It may be a truism that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language, but it’s truer to say that the two nations are united by language and divided by everything else. These differences — of manners, mores, assumptions, expectations — are the subject of “The Anglo Files,” by Sarah Lyall, a reporter for The New York Times. A New Yorker by origin and temperament, Lyall married an Englishman (the editor and writer Robert McCrum) and moved to London in the mid-1990s. “The Anglo Files” collects and expands on Lyall’s dispatches from her adopted home in the decade and a half since then. The result is what she calls a “field guide to the British.”
THE ANGLO FILES
A Field Guide to the British
By Sarah Lyall
289 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95
Lyall is a first-rate reporter, and her book has all the hallmarks of her journalism: it is warm, blunt, confessional, companionable. Which is to say: it is very American. The country she describes, “that oldest and most charismatic of nation-states,” as the writer Jan Morris once called it, is cold, private, oblique to the point of opacity and reticent to the point of silence. Which is to say: it is very British. The book’s charm lies in the collision of these two facts.
Lyall organizes “The Anglo Files” around lean case studies of British institutions (Parliament, cricket, drink) and traits (love of liberty and animals, obsession with the weather). She recounts, for example, the 2003 battle on the Hebridean island of North Uist between hedgehog lovers and wading-bird enthusiasts over an invasion of hedgehogs, which eat the birds’ eggs. Lyall makes plain not just the passion of British animal lovers, but their organizational zeal: Scottish Natural Heritage, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, Uist Hedgehog Rescue and the Uist Wader Project fought for years before agreeing the alien hedgehogs should be airlifted back to the mainland rather than killed.
And Lyall’s report on the 1998 parliamentary debate over the Blair government’s proposal to rid the House of Lords of hereditary peers captures that body’s sketch-comedy lunacy: the “byzantine rules, archaic customs, superfluous pageantry and doddering legislators.” She makes fun of the aristocratic names (like the 22nd Earl of Shrewsbury, otherwise known as Charles Henry John Benedict Crofton Chetwynd Chetwynd-Talbot) and marvels that “sometimes the debate had the tenor of a late-night conversation in a college dormitory during that precious window of time after the pot has been smoked but before the pizza has arrived.” (Though this is a metaphor from the wrong side of the Atlantic: the British stoner’s munchie of choice is not pizza, but “chips” or the ubiquitous doner kebab.)
Throughout, Lyall expresses an amused bewilderment at British ways: the disinclination to fully rinse dishes, the willingness to picnic or play in even the ugliest weather, the “mixture of rudeness and politeness” in personal relations, the genius for eccentricity. “Many of the unkind clichés about British dental care,” she writes, are “dead accurate.” In fact, in her telling, many of the clichés — unkind and less so — about British everything are true: their teeth are crooked, their homes are drafty, their men “harbor erotic fantasies about former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.” Her book is not a war on cliché but a brokered peace: an affectionate, joshing effort to understand and explain the British from beak to tail feather.
Though some crown jewels of contemporary Britain make an appearance — the incomparable Alan Bennett, the indispensable Private Eye — Lyall spends too much time on iconic British figures we already know too much about: the queen, Prince Charles, Diana, assorted other royals, the actor Hugh Grant, the footballer David Beckham, the adventurer Ranulph Fiennes. Better are her accounts of ordinary Englishmen: Vincent Bethell, a libertarian from Coventry so set in his beliefs that he refuses to wear clothes; an anonymous Londoner so exercised by the injustice of having his car wheel booted by the police that he takes to dressing up as a superhero called Angle-Grinder Man, after the type of saw he uses, vigilante style, to free other cars he feels to be unjustly penalized.
Lyall is at her tart, observant best when incorporating her own experiences. At the cricket ground: “Learning about cricket in middle age is, like studying Mandarin, an effort best left to scholars, optimists and members of the Foreign Service.” Or at a book party: “The conversation . . . was so much better than it would have been in New York. There was no chatter on the topics of My Therapeutic Epiphany, for instance, or My Hamptons Traffic Nightmare. No one was bragging about his accomplishments or being earnest about her problems. . . . They were dropping the sort of witty offhand remarks that make listening to Britons in full humorous mode one of life’s great pleasures.” “The Anglo Files” is in part a masked account of how Lyall came to feel, if not quite comfortable living in Britain and raising a family there, at least no more uncomfortable than the British themselves. She describes the changes that prove she is “beginning to adjust to life in Britain”: she kisses both cheeks, uses “one” in the first-person singular and tries “to be less boisterous and not wave my arms around so much.”
All of this yields a cartoon Britain: pint glass raised, flies undone, cheeks flushed in the dull sun, forever mooning France. But even the broadest cartoons reveal deep truths, as wily British cartoonists from James Gillray to Steve Bell and Martin Rowson have been proving for centuries (though the book jacket, featuring the queen as a tea bag, goes no deeper than its paper stock). And a nation’s jokes may be the clearest window on its soul. Take this one, as Lyall tells it: “Two men . . . drink pint after pint together in the pub, companionably silent. A few hours pass. On his 10th pint, the first man raises his glass and says, ‘Cheers!’ The second man glares at him. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘did you come here to talk, or to drink?’ ”
Still, for all its good cheer, I can’t help feeling that “The Anglo Files” doesn’t capture enough of the richness of the country it describes. Britain today feels like a dynamic, messy society in the midst of a long and tense argument with itself. I wish Lyall’s book had more to say about the extraordinary effects, psychological as much as economic, of ongoing deindustrialization; about Britain’s surprisingly resilient sense of regional identity; about its continued decline in international power and loss of national self-confidence; and, most of all, about the effects of mass immigration. On the bus in central London one often encounters more speakers of Bengali, Polish, Slovene, Spanish, Vietnamese and Yoruba than of English. This is a nation to which more than one million people from Eastern Europe alone have migrated since 2004. Millions of pints of Lech and Tyskie beer, the leading Polish brands, are now sold in Britain each year. It won’t be long before England has a Polish-born M.P. or a Polish-born soccer player on the national team: a bird as British as a house sparrow.