The English: A Field Guide, by Matt Rudd

A Homesick and Heatstruck Book Review The English

Sunday Times writer, Matt Rudd, has quite selflessly spent the last couple of years loitering around grubby motorway service stations, dodgy B&Bs and East Anglian dogging hotspots in order to write this splendid book (at least that was his excuse…). Just like Homesick and Heatstruck and many of my lovely readers, Rudd was living as an expat somewhere hot and exotic (Australia in his case, as opposed to the Middle East, but still, considerably more hot and exotic than, say, Bracknell) when he felt the plaintive call of his distant grey and green homeland.

Structured as a journey through those places that define us as a species – The Kitchen, The Garden, The Commuter Train, The Sports Field, The Bedroom – The English whips zippily through the findings of actual research, using personal experiences, experiments and informal case studies to add warmth, humour and humanity to his pseudo-scientific explorations. The result is a playful anthropological investigation of those diverse and mysterious creatures that graze our green and pleasant land (the people, I mean. English people. Not sheep).

Unlike most noble quests, which inevitably begin at Bag End, The Shire, Rudd’s journey starts in discount furniture store, DFS, in Carcroft, South Yorkshire. What follows is a moving eulogy for an Englishman’s best friend – his sofa. Rudd’s portrayal of the life of an average ‘Englisher’ (his chosen appellation) is indeed distinctly average. He positively wallows in the mire of modern Middle England, eschewing those old-fashioned English clichés of tea and cake, a foaming pint of ale, or cricket on the village green, focusing instead on the grimmer, every day realities of motorways, industrial parks and Tesco. And he has a jolly good time while he’s at it. Except when he’s in Blackpool, and who can blame him for that.

Rudd’s adventures encompass such exotic locations as the motel at Newport Pagnell motorway services, as he seeks to recapture the excitement of childhood holidays – that feeling of freedom, disorientation and dizzy anticipation that can only come from ‘stretching the legs’, using the loos and eating a deep-fried snack en route to a camping holiday somewhere in the Peak District. I know exactly what he means. Oh the joy of it when, after a bizarrely named ‘Tenderfoot Breakfast’, Little Chef would gladly swap my empty plate for their lollipop… More recently, my husband and I spent the second night of our marriage in the Travelodge at Podimore. We were on our way down to Coverack in Cornwall for our honeymoon and, still riding the crazy, heady high of pledging the rest of our lives to each other, we checked in as Mr and Mrs Trevor Lodge. The receptionist didn’t flinch.

One of my favourite parts of the book is Rudd’s investigation of queuing. Rather than popping into Wimbledon for the lawn-tennis-and-strawberries-and-cream side of Englishness, Rudd chooses a drier, more ironic approach, staying outside to observe the more subtle sport of queuing. It’s an endurance sport. John and his daughter Charlotte queue for forty three hours to get Centre Court tickets. There’s something soothing about a proper English queue – the calm, shuffling, pleasant order of it; the polite, shoulder-tapping ‘Excuse me, that counter’s free now’ – that’s balm to the poor expat soul who has suffered the angry humiliation of attempting to stick to ‘the rules’ of queuing when nobody else bloody bothers. I nearly flattened someone at the vegetable weighing counter of Lulu Hypermarket today…

The chapter on commuting also strikes close to home. Rudd lists the recorded announcement of stops on the Charing Cross line to Ramsgate: “Ashford. Wye. Chilham. Chartham. Canterbury West. Sturry. Minster. Ramsgate…” It’s a much-loved route I’ve travelled many, many times. Less often in recent years perhaps, due to the jazzy new hyper-quick-rocket-powered-leopard-train from Canterbury to London St Pancras (and the fact that I live on a different continent, of course). But while the list of these stations is nostalgic music to my ears, the announcement of the slow route gives my husband horrible flashbacks to his shell-shocked days of commuting from Canterbury to London every weekday for an entire year when we were newly married. For twelve long months he spent nearly six hours a day on trains. Six hours. The mere suggestion of ‘changing at Ashford for Marshlink services to Brighton’ or ‘moving to the front four carriages as this station has a short platform’ is so traumatic for him he just shakes his head, muttering, “You weren’t there, man. You weren’t there…”

But I digress. The English is witty, original and clever, with a few lovely running jokes, such as the Birmingham retail industry’s unhealthy obsession with ladies’ underwear, and delightful recurring characters such as Mehmet, the ‘Coffee Guy on Platform 1’. Rudd inclines towards positive portrayals whilst resisting the urge to make too many sweeping generalisations. It’s a satisfying and entertaining book and, speaking personally, essential reading for homesick English expatriates who might fall for more sentimental representations of cultural identity, and need reassurance that all is much as it was when we left and we’re not missing out on anything particularly wonderful.

One rather pleasant surprise is that we come across as a much more cheerful bunch that I might have anticipated. A randomly chosen commuter ranks his happiness rating as nine out of ten, whilst standing on a railway platform at 5:32am on a drizzly English morning. NINE out of ten?! Cheerful indeed. Or just barking bloody mad… But I have to say that certain chapters work as really rather effective homesickness aversion therapy, reminding us of those less pleasant aspects of home – the reasons we left the country in the first place: the bit about binge drinking and exploding bladders perhaps, noise-polluting neighbours, or the horrendous phantom traffic jams on the M25… Well, it’s exactly one month until I’m back in England for the summer, and I have to stave off the homesickness a little longer; I might just have to read that bit about Blackpool again…

The English: A Field Guide by Matt Rudd has just been published by Harper Collins and is available online and in shops now.

28 Comments

  1. Sherry Smyth

    After reading your review, this is a MUST read for me. Thanks!

