we got away with it for so long.
9. Animals: English people love animals. But not foreigners so much. And Cruft’s dog show is very silly.
10. Drink: The most depressing chapter, where an ex-alcoholic discusses the English predilection to alcoholism, as another form of suppression. No solutions offered, just the image of a culture where binge-drinking “…isn’t their problem: it’s their raison d’être.”
11. Gardens: Some Shakespeare, some history, a little Robin Hood mythology, and some boring stuff about gardens. It’d take a lot to make gardens interesting to me.
12. Sport: From the schadenfreude felt in London when we beat Paris to the 2012 Olympics, to the excellent description of football being a horrible addiction he has deliberately avoided, being ‘frightened of it’ and excellently diluting it down to
“…a life-long tease of little false endings in a drama without a plot,”
this is a chapter with my name written all over it. There are some cute observations on the English desire for order having led us to codify, if not actually invent, many of the world’s sports, and a decent deconstruction of our propensity to side with the valiant loser rather than the jubilant winner:
“The English don’t like winners, and they don’t like people who behave like winners. The best thing to do if you’re caught winning is to slip away blushing. If you’re cornered, then mutter something about luck and flukes…”
‘Caught winning’…what a fantastic turn of phrase!
13. Political Correctness: Aside from learning that the origin of the phrase comes from the U.S.Supreme Court over 200 years ago, this was a confused rant firstly on how embarrassing and ridiculous it is, then in defence of it not due to it protecting human dignity, but due to it showcasing the flexibility of the human language.
14. Queues: One final upswing of observational genius amidst an ever-increasing ramble: one of the ultimate symbols of Englishness, a word so English that a) it is actually French and b) the Americans use a different word for it. Gill ranges from the general, (on queues being a microcosm of the idea of English fairness), to the specific, (a hilarious story on the comeuppance of a German queue transgressor), to the bombastically historical, (with the claim that it was the queue which saved the English at the Dunkirk evacuations, and therefore saved the free world from the Nazis). Great stuff.
15. Letchworth Garden City: A foray into architecture and town planning now which, even though I have a friend who actually lives in Letchworth Garden City, entirely fails to overcome my caveat stated under the ‘Gardens‘ chapter.
16. Nostalgia: Sadly, after such a strong start, we end in declamatory, angry mode again, with an attack on the English obsession with nostalgia and abandonment of the future. It may be true, it may be pertinent, but it isn’t presented with the same sense of panache as the first half of the book.
Still, for much of the book I was treated to a new look at my fellow countrymen (and -women), and picked up some great facts and trivia to impart to my future guidees. I can’t be angry about that.