George Bush is too, too awful. I know because Brits keep telling me so. But as an
American expatriate who has lived here for 15 years, let me make one confident prediction: the British will learn to love the president because he panders to this country's every American prejudice.
Essentially, the British believe that Americans are overenthusiastic, shallow, poorly educated – in short, under-evolved. I should know. When I arrived as publisher of The Spectator – that pulsing heart of Englishness – oozing my all-American charm, it was like the onslaught of The Planet of the Apes.
First there was the name thing. The Spectator has Vanessas, Julias and Harrys by the cartload. There had never, ever been a Kimberly. "So New World," someone sniffed and proceeded to re-christen me Tiffany. I tried to explain that Kimberly is a rather nice, quite posh American name and Tiffany was not. America, contrary to British belief, has a lively awareness of status: Tiffany is the US equivalent of Kylie.
Let's face it. America is big and powerful. Maybe it's a lost empire-related psycho-thing. The British have developed their own myth: America is a nation of dumbos which, when not exploiting the rest of the world, spends its time mud wrestling on Jerry Springer.
But seeing us through the eyes of the British can be touching, even flattering. Americans are, apparently, all rich. We have an admirable freshness and enthusiasm. There's nothing new in this
attitude. Henry James and Edith Wharton,
those dreary European converts, portray the innocent-abroad type over and over. We innocents are treated with a mixture of indulgence and patronage. As James
describes his famous heroine Daisy Miller:
"She seemed to him an extraordinary mixture of innocence and crudity."
And still, 120 years later, we are all
Daisy Miller. My British friends
continually translate for me. Everything
must be completely new to my fresh, untouched mind. "We'll be back in a fortnight," said my friend, adding hastily, "Oh, that's not a word you Americans use. I mean two weeks, 14 days." It's bad enough to be accused of not knowing the word fortnight, but I figured out long ago that there are seven days in a week.
Sometimes this trait can work to my advantage. A senior cabinet minister once explained the situation in Northern Ireland to me for more than two hours. "As an American," he said, "you'll know nothing. Let's begin with Elizabeth I." I am now stupendously well informed on Ireland, and have a fairly good insight into why he failed as a cabinet minister. All this and I still get to be the dumb one.
A very American question comes to mind: if we are so dim, how come we're so rich? The desire to turn a profit comes naturally to Americans. There still exists a genteel view that making money is something nobler souls choose not to do.
Or perhaps making money is just too much work. If Americans are Daisy Millers, the typical Englishman sees himself as the Scarlet Pimpernel. Any effort takes place in the dead of night, preferably in a foreign country. I learnt long ago not to walk into a meeting and say: "I have the greatest idea". The typical response is, "Well, the rest of us will just go home then." So I've learnt some pidgin British: "I've thought of something. (Pause) It's probably not any good. (Big pause) I really shouldn't bring it up. (Very long pause) I'm sorry..." This gets tremendous results and I'm working on more ways to say "I'm sorry" to my best advantage.
Being American here means never having to ask twice for a lecture. We once had William Crowe to lunch when he was ambassador. He had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Someone explained the Marshall Plan to him slowly and loudly and someone else told him who the best American president in history had been. The next day Ambassador Crowe telephoned. "Honey," he said, "you must leave that place and seek refuge at the US Embassy. You just won't be able to tame those savages." We brave settlers have it rough here on the British prairie.
Rowan Pelling is away.Reuse content