Sunday, September 20, 2009

A.A. Gill's "The Angry Island: Hunting the English": Book Review

"Anger is an energy," Johnny Rotten sang. Although uncited here, he speaks for the minority; most repress resentment. According to Gill, the "high-maintenance, self-imposed" English contradict themselves. They hold bile rather than spit. In this, they characterize themselves as restrained and dignified. In fact, they act not in harmony with but despite their inner nature.

"Anger has made the English an ugly race. But then this anger is also the source of England's most admirable achievement: their heroic self-control. It's the daily struggle of not giving in to your natural inclination to run amok with a cricket bat, to spit and bite in a crowded tearoom, that I admire most in the English." (8) Born in Scotland, but raised in England, Gill relates his life of observing a people like but not like himself in humorous, scabrous, and intelligent chapters that roam into the character of a nation of his sullen, clenched, muttering neighbors.

Faces (the National Portrait Gallery's postcards and pictures as a case study), voices (Received Pronunciation gives orders vs. Estuary makes friends), war memorials (to dead dogs as well as dead soldiers), class, humor, and the Cotswolds (compared to a second-hand porn mag passed from satiated customer to greedy buyer), and the ubiquitous "Sorry" prove Gill's first targets. Animals, Drink, Gardens (like churches, best toiled in rather than rested at, for plenty of time to molder in both when dead), Political Correctness (surprisingly, despite his aspersions to the Welsh, Gill as a humorist by journalistic profession favors its civilizing tendencies), and queues follow. The early New Age experiments at Letchworth Garden City and suitably nostalgia (National Trust) close what opens as its first sentence: "This is a collection of prejudice."

I wondered, for lack of material that gained any cross-reference or elaboration, if these appeared as separate essays but no mention of this occurs. This is a persistent fault: these seem as if disparate diatribes, with no core argument to link them. The hectoring tone does wear on after a while, and the information marshalled in service of scorn even for this disaffected Irishman overwhelmed me as a reader less obsessed.

Gill packs erudition into this sociological treatise disguised as a light read. He also writes well. Near his Soho home, he sees a pub with Chelsea v. Newcastle: its "office worker" patrons "waylaid on their way to homes too distant and uninviting to arrive at sober. Everyone was looking up, eyes transfixed at a different corner of the room like so many cats watching moths." (96) Later, he waxes about the rooms above pubs where obsessives meet. He captures the awfulness of a comedy open mike night in one pub, and this often droll, even poignant as well as cruel chapter, "Humor," is the best in the book. "Go into any pub and listen to the groups of boys chuckling in circles. It's not a sound you hear anywhere else." (105)

Outside London, the rest of England molders, for sale to exurbans. In a Cotswolds antique shop, Gill reflects: "The lives that have been trickled and sobbed away in the company of this stuff. The old dolls' houses that reek of musty, miserable, lonely childhoods; the pictures of anonymous fields and buoyant seas that stared out over loveless blameful bedrooms; all the utensils of a Victorian wife worn to blunt, smooth distraction by below-stairs indenture." (114)

This reverberates for me in his adolescent drinking memories, for at fifteen: "Everything is plagiarized, borrowed, or made up out of nothing. Your life's like a Third World gift shop, you keep trying to guess what the rich grown-ups want in the hope that one day you'll become one of them." (136) When you do come of age, you still cannot avoid other English, no matter how far you travel. At an foreign airport, Gill accidently steps in front of a "two-person queue," a middle-aged grumpy couple. He apologizes. "Now, if there's one thing an Englishman can't abide it's an apology before he's finished. Combined with a smile, it's akin to sodomy without an introduction." (172) You need no better introduction to the tone of this "collection of prejudice" by one who knows his captors all too well, and could almost pass for one of them after a year in Scotland and over fifty in England.(Posted to Amazon US 9-17-09)


Bo said...

He's a great wit, old Gill. Of course, the reality is at least ten times as horrible. That's one reason why I---fortunately stocky, dark, and hairy---love being an honorary Cymro: you have an identity, however embattled, rather than this horrible mixture of public self-abasement and hateful viciousness that is the essence of the English character.

One other lovely thing about Welsh culture is its classlessness: as an overtly posh member of 'the establishment' (I suppose I must be) entering a world in which farmers, university lecturers, nurses, teachers, builders, publicans and politicians are all united in one fairly level cultural playing field defined by language is very odd, and extremely nice.

We (the English) could give the US a run for its money in terms of sheer visceral hatred between communities, though: the middle classes resent the working class, and vice versa; northeners hate southerners; everyone hates chavs, immigrants and muslims (it sometimes seems) unless they happen to be bien-pensant types who work for the Guardian; urbanites hate country people and vice versa; and absolutely everyone LOATHES politicians. And every weekend everyone gets so drunk they throw up in the streets of every town up and down the land, because life is just unbearably shit otherwise.

'Welcome to England', as Tori Amos sang!

Tony Bailie said...

I was fulminating against Gill this morning over a TV review he wrote in The Sunday Times about a satirical programme on BBC called Mock The Week, which is pretty bad and whose awfulness Gill's review rightly derided. However, he made a throwaway remark about the show's Irish presenter Dara Ó Briain, who seems of have dropped the fada for his UK audience. Gill said something about Ó Briain being 'christened by a dyslexic priest'. Maybe I was just being oversensitive and 'politically correct' but it just seemed a cheap shot in what otherwise was a superbly acerbic piece of writing.

Fionnchú said...

Bo, Gill in passing mentions that the Welsh are apparently "beyond insult" as their lawsuit against a column he wrote on Cymri was tossed out! I agree in the pleasures of honorary, or once-removed one-generation for me, Celticness, for all the cod-heritage that bestows.

Tony, I was reading Malachi O'Doherty's "The Telling Year: Belfast 1972" and he stated that the News Letter (I may be wrong) habitually used David O'Connell for Daíthí Ó Conáill (my U.S. keyboard hates these fadaí) and refused to give the Irish forms of names. This does seem a cheap shot in this day and age, but the very recalcitrance of keyboards and Microsoft to accept accents itself speaks for the hegemonic discourse!