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The Failure of British Guidebooks to America

Graham Chadwick/Getty

When American students study in Britain, they are often given a guide to local manners and customs. “The English tend to be more indirect than overly direct,” warns one manual. “Pay attention to tone of voice and facial expression.” It goes on to offer helpful advice on social etiquette, both general (“Touching is usually kept to a minimum”) and specific (“The English tend to keep about an 2-3 feet between them while speaking”). In essence, when in England, take care not to be too American. This summer, Brits looking for their own guidebook to their noisy, queue-jumping cousins have two new books to help them.

A.A. Gill’s To America With Love and Terry Eagleton’s Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America are part of a long tradition of British writers, from Frances Trollope to Martin Amis, taking notes on the USA. Both books feel like late entries in a dying genre. These days, cultural generalizations—without which books “about America” would be impossible—are rightly viewed with suspicion. They are unscientific, they tend to devalue the individual, they are the first refuge of the lazy and bigoted. As Alistair Cooke once joked, “Whenever you are really baffled, it is always safe to put it all down to national character.”

As Britain has become more and more like America, books like these have begun to look increasingly unnecessary. The authors—A. A. Gill, a drearily provocative restaurant and TV critic who supports your right to eat whale meat and opposes the presence of ugly women on television, and Terry Eagleton, a Catholic Marxist professor of English—reflexively see America as a deep and symbolic contrast to Britain. It is hard to imagine any British person under 40 being so overwhelmed with the outsider’s amazement—both for its flaws and virtues—that Eagleton and Gill feel about the U.S.1 It is too familiar, too much part of everyday life. For those born after 1980, America is in our blood.

Much of Eagleton’s Across The Pond reads as if it were scribbled down for a lark one weekend, then forgotten and left in a drawer for 20 years. This is not a book that would survive a fact check. This is a book whose very fiber repels the notion of fact-checking. At one point, Eagleton suggests that Americans who stay in Britain long enough “might even cease to shriek hysterically at the smell of cigarette smoke.” Smoking has been banned in most public spaces for the past six years. His example of quintessential British understatement is Sir Maurice Bowra, the former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford. He died in 1971. There is something rather touching about the picture of Britain that Eagleton conjures: self-effacing, a little chilly and stiff but basically decent—a nation whose culture, for better and worse, is yet to be swallowed by globalisation, a nation still innocent of the internet, celebrity culture, and Made In Chelsea.

The “hysterical shrieking” of the previous paragraph gives a sense of Eagleton’s fondness for comic exaggeration. His mode is that of a jocular anthropologist, pint in hand, chattily offering up his opinions. He is constantly over-performing, mugging maniacally as he tries to eke out a laugh. It’s a style that works in short bursts; over the course of a book it is exhausting. Even so, amid the waffle, there are some acute observations. Writing about the American preference for emotional openness, he notes that, according to this philosophy, "whatever is unexpressed has no real existence. What is inside you is valid only if it is externalized." Although he claims to have never used the internet, Eagleton has inadvertently managed to nail one of the guiding impulses behind Facebook.

Despite his many jokes at the expense of Americans, Eagleton’s tone is warm and affectionate. The same is true of Gill’s To America With Love.2 Like Across The Pond, Gill’s essayistic book takes on a number of familiar subjects—religion, guns, sex, food, films etc. But much more than Eagleton, who balances praise with plenty of mockery, Gill is a devoted anti-anti-American.

One unavoidable fact about the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. is that it isn’t an equal one. British people think they know America. After all, they spend their lives browsing American websites, shopping at American shops, reading American books, watching American films and television. Despite “Downton”-fever and a few anglophile Christians, the U.K. hardly occupies a large place in America’s cultural or political consciousness. When an American, Bill Bryson, wrote Notes from A Small Island in the 1990s, which is sort of a reverse To America With Love, it became a best-seller in Britain. Gill’s book will likely pass without much notice. A confident nation—even one currently obsessed by the threat of its own decline—doesn’t need the praise of foreigners to make it feel good about itself.

