Wednesday, January 18, 2012



I met my first American when I was about ten years old, growing up in my native England. It was quite a few more years before another one passed my way, and I was in my twenties when I met more than a couple of them together. Now, of course, living in New York, I’m surrounded by them. In fact, I actually live with one.
It’s probably hard for an American to accept that, to the average stay-at-home Britisher, an American is just another brand of foreigner, little different from a Moroccan or a Madagascan. They look just as foreign, they speak a quite different language, and they have a very, very different culture. George Bernard Shaw  -- note how we say that, Bernurd (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 democracy and 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 movies, TV and jazz. And of course there’s a healthy regard for their contribution to pretty much everything else in life that you can think of – space science, medicine, and the convenience (if not the delights) of fast food.
But it has to be said that, probably 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-weight, over-paid, over-medicated, and over psycho-analyzed. I say envy is the cause of these views because the British are traditionally pitifully lower paid, and tend to live much more spartan lives.  They’ve always been jealous of what they see as the average American’s material standard of living, believing after watching countless sitcoms and movies, that all 300 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 they envy 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, so he had much, much more to spend in the village pub and dance hall. 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 boys.  For much the same reasons British officers, too, found themselves playing second fiddle to their allied comrades.
The first American I ever met was a shy, self-effacing boy of my age called Lou Taylor at my posh boarding school in England in the 1940s. 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 sheep dog. Lou, who suddenly arrived in the middle of a school semester, soon earned the nickname of ‘Long Island Lou.’ Lou was a likeable lad, but even he was a victim of envy. He had more toy soldiers, guns and tanks and other enviable ‘stuff,’ and more food in his tuck-box than any of us during stringent wartime rationing. 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 was allowed for private use. We never saw our parents from one end of term to the other.  So for no fault of his, this quiet American in miniature was a victim of exactly the same envies 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 considerable affection. The Brits, stuffy and repressed, love the Yanks’ openness and lack of inhibition. Although they may not admit it, they’re moved by 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 Alastair Cook with almost Old Testament reverence. And when their chill wet winter sweeps in, it’s to Florida that they flock.
         As for the Americans, they’d be lost without Downton Abbey and almost every Masterpiece Theater presentation, with its plum-in-the-mouth lords and ladies, and tea parties with bone china and sterling silver teapots in the fussy drawing-rooms of ancestral mansions. They don’t know that an English muffin’s really a crumpet, or that you should let tea infuse for at least five minutes and always, always put the milk in the cup first. American tourists never see the dark, satanic mills and streets in London’s East End and the wind-blown, rain-drenched north. To them, every Londoner lives within earshot of Big Ben, and Sherlock Holmes still hunts down villains in an everlasting mist on the Yorkshire moors. And did the Americans weep any less than the Limeys when Diana died, or stand in the crowd outside Buckingham Palace and cheer when Kate married Prince William? 
          People on both sides of the Atlantic used to refer to the “special relationship” between America and Britain. They still do, but nowadays you’ll hear cynics decrying it. Things have changed, they say, and America’s future peers are emerging in Asia and South America, specifically China, India and, later, Brazil. But the special relationship has nothing to do with GDP, imports and exports or economics. It developed not only historically and emotionally, strengthened by that shared language, but also by victorious alliances in two world wars, and two centuries of mutually beneficial cultural exchange.
        Believe me, it’ll be a long, long time before Chinese and Indian movies are week-by-week fare at your local multiplex. I guarantee it.