A Field Guide To The British by Sarah Lyall

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A Field Guide To The British by Sarah Lyall

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Up to date, insightful and witty account of an American journalist's impressions, anecdotes and more serious but still amusing analyses of British (or rather, English) ways, from the UFOs in the Lords to binge drinking hooligans, from "rumpy-pumpy" to page three girls.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Quercus Publishing Plc
ISBN: 978-1847245823

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I have a fascination - one that borders on an unhealthy obsession - with books written about the British: and that fascination is clearly, not just a personal foible of mine as such books are uncannily common: from travelogues to memoirs, hefty historical analyses to short satirical sketches, the subject of Britishness (and Englishness) carries a seemingly endless fascination for natives and foreigners alike. Many of those books, somehow expectedly, are written by Americans as so is The Field Guide by Sarah Lyall, an American journalist who married a Brit and came here for love in the mid/late 90's, exactly like I did, though I am sure that I move in slightly less elevated circles.

The Field Guide is an account of Lyall's impressions of Britain during the period she spent here. Her American perspective is interesting in itself and I have to confess that I enjoy observing the American observer almost as much as sharing her observations.

She covers all the standard peculiarities: weather and weather talk, class (or rather class related language differences), attitudes to sex (from 'no sex we are British' to modern promiscuity, and including rather good musings on the homosexual streak in English culture), cricket; as well as those that were perhaps more striking to Americans - the stiff upper lip and its post-Diana demise, the art of superior self-depreciation, the frugality and making-do, drinking and the service without a smile. There are two splendid chapters on Parliament (with particular attention paid to women in the House of Commons and rather endearingly American, earnest indignation at sexist attitudes) and the House of Lords and its demise and one on the British love of the animals that had me really nodding and laughing while reading the absurd and wonderful account of the hedgehog infestation and rescue saga in the Western Isles.

Lyall is a journalist married to a journalist, and thus she has - very typical for such books - a perspective that's somehow skewed towards the upper and upper-middle classes: she starts with a picnic with an Earl (and although our laird's children attend the same toddler group as mine, and even though his baronetcy is distinctly new money, I personally, in my ten years living in Britain have never encountered a titled person in a social situation).

Her children go to a public school, and when discussing anything to do with education she almost exclusively refers to public (and particularly boarding) schools, though she does justify her focus by explaining a powerful influence those few educated in the public boarding schools have on the whole public and social life in the UK.

The one major niggle I had was with the title - A Field Guide to the British - not at all supported by the content, as Lyall deals almost exclusively with the English (barring a few mentions of Scottish peers in the section on the House of Lords), and mostly those from the South and the Home Counties. In fact, a reader ignorant of all things British could reinforce the common impression that the terms 'British' and 'English' are almost, if not entirely equivalent - Lyall uses them in interchangeably in a rather infuriating way and does not, at all, cover all the rather fascinating peculiarities of the regional differences within Britain (or even within England).

The Field Guide seemed to me to be clearly marketed towards US audience: not only does Lyall pick the aspects of the UK life that are likely to be fascinating to the American audience, from the differences in the way language is used to the parliamentary system, surly service and cricket. She explains a lot of things that would be absolutely obvious to the British (or even possibly many a European) reader and uses analogies from American life. Thus, my almost total ignorance of cricket has not been at all dispelled by Lyall's explanations which all refer to baseball (of which I know even less). And there are certain things that Lyall seems just not to get, the most prominent of them the huge (and mostly rather disastrous) influence of the Thatcher years on British society.

But she's amusing, perceptive and conscious of both her own biases and changes that took place in the ten years she spent in Britain, and the very up to date nature of The Field Guide is one of the best things about it. For me personally, The Field Guide was particularly interesting as it pretty much covered the time that I have been living in the UK, and I could relate to many day-to-day, small scale observations Lyall makes: from assumption that rinsing is optional after washing up to sitting in cars and watching the sea, to the preference for sitting and freezing in the dark rather than sweltering in the light (although no mention of separate taps), I was nodding and smiling throughout. I also, surprisingly, realised to what extent I have gone native myself and how I grew to appreciate (if not always love) the strange and wonderful things about the British ways, including rowdy parliaments, biased press, walks in the rain and ever present booze.

Recommended to all, and particularly American readers.

The review copy was sendt to the Bookbag by the publisher - thank you!

If you like this kind of thing, you should definitely read the now historical but still excellent account by Paul Theroux, while Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson provides a very light hearted look at Britain in the 90's.

Booklists.jpg A Field Guide To The British by Sarah Lyall is in the Top Ten Books about Britain, Britishness, and the Brits.

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Buy A Field Guide To The British by Sarah Lyall at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Field Guide To The British by Sarah Lyall at Amazon.com.


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