I occasionally take some flak for my criticism of the locals and their traditions, but I invite anyone who thinks I am critical to have a go at the new book “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British” by Sarah Lyall. Some of it I have found very informative, like the chapter on the reform of the House of Lords, which was well researched and full of amusing commentary. But some of the other chapters are remarkably harsh to the point of being downright vitriolic. The writing is quite good, as one perhaps might expect given the author’s status as a London-based writer for the NY Times. A few interesting tidbits, excerpted from a review:
“We look to the future; they look to the past,” she writes. “We run for election; they stand for it. We noisily and proudly proclaim our Americanness; they shuffle their feet and apologize for their Britishness.”
Her analysis on this subject is the best I have read yet, because it attacks the reasons behind the attitude. And I did laugh out loud when she commented on Britain as a “formerly industrialized nation” particularly given my past complaints about the lacking engineering culture here in the UK.
“Brits,” she explains, “are supposed to pretend that achievement comes without effort; boasting is the height of poor manners. It makes you seem aggressive, ambitious, self-regarding, puffed up — verging on American.”
I’d say as an American expat working in Britain this is potentially the biggest minefield I’ve encountered. The path to success in the states is paved with shameless self-promotion. This is probably the path to career suicide in the UK.
But the tone of the book is best summarized in a much more biting review:
In the 19th century, Britain ruled a global empire while its aristocratic leaders swaggered around boasting that great nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.
In the 21st century, Britain has no empire and needs all the friends it can get.
The Anglo Files will not encourage many to sign up. Sarah Lyall’s “Field Guide” leaves you in no doubt of why the British lost their empire while simultaneously raising questions about how upper-class twits could have acquired one in the first place.
Personally I found it funny in places but overall a bit too harsh. The first few chapters made for very difficult reading, and I did not find most of it as helpful or explanatory as the Kate Fox classic “Watching the English”. There are many books on moving to the UK from the US, and this is probably mid-way down my list of suggestions, but not at all a necessary “field guide” so much as a bitter ‘memoir’ of the author’s personal frustrations.