Book review: The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British

By Sarah LyallQuercus, 288pp, £12.99


FOREIGNERS' ATTEMPTS TO UNderstand Britain have produced shelf-fulls of books that with rare exceptions (Bill Bryson being one) have left no-one any the wiser. Like Bryson, Lyall (wife of former Observer literary editor Robert McCrum) has had the advantage of living amongst the people she describes for years: and because she has the reputation of being a first-rate reporter for the New York Times, one starts the book with higher expectations than normal.

Sadly, it seems to be aimed at Americans rather than Brits. Which is to say that Lyall plays up to their great expectations of the aristocracy, or at least that part of it visible from the public galleries of the House of Lords, where "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."

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The rest of the book trots through similar obvious targets: the willingness to picnic or play in even the ugliest weather, the "mixture of rudeness and politeness" in personal relations, the genius for eccentricity. Unkind clichs about British dental care, she says, are deadly true. Oh, and hold on: Britons' homes are draughty, their men "harbour erotic fantasies" about Margaret Thatcher. Really?

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 an account of how Lyall came to feel, if not comfortable living in Britain and raising a family here, 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".

Still, for all its good cheer, 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, tense argument with itself. I wish Lyall's book had more to say about the extraordinary effects, psychological as much as economic, of ongoing deindustrialisation; about Britain's surprisingly resilient sense of regional identity; its continued decline in international power and loss of national self-confidence; and the effects of mass immigration. This is a nation to which more than a million people from Eastern Europe alone have migrated since 2004. It's about time people writing books like this sought out those kind of new truths rather than the old, musty clichs.