In 1994, Sarah Lyall, who used to cover the literary beat forThe New York Times, moved to London, “for love,” as she writes in her tartly provocative book about the British. She moved in with, and later married, Robert McCrum, then editorial director of Faber and Faber, and resumed her work for theTimesas a reporter for its London bureau. Her first story in her new role was published in December 1994—a piece about the “high-concept Manhattan” DKNY store that had recently opened in Bond Street, “like a nose-ringed teenager crashing a stately garden party,” which is much how she presents herself in her book.
Lyall’s relationship with McCrum and with her adopted country immediately gave her pieces for theTimesa different slant and tone from what one usually expects of the foreign correspondent, whose posting is temporary, for whom home is elsewhere, and who can write about the natives with the curious and amused detachment of the traveler who will soon move on. Lyall’s dispatches from London—on such topics as class, the royals, British eccentrics, the literary scene, the national toleration of drunkenness and terrible teeth, the perverse English affection for wet and blustery seaside holidays—have always had an interesting edge to them, a hint of exasperation beneath their jaunty surface. She writes about Britain not as a neutral foreign observer but as someone who’d dearly like to set the place to rights with a course of psychotherapy.
I know that feeling, having myself moved, for much the same reason, from London to Seattle in 1990. The investment of the expatriate in his or her host country is very different from that of the roving correspondent. Though always perceived as a foreigner by the natives, you have a permanent stake in their politics and society. Your children—the natural consequence of moving for love—go to their schools, speak in their accent, and acquire their manners and customs. What seemed charming and novel to you as a visitor can quickly tire when you’re a lifetime resident. However you may fancy your abilities as a chameleon, the inside of your head remains obstinately wedded to assumptions and prejudices acquired in its country of origin. Relatively small differences in humor, vocabulary, pronunciation, and etiquette—and especially humor—serve to daily remind the Briton in America and the American in Britain of their alien status. The longer one stays, the more jarring are these reminders of one’s uprootedness: just when you’re feeling most at home, an encounter at the supermarket checkout or an exchange at the dinner table confronts you with the bleak fact that you’re a stranger here.
That sense of inescapable estrangement from the society in which she lives permeates Lyall’s book. “Britain,” she writes, “is an impossible subject…. Things here are so coded, so unstraightforward, so opaque, so easy to misinterpret.” She doesn’t disappoint. There’s plenty of misinterpretation here, but also sufficient truth in many of her engaged and disenchanted observations to make a British reader stir uneasily in his chair.
To a disappointingly large extent,The Anglo Filesrecycles Lyall’sTimespieces, written over the last fourteen years, but it tries to incorporate them into a bold and bewildering new thesis, in which she argues that Britain has undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis since 1994. When she first arrived, London was “an almost provincial town,” coffee was “still mainly instant,” the prevailing British mindset was one of “low expectations, a sense of making do, a sense of enduring rather than enjoying,” and that “miserable, gray period of extended privation” which followed the Second World War was still in evidence fifty years on, its depressing austerities “hardwired in the system.” It’s as if the country Lyall found had altered little since Edmund Wilson reported on it in 1945, inEurope Without Baedeker, when, ordering “roast duck” from the menu of a “first-class” London restaurant, he was served with what he took to be the stringy carcass of a crow. Wilson’s descriptions of dreadful food and miserable, frigid hotel rooms in a city he likened to Moscow are closely echoed by Lyall, whose “unhappy experiences when I arrived, on account of my foreign standards” are recounted in aghast detail, with none of the measured perspective that Wilson as an American visitor, traveling in the uniform of an army major, brought to the then-truly-dismal English scene.
However, Lyall writes, “I came at a singular period of change, one of those great transitional eras in the life of a country.” At around the time of Tony Blair’s victory in the 1997 election, “it all began to change.” “The City, London’s financial district, turned into a teeming hub of round-the-clock Eurobankers and thrusting American hedge fund managers, who brought with them a novel work ethic.” “Restaurants got seriously good.” London became “a truly international city, awash in riches.” “Suddenly, people who never expected much began to want everything.”
