Rule, Britannia!

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Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 16, 2008


A Field Guide to the British

By Sarah Lyall

Norton. 289 pp. $24.95

Flying over to London a few weeks ago, I carried a copy of The Anglo Files as a housewarming gift for my stepdaughter and her family, who had just settled there and had lost no time in discovering just how appealing but, well, weird the British can be. Lyall, an American who has lived in England for more than a decade -- she is a correspondent for the New York Times, and her husband, Robert McCrum, is literary editor of the London Observer -- has a keen eye for oddities and a tart prose style for recording them. Thus she tells us that when she arrived in England she was "ill prepared" for the strangeness she encountered:

"Even in the twenty-first century, many British people still ride the subway during the evening rush hour without benefit of deodorant. Their nursery-rhyme spider is incy-wincy, not itsy-bitsy. When they sneeze, they say 'ah-tishoo,' not 'ah-choo.' They have something called salad cream, a squirtable mayonnaise product that can be slathered on their food to obscure its unpalatability. When they do the dishes, they appear to believe that the part where you are supposed to rinse off the soap is optional."

Like just about everyone who has written about the subject, she makes the obligatory point that "Britain and America are two nations separated by a common language," but then she sallies on to prove it over and over again. The subjects of her 14 chapters include sex, eccentrics, self-effacement, animals, food, class and -- of course -- teeth, this last leading her to the astonished discovery: "Let me repeat that: The average Briton takes one and a half years to use up a pack of dental floss." She has great fun at the expense of both houses of Parliament, especially the House of Commons for its old-school-tie macho silliness.

Lyall actually likes and respects the British, but mostly she plays it for laughs, especially where snobbery and class are concerned. My favorite: "When my husband displays to airline check-in clerks the faux-impressive gift I bought for him as a joke at the House of Lords gift shop -- a maroon passport cover with 'House of Lords' stamped on the front -- he often gets upgraded to business class."

-- Jonathan Yardley

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