Understandably, this imbalance of power leaves Brits feeling insecure. Gill is particularly sharp and funny on Britain’s fixation with the “special relationship”:

Every new president is richly backed into a corner at a press conference by a gang of eager British reporters pleading that he reiterate the vows of specialness, and with a thin smile of practiced public relations, the president will inevitably deliver an anodyne and bland statement of best wishes, a desire for peace and democracy, and shared history, and the British will heave a sigh of relief that they’re still the favorites.

This British neediness slides into self-loathing, which, in turn, curdles into the anti-Americanism that exists across the political and social spectrum in Britain.3

Gill is not having any of this. His book is a celebration of America–its newness, its optimism, its intelligence. His enthusiasm for the U.S. sometimes turns his writing into the prose equivalent of an English pub rock band covering “Born to Run.” For the most part, though, he is too good a stylist to let his essays drown in faux-American syrup. The best chapters, such as the one on food in America, move elegantly from memoir to history to observations on the present day. And he is particularly good when going on the offensive. Of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he says, “It begs for tears like the rattle of an insistent charity tin. It owes most of its style to the pathos of Dickens, but with a stained-glass eye and a pulpit ear.”

Gill’s writing is often better than his thinking, which is shot through with the confidence of a man who makes judgments easily. There is a kind of square-jawed, bloke-ish certainty to Gill’s writing, which admits no room for disagreement or further discussion. Do “anti-gun urban liberals” really believe that to own a gun "is to be a latent murderer”? Is it true that “The scientific justification for wanting to know what a chimp thinks is unclear, except that it would be cool”? Elsewhere Gill declares that America “won’t join the International Court or ban landmines unilaterally, not because they don’t believe in justice or not blowing the legs off children, but because they don’t want to be implicated or entwined with the old ways and the old folk.” I’m not sure even Gill can take this last explanation seriously.

Simple as these stereotypes are, generalizations have their uses. Since they are widely shared, they are a window into how people view the world, and, sometimes they even stumble upon truths that more rigorous inquiries might miss. America is “the only idealistic nation in the world” said Woodrow Wilson. America is “just a nation of 200 million used car salesmen” said Hunter S. Thompson. These are not competing claims, fighting over the one right way to characterize the country. They, like most of the excessive assertions of Eagleton and Gill, are rich half-truths which can sit comfortably together with their opposites.

Across the Pond might not be much of a book, but Eagleton understands the simultaneous silliness and necessity of his broad-brush approach. “We would not be able to cope with the myriad different situations we encounter if we did not subsume them under general categories,” he writes. To talk about the Republicans, say, or Chinese food, or the 1960s, or just about anything, requires generalities and imprecisions. By the same token, as outdated as the concept of national character seems, to think without it is nearly impossible. We need people to remind us that generalizations often prevent us from seeing straight, but we cannot do without them entirely.

David Wolf is books editor of Prospect magazine. Follow him @davidedgarwolf.

  1. There is an American counterpart to this amazement, which involves whining about the squalor of pre-1990s Britain. “I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was,” wrote Richard Posner in The New York Times last year, “how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials, how treacherously uneven the floors and sidewalks, how inadequate the heating and poor the food.” Writing in The New York Review of Books earlier this year, Michael Lewis, dredged up similar memories: “When I moved to London for graduate school back in the early 1980s … nothing functioned properly; everything that wasn’t broken was about to fall apart. The food was almost deliberately inedible.”

  2. The book first appeared in Britain last year with a less sycophantic title, The Golden Door: Letters to America.

  3. The comments below this Guardian editorial suggesting that BBC Radio 4 might consider creating some kind of British equivalent of This American Life present an entertaining slice of the defensiveness and extreme touchiness many Brits feel about America. “There are many things that Americans do that we don't,” said one commenter. “Unfortunately they get fewer by the day, and we're worse off because of it.”