I was walking down Great Russell Street a few weeks ago when a young man emerged from a house wearing sandals, khaki trousers, a backwards University of Tennessee baseball cap, and a yellow T-shirt that had FUTURE WORLD LEADERS CONFERENCE emblazoned on it. This, I thought, is why they dislike us: sockless boys from Knoxville asserting their place in the hegemonic order a block from where Marx wrote Das Kapital. Yet to expect an American to morph into an Englishman would be like tossing a lemon into a cranberry bog and asking it to turn maroon. We’d sooner rot.
I sometimes feel as if I were rotting, though it may just be the lack of sun, the fact that I hear the automated voice on the Tube saying ‘Next station Camden Town’ in my dreams and that I’m constantly asked what I think of London. I’ve come around to saying, ‘It’s not love/hate, more like mild fondness/utter indifference, and it seems mutual.’ Being an American in London is perfect if you like not getting a straight answer, enjoy being condescended to about your country’s lack of irony, and have a thing about rain and talking about rain. I come to these thoughts by way of Terry Eagleton’s far from unfunny new book Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America (out in June). In his introduction Eagleton writes on ‘the usefulness of stereotypes’, which Americans dislike because, in the words of Mr Wentworth in Henry James’s The Europeans, ‘we are all princes here.’ It’s the first in Eagleton’s litany of paradoxes about Americans: ‘Quite how everyone can be special without nobody being so is a problem we can leave to the logicians.’ So it’s hard to go from somewhere where everyone’s special – even if it means being put in a ‘special’ PE class for your lack of co-ordination (as I was) – to a land that has actual princes (even if they are obvious dolts). One way to compensate is to wear a shirt that advertises your status as a FUTURE WORLD LEADER.
A man I know from the pub offers me consolation: ‘People are different,’ he tells me. He’s been telling me this for two years, and indeed he and I are different. I met him one night when I was glumly having a pint on my own. I was homesick, I explained. I had been in London for two months. He told me he’d served seven years in prison. He was fond of America: he’d gone to Las Vegas with the earnings from the robbery that later led to his stint at Her Majesty’s pleasure. That’s the sort of phrase Eagleton enjoys in British English: at once official and ironic. By contrast, ‘any society that calls its prisons “correctional facilities” is excessively optimistic,’ he writes. ‘Prison hardly ever corrects anyone.’ But my friend is no longer cracking safes for a living, and on St George’s Day he said I seem less glum than I used to. In the English manner, he apologised several times that night for joining my friends and me at our table. An Englishman will apologise to you twice in the course of inviting you to dinner when you are friendless and desperate and couldn’t feel more grateful for the prospect of company. ‘No doubt,’ Eagleton writes, ‘the British will soon be apologising for being stabbed in the street.’ Americans apologise only when they’re overwhelmed by guilt and want very much to be forgiven. In places like New York, there’s a form of etiquette that defuses disputes through the exchange of insults. You call each other a name, then each of you walks away and forgets about it. (The same may not hold in South Bend, Indiana, where Eagleton taught at Notre Dame.) I once made the mistake of calling someone in London who had raised his voice to me an ‘asshole’. Instead of calling me the same and going away, as a New Yorker would have done, he came up to me and told me to call him an asshole again, which would have seemed like asking to be stabbed in the street. I said sorry and walked off: a wholly unsatisfying experience. ‘Emotional constipation can save your life,’ Eagleton writes. True, but an American cultivates emotional constipation at the risk of bursting.
Stereotypes tell you a lot about the people who think that way, and Eagleton has clarified much for me about the English. I don’t have to be told that Americans are sentimental, earnest, boastful, narcissistic, inarticulate, inelegant, literal-minded, acquisitive strivers who speak in euphemisms. Some of this stuff I’m glad to be away from even as I remain a boastful, narcissistic striver myself. But it’s good to have some definitions of terms that have perplexed me. ‘The British,’ Eagleton writes, ‘“muddle through”, meaning that they achieve their goals but don’t quite know how, and might just as easily not have done.’ It’s a strange phrase to hear, as I have, from the mouth of a banker, but then I suppose public subsidies are just that sort of thing. And then there’s the weather – something I’ve never paid attention to. ‘The subject,’ Eagleton writes, ‘appeals to the deep-seated fatalism of the British people, since there is no way of stopping a thunderstorm. This … is a secret source of self-lacerating joy among the citizenry. The British rather enjoy feeling helpless, as the Americans do not. The thought that there is absolutely nothing one can do is regarded by some in the United States as defeatist, nihilistic and in some obscure sense unpatriotic. In Britain, it brings with it a strange, luminous, semi-mystical kind of peace.’ To think of all those grey drizzly days I’ve spent looking out the window in despair without knowing that everyone around me was concealing their semi-mystical masochistic glee beneath a cover of shyness and ironic grousing.
A native Londoner I know is often told that the ten years she spent in Manhattan have given her speech ‘an American lilt’. An American I know is no longer recognised as American by American visitors to London, though her Yankishness remains obvious to Britons. I started to worry lately that I was suffering from a personality lilt. An English friend had told me that I talk too much about New York, that I get sentimental, and I brag. I decided I wouldn’t do these things, but found I had little left to say and became quiet. On a trip to New York an old friend said to me: ‘You seem more reticent now. Is that a British thing?’ I read two Norman Mailer books on the plane back home – I mean, to London – and the problem seemed to go away. But I’ll never get over my first experience of England. I was waiting at Heathrow to have my passport stamped. I was 11 years old and had a nervous habit of tapping out whatever song I was learning on the saxophone on any available surface. The woman at the desk didn’t take kindly to the tapping: ‘Have a little patience, you snotty American brat.’