The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British

The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British BY Sarah Lyall. W. W. Norton. Hardcover, 256 pages. $24.

The cover of The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British

This probably isn’t a good time to fall in love with the English. Their economy—subject to an even more inflated property market than ours—is poised for a fall. Their boozy, clever, and always-for-hire Hitchens-style newspaper hacks are starting to wear thin. And with just about the worst diet in the EU and an unquenchable thirst for our trashiest cultural exports (from Bret Easton Ellis to Desperate Housewives), it’s not always easy telling them apart from, well, us.

It’s a land where surface has always mattered most, and as Sarah Lyall points out in The Anglo Files, her amusing, perceptive, and somewhat compromised collection of essays on Anglo-American cultural relations, that’s part of its charm. Brits don’t rush to share their deepest vibes at the drop of a hat. They’re not spilling over with sincerity and sentiment. Rather, they prefer to pick you apart for useful info, make a few quick jokes (at your expense), and drop you off at the next intersection. These transatlantic divisions run deep, as Lyall writes:

We look to the future; they look to the past. We run for election; they stand for it. We noisily and proudly proclaim our Americanness; they shuffle their feet and apologize for their Britishness. We trumpet our successes; they brag about their failures. When they say they are pleased to meet you, they often mean nothing of the kind. Unlike Americans, they do not want to tell you their life story minutes after making your acquaintance; it takes some time to get that far, but if you do, it means you’re friends for life.

Britain is still very old-world—and, boy, were we right to leave it behind. Schoolboylike politicians guffawing at one another during sparsely attended “debates” at the House of Commons. Countless tabloids screaming for attention at every street corner, pretending to take radically different political positions on royal gossip and celebrity scandal. And by the way, you can quit believing all those quaint Ealing comedies about well-mannered, dotty people queuing for buses. These days, British cultural life is a street fight of binge drinking, football hooliganism, excessive body piercing, and bad dentistry.

Which is not to say the Brits aren’t changing. Ignoring most of our better ideas—such as a written constitution and legal rights vested in every citizen—they’ve happily adopted everything we do wrong: They conduct mawkish, Oprah-style group hugs on morning chat shows and publish tell-alls about how they “overcame” child abuse, lost fathers, and bad dating. Oh, and remember all that New Age nonsense they like to mock us Yanks about? Well, some of it originated in Britain’s very own theosophical societies and Swedenborgian “think tanks.” Let’s face it—these people aren’t any saner than we are.

Lyall, a New York Times reporter who has spent the past dozen years or so as a wife and mother in London, writes about Brits with humor, affection, and just the proper dose of disbelief—which makes her book a good place to start for those Yanks who find themselves suddenly lost in this utterly alien land. Unfortunately, her perspective occasionally feels insulated from common life; it certainly gets tiresome having every anecdote begin while she’s attending an inbred literary do or accompanying her children to an expensive private school’s talent show. Like the Oxbridge-educated, cliquish, often inheritance-funded Brits she seems to know best, Lyall never journeys very far into those parts of England where many English really live: redbrick football stadiums, greasy chips-and-bacon-sandwich-style “caffs,” mangy dog tracks, gray concrete council estates, convivial country villages, and jam-packed suburban shopping malls. In some ways, Lyall is the antithesis of Bill Bryson, another Yank who has thrived in this rainy land. One can imagine them both endlessly exploring what they most admire about England without ever once crossing paths.

This is a good, funny book that doesn’t quite do what Orwell did many years ago: describe what’s best (and worst) about a people the author loves (and loathes).