American Friendships

The Americans left as swiftly as they had come. By 1947 only a remnant of GIs remained to man the huge complex of airfields left over from the strategic bombing offensive in the fenland of East Anglia and on the downs above Oxford. The homegoers returned to the continuation of the most sustained economic boom ever known in any country in history. Paul Edwards, one of Studs Terkel’s oral historians, went off to the war from Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration. When he got home, “Farmers in South Dakota that I had administered relief to, and gave ’em bully beef and four dollars a week to feed their families … were worth a quarter-million dollars, right? What was true there was true all over America.” It was not true in Britain. There life became even more pinched in the first years of peace than it had been during the worst of the war years. Bread, freely available while the U-boats were sinking the grain ships from North America, was rationed from 1947; I clearly remember, on the first occasion my father took me to dinner in a London hotel, the head waiter asking us at the door of the restaurant to choose between bread and potatoes and issuing the appropriate coupons. Coal almost disappeared that winter, the harshest of the century, a real affliction in a country where an open fire was still for most people the only form of heating. Were there electrical power cuts? I certainly remember the family huddling in an upstairs bedroom over the only gas fire in the house. I remember, too, my mother’s constant anxiety about food; in the country, where the family had spent the war years, there had been an unofficial overflow of eggs and poultry from the local farms; in London, to which we returned in 1945, we were limited to what our ration books allowed. That made American food parcels all the more important, and these we had now intermittently started to receive from a civil engineer in Dayton, Ohio, who, as a result of a wartime friendship, had become my younger sister’s godfather. The contents—Sunblest raisins, Fray Bentos corned beef, Puritan Maid lard—were picked over with a sort of wonder; they contrasted surrealistically with the lumpy carrots and clodded parsnips which were the only foodstuffs in unrestricted supply.

My father’s car disappeared in 1946; in London he lost the petrol coupons to which he had been entitled in the country. The city worked almost exclusively by public transport, red buses crammed with shabbily dressed people, cold from long waits in queues. Our clothes were wearing out collectively, for clothing was rationed as strictly as food; men wore their military overcoats to work and women re-machined items of uniform into civilian shapes; a fashionable item was a floppy peaked cap, modelled on a hat worn by Princess Elizabeth, our future queen, at the first post-war Birthday Parade for her father. He was presumably not short of cigarettes, since he died of lung cancer in 1952; his subjects, by contrast, were obsessed by the shortage of tobacco, which had to be paid for from Britain’s shrinking dollar credits, and some were even driven to growing it in their back gardens, a futile experiment in Britain’s fitful summers. Officialdom, in any case, took a severe view of such efforts to circumvent the excise on luxuries: American food parcels omitting to declare on the manifest that they contained Virginia cigarets—we noted the different spelling—were, if opened for inspection, impounded by the Customs. The post-war years were high times for bureaucrats. Their powers were pervasive, expressed in a stream of regulations that perpetuated the regimentation of wartime in a climate from which the mood of national self-sacrifice had departed. Londoners had become surly, as ungracious as the battered streets and unpainted houses in which they carried on their lives. Something of the atmosphere informs George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, which he was writing at the time; I recognised it instantly, amid the residue of war-damaged buildings, when I visited Warsaw in the last year of Communist government forty years later.

I fell ill in 1947 with tuberculosis, the result, I suspect, of dietary deficiency, and spent most of the next four years confined to bed in an open-air hospital. That made for an odd education—Greek and Latin from the hospital chaplain, French from the schoolmistress, much miscellaneous reading—but somehow I assembled the entrance requirements for Oxford, and there I went in 1953. It was a euphoric liberation, both from immobility and the pessimism that long spells of illness induce; at times I had doubted whether I would pass any exams at all, let alone those for university admission. Yet even the Oxford of the early 1950s, though its beauty was untouched, its academic routine as measured as ever, was pinched by the national poverty; at breakfast in my first term we sat in hall, under the portraits of prime ministers and viceroys, at tables littered with the jam jars of butter and sugar that were our individual rations. We remained no better dressed than the rest of the population—undergraduates who had been conscript officers brought with them any bits of uniform that would serve civilian purposes—and, though Oxford life still required frequent appearance in dark suits, dinner jackets, even tail coats, most of our finery was hand-me-downs from fathers.

