Experiencing America

By Thomas, Tony | Contemporary Review, September 2012 | Go to article overview
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Experiencing America

Thomas, Tony, Contemporary Review

IT did not take me long to realise that George Bernard Shaw was as wrong about the divide between America and Britain as he was wrong about just about everything else. I was a young journalist on The Times and I was sailing across the Atlantic in the autumn (or fall) of 1969 aboard the 'SS United States' to take up my post as that newspaper's American economics correspondent. As I watched and listened to the American passengers on the voyage it was plain that we were not, as GBS maintained, 'two countries separated by a common language'. We spoke pretty much the same language. It was our cultures--our conduct, our politics, our outlook on life--that were different.

Some of the differences that I noted were trivial. How British parents scandalised American ones by permitting their toddlers to romp around the deck with no clothes on; American men sporting floral shorts run up from curtaining material; the grotesque size of the ship's peanut-and-butter or BLT sandwiches; the lethal alcohol content of the cocktails served in its bar.

When I commented on these oddities, Americans were, of course, well able to counter with British equivalents. How, as Paul Theroux and other travel writers have observed, the British put bobbled hats on boiled eggs to keep them warm, say sorry when you step on their toes, are required to buy a licence to watch television, have extraordinary names like Mr Eatwell, Lady Wellbeloved and Major--General Buffy Tufton-Beamish, possess driving licences that last 50 years, call their houses 'Homeleigh', Dunroamin', 'Badger Drift' and 'Sparrow View', sunbathe in their underpants, and live in a country where it takes forever to get anywhere by car.

Other differences were more profound. Americans astounded me with their willingness to talk about money. Not just about stock prices, property prices, school fees, the cost of living and so on. Everybody does that. They told me what they earned and then took me aback by asking: 'How much do you make?' It was a question that no British passenger there would have ever put to another. I was surprised, too, to find the American Protestant work ethic extended into the brevity of their vacations. A holiday entitlement of at least four weeks was even then standard for middle-class Britons. I learnt that in the United States two weeks off work was the norm and that 'aggressive' corporate executives often took off less time than that. Significantly, 'aggressive' was here a word of praise, not of approbation as it was in Britain.

My cultural shock was softened by our arrival in New York. The impressive skyline was homely. My misspent youth in cinemas made the sight of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State and Chrysler buildings as familiar to me as Trafalgar Square, Big Ben and Number Ten. When a day or two later I took the train from New York's Penn Station to Washington's Union Station the townscape was again familiar. I had seen the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial hundreds of times in newsreels. The kindliness of the people in my workplace, of the support staff in the National Press building as well as my fellow journalists, also helped put me at my ease. A person I had met in the lift a couple of days earlier would greet me as a long lost friend: 'Hi, Tony, Good to see you. How are you?' The friendliness was, I knew, superficial. But superficial friendliness is a lot better than the coldness you so often encounter in Britain.

Americans owe their social skills, I think, to their lifestyle. Theirs is a much more mobile society than Britain's and ambitious American families have of necessity quickly to meet, greet and get to know new acquaintances as they move and are moved around their big country. With its kaleidoscopic political class Washington is an especially fluid society. And as an eligible British bachelor I was in great demand on the social circuit, where my dinner-party hostesses confessed with disarming frankness how desperately short the city was of unattached men.

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