Americans criticizing Brits

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.


16 responses to “Americans criticizing Brits

  1. How do you feel about the American economy at the moment? 🙂


  2. Sarah Lyall seems to me to be very stupid person.

    Sarah Palin also seems to me to be a very stupid person.

  3. Hmmm, I think calling someone “stupid” in this context is out of line, clearly people get to where they are out of something besides just dumb luck.

    As for the economy, that is my next topic so watch this space.

  4. > I think calling someone “stupid” in this context is out of line, clearly people get to where they are out of something besides just dumb luck.

    Possibly. But from what I can tell, at least half of America — and probably the whole of the rest of the world — is struck by a kind of fascinated horror that a nation could seriously contemplate as a candidate for VP someone as inane as Sarah Palin.

    The other Sarah? I apologize and humbly retract my comment: obviously someone who has worked out that there is easy money to be made by the bilious regurgitation of tired old myths, clichés and stereotypes cannot be totally stupid!

    > As for the economy, that is my next topic so watch this space.

    I look forward to this with eager anticipation. In April last year you referred to “England, a land lacking a discernable [sic] economy”, so your views will be interesting, to say the least.

    (Footnote. I *thought* I’d come across Sarah Lyall before, and indeed this turns out to be the case. We discussed one of her articles in the UKUS Forum a while ago. If you want to read that discussion, just enter ‘Sarah Lyall’ in the forum’s ‘Search’ box (you don’t have to be a forum member to do so). It seems my opinion of Ms Lyall’s views was no better back then! I never realized she was married to Robert McCrum, a writer whom, in contrast, I *do* admire.)

  5. Howard, I found the forum thread and that article was one of the chapters in the book. I don’t remember if it is exactly the same length but it certainly starts the same way, and has the same tone.

    Half of American may find Palin inane but enough people think “she’s one of us” to make a difference. The problem with the democrats in America on the coasts is the same as the problem with the Brits trying to comment on the US politics, they think that somehow the Republicans are stupid. It’s just a group of people whose beliefs some people can’t fathom, but that does not imply that they are unintelligent. It’s far more complex than about just calling people stupid.

  6. > that article was one of the chapters in the book.

    Ah, I was wondering if that might be so, NFAH.

    > It’s far more complex than about just calling people stupid.

    Indeed, it must be.

  7. Pingback: The expat crossroads « Not From Around Here

  8. It’s always a bit dodgy to criticise a nation when you’re not from that place, which is why Kate Fox gets away with it and Sarah Lyall doesn’t.

  9. Kate Fox also handles the situation with bemused self-deprication, which is quite a different tone than the attacking vitriol that Lyall occasionally reverts to. I kept thinking as I read Lyall’s book, “How does she manage to stay married to a Brit with all this pent up anger at the English?” and also “has her poor husband read this? Can he hold up his head in public?”

  10. If you go to Gawker ( ) you can read the opinions of correspondents there that Ms Lyall has a tendency to regurgitate the same old tired stuff over and over and over again.

  11. An interesting post, NFAH, but once again marred, I’m afraid, by your relying on personal hunch, rather than finding out what published facts and figures are available.

    If you had done some research into the situation before leaping to the keyboard, you might have stumbled across sources like the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills report ‘International comparative performance of the UK research base’, and come to less gloomy conclusions. The report itself is reasonably optimistic: “The UK continues to support a more consistent performance than most countries across fields of research. It is strong overall in the natural sciences and, on indicators where it has been second to the USA, it has maintained a close challenge or moved into first place over the last few years.”

    The Department’s own website summarizes the report by saying:
    “* UK is punching well above its weight – second only to the United States on most of the measures;
    * UK gives excellent value for money from its research budget – number one in the G8 on efficiency measures.”

    > The educational climate in general favors old-fashioned solo pen-and- paper examinations, not hands-on labs, group projects and computers

    This is manifestly untrue. Look at the National Curriculum (see, for example ), or any University prospectus or syllabus (see, for example, ). It seems to me that what you appear to be criticizing in Britain, “too little research”, could also be levelled at what you have written here.

    > Something is VERY wrong when a University can’t manage to keep it’s physics department running!

    *One* university out of 115 threatens to close its Physics Department in 2010 and you use this as indicative of a general malaise? Were you never warned as part of your (I am sure) excellent American sci-tech education of the dangers of using one instance as representative of a whole situation?

    > And there is definitely an attitude of “Britishness” in not seeming to want to compete with the Americans and be too aggressive in pursuing these things.

    No, there *definitely isn’t* any such attitude, and you would be wise not to put too much trust in Ms Lyall’s ridiculous drivelling. Her sour stereotyping comes very close to racism, to my mind.

  12. Apologies: I intended to poost that comment to accompany “The expat crossroads”

  13. Howard,

    I am not, nor do I pretend to be, an investigative reporter. I am not writing a column (opinion or otherwise) for a national newspaper. I write a blog, which is a diary of my own personal reflections and the view through my own eyes. Quoting statistics or soundbites from the UK government would not affect my own personal view, which is the view from the ground here–what I see with my own eyes is a crumbling technological infrustructure compared with what I saw on the ground in the states. I do not see investment nor do I see priority. But that is just my view from the bottom. I will continue to write things here that reflect my view since this is a personal blog.

  14. > I am not, nor do I pretend to be, an investigative reporter.

    Of course you’re not: you’re an engineer (and as far as I can tell from reading between the lines, a good one). But I believe investigative journalists and engineers have this in common: that they rely on objective fact rather than subjective fancy.

  15. As noted, I really bristle about being held to my job’s standards in my WEB DIARY. Yes I am an engineer but this blog is my COMMENTARY.

  16. Pingback: A rave review « Not From Around Here

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