Thursday, August 11, 2011


         In London a year or two ago I came across a revealing little booklet. Called Over There, issued during World War II to American servicemen posted to Britain.
         More than a million U.S. troops were stationed in England between 1942 and the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe in June, 1944. Most of them had never been abroad before, and the aim of Over There -- according to Oxford University Press, who quite recently republished it -- was to prepare them for life in a very different country, and to try to prevent any friction between the newcomers and their British hosts.
         Whoever wrote these seven pages had a remarkable grasp of simple, direct English, an impressive knowledge of psychology, and an amazing understanding of the most relevant differences between the Americans and the British. When the original leaflet was distributed, its contents created more than a few raised eyebrows across the Atlantic, because it presented an unusually frank and objective view of Britain and the British; much more telling than they could ever have written themselves. The London newspapers were fascinated; in the London Times of July 1942, there was a laudatory if tongue-in-cheek critique of the pamphlet, comparing it with the works of Irving, Emerson and Hawthorne, all of whom, of course, had tried to interpret Britain to their American readers. In the self-important language of The Times of those days, an editorial said: "None of those American authors' august expositions has the spotlit directness of this revelation of plain horse sense, and an understanding of evident truths."
         To us more than sixty years on, the text of Over There  may seem a trifle didactic and preachy and, with 20/20 hindsight, there is too much rah-rah breast-beating about "beating Hitler on his home ground."  For example: "Hitler knows they (Britain and America) are both powerful countries, tough and resourceful. He knows that they, with other united nations, mean his crushing defeat in the end."  The more likely truth is that, only a year after America had entered a war, and when Britain and its empire had been fighting alone for more than two years, Hitler must have felt the odds were strongly in his favor. At that moment the Nazis occupied pretty much all of Europe, and were already flexing their muscles in North Africa.
         The pamphlet quickly gets down to business. Its first advice is to forget past history. If you're an Irish-American, it suggests, you may see the Brits as the persecutors of the Irish.  Forget about the enemy Redcoats in the American Revolution, and the war of 1812, "There is no time today to fight old wars again, or bring up old grievances. We don't worry about which side our grandfathers were on during the Civil War, because it doesn't mean anything now."
         It's with great tact that the author tackles the legendary reserve and -- though it doesn't say it in such terms -- the stuffiness and stand-offishness of the Brits.  The thing to do, the booklet says, is not to deny these differences but to admit them openly, and try to understand them. "For instance," it says," the British are more reserved in conduct that we. On a small crowded island where forty-five million people live, each man (sic) learns to guard his privacy carefully -- and is equally careful not to invade another man's privacy.
         "So if Britons sit in trains or buses without striking up a conversation with you, it doesn't mean they are being haughty or unfriendly . . . they don't speak to you because they don't want to appear intrusive or rude." Those aren’t the true reasons for the Brits' starchy aloofness, but it was a pretty good attempt.
         The pamphlet takes a lot of trouble to discourage its readers from bragging or showing-off, especially about money. Saying, correctly, that American services’ pay was the highest in the world, it goes on, "The British Tommy is apt to be specially touchy about his wages and yours. Keep this in mind. Use common sense, and don't rub him up the wrong way.”  This was good advice. The GI’s hosts were indeed resentful that their allies were paid tremendously more. On a more personal level they were jealous of the U.S. forces’ uniforms, which were better-cut with higher quality cloth. Dressed in their thick, hairy, poorly cut, clunky-looking battle-dress uniforms, the Tommies found themselves swept aside by the local girls in the pub, who were all over these apparently prosperous visitors who came with nylon stockings and PX goodies, and talked like Errol Flynn or Clark Gable. It’s not surprising that the British troops labeled these intruders “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.”
         The author tried to tell readers, many of them rookies, that for all their sissy accents and soft-spoken politeness, the British were strong and resilient, and deserved a little respect for what they’d so far endured. “Sixty thousand British civilians – men, women and children – have already died under bombs, and yet their morale is unbreakable and high. A nation doesn’t come through that if it doesn’t have plain, common guts. The British are tough, strong people, and good allies. You won’t be able to tell them much about ‘taking it’” And here comes the rah-rah again: “They are not particularly interested in taking it any more. They’re far more interested in getting together in solid friendship with us, so that we can all start dishing it out to Hitler.”
         The booklet points out that comparisons are often invidious, and not a good idea; that England is smaller than North Carolina or Iowa, and that bragging about bigness – of buildings, mountains, family farms in places such as Texas and yes, money, wouldn’t go down in battered, small-scale Britain. The pamphlet says: “The British care little about size. For instance, London has no skyscrapers . . . they’ll point out buildings like Westminster Abbey . . . and the Tower of London, which was built almost a thousand years ago. They mean as much to the British as Mount Vernon or Lincoln’s birthplace do to us.”
         And so it goes on. The GIs are warned to be sensitive to the stringent rationing of food, clothes and cigarettes and other necessities, because Britain was under siege. Few civilians were allowed gasoline, and their cars were shut up in their garages “for the duration,” on bricks or railroad ties. There’s a warning that the towns and villages will look scruffy and unkempt, and that even England’s famous gardens will be growing only vegetables. Also, that many buildings will be unpainted and in disrepair, not only because there was little manpower, but also because most industries were hell bent on making tanks, guns and other war supplies for themselves, the British Empire forces and the Russians.
         A part of the book describes “The People and their Customs,” covering such important topics as “warm beer” and the “impossible” money system. And there’s a none-too-successful attempt to describe cricket, soccer and Rugby.
         Naturally, there’s advice about British vocabulary and pronunciation, which includes a caution that the natives “will pronounce all the ‘a’s in banana as in ‘father.’ However funny you may think this is, you will be able to understand people who talk this way, and they will be able to understand you.”
         On the last page of the pamphlet there are “Some Important Do’s and Don’ts,” most of which reiterate the points made elswhere. Noteworthy others are: “If you’re invited to eat with a family, don’t eat too much. Otherwise you may eat up their weekly rations. NEVER (actually in capitals) criticize the King and Queen. In your dealings with the British, let this be your slogan: it is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.”
         There’s one thing wrong with that mention of bananas. Because of the ever-present threat of attack by German U-boats that blockaded the British Isles, such luxuries were unknown after 1941, so people probably never mentioned them to their allied guests. I remember an American boy, a New Yorker, arriving as a pupil at my boarding school in 1942. His name was Lou Taylor, a quiet, likable boy who we nicknamed Long Island Lou, even though he came from Hoboken!
         On his first day at the school, Lou brought a few bunches of bananas, and I recall the hush, and then the excitement, when they were brought into the dining hall with some ceremony by the headmaster who, with help from the head boy, peeled them and proceeded to cut them into pieces so that all the boys could taste them.
         Each piece was probably less than half an inch thick, and we ate them silently, and very slowly. They were the last bananas we saw until the war ended in 1945.