Sunday, August 24, 2008

"The Anglo Files" by Sarah Lyall

It's amazing how wildly our preconceived notion of a place can differ from the way it is in reality. A friend of mine moved to Great Britain a while ago and was completely shocked at the wide gulf that separated literary England from contemporary England. She had expected the British to resemble characters from the novels in Jane Austen, and in reality, those she encountered bore a far more striking similarity to the cast of East Enders.

I still remember one of our first phone conversations after her arrival in Britain:

"Margaret, England is awful! I hate it here! I don't know what I was expecting, but I thought they would at least be well educated! But they all drink too much, have terrible grammar and bad manners and all they seem to care about is football!"

Unfortunately, my dear friend was expecting the England that most of us become familiar with through historical dramas--a pristine land teeming with Oxford-educated gentlemen: tee-totaling tea-drinkers, clad in argyle with better English than the Queen (I put this confusion down to watching too many episodes of Masterpiece Theatre and not enough soccer/football games!).

While journalist Sarah Lyall's The Anglo Files does little to dispel these myths (although she does examine the British love of alcoholic beverages--I'm still mystified as to how my friend came up with the idea that British people didn't drink), it serves as great entertainment for those who know to take it all with a grain of salt. As this New York Times Book Review suggests, some clichés run deep (for some reason I'm instantly reminded of Mireille Guiliano's French Women Don't Get Fat), and Anglo Files revels in some of the most worn out generalisations about British society. At least Lyall devotes a good portion of the book to examining the British obsession with sport.

Clichés are always a great deal of fun, but I recommend anyone planning a trip to England to temper some of their BBC-driven enthusiasm with a few episodes of East Enders and a Manchester United football game or two before concluding that Britons live in some sort of classy, tea-infused, time-warp bubble of aristocratic nostalgia. England is a lovely, very real place, and while Lyall's book promises to be a big hit with anglophiles, it's probably best to keep in mind that individuals, wherever they may live, rarely consent to being compartmentalised as easily as outsiders might hope.


A World Away said...


Well I suppose it's the same idea of Brits coming to Canada and meeting Sargent Preston of the Yukon or expecting to see bears, deer and elk wantering the surburban streets.

Talking about myths I have just heard for the first time of the London urban myth of Spring-Heeled Jack. Quite the character.

I enjoy your blog Margaret came by way of it while researching Walter Crane.


Margaret said...

Thank-you, Stephen!

Spring-Heeled Jack looks rather a lot like Batman, in my opinion. People do think up the craziest things...



willow said...

Nice review! Yes, we always think the grass is greener and somehow more glamorous on the other side of the world, don't we?

Gillian L. said...

I really enjoyed this Post. How often our preconceived notions set us up for dissapointment. Advertising can add to this illusion of what one expects to see. For example, whether it be a business or city they all display themselves in the most attractive way on their websites. I know my husband and I recently had this experience of taking our sons to a reptile museum thats website was all glitter, but in reality it was very poor. I had not thought about reading literature and forming expectations, but I can now see how that does as well.


Margaret said...

Ah, I'm reminded of a day trip we took in Colombia in Cartagena to see an "aquarium" that turned out to be pits filled with some poor exotic sea creatures. It looked amazing in the brochures, which were all about the amazing ecological work the aquarium was doing. What a crock! I suppose it's best to be slightly skeptical of everything, but I'm not very good at that.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I don't know. Call me crazy, but I"ve always been so impressed with intelligence and wit of the British people I've met there. I've had serious literary conversations with cab drivers, discussed philosophy with fellow hill-walkers and politics with an elderly couple on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. In general, I have found the British quite well-rounded and conversant on a variety of subjects. I did read the review yesterday of the Lyall book and find it intriquing.

Margaret said...

I met amazing people last time I was in Great Britain (and the family I stayed with in Scotland was fabulous!). My friend was staying in a decidedly uncultured area of a small town, which is probably why she had a different experience. And the book still sounds fun to me, even if I don't plan to take it as the gospel truth ;)

Owlfarmer said...

It's been twenty years since I last visited London, and maybe staying in Marble Arch or South Kensington provides one with a different perspective. Or have times changed that much? Normally I'm pretty happy to meet working class folk, Morrisian anarchist that I am, but news items about inebriated Brits wreaking havoc on Crete, coupled with your friend's experience will make me think twice about plunking down a half a million quid on one of those houses advertised in Country Living!

mammon said...

I am all too guilty of this. I tell people I want to move to London but then I think I just want to have a flat there so I can spend long vacations there. I wquld probably find myself yearning for certain American things that I now take for granted.

That said if I won the lottery and I'd probably give it a go.

One of the funniest books ever written about England and the English is Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Small Island." He nails it!

Anonymous said...

As an English woman, I think that both sorts of people exist here. We do still have afternoon tea in the garden with roses and witty talk. I'm sure there's an equivalent in Canada. However there are also people who prefer pubs and lewd behaviour. Towns tend to have the latter. I wonder if it is a reaction to the overcrowded conditions people live in?

I do think that both sides of the pond we have preconceived ideas fuelled by films. Perhaps Pride and Prejudice is more palatable than say Trainspotting so it was bought for a Canadian audience?

Sooo you don't have elks wandering round your log cabins???! :-) LOL