Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Stuff Brits Like by Fraser McAlpine

I have to wonder if other countries have anything similar to the Anglophile Empire of the USA. Is there a thriving industry in France about "Understanding your German cousins?" Do the Thai spend a lot of time working out the intricacies of Filipino life? Do Venezuelans take courses in traditional Brazilian-style meals and have little afternoon parties to celebrate?

I tend to doubt it. It feels like a bizarre post-colonist thing, the kind that only emerges long post-colonialism, after the new nation considers itself not just independent, but equal or even better than its founding nation. And few countries have hit that point, or have anything like the boundless (and often groundless) self-confidence of Americans, to even think a platonic love affair with the old motherland would be a good thing.

But it does exist in the USA. It's a big deal. There are a sizable number of actual Brits - expats and even people still living in the old country - gainfully employed at packaging the details of British life for American consumption. The two countries are close enough, with enough important differences, to make those cultural products interesting and zippy, but the same thing could be said of, for example, comparisons between Australia and the USA (which might actually be more interesting), and those are much rarer.

One of the emanations of that urge was Fraser McAlpine's 2015 book Stuff Brits Like, which has an admirably concise and on-the-nose explanation of its appeal for a title. (Phrased in an American way, of course.) I read it because this kind of stuff is fascinating to me, because it looked breezy and fun, because I got it cheap, and because, inevitably, I'm a consumer of the vast Anglophile Empire myself.

McAlpine is Cornish - he makes a point about this several times, so that even dim Americans are not likely to miss it - which gives him a somewhat different viewpoint into the multiple nations that make up the so-called United Kingdom. (The Home Counties English, the usual producers of cultural products like this, will always give lip service to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and usually to Wales as well, but are less likely to mention Cornwall and Northumberland and the other pockets of pseudo-nationalism bubbling deep in the British stew.) Related to that, his book is more modern and multicultural than the similar book of a generation ago would have been: being British here doesn't mean "a pale person whose ancestors have lived on this patch of land since the bloody Jutes came through" the way it might have in the past. The actual cultural products, though, are the same, because they're all British (the people and the cultural artifacts): it's just that the darker-skinned Brits also watch Downton Abbey and the pale people, as we all know, love to murder a curry.

So McAlpine provides more than a hundred short chapters - there's no table of contents, and I'm not about to count them, but each one is three or four pages long and the book has 360 pages, so you do the math - about those things that, as he says, British people in general mostly like. First, though, is Pedantry, which lets him get in early with the point that British people love to argue about things and love to be performatively unhappy about things, and so pre-emptively cover a whole range of objections to any or all of his choices.

I am not British. None of the audience of this book is British. My cynical side wonders if McAlpine was editorially guided to focus as much as possible on British cultural and social products that Americans have actually heard of, but it's pretty big and full of odd things, so, even if so, it was not a strong guiding hand. And my guess is that this is pretty much the book McAlpine wanted to write: semi-random, wandering, celebratory but in a tasteful, quiet British way.

McAlpine is a witty, amusing writer: he has the dry wit that a Brit writing for Americans about the British is expected to deliver. I dog-eared half a dozen pages while reading this for quotes to post here; they might not actually work that well out of context, actually, but I hope the impulse says good things about the book.

If you, too, spend much of your time living in the Anglophile Empire, you will enjoy this book. If you hate all things British for whatever reason, you should stay far away.

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