These assertions strike me as bizarre. There was no “suddenly” in the way that Britain lurched unsteadily into affluence from the 1950s through the 1990s, its recessions generally deeper and its spurts of growth less vigorous than those in the US. Its transition from an industrial to a service economy was a slow and painful one, as coal mines turned into tourist attractions and factories gave way to enterprise zones, business parks, and digital media centers. During this period, the class system showed promising signs of disintegration. Some kind of landmark was reached in 1983, when, after Mrs. Thatcher purged her cabinet of high-born, landowning “wets”—once the traditional backbone of her party—the elderly Harold Macmillan made the slyly anti-Semitic remark that there were now “more Old Estonians than Old Etonians” on the Tory front bench. The rise of the financial sector, with its astronomical rewards for baby-faced merchant bankers, arbitrageurs, and day traders, was actually more pronounced in the 1980s, a decade before Lyall arrived, than under the Blair government. As for Lyall’s claim that coffee was “mainly instant” in 1994, it simply isn’t true—with the sole exception of guest bedrooms in bad hotels, where a kettle and sachets of Nescafé and whitener are still the dreary norm.
Far from living through “a great transitional era,” Lyall happened to arrive during a period of modest growth, which had begun at the end of the recession of 1991–1992 and lasted until the first quarter of 2002. Although Blair’s youth and the liberal evangelism of his rhetoric raised great expectations when he was elected in 1997, there was no cultural or political revolution for Lyall to witness. Blair and Brown proved to be disconcertingly faithful stewards of the legacy they inherited from Thatcher and Major, and the biggest change in Britain since 1994, as here, has been the impact of the global digital economy, along with all the consequences, domestic and foreign, that have followed from Downing Street’s blind collusion with the Bush administration in the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror. Since Lyall’s main interest is in what she sees as the repressed and masochistic British character, none of this ought to matter much, but her false and misleading historical framework so colors her first-person observations that her version of Britain sometimes reads to me like an account of an imaginary country that has certain poignant similarities to my own.
The book begins with a sketch of a chilly picnic with an unnamed earl and his family on their enormous country estate. Having fished the nobility from their private quarters in the stately home, Lyall and her husband are driven off in a pair of comically disreputable Jeeps to the chosen picnic site, “a decrepit, semi-burned-down barn.” There, they unpack the food (“Hot canned cream of tomato soup in a thermos, poured into Styrofoam cups. Make-your-own sandwiches of processed supermarket ham on white, Wonder-style bread”) and “some very nice wine for the grownups.” The earl talks of “his latest quixotic scheme, investing in obscure British films, few of which had yet made it to the cinema.”
It’s a scene from Wodehouse: the scruffy aristo, blathering on about his eccentric hobby, might be a first cousin to Lord Emsworth, lost to the world in the pages ofWhiffle on the Care of the Pig. But this particular earl is plainly identifiable as Henry Herbert, 17th Earl of Pembroke, who, until his death in 2003, combined farming his estate, and turning Wilton House near Salisbury into a major pillar of the British tourist industry, with a long career as a film and TV director.
It wasn’t a hugely distinguished career: probably his best-known movie was a soft-porn romp involving Koo Stark, and he was regularly employed by the BBC to direct episodes of various popular detective series, as well as a more ambitious three-part biopic of Oscar Wilde starring Michael Gambon. Having started as a “glorified tea boy” on the set ofThe Heroes of Telemarkin the early 1960s, he was a reluctant heir to Wilton House when his father died young in 1969, but continued to direct and produce through the 1990s, when Lyall encountered him.
She is determined to paint Herbert as a mossy relic of the ancien régime, when in fact he, as well as anyone, exemplified the changes happening in postwar Britain. That he was more proud of his work as a jobbing director than he was of being lord of Wilton House says much about him and the country, but Lyall’s deaf to this; what she wants is a real live earl in his earldom, and she ruthlessly edits his life according to her (very American) requirements, relegating his profession to a “quixotic” pastime.
