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