The Anglo Files: a Field Guide to the British
By Sarah Lyall
This is a portrait of England in the transitional era of 1990s – 2000s. Lyall moved to the country for work, and stayed for love. After marrying a quintessential Englishman, she settled in to have several children and continued her career as a correspondent for The New York Times. The Anglo Files examines different aspects of Englishness, such as the government, class, hygiene, and weather; and provides witty commentary from an outsider’s point of view.
Although there are strengths to this book, they are outweighed by its weaknesses. Lyall has the credentials necessary for this project. She’s been writing for major newspapers for over twenty years, and has lived in England for nearly as long. The book is well researched and well written. I appreciated the bibliography and commentary she provided at the end of it. Her anecdotes were interesting and usually amused me. Ultimately though, I did not like this book.
I did not enjoy The Anglo Files primarily because its overall tone was negative. I could not figure out whether Lyall actually disliked her adopted country or if she was using some of that same self-deprecating English humor she spoke so much about. This ambiguity made me uncomfortable. The England she described certainly wasn’t one that I wanted to visit. While I don’t believe travel writers have to be sycophantic about their topic, neither should they be wholly negative. I prefer a book that celebrates what it can while also being honest about the pitfalls. It eludes me as to why Lyall has remained in a country she disdains so clearly for so many years.
An even greater failing of this book is that it doesn’t break any new grounds on the topic of Englishness. She discussed and compressed topics that have had whole books devoted to them: the dissolution of the House of Lords, rampant sexism in British politics, the class system, poor dental hygiene, unappealing food, and of course weather. While this review of current events was useful to me, as I do not follow the political situation in England; I felt it was also biased and incomplete. She even obliquely admitted as much several times when she scorned the system for not having a written constitution or other standards common to the USA.
At the end of the book, I was left wondering more about the author than the country. What was her husband’s take on the book? How was her marriage? Did her British friends take offense at any of her frank assessments? Maybe there was no need to wonder. She repeatedly characterized the British as stoic people who practically sought out discomfort and adversity. I’d advise them to read her book as their next challenge then.
I would not recommend this book. I was misled by the cover and the book description. I thought I’d be reading a travelogue in the tradition of Bill Bryson or Anthony Bourdain. Instead, I got more of a gossipy who’s who complete with snarky comments on the accommodations.