Her treatment of Henry Herbert is characteristic of the book. In 2005, she wrote a piece for theTimesabout the ailing Little Chef chain of roadside eateries, in which she harped on the unappetizing food, the ubiquitous pools of baked beans, the dirty, uncollected plates on tables, and wondered why its uncomplaining English customers could tolerate such culinary nastiness. That piece is reprised here, but with the startling claim that “Little Chef was the missing link between a past of privation and a future of abundance.”
Like the mediocre chain restaurants that crowd the exits on US freeways, Little Chef is not a missing link between anything and anything; it’s a convenience stop for motorists who can’t be bothered to detour in search of somewhere better. The chief difference between Little Chef and its American counterparts is that here, at least in the rural West, there probably isn’t anywhere better for the next hundred and fifty miles, while in England, if you head for the church spire beyond the trees, you have a fair chance of finding a gastropub with a decent wine list and a chalkboard daily menu.
Lyall needs Little Chef to demonstrate “the nation’s low expectations and high endurance threshold” at the time of her arrival, and so she has to wipe from the picture the long wave of change that has been rolling through Britain’s kitchens and restaurants ever since rationing ended in 1953. Aside from a passing nod to Elizabeth David, it’s as if the host of cookbook writers, television chefs, restaurateurs, and editors of restaurant guides—Jane Grigson, Raymond Postgate, Robert Carrier, Philip Harben, Egon Ronay, Christopher Driver, Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc, Anton Mosimann, Albert and Michel Roux, Pierre Koffman, and many others—had never existed, and that Jamie Oliver, the Naked Chef, and Gordon Ramsay, the foul-mouthed chef, had sprung fully formed in 1998 from a uniformly gray culinary wasteland of all-day breakfasts and HP sauce. One can find bad food anywhere in the world, but—outside America’s major cities and college towns—it has long been possible to eat better in Britain than in the United States.
In Lyall’s Britain, the supposedly vile food (a subject to which she tediously adverts again and again) is the key to the national character. Her theory is that a people raised on pigswill have been bred to accept the worst in every department of life. Their sports lack all excitement: she devotes a chapter to the watching-grass-grow boredom of cricket. Their frigid beaches turn picnics and summer vacations into survival exercises in hostile terrain. Their light-starved weather has conditioned them to assume chronic depression as a normal state of mind: Lyall writes that she had to install some kind of therapeutic sunshine lamp in her London house to maintain the “can-do spirit” and “perky enthusiasm” that she attributes to her own, American character (generalizing about the two nations, she is at least an equal-opportunity employer of clichés). “Britons like living on the edge of disappointment. Having their hopes thwarted bolsters the legitimacy of their congenital pessimism.” No wonder that they seek escape from their miseries by turning to the bottle.
“Britons love to drink and love to boast about drinking.” In a memorable passage, she follows a stag party of Englishmen in their early thirties on a cut-rate flight to Prague, their only objective to spend the weekend getting wasted. The conflict between the prim, abstemiousTimesreporter and the gang of sottish louts begins aboard the plane, where the drinkers are breakfasting on lager immediately after the 6:15 AM takeoff, and churlishly refuse to supply quotes for Lyall’s opened notebook. But, in the dauntless spirit of Henrietta Stackpole inThe Portrait of a Lady, of whom she sometimes reminds me, she pursues them to an Irish pub in the center of Prague:
They were all but one sheet to the wind, still coherent; another group…was a little further along, attempting to flick sugar cubes into their water glasses and playing a complex drinking game whose rules included No Using Your Left Hand, No Pointing, and No Saying The Word “Point.” One wore a headpiece in the shape of a plastic turd. He had visibly expressed annoyance, or “gotten a turd on,” and would have to wear the hat until someone else got annoyed at something else, whereupon he could then pass it on.
