Americans at First Hand

Then, suddenly, in 1942, they found real Americans among them. Soon after Pearl Harbor, American servicemen—GIs, as they came instantly to be called—started to arrive by ship and aeroplane to begin building the great military base from which the bomber offensive against Hitler’s Germany and then the seaborne assault on his Fortress Europe were to be launched. Americans turned out to be flesh and blood, not celluloid, after all. Moreover, they were friendly, indeed positively eager to make friends, and fluent in what unmistakably was a common language. This was a relief after the natives’ efforts to grapple with the tongues of the only allies they had seen heretofore—Poles, Czechs, Free Frenchmen. Official propaganda about a great alliance of English-speaking peoples turned out to be true. These young men in a slightly different shade of khaki had no difficulty at all in making themselves understood, indeed were not much different in appearance or needs or military manners from the British soldiers training, like them, in their millions to set off on the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation.

Yet they were entrancingly different. They spoke, as the girls they were all too keen to sweet-talk delightedly discovered, just like film stars. Some of them actually looked like film stars, GIs being generally taller than British soldiers—the superabundance of the American diet made for bigger frames—and bearing the handsomeness brought by a mixture of immigrant genes. Handsome or not, their voices often made them seem so to women whose hearts had fluttered to Clark Gable’s drawl on dozens of Saturday evenings at the cinema. It was not only the way they spoke, moreover, but what they said which gave pleasure; men as much as women were charmed by American circumlocutions, formalities, courtesies, and exotic slang, by an intriguingly combined slower cadence and sudden urgency of delivery, but above all by a directness of speech that the British avoided. The American voice, I now know, is not classless, but it seemed so in 1942 in England and thus was hearteningly refreshing to a people whose accents constantly set them at social sixes-and-sevens, who spoke too boldly if they felt sure of themselves, mumbled or kept silent if they did not. The idea of equality between Americans was perhaps the one reasonably accurate belief that had taken root this side of the Atlantic, and the British inability to distinguish between Bronx and Boston Brahmin, any more than between midtown Manhattan and Manhattan, Kansas, by ear alone strongly confirmed it. Because the Americans did not lower or raise their voices but maintained an even tone to whomsoever they were speaking, because they seemed to communicate by plain talk, they were taken for plain folk—making their arrival a threat to the natives with a stake in the social order but, to the majority who felt excluded by it, an excitingly subversive solvent of old rigidities.

There was a practical as well as social dynamism to the Americans. They got things done. Here, too, they brought a breath of fresh air from the New World. Britain’s miraculous age of industry—which had made her the richest country in the world while the Americans were fighting over slavery—was long gone by 1942. The railways had been built, the factory towns were in decay, the enormous wealth of the Victorian age was draining away in a desperate and unwanted war; so, too, was the manhood already decimated in the war of the trenches a generation earlier. Britain’s second war effort was halting and makeshift; it was inspired by flashes of the old inventive genius—in the development of radar, in high-grade aeronautical engineering—but it was geared to handicraft industries, was under-capitalised, and lacked the consistency of a mass-production economy. Not so America’s: the GIs descended on the English countryside like the pioneers of a new industrial revolution, tearing up the soil to build runways for the strategic bombing campaign, covering farmland with townscapes of hutted camps and hospitals, piling up enormous dumps of ordnance and equipment, and filling an antique road network with endless convoys of trucks and transporters. They brought equipment never seen in England before—bulldozers and graders and scrapers and dumpers, which, wherever they worked, altered the landscape as dramatically as the navvies had done in the nineteenth century.

This was a wonder-time in English life, one I remember vividly to this day. In my corner of the West Country the population thrilled to the incursion of the Americans, talked, indeed, of little else. Sheer numbers was in part the reason for that: the strangers actually outnumbered the natives over wide areas, choked the roads, filled the pubs, monopolised the girls. Every family seemed to have a quota of American friends, of suitors if there were single daughters and of semi-chaperoned attendants if husbands were away at the war. American largesse was a second cause. Wartime rations were small and peacetime luxuries absent altogether. The GIs, supplied from home, were fed on scales the British had forgotten. Steak and butter—my mother’s anxiety over the shortage of butter has left me with a neurosis about saving scraps—leaked out of American camps on to local tables, and so did strange foodstuffs spoken of as if shipped from the Spice Islands: tinned ham, Spam, sweet corn, maple syrup, soup cubes, frankfurters, powdered coffee, and—almost useless to the British, among whom only the rich owned refrigerators—enormous quantities of ice-cream. The Americans, however, also provided priceless durables: camera film, dry cell batteries, and, famously if mysteriously, nylon stockings.

The American incursion also brought direct wealth. The U.S. forces bought goods and services, paid cash, and were excellent employers. Small fortunes were made by local businessmen who could meet American deadlines, and ordinary people drew better than average wages on the proceeds. The economic relationship, however, was not exceptional; Britain was generally prosperous during the war, as the capital accumulated in a century of empire and industry was recirculated through the economy by extortionate war taxation. It was the cultural exchange that made the real impact. Had the incomers been wholly foreign, they might have been regarded as a transient source of material benefits and little more. Precisely because they spoke the native language, if in an intriguingly different style, they presented the inhabitants with glimpses, if erratically and refracted by distance, of another way altogether of living life.

