‘How to be English’ by David Boyle is published this week. The book provides a fond, irreverent celebration of the ambiguities, eccentricities, and shared stories that define the English.
The writer David Boyle has recently moved to Sussex with his family and I have arranged to meet him at one of my favourite shops in all England – the Steyning Bookshop. The shop is at the heart of the Steyning community and is passionately run by Sara Bowers and her daughter, Gudrun. The shelves, filled with books, always fill me with a sense of anticipation and excitement. As I walk towards the shop past the familiar iron railings I am greeted by David, Gudrun and Sara, framed by the arch of the door and the colourful hanging baskets. Preparations are underway for an evening and book launch with David Boyle at the Steyning Bookshop on Thursday 23rd July 2015.
I ask David where the inspiration for the book came from, he replies “I became concerned that many of the stories which define the English, that I had grown up with, were in danger of being lost.”
David’s account of the English leaves you with a real sense of place in the procession of human history. I mention to David the delight that his articulation of the English has given me and the empathy I have with so many of his subjects. As I have read ‘How to be English’ I have become increasingly aware of how my understanding of what it is to be English has been informed by my love of Sir John Betjeman’s work. David agrees explaining that he too read Betjeman avidly in his late teens.
So are the English defined by Wellington’s stiff upper-lip? David responds “That’s one side of the story but Nelson provides a more old fashioned personality – emotional, overindulgent, sentimental, and lachrymose, overwhelmingly English, with a blind eye to authority.”
The divergent subjects of this eclectic book include: warm beer, Alfred the Great, the seaside, Capability Brown, The English Hymnal, heroic failure, daffodils, bell-ringing, the King James Bible, and The Last Night of the Proms.
So how would David summarise the English? He smiles and says “The English are always polite, apologising for themselves wherever they go. The importance of practicality over intellect is a very English idea, but also the importance of trying again.” David pauses for a moment and concludes “They like pluck, fair play and cricket…”
Don’t let David’s gentle humour deceive you. There is a quality and depth of thinking which belies the light-hearted tone of this joyous book.
Books feed not only our imaginations and thinking but there is the physical pleasure of the touch and smell of the paper. And the best place to savour and acquire these pleasures is an independent bookseller of the quality of the Steyning Bookshop.
‘How to be English – an Evening with David Boyle’ will be held at The Steyning Bookshop, 106 High Street, Steyning, West Sussex, BN44 3RD on Thursday 23rd July 2015 at 7.30pm. Tickets cost just £4, redeemable against the purchase of a book, which might just have to be ‘How to be English’! For more information go to www.steyningbookshop.co.uk and to book your place telephone 01903 812062.
By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 15th July 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.