OUR FASCINATION with the British is Oedipal. “Murdering the King’s English,” my New England grandmother used to mutter in the face of bad grammar. (Clearly, it made no impression on me.)
In her first book “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British,” Sarah Lyall -- who moved to London in the mid-1990s as a correspondent for the New York Times and married British writer-editor Robert McCrum -- tracks the odd and endearing behaviors that help us measure our own quirks and cultural obsessions.
“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.”
Lyall’s decanting of the British begins with three common preconceptions -- all of which turn out, in her telling, to be more or less true.
First, their cleanliness is not up to Lyall’s American standards. “Even in the twenty-first century, for instance,” she points out, “many British people still ride the subway during the evening rush hour without benefit of deodorant.”
“When they do the dishes,” she observes, “they appear to believe that the part where you are supposed to rinse off the soap is optional.”
Second, there’s the issue of sex, including the stereotype that many British men are gay. Lyall hops around this a bit, with some empathetic anecdotes about friends and family members “harassed and groped, if not forced to have sex, by teachers and other boys. Even now, in the way the culture works, they are supposed to make light of it.”
After discussing sex education and le vice anglais (the Frenchman’s gleeful term for the British love of spanking), she concludes: “Is it any wonder that Englishmen -- particularly British men of a certain class -- are so mixed up about sex?”
Finally, there is the food, which, according to Lyall, is dependably bad (in spite of a liberal use of “salad cream, a squirtable mayonnaise product that can be slathered on their food to obscure its unpalatibility”).
Lyall goes beyond these cliches to write about class (which isn’t supposed to matter anymore but still does), government (including the disorienting infusion of women during Tony Blair’s tenure -- “Blair’s Babes”) and loyalty to newspapers (journalists might be considered a “shady bunch,” but at least they aren’t dinosaurs).
She also addresses drinking and the British love of animals, as well as their self-deprecation, fondness for eccentricity and bad teeth.
These last four qualities are just plain endearing.
“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.”
Granted, self-deprecation can be annoying, especially when it is extended to children. “Okay,” a friend tells Lyall when she asks about his daughter. “He sounded as if he were talking about gravy. ‘Okay. She’s a bit thick, you know.’ ”
But Lyall believes that this is less a question of affectation than of hard wiring.
“Britons trying to boast,” she tells us, “are typically like acrophobes walking along a cliff: It frightens them and makes them feel sick.”
In fact, “The Anglo Files” makes clear that many of the qualities we perceive as affectations come from deep, historical, ancestral behavior patterns.
Even alcohol, Lyall writes, functions for the British as “a relaxant, an emollient, a crutch, a relief, an excuse. If they go overboard it is the get-out-of-jail-free card that allows them to throw up their hands, palms out, and disavow responsibility.”
The world wars, she continues, created generations of men with a horror of cowardice and the strong connection between emotional repression and manliness.
It’s easy to forget (particularly in California) that the British mind-set, “low expectations, a sense of making do, a sense of enduring rather than enjoying,” is still the norm in places like New England. I recently spent a few days in a small community in Maine where self-deprecation, shabbiness and eccentricity were all alive and well.
Boasting, self-conscious cleanliness (in dress or person) and obvious vanities are still considered sure signs of lesser birth.
Perhaps these qualities, as many economists would argue, have less to do with nationality than with a certain familiarity (generations’ worth) with the intricacies of class.