Review: Tickling the English (Dara O Briain)

“You can’t imagine how much fun it is to present that fact to an English audience. It’s like when you throw a ball for a dog, but you don’t actually throw the ball and just palm it. And the dog stares in the direction the ball should have gone and looks confused, then looks back at you and then to where the ball should be. It’s a glorious piece of cognitive dissonance. An English crowd isn’t built to accept good news like that.”



Quick Review

I gave Tickling the English: ★★★

Why you should read this book: It is unexpectedly articulate and insightful, and does something most comedians don’t – it urges the English to put the apathy away and look at the good things their country has to offer, regardless of how baffling a place it might be at times. Although the editor could have been more elaborate with the pruning shears on certain bits, there’s a lot here for the casual reader, and for the budding comedian. If nothing else, this book will certainly provide a few moments of thought on topics you hadn’t really considered before, and the odd irrepressible snicker at reality.

Full Review

I received a copy of this book for Christmas after mentioning that I wouldn’t mind a casual read to dip into now and again. I’ll first say that I do enjoy his comedy work, so I may be a bit biased when it comes to his humour, but that’s certainly not the most winning point about this book. That’s also why you don’t need to be a fan nor have seen O Briain’s stand-up work or panel show hosting to read this. It isn’t autobiographical or a mish-mash of satire on topics designed to relate to a modern audience. It does depict the journey that a comedy tour takes, but it also attempts to tackle who the English are from an Irish perspective. Despite intending it as a non-serious read, I polished it off in a mere few days and enjoyed it more than I anticipated. I do have a few negative points regarding this title, but I’ve saved them til last, because there are quite a few gems in Tickling the English that should not be ignored because of them.

As promised on the jacket cover, Tickling the English is an exploration of the common themes that crop up when you examine the cultural identity of the English. (As a side note, in case you’re aware, this book is not an examination of the British. I’ve spent enough time abroad explaining the difference between the terms British and English that it’s started to become habit. English pertains to those people living in England, not the British Isles as a whole. And that’s enough patronisation for a side note).

As a student, I had plenty of time to discuss and pick apart different cultural identities and it is fascinating to hear how outlandish some of them are. When I was living in Japan, for example, I remember two particular conversations very well. One was with a girl who told me, in no uncertain terms, that all English men walk around with black bowler hats and umbrellas, no matter the weather or season. The other took place with a close German friend, and an acquaintance we met at university, a very intelligent and linguistically talented Chinese guy. He quite happily informed my friend that it is common practise in Germany for people to walk the streets naked, eat in ‘no nudity, no service’ restaurants and frequently engage in relationships with two or three people openly and simultaneously. To this day, I still don’t think he took my friend’s denial of this very seriously. I wonder if he ever made it to Germany in the end.

The point of my reminiscence is that I am so accustomed to analysing the cultural identity of nations further away, that I rarely stop to consider countries much closer to home. O Briain isn’t going to win awards for sociological observation here, but I found the crumbs of mystery that he points out between my nationality and his, surprising and entertaining. It isn’t patronising or insulting – sometimes it’s quite complimentary, and other times shrieking, ‘why do you people do this?!’ Most strikingly for me were his thoughts on the NHS. He points out our problem of apathy-blindness. We have a magnificent free healthcare system, despite it being an ‘organisational mess’. We have a fantastic, and increasing, life expectancy. We have access to some of the best medicine and doctors in the world.  Yet, we obsessively ignore the positives in favour of grasping for the negatives. Here’s a few snippets from that particular chapter which I enjoyed:

Americans and the NHS

“Britain is rightly proud of the NHS. It stands as an example to the world of how to socialise medical care. One of the intermittent pleasures of living here is seeing an injured American after treatment, waiting for a bill, until you explain to them how it works. Honestly, it gives you quite the glow. It’s almost worth injuring an American just to see their bewildered and happy face at the end of the process.”

The English inability to accept good news

“Life expectancy in Britain is about seventy-nine years. This is bang on the average for industrialised countries. It’s a little lower than some, obviously, like Finland, or Macau, or Jersey but, here’s the real stunner: it’s forty years higher than it was two centuries ago.

In two hundred years, medicine has double our time on the planet. For all the talk of childhood obesity, or MRSA, or cancer remission rates, this country has, demonstrably, never been healthier. NEVER BEEN HEALTHIER.

You can’t imagine how much fun it is to present that fact to an English audience. It’s like when you throw a ball for a dog, but you don’t actually throw the ball and just palm it. And the dog stares in the direction the ball should have gone and looks confused, then looks back at you and then to where the ball should be. It’s a glorious piece of cognitive dissonance. An English crowd isn’t built to accept good news like that.”


Paragraphs such as the one above, and many more, made me smile wryly and nod. It’s important to note that O Briain doesn’t write this book with antipathy or insult – he writes almost with affection about the idiosyncrasies that still make him scratch his head after many years. This is why, despite every lecturer at university telling me to view the observations of non-natives with healthy scepticism, I couldn’t offer much of it when reading this. This is not a anthropological book explaining the English – it is a book which offers small portraits of behaviour that baffles others. In all fairness, he also describes Irish traits and behaviour which equally confuse the English. The Tayto crisps joke is a prime example which he uses to illustrate this barrier of understanding.

Tickling the English is not a book I could read at length for a number of hours, but one from which I could take chunks at a time from. O Briain is not an anthropologist, but his light-hearted approach to examining the English cultural identity achieves what ethnographies generally don’t; the opportunity and encouragement to laugh at ourselves. His trademark humour is splayed across the pages and the jokes are evenly threaded through his insights. Even if you don’t particularly enjoy the notes on English national behaviour, you will absolutely get a good chuckle from the unexpected characters sitting in his audience in Nottingham, or the uncomfortable humour derived from the ever joke-stimulating question: ‘have you ever witnessed a crime?’

In short, if you like Dara O Briain’s comedy, there’s a decent chance you’ll get a kick out of Tickling the English. You won’t catch me reviewing many books of this type here, but somehow this one made it through. If you’re English or have a particular connection to the English in some way, there’s a lot to relate to and recognise here.

I give Tickling the English three stars for its readability and entertainment value. It was a surprisingly good read and by far the most fruitful of my stocking fillers. However, it can ramble a bit in parts – which is fine if you want to read quite a bit about homeopathy. O Briain is one of the best stand-ups the British Isles has to offer, but his humour on stage relies on quick wit and responses to audience stimuli. This is not easily translated to a book. He overcomes this in some part by being an amusing and articulate writer, but it did reinforce my wish to see more of his comedy on stage than on pages. Read this book, enjoy it, but don’t expect to laugh out loud the way you would at one of his DVDs.