One of my favourite books is Kate Fox’s Watching the English. I first read it in 2011 after returning to live in England having lived overseas for the best part of 20 years. It’s an (English) anthropologist’s look at the habits and customs of the English, so I bought it thinking that it might help me “reintegrate” with my countrymen. My assumption was that I would need to learn their strange ways after so long abroad.
Instead, I far more often found myself laughing in recognition: "So that’s why I do that!" or "Oh, so that’s an English thing, not just me!" It turned out that I was still thoroughly English in many ways.
The other day, I happened to pick the book up again and had another insight into my English peculiarities.
There is an amusing section in which Fox explains that the English are slow to reveal personal information to people unless they know them very well. To someone they have just met at a party they tend to conceal – or at least not volunteer – the most interesting stuff: that they are in the throes of an incredibly messy divorce; that they are a concert violinist; that they went to school with Kate Middleton etc. The English will avoid telling people about bad stuff (which might burden the other person) and good stuff (that might look like boasting).
However, Fox points out that English people will reveal this sort of stuff in print, with all the juicy details. She sees this as an exception that proves the rule, even though only a very small portion of the population is ever in the position to write a newspaper column or release an autobiography.
The reason this leapt out at me this time around is that in the 25 years since I left Oxford university, I think I have told maybe 2 or 3 people that I attended that famous university. I can remember telling an Australian who asked me directly where I studied (which I thought was rude of her) and I told my friend’s son because I wanted him to think that "if Colin could do it…"
And yet, I have just written an entire book about my time at Oxford, which I very much hope that thousands of people will read. I have been working on this book for quite a while – apologies for the long break in the blog – and numerous times I have wondered to myself "Is it alright to disclose this?" Or I wondered how I could set about writing about my experiences as if it might be of interest to someone else.
I was tempted, for example, to write about the exam system without mentioning that I got a first (the top grade)… but then I went ahead and wrote it. I particularly worried about whether I should mention that I was a scholar, but then it felt stranger not to tell readers something of my experience of Oxford. After all, my aim is to inform and explain as best I can about how Oxford works.
And here I am writing about it again even though I can safely say that I have never told anyone in conversation that I was a scholar and got a first.
So, it was a huge relief to me to read just days after completing the final proof that what I was doing was not un-English at all, but perfectly typical of us lot. And acceptable! Thanks, Kate Fox.
Interestingly, Fox suggested that it is more of a print thing than a media thing. An English person who wrote an autobiography full of disclosures would be far more reticent if interviewed on television. The privacy rule would begin to reassert itself to some extent. And the same person would not at all happy to discuss the details at a private gathering. That would be like asking a model to strip at a dinner party, as Fox put it.
So please read the book but please don’t ask me about it. I am English, you see.