Quercus £14.99 (278pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

A Field Guide to the British, By Sarah Lyall

Germaine Greer came to the conclusion that "English culture is basically homosexual" after one of her lovers climbed into bed with her and said, "Let's pretend you're dead." Although there may be other explanations for this remark, Sarah Lyall, London correspondent for the New York Times, is too polite to reflect upon such things in morbid detail. Perhaps, as her book is keen to demonstrate, this indicates that having lived here for 13 years she is becoming more British – whatever that means.

The question of Britishness continues to hang in the air like drizzle. When Parliament is sitting it always seems to be there, but is strangely without substance. Some pretend it isn't there at all, some get all hot and bothered trying to get hold of it, as if they are trying to catch the moon in a sieve. British identity is neither English, Scottish, nor Welsh, but all that and less – an unsatisfying and (at present) unsatisfactory amalgam.

Lyall's contribution to the national debate is armchair anthropology gleaned from the newspapers and her bedtime reading. Her book is a history of the Blair years told in newspaper clippings and odd little forays to meet ordinary people going about their daily lives, whether on trains or in bars or shivering behind windbreaks at the seaside. It is compiled from the anecdotal, the apocryphal, "facts too good to check", and the purely fictional (PG Wodehouse, Daphne Du Maurier and Ian Fleming).

It is a ship of fools, a best of British beef-wittedness – rather like having a garrulous dinner party guest who holds all entranced from the end of the table with a sparklingly witty monologue on the gruesome horrors of boarding school and the sexual allure of Margaret Thatcher, the parallel universe of cricket, and the evergreen eccentricities of the class system, the preposterous oafishness of Jeremy Clarkson and the cartoonish tomfoolery of Boris Johnson, risible dentristry, bad hotels, worse food, poor football, the weather – it's pretty much all here. Predictable stuff maybe, but told with such verve and wit that the book deserves a place in every lavatory, loo, or (god forbid) toilet in the country.

There are some terrific old chestnuts included, such as the delicious story about Harold Wilson's Foreign Secretary George Brown, drunk at a reception for Peruvian dignitaries. He approached a guest attired in a crimson frock and asked for a dance. The guest declined: "First, you are drunk. Second, this is not a waltz; it is the Peruvian national anthem. And third, I am not a woman; I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima." Yet, despite living here for 13 years, Lyall still doesn't appear to know the difference between Britain and England, describing the 1966 World Cup-winning England football team as "possibly the best thing to have happened to British sport". Scottish international Denis Law actually described the day that England won as "the blackest day of my life". Even commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme complained about the endemic conflation of England with Britain.

It all depends who this book is aimed at. I can't imagine Scots are pleased by the way that "Britons" on the page keep metamorphosing into "the English". But perhaps that is the most English thing of all about Sarah Lyall. Doubtless there is an audience on the other side of the Atlantic who will thrill to the tales of knockabout politics and feral journalism, who always wanted hard evidence that the British have the worst teeth in the world, and who need a transcript of "tampaxgate" handy. In that case I expect that they will keep A Field Guide to the British close by them: probably in the, er, bathroom.

Nick Groom's 'The Union Jack' is published by Atlantic; he is professor of English at Exeter University

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?