The Brits to America: No Hard Feelings, Chaps
Light the candles, fire up the grill, cue the fireworks — a birthday party is in the air. A nation’s birthday. To wit, America’s birthday, 234 and still young!
My friend and colleague Martin Walker, a famous British columnist and author, likes to remind audiences that the Fourth of July is not a time for him to be downcast about the American War of Independence. “I celebrate solid British yeoman farmers taking up arms against a German king and his German mercenaries,” he says.
Historically somewhat accurate, too. Like so many English monarchs, George III was of German descent, in his case Hanoverian. Also, the British administration, short on troops of their own, happily fielded Hessian mercenaries to fight the Colonists.
After the war, these men were demobilized in the states — a British habit that accounted for my paternal grandfather’s taking up involuntary residence in South Africa at the end of the Boer War.
Anyway, Walker isn’t the only Briton in modern times to embrace America and to make a life here — and a good one at that. I, too, am of the British persuasion; and I feel a remote connection to the left-behind Hessians because I live in a Virginia stone house constructed by some of them. They had brought with them skills beyond war-fighting, and applied those skills in building up the nascent nation in which they found themselves immigrants of necessity. By the way, it’s a great house. Danke schon.
There are hundreds of thousands of Brits in America — no one really knows how many because of their differing legal status. They are to be found all over, but are concentrated in southern Florida and Southern California. As Noel Coward wrote, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Dallas also is popular; and, for other reasons, New York is well supplied with Brits. If nothing else, they have to be there to oversee the transplantation of their plays to Broadway.
These wandering sons and daughters of Albion are among America’s greatest boosters, led by a coterie of journalists, known without derogatory implications at home as “hacks.” The dean of these was, without doubt, the late Alistair Cooke, who spoke lovingly about America for nearly 60 years in his weekly broadcasts of “Letter From America” for BBC radio.
The late Henry Fairlie lighted the way for British opinion writers in the America. Besides Martin Walker, these now include Gerard Baker; Tina Brown and her husband, Harry Evans; Christopher Hitchens; Andrew Sullivan; and Sebastian Mallaby.
What is it that the British expats so like about their American cousins’ homestead? Probably, it’s the sense of possibility that permeates American life. It’s what has made the word “America” a metaphor for hope, going back to the English poet John Donne in 1595.
And there is mobility. In America, one can lose one’s way in Baltimore and get a fresh start in Albany, Providence, Tampa, St. Paul or any other city. In Britain there is London; and if you lose your place in London, you may never recover.
Also in America, the Brits enjoy a special minority status. We have a terrible sense of superiority, making us immune to insult.
What do the Brits in America complain about? They complain about the lack of pubs and a pub culture; the lack of public transportation; and, above all, the lack of public health care.
And what do we give our hosts in this promised land as a thank-you gift? Well, we don’t whine. In a time when everyone is apologizing for transgressions in history, we’ll be celebrating our defeat this Fourth of July, choking down thin beer and reveling in thick, grilled rib.
Happy Birthday, America. Cheers!