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VARIOUS TEXTS: THE ENGLISH CHARACTER

The following is an excerpt from Jeremy Paxman's 'The English - A Portrait of a People'.

It is about what Kate Fox in her 'Watching the English' calls the 'social dis-ease', which is 'our lack of ease, discomfort and incompetence in the field of social interaction; our embarrassment, insularity, awkwardness, perverse obliqueness, emotional constipation, fear of intimacy and general inability to engage in a normal and straightforward fashion with other human beings.' (p. 401).

HOME ALONE
In 1835, a young Englishman named Alexander Kinglake decided to mature himself between leaving Cambridge and taking up a law career by travelling across the Syrian desert on a camel. He was making for Cairo, accompanied by 'a brace of pistols and a couple of arab servants'. After several days' travelling there emerged from the desert three other camels, coming towards him. As they drew nearer it became clear that two of the camels carried riders, while the third was laden with baggage. Nearer still, and he could see that one of the riders wore an English shooting j acket and had a European face. The closer they drew, the more agitated Kinglake became:

As we approached each other, it became with me a question whether we should speak. I thought it likely that the stranger would accost me, and in the event of his doing so, I was quite ready to be as sociable and chatty as I could according to my nature; but still I could not think of anything particular that I had to say to him ... I felt no great wish to stop and talk like a morning visitor in the midst of those broad solitudes.

Luckily for K inglake the man on the other camel was also English, an army officer making his way back to England overland from India. As, at last, the strangers met in the middle of nowhere, 'we lifted our hands to our caps, and waved our arms in courtesy, we passed each other quite as distantly as if we had passed in Pall Mall'. Not a word was said..
In the end, the inhibitions of England were defeated by the camels of Arabia, which, having passed each other, refused to go any further. The two men turned around and walked their mounts back towards one another.

He was the first to speak; too courteous to address me, as if he admitted the possibility of my wishing to accost him from any feeling of mere sociability or civilian-like love of vain talk, he at once attributed my advances to a laudable wish of acquiring statistical information, and accordingly, when we got within speaking distance, he said, 'I dare say you wish to know how the Plague is going on at Cairo?'

Where did the English acquire this curious reluctance to engage with one another? It is the repeated complaint of one foreign visitor to England after another that they have found the English impossible to get to know. lf they are good-natured, like Max O'Rell in late Victorian England, they will simply find it amusing. 'lf you remark to an Enghshman, in a smoking compartment, that he has dropped some cigar-ash on his trousers, he will probably answer: 'For the past ten minutes I have seen a box of matches on fire in your back coat pocket, but I did not interfere with you for that." But it is just as likely that what the English see as no more than respect for privacy looks to others like disdain.
511 words

Source: 'The English - A Portrait of a People' by Jeremy Paxman, Penguin Books, London, pp. 115/16


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