Book Review #2

Welcome to Everytown by Julian Baggini

I have just finished reading Julian Baggini’s book Everytown. It is one of a whole spate of books about Englishness that have appeared in the last few years. Of these I think Kate Fox’s Watching The English is the best. In his book Baggini goes off to Rotherham to live for six months; he chose there because the area with the postcode S66 is supposed to be the most representative of England in terms of demographics. He is trying to isolate an English folk philosophy. Bagginni characterises English philosophy not as liberal but conservative communitarian This basically means the English do not have a universal conception of human rights You have these rights conditional upon you being an active member of a particular society. His chapter on racism is interesting and ties in with the debate here in Spain about citizenship. I think he is right to be a bit pragmatic – it’s not so much love thy neighbour as live and let live. It’s impossible to impose multiculturalism on society and we need to have more modest goals both for natives and immigrants.  I am not too dogmatic about this as long as people obey the law. I don’t think we need to insist everyone listen to El Fary if they want to live in Spain. But we do need a respect for the law and a minimum level of toleration.

Baggini is sceptical about the foodie culture in Britain – of the 171 million cookery books bought each year, 61 million are never opened. When a local pub in Rotherham started offering Thai food, a regular complained: “We don’t want this foreign food. We want traditional stuff like lasagne.”

The intention of the book was to understand the English mind but maybe ultimately Baggini is unable to really immerse himself in this world. He talks about how we all live in our own hefts.  Hefting refers to the the instinct in some breeds of sheep of  keeping to a certain heft (a small local area) throughout their lives. The animals graze different areas without the need for fences, the ewes remaining scattered evenly over a wide area. Lambs usually learn their heft from their mothers. Maybe we are all a bit like those sheep, remaining in our comfort zone whether it be broadsheets or a week’s holiday in Benidorm. I am not obsessed with following popular tastes; I know what I like. But equally I don’t want to condemn what other people do. It is so easy to attack other people’s tastes.  I think we now have a lot of choice and it is up to us to find the mix of activities and that suits us.

I have always been fascinated by this question of differences and similarities between different countries and cultures. I think a lot of the points Baggini brings up in his book are equally valid for Spain. There is something which the anthropologist Robin Fox called ethnographic dazzle in which we see only the difference but ignore consistent central patterns. Human Universals is a book by Donald Brown, an American professor of anthropology. His human universals are a reaction to the idea of cultural relativism. Brown says human universals, “comprise those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exception”. It is so easy find the things that divide us as humans that we forget the many things which share.


Here is an interview with Baggini talking about his experince. (PODCAST)


This is a list of Brown’s Human Universals (ARTICLE)


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