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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British

New York Times correspondent Sarah Lyall fell in love with an Englishman in the early 1990s and has been living and working in London ever since. But despite her decade and-a-half there, she still finds herself fascinated by the remarkable differences, minor and major, that exist between the U.S. and the U.K. despite the language and history shared by the two countries.

The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British is Lyall’s generally lighthearted report of what it is like for an American, Anglophile or not, to live and work in the U.K. As someone who did exactly that for a number of years, I can honestly say that most of the oddities and quirks of life in Britain Lyall notes in her book are ones that early on caught my own attention.
Some of what Lyall has to say is offered in the way of legitimate criticism and some of it simply explores the differences between U.S. and British points-of-view and ways of everyday life. But, for the most part, what the book has to say is cloaked in the type of good natured humor that makes it all go down pretty easily. Along the way, the book’s fourteen chapters explore subjects such as the British attitude toward sex, class, Parliament’s structure and its members, the game of cricket, British understatement, British eccentrics and the eagerness of Brits to practically freeze to death on the country’s public beaches.

By far the most serious subject approached by Lyall is the British near-obsession with alcohol and binge drinking, a tendency the extent of which surprised and shocked me during my own years in the U.K. As Lyall puts it, “For the British, alcohol is a relaxant, an emollient, a crutch, a relief, an excuse.” At the same time that per capita drinking in most of Europe is on the decrease, the opposite is true in the U.K. where people are drinking more, starting at a younger age, than in the past. Excessive drinking at sporting events, football and rugby, in particular, is so out of control that the notion of the British “soccer lout” has become almost stereotypical. But most ominous, is the way that town centers across the country, so many nights a week, become danger zones best avoided by the sober in late evening. While the Brits tend to forgive this kind of behavior and treat it with a degree of humor, Lyall herself wisely makes her case without treating the problem as a joke.

The Anglo Files is a witty look at the differences, perceived and real, between America and Britain. As such, it offers useful insights into those differences and will help prepare first-time visitors to the U.K. for what they will encounter upon leaving Heathrow or Gatwick to immerse themselves in Britain, be it for two weeks or for two decades. Those looking for a serious analysis of what makes the U.K. so special to Americans will probably be somewhat disappointed. Those looking to understand why they still feel like such outsiders after having spent years living in Britain will, on the other hand, enjoy her humorous approach and will see themselves in her experiences.

Rated at: 4.0

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