The Americans did not defer; that was the first and strongest of the impressions they made. European travellers to the United States had made that observation even in the eighteenth century, and it was made wholesale by British observers of the GIs. In a society which worked by deference, there were many who were shocked by the upstandingness of the individual American soldier. Enlisted men did not know their place, and their officers seemed unconcerned by the free-and-easy ways of their men. Many of the British, who had been taught their place too well, found they liked the Americans for their casualness and admired a system of discipline which worked by getting things done. American energy: that was the second impression. The British were seeing the Americans at a good time. They did not realise how deep the Depression had bitten—there had been a mild boom in Britain in the 1930s—and they knew scarcely anything of the bank collapses, the industrial crisis, the depopulation of the farm belt, the hopelessness that had afflicted America even into Roosevelt’s second administration. They were catching Americans on the rebound. The war had kindled in the British a national spirit of unity and defiance that the Americans, like all wartime visitors, found attractive. Americans on the rebound from the Depression years were filled with a still more attractive spirit, a rekindling of optimism in their own ability to overcome almost any obstacle that life put in their path. America was on the move again in the 1940s. Twelve million Americans joined the armed forces, and twenty million Americans left home to take up war work, causing thirty-five of the forty-eight states to lose population in an internal migration not known since the settlement of the Great Plains. No such movement of people was possible or even thinkable in the overcrowded British Isles, making the effects of its spillover all the more dramatic. The British were tempted to think that the Hollywood illusion bore some relation to reality after all.

How did the cultural exchange work in the other direction? The oldness of Britain had its effect. I often get letters from veterans, writing to me about their experience of the Second World War, who recall visiting castles and cathedrals in the months while they were waiting for D-Day. I am sure they did; but old men forget. I suspect that they were more interested then in what was young and lively about an unfamiliar country. Young English people were certainly most of all interested by the new and modish in imported American life. They learned to jitterbug, they bought zoot suits, they had Frank Sinatra haircuts, they patronised some fairly shaky imitations of milk bars, they chewed gum, they cadged Lucky Strikes, they crooned the tunes and parroted the words of incomprehensible popular songs; “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy” is a jingle that repeats itself infuriatingly in my ears whenever I recall the hay-scented invasion summer of 1944. “Don’t Fence Me In” was another hit—ironically for the Americans, who, as D-Day approached, were confined behind barbed wire as a final security measure.

That meant a poignant separation for many of them, for the most important cultural exchange in their direction was emotional: they had fallen in love in their tens of thousands. Warriors abroad always, of course, go on a spree—and sensible parents lock up their daughters. The Americans, however, were serious. They pledged eternal fidelity. Why was that? Sexual chemistry between nations is a mysterious thing. De Tocqueville had noted in Federal America a striking submissiveness of the female to the male; in that we may identify the roots of the feminist rebellion which transfixes late-twentieth-century America. I suspect that its first stirrings were afoot in the 1940s and that American women had already begun to display some of that reactive masculinity which, to European men today, is their most striking characteristic. English girls, more certain in their European way of the value of their femininity, must have been deeply attractive to American men in the war years; and then, too, they had physical attributes which American women generally lack—creamy complexions, fine hair, soft voices. Americans fell for them in a collective swoon—a war-years word—and they responded. All those Saturday nights in the cinema with Clark Gable had aroused anticipations akin to those felt in Jane Austen’s households of unmarried maidens at news of the arrival of eligible bachelors in the neighbourhood.

The lightning struck in unpredictable ways. My schoolmistress, a reserved girl of good family, whose enormous bosom impressed me even at the age of seven, fell blushingly in love with an equally smitten American airman and, I believe, lived happily ever after. A widowed friend of my parents went the same way. Our Welsh nursemaid managed to be simultaneously in love with several GIs at the same time for much of 1943 and eventually departed heaven knows where. These were but three in a host of British women who lost their hearts to the incomers, often very quickly and with almost total incomprehension on both sides of what transatlantic marriage might mean. Yet, in an astonishingly large number of cases, romance did mean marriage. “We’ll Meet Again,” the great British hit of the war, turned out to imply “Yours Till the End of Life’s Story,” the other great popular song, for over sixty thousand couples. The Americans who departed into the blue for Normandy and Germany with a promise on their lips came back, or sent a ring, or married by proxy or tied the knot in some other way, causing an army of GI brides to follow them homeward in the year the war ended. They remain one of the most cohesive groups of immigrants ever to reach America’s shores, linked by a network of GI bride clubs, keeping in close touch with the homeland and still casting a curiously expatriate spell of Englishness over their offspring. The barman of the Museum Café near Central Park West in New York, a graduate of what he told me was the best drama school in southwest Texas, assured me in 1984 that he was English too, his mother having been a GI bride from Liverpool.

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