You are posting a comment about...
Recently I scoffed at New York journalist Sarah Lyall’s disapproval of British drinking habits. A friend then lent me the book from which that piece was taken: A Field Guide to the British. Sarah Lyall is in fact married to one of the species and has lived in London for over ten years. Her attitude, about this, and other aspects of British behaviour, is not priggish as I unfairly wrote the other day, but puzzled. She really doesn’t understand, for example, why we don’t floss more often and why we call Marmite “noxious gunk” when we love it.
Her book stretches and edits reality, but it is a delight to read, and often very accurate. Take, for example, this observation:
Englishmen do seem unusually enthusiastic about cross-dressing. Men in drag feature in every sort of comedy, from Twelfth Night, Monty Python and the Christmas pantomime Dame played by a man to the contemporary television series Little Britain. When I have played charades (still a post-Christmas amusement) at the houses of friends and relatives in Britain, I have been struck how eagerly the men volunteer to play the part of women, and how quickly any old scarf can become an elegant makeshift frock for a guy with an eye for that kind of thing.
Among my male friends, relatives and colleagues, I cannot think of any who would not be pleased to be told they would look good in a skirt, high heels, a chiffon scarf or any item of feminine attire. Their faces light up: “Oh, do you think so?” The hairier, and more blokey the man, the better he responds to this kind of thing. It seems to be inversely proportional to vanity and grooming. Lyall trots out the old cliché that Englishmen are all a bit gay, but I don’t think it’s that. I’m not sure what it is, however. (Scotsmen wear skirts anyway, but that’s a different story.)
Then there are the badgers and the bats. And the frogs. And the sheepdogs:
[Britain] has so many badger-support groups that it was deemed necessary to create an umbrella organisation, the National Federation of Badger Groups, now known as the Badger Trust, to coordinate all the disparate badger-related activity. The National Bat Hotline takes 10,000 calls a year, providing ‘free information and advice to anyone who needs help with a bat,’ its website states. Every year hundreds of volunteers put on orange fluorescent jackets and help amorous frogs cross the roads of Wales to their spawning places.
A 1980s television show called One Man and His Dog – in which taciturn, weather-beaten shepherds whistled instructions to dogs attempting to herd sheep into pens – attracted an audience of eight million. ‘It doesn’t kowtow to the idea that people can only concentrate for thirty seconds,’ said the actor Stephen Fry..’And I love the idea that it sometimes takes place in the rain.’
Talking of rain, Lyall is particularly entertaining on the subject of the British tendency to rush outside and picnic, despite the vagaries of our climate:
Britons like living on the edge of disappointment. Having their hopes thwarted bolsters the legitimacy of their congenital pessimism. They enjoy an excuse for a grumble. They prefer bad weather because it reflects the national mood – grey and misty – and allows them to get more things done….[I] observed another British beach phenomenon following directly from the customary rainfall: the customary impromptu indoor picnic. A group of people were eating bacon sandwiches in a bus shelter. Another family were crammed inside their car – mother, two children, two dogs – munching on digestive biscuits and waiting for the sky to clear. This was nothing to be embarrassed about; they were making the best of things.
Lyall has left out one detail: the Thermos flask of stewed tea or coffee. It was not until a year ago that I learned to take a flask of hot water and a separate supply of instant coffee or teabags. I have many childhood memories of shivering in bus shelters or later in the car with cheese and pickle sandwiches wrapped in foil, and foul-smelling, plastic-tasting tea drunk out of the cap of a Thermos. This was in the height of summer at Blackpool, “famous for fresh air and fun”, or the classier Southport. Any complaint got short shrift.
It is both amusing and instructive to see ourselves as others see us. Americans stereotype the British and vice versa, but Sarah Lyall gets the balance right between detached observation and affection. How long the detachment will last is difficult to say. She is becoming British:
I cushion my statements with qualifications, disclaimers, apologies, unnecessarily modifying adverbs and back-handed ironic remarks. I am ‘quite upset’, ‘slightly depressed’, ‘a little unhappy’; I think that Hitler was ‘not exactly the nicest person in the world.’ When I dislocated my shoulder and lay in a heap at the bottom of a flight of stairs .. my overwhelming emotion was embarrassment. I said ‘Sorry’ in a meek little voice. Then, ‘I think I’m in a bit of pain,’ and, ‘I might possibly at some point need an ambulance.’