The English: A Field Guide, by Matt Rudd
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.