In her indispensable Watching the English, the Oxford anthropologist Kate Fox explores the connection between the extreme reserve and gross vulgarity which characterise our national life by talking to foreign women about their experience of English men. They were unimpressed, to put it mildly. “Ideally, the English male would rather not issue any definite invitation at all, sexual or social, preferring to achieve his goal though a series of subtle hints and oblique manoeuvres, often so understated as to be almost undetectable,” Fox concluded with a shudder. Her interviewees could not tell if men were flirting with them for form’s sake or trying to seduce them and complained about “protean behaviour they attribute to shyness, arrogance or repressed homosexuality depending on their degree of exasperation”.
They did not realise that they were running into the ramparts of ironic detachment which guard the English from commitment as surely as prison walls. The fear of exposing ourselves to rejection, with its concomitant hurt and ridicule, would have led to the extinction of the tribe long ago if booze had not provided a release. No serious person who looks around them believes the media orthodoxy that we have shrugged off our traditional awkwardness and become an “emotionally literate” people. We wouldn’t snigger so about sex if we were.
Nor would we find that drink offers the only escape from an emotional constipation that prevents us honestly engaging with others. To be English is to experience routine frigidity leavened by binges of debauchery. Or, as Fox says: “The role of alcohol in the passing on of the English DNA should not be underestimated.”