This 4th July weekend, I’ve been listening to some more of The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British. This is a 2008 book by Sarah Lyall, a correspondent for the New York Times, who is based in London and married to a British author. She’s lived in the UK for over a decade and her book expertly dissects many of the too-close-to-home self truths that the British would love never, ever, to talk about. I thoroughly recommend this book, though I suspect that it may not be as well received within the UK as it should be, largely due to its accuracy. It should also be worth saying that the UK is really changing, so many of the points about old boys networks are crumbling away.
As a “recovering” expatriot of the UK, I am in a position to begin to analyze many of the cultural traumas and other issues, though I am biased in large part due to my lack of enthusiasm for the country of my birth (I don’t hate the country or its people, I just don’t really care to live there). It is my hope that Sarah Lyall can offer a more pragmatic viewpoint, since she has obviously chosen to live in the country and cannot therefore really despise doing so (or she would have long-since moved back to New York City). It’s true to say that the UK has many things going for it too that the US does not, but as Lyall explains in her book, it’s not a competition either. It is possible to criticize things in one place without saying another is necessarily better.
Here are some of the topics that I have enjoyed her coverage of thus far:
*). The British cultural tendency toward repressed emotions (everything is implied, but never explicitly stated – this is why Americans “don’t get” sarcasm, because they usually don’t need to bury meaning deep in subtext), reservation, excessive self-deprecation (introducing oneself by way of describing one’s character flaws), and the use of excessive qualifying words in Every. Single. Sentence. One has only to listen to a few minutes of BBC news to realize the final point, but the issue of repression is one that I have been actively working on since I moved to the US. It’s ok to express how you feel, and – by way of abusing an example from the book – Hitler was a mass murdering genocidal maniac fucker rather than “not a very nice man”.
*). Institutions. The UK has a lot of institutions that would be best completely eliminated. The lack of a Constitution is a HUGE problem, not something to be proud of. The House of Lords is a disgrace, and the stories of the way women were treated upon first entering the House of Commons are entirely believable. I also am inclined to agree that I used to view the liveliness of the House of Commons debates as a plus for the UK (as compared with the US Congress), but I now see it is petty and childish. The US Congress – for all its many faults – takes decorum very seriously indeed, and would not tolerate the rowdiness. Of course, Congress has historically also had members carrying pistols and the odd brawl, but I’m talking about the modern age. The UK needs a giant spring clean of the old fuddyduddys.
*). Newspapers and media. The UK has hugely impressive newspaper and media sales figures, but the reality is that most people are not actually reading the Broadsheets (what’s left of them), and are instead likely reading something of the Murdoch persuasion (not fit for use as toilet paper). This includes the “Times of London” (as Americans refer to it), which I generally have no time for, even though Lyall is quite forgiving of it in particular. Truly journalistic endeavors such as The Independent are relatively few in number compared with “The Sun”, “The News of the World”, and so forth, which actively pay for the more shocking “stories”. In the US, these are “supermarket tabloids” seen in places like Walmart but not alongside serious newpapers such as The New York Times. Papers love a good story, but they don’t like correcting themselves unless compelled to do so – in contrast, the New York Times has a prominent page 2 “corrections” section. The BBC is far more biased and opinionated than most people give proper attention to, especially in interviews.
*). Drinking. Binge drinking, yobs, treating European countries as a giant festering toilet to abuse through low-cost airline trips. These are all giant issues. I hadn’t really given due consideration to how ingrained drinking is in British culture until I read about the uncomfortable self-truths in Lyall’s book. She’s right that the level of cultural repression is often (and somewhat unfortunately) countered through events driven by means of alcohol. Relationships, scandals, and other newsworthy events do often seem to revolve around getting “totally trashed”, “trollied”, or whatever the terms are these days. And taking low-fares airlines trips to Continental Europe in order to imbibe even more without any due consideration for the local population, history, or culture, as a giant problem that requires more attention that it is given.
I’m glad that Lyall wrote this book, and I’m enjoying it. I recommend it.