  2. Rick

    Just when we were wondering where you had got to, you come up with a nice little book review. Mind you as I spend far too much time in Travel Lodges and Happy Eaters or whatever they are called, I can sympathise with what Mr Rudd must have endured.
    I’m sure you will want to hear that the food is still pretty much inedible, the mattresses probably still just as lumpy and the non-smoking rooms still stink of tobacco smoke. Happy days.
    But you will be very pleased to hear that you can now obtain a second almost completely flat pillow at no extra charge. Probably the only major difference in the Little Chefs is that instead of scowling, surly, semi-literate waiters you now get blond, pretty Polish girls who are incredibly efficient, clean, smiley and who tell you to enjoy your meal five times before you get a chance to start eating. Most of them actually speak better English than the English people they are replacing; shame about the food though.
    Don’t know anything about Blackpoool; never been there.

    • That all sounds much as I remember it :-) I’m still haunted by the ‘breakfast’ we were served in our motel – a strange plasticky sort of jam bun – more preservative than bun, I think, and a carton of something sickly and sweet… Amazing that the rooms still smell of stale smoke… Perhaps they haven’t actually been cleaned since the smoking ban?

      • Rick

        We had one of those breakfasts once. It had a really serious effect on my wife who almost went into a sugar coma. Now we take the healthy option and have a couple of large Bacon Butties……..am I allowed to say Butties?…….at one of those road side type eateries.
        No, some of the clients of travel lodges seem not to be aware that there is a smoking ban.

      • Aha! Yes, I give you permission to say ‘butties’ – much more sustaining than a plastic-sugar-bun :-D

  3. That sounds like just my cup of tea! Pity it’s so hard to get my usual favourite tea in Hong Kong to have while I read it. Thanks for sharing. I miss England.

    • My pleasure – thanks for popping in. You’re welcome to enjoy a virtual cuppa here on H&H whenever you like :-) p.s. I miss England too…

  4. I rather like England when I go back to see mother….but it doesn’t involve motorways or motels, luckily.

    I used to have a two hour commute of which my fondest memory is the poster at the station announcing
    This is the age of the train
    Under which someone had written
    Mine was 104

  5. Great review – might pick up a copy when I’m there over the summer! I’m using terrifying binge-drinking tattooed ladies, ambulances in side streets on Friday and Saturday nights and street pastors to stave off ‘home’ sickness at the moment – might work for you too :)

    • Good plan! I shall make a list of all the things I DON’T miss and repeat it to myself before going to sleep each night :-D

  6. gr8 review, sounds a bit more uplifting than danzinger’s britain. mind you there are always parallel universes, for example, I am only a couple of miles away, but I missed the meltdown festival with yoko ono and pussy riot this w/e – gutted, but was busy doing other lesser stuff-glad to hear you’ll get home in a month, the strawberries are quite literally waiting 4 you (still green and embryonic for the most part). At the point of writing this – i recommend you pack your thermals. Have renamed this month jucember, so you’ll be home in juvember.
    btw, BBC’s ‘from our own correspondent’ had a particularly harsh and unrepresentive ‘profile’ of dubai living ex-pats this week – some truth in it, but far from the whole truth
    4 you and any others tending towards missing uk life- sign up to ‘everydaysexism’…reading this and it’s global sister sites will probably make us all want to relocate to the moon or Venus.

    • Hi Doledrum Diva – and thanks so much for commenting. Can’t wait for those English strawberries – if the Jucember sun shines long enough to ripen them! I shall certainly remember to pack some closed-toe shoes this time… Yes – I read that piece about the god-awful, ignorant, braying expats… There certainly are a few like that but, like anywhere, they stick to their own little circles… I concluded that the writer’s friend must have been pretty bloody awful to have had such friends herself. Nowhere’s perfect I suppose. Unless we start up a Utopian colony on the moon… Hang on – wasn’t there a Bond film about that?…

      • cunning plan on my part – realise if i’m cheerful about the weather, it gets worse – therefore gloomy-ness should bring sun, n’est ce pas? sorry if i was a bit dark in my comment, had a bit of a bleak week. re: ex-pats, it has always been thus – one of the things that made me feel semi suicidal in dubai, until i made friends with some normal ppl

      • Normal people are very important ;-)

  7. Sounds like a good read – I hope it’s as well written as your review! Glad to see you back!

    • Thanks MM! In the middle of moving house at the moment, so the writing has been on a back burner… Normal services will resume shortly! Hope all is well with you and yours x

  8. That sounds very jolly. I used to commute using the Northern Line and I was convinced the air had not been changed since it had been built in some of the stations. Took me ages to get to work too. Now I drive for 7mins, no traffic lights. Bliss!

    • That’s a very good positive thing for me to focus on, actually – my commute into central London used to be a good 50 minutes on the Piccadilly line… I know exactly what you mean about the staleness of the air… It’s like there’s no oxygen left in it and it’s 90% dust… My commute is now a 10 minute drive too – it’s usually fine if I’m early – before the roads get too full of crazy drivers :-)

  9. What a quirky focus for a book. Hats off for his originality. Thanks for sharing the review

    • A pleasure – thanks for reading, Diana. Haven’t checked out your blog for a while – I’ll be back soon! Hope all is well with you :-)

  10. Hi Lucy! I just nominated your blog for the Shine On award. See my blog for details.
    Samantha

  11. Since you’re one of the blogs I love to read I’ve nominated you for the ‘I’m part of the WordPress Family Award’ and it will go love on 18th July. Here’s the link which will mention your blog. http://selectionsofreflections.wordpress.com/ ps this is my new blog Lucy:-)

    • OOOH! V exciting! Thanks so much, Diana – what a lovely idea. Well check out your new blog immediatement! xx

  12. Excellent review – I think I will be reading this book. I also remember Little Chefs being some sort of exciting place when we went on holiday, or a long journey. How easily pleased we were in the ‘olden days’. :)

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