25/11/2013

A Field Guide To The English

Sarah Lyall
2009

There is a surprisingly popular and populous sub-genre of non-fiction that attempts to analyse and categorise the English. Some represent a serious attempt to understand the unique cultural and sociological factors that distinguish Englishness. Some use the excuse of defining "the English" as a way of pedalling their own prejudices. Still others are happy to play off stereotypes for comic effect.

Despite its almost serious title, A Field Guide To The English fits firmly in the last category. Notwithstanding occasional references to the "research" she has conducted for various New York Times pieces, Sarah Lyall - an American journalist - has clearly used the standard journalist practice of using her friends and other people within easy reach to support her own preconceived ideas. Accordingly, English people are afraid of intimacy and sex (the men are all borderline homosexual, apparently), we all have bad teeth, the aristocracy are completely mad (and ludicrously mean with money), we have incomprehensible enthusiasms about trivial things like hedgehogs ... and so on.

This portrait is of course unrecognisable to any real English person - or, at least, only recognisable as a small but prominent part of our society. What is obvious to anyone is that Sarah Lyall has married into a comfortably upper-middle class English family (she lives in Kensington and weekends with Earls, for goodness sake) and has been happy to draw over-broad generalisations from the narrow section of society she has been exposed to. Her observations are generally shallow and cover surface manifestations only. This is all the more odd when you consider that she mentions (and has therefore hopefully read) Kate Fox's peerless Watching The English and should therefore have acquired some understanding of the deeper causes.

To be sure, she manages to score a few points against the more obvious targets: yes, the conduct of politicians in an out of the Houses of Parliament is just embarassing; of course our tabloid "news" papers are a disgrace to journalism. No-one with any sense disputes this. No country is without its peculiarities. Lyall is a good writer and the book is amusing in places. I just would have liked more observation and fewer stereotypes.

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