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Book tries to explain steroetypes attached to England


New York Times News Service

`THE ANGLO FILES: A Field Guide to the British' By Sarah Lyall 289 pages. W.W. Norton & Co. $24.95.

Foreigners are a funny lot. Italians communicate using extravagant gestures, Greeks are untrustworthy, Russians doleful and soulful, the Chinese inscrutable.

And as for Englishmen! They are sexually confused, they were ``terrorized'' by feminism, their dental hygiene is appalling. In England hotels are freezing, judges deliver verdicts wearing ``moth-eaten'' wigs, journalists are foulmouthed drunken louts, while male members of Parliament are so undone by the existence of women (never mind women MPs) that some ``snickered when the issue of cervical cancer came up during a debate on cancer funding.''

It is possible that one or two did, as Sarah Lyall recounts in her book ``The Anglo Files'' (the anecdote has no source), though it is equally likely that the rest would have disapproved of the puerile antics.

Throughout her frequently amusing account of living in England as a reporter for The New York Times, Lyall takes refuge in roomy generalizations that are hard to refute while at the same time being, at best, half true.

``Is it any wonder,'' she asks after a discussion of the abuse suffered by some pupils at elite public (i.e., private) schools, ``that Englishmen _ particularly British men of a certain class _ are so mixed up about sex?'' There is a kernel of truth in it somewhere, but first we need to know who we are talking about.

``The Anglo Files'' is unclear about its subject of study. Is it about the English, as the title has it, or ``the British,'' as claimed in the subtitle? Someone who has lived in the country since the mid-1990s surely knows that the words are not synonymous, and that to proceed as if they are is asking for trouble.

In his 1945 essay ``Notes on Nationalism,'' George Orwell wrote that ``Welsh, Irish and Scottish nationalism have points of difference but are alike in their anti-English orientation.'' A sentence beginning,

``Englishmen _ particularly British men of a certain class ...'' has stumbled into a cross-border dispute before the reader has had time to decide if it's true or not.

The urge to play up the exotic aspect of everyday activities has proved the bane of many travel books, and it causes Lyall's judgment to falter. Her idea that cricket is ``as important to Britain's view of itself as baseball is to America's'' is inflated, even if you refrain from pointing out that in Scotland, where I come from, it is not popular at all. (Orwell called it ``not in reality a very popular game in England,'' which is true if you behold the nation at large and not just people ``of a certain class.'')

For Lyall the sport exposes class division, anti-Americanism, evidence of English self-deprecation _ another national trait _ and even hankerings for empire. All this is piled on thick, of course, to provide a colorful backdrop to the adventures of an innocent abroad. To a British reader, however, the most eccentric feature of Lyall's book is her use of the word ``Colonial'' in reference to herself. This would seem a peculiar chip on the shoulder at any time, even if it wasn't written at the end of a period during which a British prime minister was regularly denigrated as ``Bush's poodle.''

On the other hand, there were many moments while reading ``The Anglo Files'' when I felt initially defensive about my adopted country (let's agree that Lyall's intended subject is England), only to realize that I had been expressing similar opinions for years. Her observations on subjects like youthful binge drinking, the quality of service in shops and the food at sandwich bars _ ``Sometimes I'd walk out of the office to try to scrounge up some lunch, and find nothing that seemed remotely edible'' _ are dismayingly accurate, just as her funny horror story about a stay in a hotel in the Midlands has a familiar feel. It involved no heating in the room, no taxis when she tried to leave and no trains at the station when she managed to persuade a driver to take her there. Welcome to England, where only the immigrants want to work. (The generalizing habit is catching.)

``The Anglo Files'' unfailingly comes alive in the vignettes involving Lyall's English husband. She is married to the writer and former editor in chief at Faber & Faber, Robert McCrum, who is described as being ``like something out of `Brideshead Revisited,''' who speaks in a way she can barely understand, while exuding a ``charismatic arrogance.'' He also has ``the native constitution of a mushroom,'' habitually shaving in the dark, and striding out into a storm without raincoat or umbrella.

He is capable of relishing a soccer match that ends with no score, and seems the right recipient for a gift of a cartoon from The New Yorker showing a man on a couch saying to his therapist, ``Look, call it denial if you like, but I think what goes on in my personal life is none of my own damn business.'' Here Lyall is on recognizable territory _ not because England is a nation of McCrums, but because whenever she scrutinizes her husband (with charming affection each time) she is forced to forsake the general for the particular.

``You can't really pin down the British character,'' she admits _ nor, for that matter, the Italian, Russian, Chinese or American character, no matter how much fun you might have in the attempt.