Sunday, December 6, 2009


I met my first American when I was about twelve years old, and it was maybe four or five years more before I met another one. I was about twenty when I encountered more than one of them simultaneously. Now, of course, I’m surrounded by them. Indeed, I actually live with one here in Manhattan.

It’s probably hard for an American to accept that, to the average stay-at-home Brit, an American is just another brand of foreigner, no different from a Moroccan or a Madagascan. They look just as foreign (take a trip in the New York subway), they speak a quite different language (if you really listen), and they have a very very different culture. George Bernard Shaw -- note how we say that, Bernerd (not Bernard) Shaw -- wasn’t entirely joking when he wrote of “two nations divided by a common language.”

The British have a complicated view of Americans. On one hand they have huge respect for their attitude to freedom; they’re grateful to “The Yanks” for saving their butts in two world wars; they have a healthy respect for their innovativeness and technological genius, and most of them appreciate the changes the Americans have wrought in almost every aspect of public entertainment -- especially in movies, TV and jazz. And of course there’s a healthy regard for their contribution to pretty well everything else in life you can think of – space science, medicine, and the convenience if not the delights of (some) fast food.

But it has to be said that, mostly because they’re envious of Americans in so many ways, the British have one or two negative attitudes, too. Many of them look on Americans as over-indulged. They think they’re over-fed, over-paid, over-medicated, and over psycho-analyzed. I suggest that envy is the cause of these views because the British are traditionally pitifully underpaid, and tend to live far more Spartan lives. They’ve always been jealous of what they see as the average American’s material standard of living, believing, after watching endless TV sitcoms that all 260 million Americans live in spacious homes with walk-in closets and walk-in refrigerators, driving Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals. They also see America as over-opinionated and over-assertive on the world stage. Though they wouldn’t admit it this, too, is almost certainly because the Brits are envious of America’s replacement of the British and their empire as the leading world power.

This envy goes back a long way, but reached the British man-in-the-street in a real and understandable way during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of US sailors, soldiers and airman arrived in Britain at a time when the country was desperately short of almost all of life’s necessities. The average GI earned several times more than his British counterpart. In the village pub and dance hall he had much, much more to spend. His gabardine uniform was far smarter and form-flattering than the British Tommy’s baggy, ill-fitting serge battle-dress. It’s not surprising that the GI’s, with their romantic, movie-star accents and boxes of nylon stockings under their arms, made wall-flowers of the local girls’ local boys. British officers, too, found themselves playing second fiddle to their Allied counterparts.

The first American I ever met was a shy, self-effacing boy of my age called Lou Taylor. He was the son of a diplomat. Tall for his age, he had a slight stammer, and his hair fell over his eyes giving him the look of a myopic sheepdog. Lou, who suddenly arrived at my boarding school in the middle of a term, and soon earned the nickname of ‘Long Island Lou,’ was about as nice as any one in the school, but I remember that even he was cause for envy. He had more toy guns and tanks, more enviable ‘stuff,’ and much more food in his tuck-box than any of us. It was Lou who gave us our first taste of bubble-gum, home-made brownies and Hershey bars. It was Lou whose parents came down from London to the school in the country most weekends in a chauffeur-driven car, while our parents’ cars were on wooden blocks in the garage because there was no gasoline for private use. We never saw our parents from one end of term to the other. For no fault of his, this quiet American in miniature was a victim of just the same resentments as his uncles in uniform.

But for all this talk of envy and resentment, it has to be said that both peoples tend to view the other with a degree of affection. The Brits, stuffy and repressed, love the openness and lack of inhibition of The Yanks. Although they may not admit it they get a kick when they see images of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. They get a buzz out of old John Wayne movies, and the wide open spaces of the West. They don’t know there are ugly strip malls in Phoenix and El Paso, and ghettos in Washington DC. They used to look on the late Alastair Cook with almost Old Testament reverence. And when their chill wet winter sweeps in, it’s to sunny Florida they flock.

As for the Americans, they’d be lost without Keeping up Appearances, or Masterpiece Theater, with the latter’s plum-in-the-mouth lords and ladies, and tea parties in fussy drawing-rooms in Bath, which they pronounce Barth. They don’t know that an English muffin’s a crumpet, or that you should let tea infuse for five minutes and always, always put the milk in the cup first. American tourists never see the dark, Satanic mills in the North and the Midlands. They think every Londoner lives within earshot of Big Ben, and that there’s an everlasting mist on the Yorkshire moors. And did they weep any less than the Limeys when Princess Di died?

It’s all a matter of perception. Our attitudes and judgments about history, politics, religion, morals and, yes, about other races, are shaped not only by what we see and hear, but equally by what we don’t.

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