Hands across the pond

Tamsin Oglesby explains how her new play explores the gap between the US and the UK
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The Independent Culture

I'm in a foreign country and I'm hungry. I queue up for food at a local stall, but I'm nervous of the native cuisine, so I plump for something universal: Coke and chips.

I'm in a foreign country and I'm hungry. I queue up for food at a local stall, but I'm nervous of the native cuisine, so I plump for something universal: Coke and chips. The woman behind the stall doesn't understand. I repeat, "Coke and chips," about 10 times before my friend comes to the rescue and translates: "She wants some Coca-Cola and fries, please." Of course. I'm in America. And the woman understood me to be asking for recreational drugs and a packet of crisps.

Ironically, my request would probably be understood almost anywhere else in the world, even though both products are American. But we expect Americans to understand us better than most other countries, and vice versa, because we share a language. The language that bridges the Atlantic lulls us into a false sense of familiarity.

I was working with Americans a lot and and began thinking, "There's a play in all our misunderstandings," when I suddenly realised why our relationship is booby-trapped. They think they're better than us. And we think we're better than them. Our mutual sense of superiority is part of our friendship and always has been. But it is not simply prejudice; it's what happens when you try to compare two value systems. It's absurd. When I understood that, I found the play I wanted to write.

My four-year-old asked me the other day, "Why do Americans speak English?" I floundered around in a historical mire for a bit, and I'd hardly got to the Plymouth colony before she wandered off to play with her Barbie dolls. But the question illustrates something that is almost too obvious to notice: a lot of them were English once. But they're certainly not now.

So, what are they? And what are we? Well, I think it's safe to say we're not what we were. The commonly quoted remark that "Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role" certainly describes our current vacillation between Europe and the US. But I think it's also safe to say that America is what it was, only more so. It's still big, ambitious and new. But it's now the most powerful country in the world. And the rest of the world's current anti-Americanism is relatively simple: America is the giant. But for us the sentiment is more complicated because we were once that giant.

Now we're people who can't even serve tea properly. I go to America and people are friendly. I come home and I'm struck by the churlish cynicism of the English. We don't welcome people; we tolerate them. "Oh, all right then. Live here if you must. Go on, have a voucher." I was in a café in north London, pondering these dark thoughts in the wake of a trip to New York, when I was overcome by the grumpiness of the waitress as she slopped tea on my table. She suddenly represented all that's wrong with this country, and I astonished both of us by turning on her and saying, "Excuse me, but why are you so miserable?" Not only did her response make me feel worse, it was even more typically English: she pretended I hadn't spoken.

On paper, we should be closer to the US than ever at the moment. We've just stuck two fingers up at most of the rest of the world and waged war together. But the Atlantic, it seems, is wider than usual. In all the descriptions of the war, Americans are the aggressive allies and we are the reluctant heroes. They killed civilians, with the words "born to kill" emblazoned across their helmets; our troops donned berets and invited the locals to play football. Their pilots depended on amphetamines; ours relied on their natural reserve(s). Anyone would think we were fighting each other. Our differences have been exaggerated in the Gulf, you might say, that lies between us.

But it's easy to choose points of comparison that dignify one side and not the other. One of us, apparently, has a leader with the largest vocabulary of any world premier alive, and the other... well, doesn't. But Tony Blair doesn't sum up Britain any more than George Bush does America. Both went against large numbers of their people in this latest pursuit of whatever it was they were after. And the history of our relationship is littered with dangerous buffoons on both sides of the Atlantic.

What's difficult is acknowledging our similarities and understanding our differences. There's always been something of us in them, just as there's something of them in us. The comedy, and the tragedy, lies somewhere in between.

'US and Them', Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020-7722 9301) to 5 July