"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)