Having lived in England for over a decade as London correspondent for the New York Times, Sarah Lyall has compiled her spot-on observations about the British into her new book The Anglo Files (Norton, 256 pages). She spoke to TIME from her London office. We can't say she was drinking tea as she spoke to us, but we can't say she wasn't, either.
TIME: Your book is subtitled A Field Guide to the British. Who exactly is the audience for this field guide?
Sarah Lyall: It's written for Americans, but it hardly covers every facet of Britain or the Brits. Americans don't know a lot about Britain. What we know is based on vacations that we've taken to London or books we've read or movies or TV shows like Masterpiece Theater for people a little bit older or Hugh Grant films for people a bit younger. People don't really know Brits, but they're fascinated by them. They think, to some extent, of Britain as the more refined, more polite, better version of themselves. And that's not necessarily accurate.
The best way to conduct this interview might be through word association. I'm going to say a word or phrase and you'll talk about the British attitude toward it. First: alcohol.
Brits aren't very good at just having a few drinks and relaxing. As a culture, they really enjoy binge drinking to the point when they're completely insensible. And this has been a theme throughout the decades for them — throughout the centuries, really.
What's happened in recent years is that there's been a huge surge in these budget airlines where for like $50 at times, depending on when you travel, you can go to Prague or Budapest or really all over Europe for cheap prices and you can take a party of people in conditions far away from home so no one can see what you're getting up to. They go on these vacations in beautiful places like Greece and Spain and Italy, and they get drunk and beat each other up and pass out and they get sick and they get robbed and they trash their hotel rooms. They're just notorious around Europe for being this brawling nation of boozers.
But isn't that how Americans act in Vegas?
Of course. And Americans have spring break in Florida and frat culture in college that exposes many young people to binge drinking. In Britain what happens is they don't really seem to outgrow it. You get people in their 30s traveling to these places and getting drunk.
Next word: class.
People who are upper class, who have a lot of money, are targeted more for having those things than they might be in the United States. There's a real culture of envy here and there's a feeling in the air that if you have a lot you somehow have to justify it. And you almost have to pretend that you don't have a lot. We see this in government, where people running for office often play down their posh backgrounds because otherwise they are lampooned as upper class twits who lived a life of privilege.
Don't American politicians get called out for the same things? I mean, isn't the McCain-having-six-houses thing a similar treatment?
In America there's such a thing as the American dream, where if you start from nothing and become wildly rich or wildly successful, everybody applauds. Here, that's really laced with envy and resentment.
What about achievement?
In Britain, when you achieve, you're not supposed to really feel proud about it. Or if you are, you're supposed to keep it very much to yourself and pretend that your achievement was the result of luck or some kind of fluke that just happened to you. And you really have to play it down and not go around boasting, because boasting is a bad thing to do here.
Americans are much more straightforward about being able to say even something like, "I had a really good day at work today." That would be straightforwardly happy. A Brit couldn't come and say that to a bunch of friends over a drink. They'd have to make some joke about how they screwed up somehow.
If you think about men in America, or the complaints that women in America make about men, they would say that they're uncommunicative, they're not helpful around the house, they fold into themselves and are only comfortable around other men. I think British men are just extreme examples of that. They're really uncommunicative. They really don't want to talk about feelings. They really don't understand when you're having an emotional meltdown. It's one of those things you have to laugh at and make fun of. That's one way to have a relationship with any kind of Brit. If you make fun of them, they can really understand that and then you're getting somewhere.
You write in your book about how there seems to be a lack of strong national identity, or an inability to define what Britishness is.
Yes. They've had a lot of debates about that recently. In the old days, it was the empire that defined Britain. It didn't have to explain itself because it knew who it was and it felt superior to every other country in the world. With the loss of the empire, its ego took a huge battering and there was never any equivalent to help cement the people together and give them an identity.
At the same time, you get a lot of immigrants coming in who don't really sign up for British-ness the way Americans sign up for American-ness. You don't really have a British dream. A Pakistani immigrant to America, after two generations, would probably refer to themselves as Pakistani-American. Here they would just keep calling themselves Pakistani.
The next Summer Olympics are going to be held in London. Is that going to help Brits temper their low self-esteem?
It's so hard to know. There's always an upswell of British pride before the World Cup. Everyone gets really excited about the British team, but then they always lose and then everyone gets bitter and angry and denounces them for letting down the entire country. What's happened until now is the Londoners have grumbled repeatedly about how annoying it's going to be to have the Olympics here. "Costs overruns are enormous, the traffic is going to be terrible, they'll never figure it out." All of a sudden, there's a little surge of pride and people are saying, at least this week, maybe it'll be great for the city.
How long are those good feelings going to last?
It'll last until the next bill comes in and they see how much more expensive it will be then they originally planned for.
6 months ago