London, March 6: The Englishman’s penchant for self-loathing is alive and well. Rival polls attempting to find the book that best sums up the essence of Englishness have chosen George Orwell’s 1984 and Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island.
Listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme voted for 1984, Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian future.
The programme asked voters to pick a book from any period.
Nonetheless, for a novel written in post-war despondency to win an accolade for the best summary of England, suggests that the programme’s listeners are a pessimistic lot.
Marginally more cheerful, readers who voted for the almost identical poll run by an organisation called World Book Day which is celebrated today, chose Bryson’s best-seller.
The poll had asked for books which best sum up the country’s “contemporary zeitgeist”.
Bryson is an American — the English evidently prefer their faults to be picked over by an outsider — and Notes from a Small Island is a relentless satire, poking fun at the English as small-minded bores, obsessed by rules and ritual and only kept afloat on a tide of Rich Tea biscuits, woollen M&S socks and holidays on cold beaches.
Bryson won from a shortlist that included Zadie Smith’s White Teeth set in multi-racial London, Nick Hornby’s football-worshipping Fever Pitch and George Monbiot’s gloomy environmental prognosis, Captive State.
Similar exercises were conducted to find the best books that summed up Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Voters on the Celtic fringe were more upbeat.
For World Book Day’s poll, the Welsh chose Work, Sex and Rugby, a first novel by Lewis Davies described as a “four-day odyssey through the pubs, bedrooms and building sites of Wales”.
For Today’s poll, Welsh voters chose Dylan Thomas’ 1953 Under Milk Wood, originally a radio play, about the outrageous happenings in a mythical Welsh village.
In Scotland, for World Book Day, voters chose Me and Ma Girl by Des Dillon, an entertaining account of childhood.
Today’s Scottish winner was Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, one of his A Scots Quair trilogy about social change in rural Scotland.