Today's book is Britannia in Brief: The Scoop on All Things British by Leslie Banker and William Mullins (Ballantine, 2009), an American wife and British husband team. In other words, here's the book that Better Half and I could have written if we'd thought of it first and weren't so gloriously behind schedule with everything else in our lives--like the laundry. Especially the laundry.
The book does what it says on its label: it is a sort of (AmE) Cliff Notes/(BrE) York Notes for Americans wanting to (orig. AmE) bone up on Britain. The chapters cover the geography and history, social structures, arts and culture, politics and government, food and drink, language and daily practicalities of UK life. Having been here 10 years, I didn't learn a lot reading this book--but, boy, if I'd had it 10 years ago, it would have saved a lot of people a lot of explaining. When I first sat down with the book, I tested it by looking up the things that I thought should be in it. Blue Peter? (AmE) check/(BrE) tick. Newspaper slants and allegiances? √ The 1966 World Cup? √ Jeffrey Archer? √ It passed all of my tests but one...but we'll get back to that.
The parts I found most helpful (as a long-standing resident) were in the first chapter--though I'm sure that newer arrivals will find the quotidian and cultural aspects the most immediately gratifying. The section entitled 'Snapshots of British History' starts with Julius Caesar and end with the 7/7 bombings of 2005, filling in enough details on the Glorious Revolution, the Battle of Britain and the Falklands War to give an American a sense of what these things were about. The longer section on Northern Ireland similarly outlines the Troubles and gives the sage advice that "it's better not to express any opinions on the matter of Northern Ireland unless explicitly asked. [...] All in all, it's just better to say that you hope things work out."
What about the bits on language? While there is a chapter on language, there's plenty of vocabulary information throughout the book, including a very useful two-page list of acronyms toward(s) the end. (There's also a two-page glossary, which hits some important words, but whether it includes the one you'll need to look up--well, that's another matter.) The language chapter provides some names whose pronunciation needs explanation (e.g. Leicester = "lester", Berkeley = "barclay") and an introduction to Cockney Rhyming Slang. These are followed by a couple of zesty sections on words with 'dirty' meanings in BrE (but not in AmE) and ratings of how offensive "swear words" are--with handy thermometer graphics. A section on the Welsh language serves the authors' obsession with the alleged lack of vowels in Welsh. (I lost count of how many times 'unpronounceable' and 'Welsh' co-occured in the other chapters.) For the record, Welsh has plenty of vowels, it just spells them with different letters than the English use. I didn't always agree with their list of 'prevalent British names rarely heard in the US'--sometimes because I thought the names weren't particularly prevalent in the UK, but mostly because they left Nicola off the girls' list. But these are minor points.
The book ends with a quiz that should probably replace the UK Citizenship test, since it tests things that UK citizens generally know, like the name of the pub on Coronation Street and who Brenda and Phil the Greek are (unlike the real test, whose questions native-born citizens typically fail).
The book is terrifically up-to-date, which does mean it'll become outdated all the faster. And this may be its failing in the one section that I found really wanting: the 'British comic gems you may be less familiar with'. Appropriately, this starts with the Carry On films. But it then hops on to Monty Python--which (a) is not something anyone is less familiar with (as they acknowledge), and (b) overshoots The Goon Show (and particularly Spike Milligan), which was one of the first things I tried to look up in the book (and one of the greatest influences on Python). The other comedians listed are all currently practicing, and some of them have crossed the pond rather often. Rather than Steve Coogan and Catherine Tate (whom I'd run into soon enough if I were a [orig. AmE] newbie to Britain), I would have liked to have read about the Goons, Tony Hancock, the Two Ronnies and Morecambe & Wise--the types of comedians who influenced later ones and whose presence is still felt--albeit a little more obliquely than the Coogans and Tates--in the culture. In other words, with such a rich comedic history, it's a shame to have so much focus on the present.
But that's one section of one chapter in an otherwise surprisingly comprehensive book. The authors have shown a real knack for getting to the heart of Britishness and presenting it in bite-size helpings. I'd heartily recommend this book for any (North) American who:
- is about to embark on a year abroad/work placement/move to the UK
- is going to visit people in Britain
- is in love with someone in Britain
- is slightly obsessive about Britain