Sarah Lyall grew up in New York City and is now London correspondent for the New York Times. She lives there with her husband, the writer Robert McCrum, and their two daughters. Her first book was entitled The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British.
Lyall: Well, it was… A lot of it is really funny. I mean, a lot of… I had an editor on, when I worked on the Metro desk at the New York Times, who would send you to these stories that were just funny, and he’d go, “Well. It’s just weird!” And that’s how I felt like. You know, there’s so many things about the Brits that are just weird, and I have a chapter about the British men and sex, and sex in general. And the euphemisms they use, I mean, I am… You know, they won’t say vagina, they say front bottom. If a man, you know, older man goes to the hospital and he’s having trouble urinating, he’ll say I have problem with my waterworks, as if they were utility in Monopoly, you know, like the electric company. And I started compiling experiences that men would tell me about how they learned about sex in school. And, I think, you know, now they have a curriculum that it was actually supposed to teach sex ed, and in my kids’ school there was huge fight over how explicit, you know, they were going to make the sex ed, because a lot of these English people didn’t want their kids to know these words. But, so these men, you know, like, my age or maybe a little bit older would say, talk about what happened, and one of them said, for example, the teacher said, “So, okay. So, we’re going to learn about sex,” and they got all excited, and the guy played a video, you know, they watched a video of two race horses fucking in a field, basically, and that was it. They didn’t talk about it. They didn’t apply it to humans. They didn’t discuss, you know, contraception. That was all they watched. And he was, like, and he said it took him years to realize that you didn’t have to do it from behind. And then another guy said, you know, the guy said we’re going to discuss sex and they showed him a bunch of slides of diseased penises, you know. This is, like, don’t do it ‘cause this is what’s going to happen to you. So, it’s very, very weird. And, you know, so there’s lot of stuff like that. And I tried to kind of think of funny stuff in each thing that I wrote about. I wrote about the House of Lords and they had a huge kind of the battle of ejecting the hereditary legislators who were there because their parents have been in the House of Lords, you know. They inherited their seat, and legislators, like senators inheriting the ability to be a senator. It’s ridiculous. But they had this amazing debate over whether they should actually kick them out or not. And it was just, it was like some baroque, you know, play. It was like Gilbert and Sullivan, listening to these people, and… But, yeah, [they were actually poignant], you know. They were getting up and saying my family’s been here since 1500, and maybe we’re not, you know, elected politicians, but we feel a kind of duty to the country, and we feel that we’re able to take a step back and not have to worry about the electorates, that we look after it as a kind of caretakers. And then they all got kicked out, and 90 of them were allowed to stay in their seats, but they had to run to stay in their seats, so they had an election, which they’d never had before. And it was so funny because they were trying to campaign, yet it’s uncool for them to campaign. They didn’t want to be seen as boasting or saying that we’re really great. So, they tried to do these, like, little mission statements and they were so funny. And one of them said, you know, my credentials are that I’m a Bison farmer. Another said, I know how to operate heavy machinery. And another said, I have experience because I worked as the private secretary to Princess Margaret and my job is I’ll have some time if, you know, I have time free to work here, if you want me. But they just couldn’t do, like, a normal job. Or they’d say, you know, I myself don’t want to run, but some few of my kind friends feel that perhaps I could, you know, contribute something. Very sweet.