I’ve always enjoyed knowing Brits, learning from them in school, and working with them. Their style, verbal concision, decisive leadership, and encyclopedic approach to whole categories of knowledge is always impressive. And I’ve never laughed as hard as when a Brit starts up with derisive remarks and self-deprecation.
But after reading Sarah Lyall’s “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British,” it is now clear why I’ve had little desire to travel in Britain or adopt much of the culture. I must have sensed something. Why volunteer for the misery? A Danish friend once spent a term there as a student, and I wonder how she did it; I’m seeing her soon and will ask. Lyall, a London Bureau reporter for the New York Times since the mid-1990s, observes how confused and repressed the British are. What an impossible bunch! She actually proves Lewis Carroll was a realist.
The problem seems to start with the education of the privileged. Lyall shows that practices at boarding school set the pace for all of society, whether you’re talking about unheated dorms and cold morning baths and sadistic beatings, or the friendly attentions of the upperclassman in the nearby bunk. Binge-drinking is a popular outlet, and eccentricity is another. The plight of hedgehogs in the Outer Hebrides might evoke a greater emotional response than a humanitarian cause. National institutions such as Parliament are almost completely absurd. Postwar consumer culture was long marked by mediocre goods and services and awful food, but people expected privation.
And then there’s the weather. Lyall describes her hike “across Crib Goch—a knife-edged ridge leading to the summit of Mount Snowdon, in Wales—on a day when it rained, hailed, and snowed, practically all at once. Crib Goch is known for being challenging and sometimes fatal. Although I cried several times, and although I crept so slowly that my friends and I were passed repeatedly by hordes of hill walkers…I made it to the end, frozen hair and all.” Approximately the same result was achieved when she tried to picnic in a London park with her two daughters on a June day.
Lyall’s funny take on all this is a delight. (The chapter on the deplorable dentition of the British reaches into the macabre.) Her story moves along nicely when she shows how Brits have embraced contemporary standards of customer service, quality food, and even “therapy culture” that we Americans have taken for granted. (Princess Di’s victimology, David Beckham’s boo-hoo-hooing, and even Prince Charles’s autobiographical confessions have encouraged the latter.) The one subject I wish Lyall had addressed is how English rock music fits into all this, if it does; it’s the obvious antithesis to the stoicism that she so well documents.
I also couldn’t help wondering what she would write if she were to bring her penetrating powers to bear on a couple of other places that are of interest to me, namely, Stockholm and Salt Lake City. The results would surely be fascinating.