Monday, August 18, 2008

Sarah Lyall's "The Anglo Files"

Sarah Lyall is a London correspondent for the New York Times.

She applied “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British, and reported the following:
Page 99 comes toward the beginning of a chapter that attempts to make sense of the incomprehensible (to foreigners) game of cricket -- its joys, mysteries and frustrations. It requires a particular temperament to appreciate the thrill of a game in which matches can go on for the better part of a week, with pauses for, among other things, tea; in which perfectly respectable outfield positions have names like “silly mid-off”; and in which a team can score hundreds of runs in a single innings. Not to mention the dismaying fact that innings-with-an-s is meant to be singular.

Cricket is one of those things that Americans, whose country is so young and so focused on the attainment of instant gratification, cannot be expected to grasp fully; it speaks to the old British virtues of patience and fortitude in the face of deathly boredom. But, like so many other things about Britain, cricket is changing with the times, much to the dismay of the traditionalists. Now there are three-hour matches in which players in brightly colored uniforms hustle like steroid-fueled Major League Baseball players for the convenience of those spectators who might have competing demands on their time, such as jobs.

I wrote The Anglo Files after I’d been in Britain for more than 10 years as a New York Times reporter. My husband is English; I have two daughters who unironically use the word “rubbish” and who, despite my best efforts, believe that the American Revolution had to do with British domestic politics and not the legitimate grievances of the oppressed. In the book, which is a mix of memoir, opinion and reporting, I look at topics like the sex lives of British men; the House of Lords’s modernization program; the recent explosion in consumer culture; the British tendency to recoil from overt bragging; and the way some Britons appear to love hedgehogs more then they love their own children. I try to examine things I have found particularly odd or funny or interesting.

For instance: Why do they drink so much? How accurate are the newspapers? Why did Princess Diana’s brother change the pronunciation of his ancestral country estate? What is the purpose of Brown Sauce? Why did Londoners, observing the American illusionist David Blaine’s effort to suspend himself in a see-through box over the Thames without eating for 40 days, respond by throwing things at his box and taunting him with juicy hamburgers dangling from helicopters? And how can you have an unwritten constitution?

Here is a section of page 99:

Like bad weather, Latin verbs, and the threat of succombing to malaria while claiming parts of Africa for yourself, cricket requires the stiff-spine fortitude of the old-school Englishman.

“I don’t think I can be expected to take seriously any game which takes less than three days to reach its conclusion,” Tom Stoppard once said, explaining his opposition to baseball. Or, as my friend Anthony said, “The occasional dullness and boredom is what makes it true to experience.” It is a game, said a fan I once met named Richard Peart, for people who “like to endure things.”

Cricket dates back to the twelfth century and provides a link between Britain and its former international possessions. In its way, it is as important to Britain’s view of itself as baseball is to America’s. Like baseball, it inspires a wealth of philosophizing and is “full of theorists who can ruin your game in no time,” as the England player Ian Botham put it. It also generates an unhealthy obsession with statistics and an inexhaustible supply of literature. Any cricket anthology is sure to include essays about the sport as metaphor for country, empire, the English character, life itself; autobiographical accounts of seasons played and lessons learned; paeans to former players and lamentations on why no one today is as good; pointillistic reproductions of famous past games; affectionate tributes to players whose memorable quirks – taking forever to bat; bowling with a strange chickenlike motion of the elbow – endeared them to the fans; and worse, an unusually high output of doggerel, epic poems, humorous verse, and sentimental ballads.

We have some great baseball novels, but we also have “Casey at Bat.” The English have the cricket poems of Lord Byron, John Betjeman, William Blake, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Harold Pinter, who in addition to being a playwright, provocateur and Nobel Prize winner, is the chairman of the Gaieties Cricket Club. Famous literary cricket enthusiasts from the past include Siegfried Sassoon, who once boasted of his “creditable record for a poet,” and James Joyce, who in a tour-de-force passage from his novel Finnegans Wake secreted the slightly altered names of thirty-one cricketing stars inside the text, like little disguised Easter eggs hidden in the woods.

Read an excerpt from The Anglo Files, and learn more about the book and author at Sarah Lyall's website.

--Marshal Zeringue