The pub’s owner obligingly supplies Lyall with statistics. “A party of twenty-three, fresh off the plane, consumed 180 vodkas and sixty cans of Red Bull in a single Friday afternoon,” and returned on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for identical repeat performances. And that was just at the Irish pub, one of many such Prague attractions for British tourists. Heaven knows how much they got through in the evenings.
The accents change, but little else does, at the Man Booker Prize dinner, where Lyall nicely describes the vinous progress of her neighbor at the table, a publisher, from gruff wordlessness, through a brief period of charming lucidity, to morose incoherence. She is shocked by the quantity of wine downed at Sunday lunch parties in the country, from which everyone has to drive back to London, and writes that many of her British friends would in America “be considered functioning alcoholics.” That’s probably true, but it is a pity that Lyall’s fixation on the rotten teeth and heavy drinking of the writers that she meets leads her to pay scant justice both to the sober clarity of much of the writing that gets done in London and to the impressive diversity of its literary scene. One might add in this context that Lyall’s Britain seems mystifyingly, unrecognizably white: the many-hued country of Monica Ali, Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith, and other British writers barely surfaces inThe Anglo Files, and when Lyall runs into Londoners of Asian origin, it’s their dental problems that get her attention, as if their teeth were their strongest claim to Englishness.
“I hate to sound like a spoilsport,” she writes in her Stackpole voice, announcing that a lecture on the health hazards of alcohol is about to begin. By her distinctly puritanical American standards, boorishness fueled by drink pervades English society at every level, from the dinner tables of Kensington and Chelsea to the pubs of Newcastle. Yet while British drinkers have the reputation of being the loudest and most aggressive in Europe, feared by every city that has to host an English soccer team’s supporters, their annual consumption per capita of liters of pure alcohol, as measured in a recent OECD study, is less than one might assume. Britons, at 11.5 liters, are outdrunk by, among others, the Irish (13.6), Luxembourgers (15.5), the French (13.0), Hungarians (13.2), and the Spanish (11.7), while Americans, always near the bottom of such tables, clock in at 8.4 liters—a cause of some despondency among visiting Europeans of whatever nationality. Lyall relates that, after lunching at a friend’s house in East Hampton, Long Island, her English husband remarked that it was a pity that their fellow guest was obviously an alcoholic. Asked how he’d reached this “bizarre” conclusion, he pointed to their “hostess’s failure to offer wine with lunch.” As Lyall says, “In Britain, we would have been plied with drinks as soon as we pulled into the driveway.” And not just in Britain, either.
Beneath the excessive drinking, sexual hamfistedness, and infuriating self-deprecation and lack of candor that Lyall sees as characteristic of English men, she discerns the malign influence of the boarding school system, something she’s unusually well-placed to observe. Not only are the London circles in which she moves—literary, journalistic, and political—still disproportionately peopled by the products, or survivors, of England’s so-called “public schools,” but the menfolk of the family she married into were supreme specimens of the public school ethos. Her father-in-law, the distinguished academic Michael McCrum, served a spell as headmaster of Eton and wrote a biography of Thomas Arnold, the head of Rugby School from 1828 to 1841, and the most influential schoolmaster of the nineteenth century. Her husband Robert went to Sherborne (where his father had been a pupil, and whose school song has the defiant refrain of “Vivat Rex Eduardus Sextus! Vivat!”).
The English middle- and upper-class ritual of posting male children off to boarding school at the age of six (first to a “preparatory” school, then, at thirteen, to a “public” one) was rooted, in part, at least, in a practical colonial problem. In the early 1800s, strong regional accents were still prevalent, even among the aristocracy, and Africans and Indians, having spent a couple of years laboring to understand a young British assistant district commissioner speaking in broad Yorkshire, would be baffled by his successor who talked in a thick Cornish burr. The boarding schools were tasked with turning out alumni who all spoke in the same synthetic accent, known as “received standard pronunciation,” “Oxbridge English,” or what snobbish and barely educated members of the upper class annoyingly call “an educated voice.”
