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Humorous, or derisive?
on June 27, 2009
Sarah Lyall's book acts as a counterpart to the many eulogies of 'British culture' which stereotype its eccentricity as positive. Unfortunately, rather than a non-stereotyped insight into the differentness of the British, it reads more like a continual complaint. Lyall complains terminally about the British press and gossip, while sounding exactly like a gossip columnist herself. She complains about snobbery and name dropping, yet most chapters include a mention of a distinguished friend or connection.
What prompted me to write this review is that I found the book quite upsetting. I would have welcomed a book that realistically, and humorously portrayed British culture, warts and all, in comparison with American, or other cultures. But Lyall, with an anthropological background, is doing exactly what a serious anthropologist would never do: she sets up a subjective, implicit standard (her point of view is that of a consumer who expects priority of attention, takes luxury and choice for granted and sees access to private dental care, for example, as normal), then relentlessly derides Britain for not meeting that standard. The British are constantly other, alien, unfathomable and to be ridiculed. This is a shame: there are negative accounts in the book that might have appeared interesting in a more balanced, comparative context, but because anything and everything is mocked indiscriminately, (courtesy, appreciation, tradition, for example) they lose any impact they may have had.
This is a book for an American audience. As a British reader, I found the revelatory tone jarred somewhat with the lack of actual revelation. There are certainly some humorous moments, for example the long-suffering cohabitant of a hedgehog rescuer who 'prefers animals in the abstract.' On the whole, I don't think they are worth waiting for.
I stopped reading at the chapter that lists the faults of the war generation and the embedded cultural frugality that followed. The following passage, I think, is typical of the tone and style of the book. If it amuses you, then you might enjoy the rest, if you find it distasteful, you will probably not enjoy reading more:
"All that privation becomes hardwired in the system. People from the war generation are incredibly careful with their resources. They reuse old envelopes and teabags. They wear their clothes until the clothes wear out. An elderly friend of our family wore, for his entire adult life, the handed down clothes of a relative who died before World War II. According to her former daughter-in-law, the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth is so frugal that she insists on using 40 watt light bulbs in all her many houses...
They care less than we do about creature comforts, such as the necessity of sleeping on mattresses purchased sometime in the last half century. Surprisingly often, Robert and I have stayed in smart houses where, when you sit on the bed, the mattress sags down to the floor, and when you lie down, it folds up like a U, propelling you both into a little heap in the center. It's not that they can't afford new beds; it's that they think it's frivolous and self-indulgent to buy them."
From chapter 12: 'Wine from weeds.'