Friday, September 14, 2007


Partly on the recommendation of Llewtrah and partly to keep on track with my commitment to read more books by those pesky female authors, I've been reading Kate Fox's Watching the English.

In fact, I'd noticed in the bookshop some months ago, but had put it back on the shelf, and probably wouldn't have picked it up again if Lovely Boo (who is no longer Small Boo, after we watched a documentary about primordial dwarfs and she said: "See, I'm not that small after all, am I?") hadn't brought it back from a recent trip to London.

The thing that had originally put me off was a back-cover quote from the Daily Mail. Now, that in itself isn't a reason to reject a book, but there was just something definitively Mail-y about this particular comment; in particular the observation that "fortunately she doesn't write like an anthropologist but like an English woman".

Now, in the first instance, there's the implication that the two are distinct, that there's something specifically un-English and un-womanly about the discipline of anthroplogy, with all the attendant baggage of the Mail mindset that foreigners are peculiar, and working women are selfish and evil.

But what annoys me more is that the Mail is one of the most strident proponents of the notion that the British education system is dumbed down, that kids are being regurgitated from school with 10 A*s but without the ability to count or spell or remember who won the Battle of Waterloo. Which may or may not be true: but how does this attitude tally with the notion that any kind of incursion of serious academic discourse into the Mail-reader's intellectual universe is something to be avoided? It exhibits a peculiarly idiotic strain of Anglophone conservatism, one that demands academic 'standards' but cowers away from anything suggesting real intellect (which is presumably what those standards are meant to measure, because otherwise they're pretty much redundant). Foreigners and working women may be dodgy, but an academic anthropologist is just plain weird, and probably a damn pinko to boot.

In any case, Fox's book seems to me the best sort of popular science: she's writing for a non-specialist audience but, rather than avoid the technical terms of her trade (acculturation, participant observation, cultural genomics, ethnographic dazzle, etc), when she feels that they'll serve a purpose, she uses them, with an explanation for the uninitiated. She is writing like an anthropologist, but one who seeks to express the joys of her trade to a wider audience. She even creates her own wry technobabble, including The Ironic-Gnome Rule, which is worth the cover price on its own.

It's part of a marketing process I've noticed in recent years: rather than making books or movies more stupid, the publishers and distributors dumb down the blurbs and trailers, making the product seem stupider than it actually is. It's better than the alternative, but maybe still self-defeating: punters lured by the soft sell will find something less accessible than they were hoping; while people who might have appreciated it will walk away. Although I do rather look forward to Century making use of the anonymous review that Private Eye ran of Katie 'Jordan' Price's (try to imagine ironic quotation marks around that apostrophe) latest novel, Crystal:

"It's actually quite hard to open its pages without feeling your lips go slack and the drool beginning to form."


The Mistress said...

As an ignorant Canadian, I've read Fox's book as a means of getting my education about the English from a source other than my usual Coronation Street.

Although she did confirm that whenever anything goes wrong you put on the kettle. Cuppa?

9/10ths Full of Penguins said...

That quote from Private Eye made me laugh so much that I was almost tempted (only almost mind you) to find a copy of Crystal.

Spinsterella said...

I think this is a case of desperately miserable and extremely frustrated journalists trying to sneakily write about something they actually enjoy.

While still suggesting that All Foreigners Are Scum, of course.

Tim F said...

Coronation Street is a documentary, MJ, but only if you live in Salford, a place that doesn't really exist. And milk no sugar, ta. Got any Hobnobs?

9/10: I think the quotes from the review mean you don't need to read it.

Are All Foreign Journalists more likely to be Scum or Miserable, Spin? Or both?

The Mistress said...

You mean I can't get served at The Rovers? My dreams are dashed.

You've learned of my recent HobNob addiction, haven't you?

llewtrah said...

Glad you're enjoying it! I have Jeremy Paxman's "The English" to read later on (Fox refers to him in her book - sometimes agreeing with him, sometimes disagreeing).