Having lived in England for over a decade as London correspondent for the New York Times, Sarah Lyall has compiled her spot-on observations about the British into her new book The Anglo Files (Norton, 256 pages). She spoke to TIME from her London office. We can't say she was drinking tea as she spoke to us, but we can't say she wasn't, either.
TIME: Your book is subtitled A Field Guide to the British. Who exactly is the audience for this field guide?
Sarah Lyall: It's written for Americans, but it hardly covers every facet of Britain or the Brits. Americans don't know a lot about Britain. What we know is based on vacations that we've taken to London or books we've read or movies or TV shows like Masterpiece Theater for people a little bit older or Hugh Grant films for people a bit younger. People don't really know Brits, but they're fascinated by them. They think, to some extent, of Britain as the more refined, more polite, better version of themselves. And that's not necessarily accurate.
The best way to conduct this interview might be through word association. I'm going to say a word or phrase and you'll talk about the British attitude toward it. First: alcohol.
Brits aren't very good at just having a few drinks and relaxing. As a culture, they really enjoy binge drinking to the point when they're completely insensible. And this has been a theme throughout the decades for them throughout the centuries, really.
What's happened in recent years is that there's been a huge surge in these budget airlines where for like $50 at times, depending on when you travel, you can go to Prague or Budapest or really all over Europe for cheap prices and you can take a party of people in conditions far away from home so no one can see what you're getting up to. They go on these vacations in beautiful places like Greece and Spain and Italy, and they get drunk and beat each other up and pass out and they get sick and they get robbed and they trash their hotel rooms. They're just notorious around Europe for being this brawling nation of boozers.
But isn't that how Americans act in Vegas?
Of course. And Americans have spring break in Florida and frat culture in college that exposes many young people to binge drinking. In Britain what happens is they don't really seem to outgrow it. You get people in their 30s traveling to these places and getting drunk.
Next word: class.
People who are upper class, who have a lot of money, are targeted more for having those things than they might be in the United States. There's a real culture of envy here and there's a feeling in the air that if you have a lot you somehow have to justify it. And you almost have to pretend that you don't have a lot. We see this in government, where people running for office often play down their posh backgrounds because otherwise they are lampooned as upper class twits who lived a life of privilege.
Don't American politicians get called out for the same things? I mean, isn't the McCain-having-six-houses thing a similar treatment?
In America there's such a thing as the American dream, where if you start from nothing and become wildly rich or wildly successful, everybody applauds. Here, that's really laced with envy and resentment.