There are many stereotypes about the English, from binge-drinking to our love of leylandii hedges, our patience in queues to a penchant for dogging. But are any of them actually true? In his new book, The English: A Field Guide, noveilst and Sunday Times writer Matt Rudd investigates all these stereotypes and more to see if we live up to our reputation. Writing exclusively for Foyles, he reveals his preliminary findings.
As you will know and as I have just found out, the word stereotype comes from the Greek στερεός meaning "solid" and the equally Greek τύπος meaning "impression". It was first used, rather pretentiously, who'd have guessed, by a French printer, Firmin Didot, to describe a duplicate printing plate. So, a firm impression, knocked out again and again. Voilà.
When attempting an anthropological study of a nation, you want to be wary of στερεόςτύποςs. They have a tendency to sneak in. For example, we're barely one paragraph into this blog and I've already managed to give the impression that all French people are pretentious. Which is, of course, a very unfair stereotype.
That's the trouble. They're insidious. Along they creep, hand in glove with preconception and cliché, trying to spoil you're otherwise entirely honorable field guide. So, as I began my journey into the lives of the English, I decided to tackle the στερεόςτύποςs head on. Two years ago, I listed as many as I could think of. They included...
- The couch potato (eg the ready-meal-eating, television-addicted slob)
- The corner-cutting event chef
- The grumpy commuter
- The hedge warrior
- The tail-gating Audi driver (probably a salesman on his way to a sordid affair in a motel on the side of the M1)
- In sport, the unsore loser
- In queues, the polite and the orderly
- In the pub, the binge-drinking, alcoholic yob/tart
- And in the bedroom, the prude. With special thanks to Ronnie Corbett. And that film
From there, all I had to do was confront the στερεόςτύποςs head on. There would be no sneaking in this book. In Chapter One, the Sofa, I found myself in the first ever DFS store up in Carcroft accusing a man who turned out to have a wooden leg of being lazy. In Chapter Two, the Kitchen, I came face to face with a woman whose main purpose in life was to advocate the use of microwaves. In Chapter Three, the Garden, I rang the doorbell of a naturist locked in a hedge war with no way of knowing what state of undress he might be in when he answered. In Chapter Four, I had to smile at a hundred grumpy commuters and ask how they were feeling... out of ten. And so on, right through the στερεόςτύπος of our lives.
And of course, in almost every case, they didn't stand up to scrutiny. The English, it turns out, are far subtler, more nuanced, less tabloid-terrible than entrenched impression would have you believe.
Except for the Audi drivers.
And almost everything that happened in the Shops chapter.
And, yes, maybe a couple of things that popped up, as it were, in the Bedroom.
And now, here we are, all written, all printed and all ready to go. And the highlight of the whole endeavour? My very own window in the magnificent Foyles bookshop. The finest minds at HarperCollins and Foyles have been concentrating very, very hard on coming up with a 'live' display that will capture the essence of the English. Someone mentioned some deckchairs. Someone else mentioned a pair of Speedos. They wouldn't be doing a στερεόςτύπος, would they? Wait for the photographic evidence... here in an update as soon as I have it....
You'll be able to see the window display for Matt's book at our Charing Cross Road branch 20th May-2nd June.
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