For this merely administrative convenience, the British have paid a great deal more than the thing was worth. Many, if not most, of the boarding schools were brutal institutions in which the first lesson to be learned was defensive self-concealment and the development of a protective, stiff-upper-lipped mask with which to confront the bullying world. I’m a reluctant expert on this: in the 1950s, aged eleven, I was sent, at great expense to my parents, to a minor public school slavishly modeled on Arnold’s Rugby, complete with fagging system, military drills, cold showers, no privacy, and corporal punishment lavishly inflicted by the older boys, where a minimal smattering of classical education was doled out by former wartime army officers, who clung to their old titles of Colonel and Major. (One teacher, the kindly, somewhat overweight Captain Bailey, was allowed to retain his relatively junior rank in civilian life because he’d won the Military Cross for bravery in the face of the enemy. Oddly, he taught German.) My childhood finished abruptly on the hour that I entered the place, and I’m continually reminded, especially here in the US, that my character, such as it is, was permanently damaged by the experience.
So I feel a sneaking sympathy for Sarah Lyall’s husband, who countered her accusation of being “emotionally autistic” with the smiling, ungainsayable reply of “Darling, I know. I am artistic.” Talking to actors, writers, and politicians, she does a fine job of capturing the outer shell of jokey false modesty behind which English men—and some women—take instinctive shelter, and the embarrassment with which they respond to her attempts to make them address their own feelings. (When she quizzes Boris Johnson, the recently elected Conservative mayor of London, about his air of bland frivolity, he replies, “Beneath the carefully constructed veneer of a blithering buffoon, there lurks a blithering buffoon.”) Though there’s nothing new in the subject of boiled English manners, Lyall’s treatment of it is fresh because she gives full vent to her own feelings of impatience and bafflement at the behavior of her husband’s countrymen, and the closer thatThe Anglo Filesapproaches the dynamics of the Lyall-McCrum marriage, the more interesting it becomes.
It may seem a stretch to lay the chronic English habit of evasion and self-effacement at the feet of the boarding schools: only a small minority of boys attended them in the immediate postwar period, and even fewer do so now (the beastly institution I went to in the 1950s is now a blameless co-ed day school.) Yet I think Lyall’s right. Former public schoolboys have dominated British politics, business management, the BBC, the civil and armed services, and the arts, to the point where the mindset instilled at Eton, Winchester, Harrow, Rugby, or Fettes (Tony Blair’s old school) has become a national pattern, to be admiringly imitated by Englishmen from every social background. The once-prized accent is in sharp decline, especially among public schoolboys, who affect street-credible “Estuary English” with its whiffling, south London vowels, but boarding-school manners and attitudes—stoic denial, facetious irony, the studied avoidance of emotional directness—are still deeply entrenched in the character of the country. Even now, Englishmen like to emulate the “crust of calm detachment from all human emotion” that P.G. Wodehouse attributed to an Old Etonian in his great 1929 comedy,Summer Lightning.
Gordon Brown’s Labour government is currently plumbing depths in the opinion polls not seen for thirty years. As Britain faces recession again, it appears to be turning for reassurance to its traditional ruling class and the politics of noblesse oblige. The two most popular politicians of the day are Boris Johnson, self-confessed buffoon, and David Cameron, the Tory party leader. Both Cameron and Johnson went to Eton, then Oxford, where they were both members of the Bullingdon Club, which Evelyn Waugh called the Bollinger Club inDecline and Fall, and whose customs (tailcoats, heroic drinking, and the sweet music of the sound of breaking glass) seem to have changed little since the 1920s. In May 2007, a report in theIndependentidentified fourteen Old Etonians among Cameron’s front-bench spokesman, with a further three in his private office. The tabloids have labeled this twist in the British political scene as “the return of the toffs,” but the toffs, as Lyall notices, rather too closely for comfort, have never really been away. They were just having a drink on the side.
September 25, 2008