Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Anglo Files by Sarah Lyall

Lyall was a young reporter -- covering publishing, actually -- for The New York Times when she met and quickly married Robert McCrum, a very British writer and editor (Faber & Faber, The Observer, a quite good biography called Wodehouse). She moved to London, and quickly discovered that the English may speak a very similar language to Americans, but they think very differently, on a wide variety of topics.

(Lyall is now, and has been for some time, a London correspondent for the New York Times -- it's quite lucky when you get a chance to move across an ocean and still keep your old job.)

Anglo Files is subtitled "A Field Guide to the British," and that's exactly what it is: a book anatomizing British foibles, idiosyncrasies, and oddities, as seen by an educated, urbane, and Anglophilic American. It's a wonderful book to read for any even mildly Britain-tropic readers on this side of the pond, full of thoughtful and funny moments like
British people really are more reserved and repressed than American. They really do say "Sorry," all the time, even when it is not their fault, such as when they trip and fall down, or when someone knocks into them in the street. They really do admire the fact that they have no written constitution. And, yes, they believe that baked beans are a vegetable, that the loathsomeness of the French is exceeded only by the loathsomeness of the Germans, and that it is better to shiver in the dark than to swelter in the light.
Lyall writes about traditional England -- upper-middle class and above, mostly, and ethnically as well as culturally English. This is not a book about yobs, Eastenders, "football," and the kind of people who chant "Eng-a-land!" She's writing about "U" rather than "non-U" England, for Nancy Mitford scholars -- and she gets into that cultural gulf late in the book, as well.

She dives right in with a chapter about sex -- which doesn't exist, of course, since they're British -- and moves on to Parliament (both Commons and Lords, separately), newspapers, drinking, cricket, class, false modesty, odd characters, animal-loving, dental care, apparent love of bad service and consumer goods, self-denial and the change in the British character as seen in the wallowing in grief after Princess Diana's death, and weather. Along the way, she's always exceptionally readable and quite often very funny -- and she also provides an extensive list of Further Reading at the end for those who haven't had enough Britishness in the previous two hundred and sixty pages.

I enjoyed The Anglo Files immensely; Lyall is a clever and sprightly writer with a reporter's eye for the telling detail. If you're an American who enjoys British things -- TV, books, movies, etc. -- I expect you'll be rather fond of it.

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