September 15, 2008 / 4:08 PM / 10 years ago

"The Anglo Files" give American view of English

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - What is it with the English? They may appear wittier and more cultured than Americans, but are they really class-obsessed, repressed, rude and angry?

Racegoers wait for the start of the first race at the Epsom Downs race course in the south of England June 7, 2008. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

That’s partly the way they are painted in a new book called “The Anglo Files,” by American journalist Sarah Lyall who has studied them on their home ground.

“When you come from America, you think people will like you, but here there is a sense of envy and animosity towards you,” Lyall, who writes for the New York Times, said.

“They are scared of you and angry that you have taken over their culture,” she added in a telephone interview.

Lyall is married to an English man, which gives her a closer insight into the English character. She also has two daughters who are growing up British, “despite my efforts to Americanize them.”

She has lived in Britain for 13 years and reported on major news stories such as the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death and the London subway bombings.

“I really love it here, but feel I will never fit in, no matter how long I stay,” she explained.

In her book she paints a picture of a sometimes quirky and eccentric race. but writes with fondness about the people of her adopted home.

Her book, which she describes as “a portrait of a nation finally refurbished for the 21st Century,” is subtitled “A field guide to the British.”

She catalogues their singular approach to sex in a chapter called “Naughty Boys and Rumpy-Pumpy”, and delves into their drinking habits in another called “Distressed British Nationals.”

Her take on the demise of the House of Lords features endearingly eccentric characters she found to be “strange and anachronistic, but admirable.”

But it’s when she examines the personal side of the English psyche that Lyall really shows how America’s cousins differ. She said the society is riven so much by social standing that the choice of a word, like toilet, can reveal a person’s background.

And English false modesty really raises Lyall’s hackles. “Self-deprecating is admirable, it’s very endearing but annoying because layers of issues come out, like when someone does something good and they don’t like to talk about it.

“My husband could win the Nobel Peace Prize and I would say ‘fantastic’ and he would say ‘not bad.’ People should be allowed to say ‘good for me,’” she said.

Lyall’s impressions of the English were formed from movies and TV, as well as Jane Austen novels, she said.

“Americans think English people are better versions of themselves. That they are more articulate, more polite, more humorous. That may not necessarily be true, but it’s the impression,” she said.

“The accent really impresses Americans, to the point that even someone from the lowest class would be accepted in America and treated like Prince William,” she said referring to Queen Elizabeth’s grandson.

The longer she has lived in England, the more Lyall has scratched away at the veneer.

“You revise your impressions and what appears to be politeness from the accent is not really true. It masks a real impoliteness in many respects.

“In social settings, Americans tend to be very emollient, but the Brits pride themselves in using adversarial tones, like saying ‘What?’ very loudly. It’s not rude per se, but it’s really jarring,” Lyall said.

So does she think the English need to see a psychiatrist?

“Everyone could benefit from psychiatry, but the British would say it was too self-indulgent,” she laughed.

Reporting by Steve James, editing Patricia Reaney

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