Of course, we were as high-spirited as undergraduates have ever been, and with good reason. The Oxford intake was a tiny national élite, in a country which then had only twenty universities, and we could afford to skylark in the certainty that we had a future. Yet it was not the future of our collegiate ancestors. My college, Balliol, had been for three generations the country’s most famous training ground for rulers of empire; it had produced Indian civil servants and colonial proconsuls by the hundred and its network of influence had once extended from Delhi to Johannesburg; Balliol men filled British cabinets, ambassadorships, high commisions, university chairs wherever English was spoken; Asquith, the last Prime Minister in a majority Liberal government, had been a Balliol man, and so too had Curzon, the greatest Viceroy of India of the century, Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of the First World War, Alfred Milner, Governor of British South Africa after the Boer War, and Herbert Samuel, High Commissioner in Palestine during the institution of the Balfour Declaration, which made it a Jewish National Home. We liked to tell each other that the loudest sound in the world was that of Balliol fingernails scratching Balliol backs; but we ought to have wondered who beside ourselves was listening. The outbreak of the First World War had been a disaster for Britain, its effects all too evident in our country’s diminishing circumstances; among them had been the extinction of the Liberal Party in British politics and its supersession by Labour, which was bent on the dissolution of the Empire Balliol had served so devotedly. It had already conceded independence to India, an unavoidable step but the single greatest diminution of British power in the world in our lifetime then or later; it had also acquiesced in Palestine’s dismemberment between its Jewish and Arab inhabitants, the cause of many of the world’s troubles at that time and since; while South Africa, on which Milner had tried to impose an enlightened colonial administration, was already relapsing into the racialist darkness of Boer apartheid rule.

I had gorged myself on the literature of empire—Kipling, Conrad, Buchan—in my hospital isolation, so I took particularly hard the dawning realisation that those days were past. Realise it I did none the less, perhaps because my parents, despairing of my passing any exams, had sent me after my illness to school in France, where I found myself—as most of my Balliol contemporaries had not in those days before foreign travel was the norm—among people only too keen to point out that Britain had come down in the world. They seemed more impressed by the United States. I could see why, even though they intermixed their deprecation of British self-regard with some stringent anti-Americanism, then de rigueur at almost every level of French society. The landowners whose property had suffered in the battle for Normandy complained constantly about the damage; but I noticed that it was the Americans they blamed, not the British, and not out of any concern for my feelings; the liberation was, in their eyes, an American achievement. A landed family with whom I stayed in the Indre in 1952 had let half the château to American officers building a NATO air base nearby; they took it for granted, and helped to persuade me, that the defence of Europe was now in American hands. The Americans, in any case, were evidence of this; they were bursting with energy and brought to that sleepy corner of France—Jacques Tati had shot the first of his classical denunciations of modernity, Jour de Fête, in a neighbouring village the year before—a gust of the same Americanism I remembered stirring the cobwebs in the English countryside on the eve of D-Day.

So it was with a half-formed appreciation of what America meant that I first began to make friendships with the American undergraduates I found at Oxford. They formed the largest of the foreign groups and were particularly numerous at Balliol, to which an outpost of old members at Harvard sent Rhodes scholars in a steady stream; others came to us from Yale, Princeton, the great Midwestern campuses of Michigan and Illinois and the leading liberal arts colleges, like Swarthmore. What impression did they make? Visual impressions were the most immediate. The Americans looked American, just as in those days the French looked French; the bland, indeterminate, international style had not yet been invented. Their hair was crew-cut and they wore large, heavy, highly polished shoes, waistless tweed jackets, and, whether they had been in the service or not, khaki cotton trousers winter and summer. Many had been in the service, which, after four years of college, made them older than British undergraduates; yet there was nothing elderly about their enthusiasm for university life. They threw themselves into rowing—the domination of the University Eight by Americans dates from those days—into hockey and lacrosse, even into rugby, which they played as a substitute for their own football; the transplantation of rugby as a collegiate sport to American universities owes almost everything to Rhodes scholars. They had an equal enthusiasm for the life of college clubs, particularly the political societies. Americans had a passion for debate and took their political differences with a seriousness British undergraduates did not feel in theirs. There were, as it happened, real differences between the programmes of the British Conservative and Labour parties not matched by the conflict between Republicans and Democrats; but few of us were committed one way or the other. There were exceptions—two of my contemporaries became Conservative cabinet ministers—but they formed a tiny minority. The hedonism of Oxford life was an escape from the dreary politics of a once great imperial country in decline and we scoffed at the preoccupations of undergraduate Tories and Socialists, openly laughed at the intensities of the handful of Stalinists.

Americans, on the other hand, clearly believed in the power of politics to alter the future. Their convictions foreshadowed the future which their own achievements had already preordained for them. They were a national élite—the elevation of the Rhodes scholarship to the status of undisputed prize for “most likely to succeed” in institutions as dissimilar as Harvard and the U.S. Military Academy is the subtlest of many cultural holds Britain still exerts over the United States—and knew it. All were of outstanding ability and a few of exceptional intellect; one of my Balliol contemporaries was to become a Nobel prizewinner. The majority of the Americans were not, however, pure academics. Those with whom I became friends included a future senator, a head of the Exxon Corporation, a leading Wall Street lawyer, an ambassador, a writer of distinction. I was slow to get to know them. My pre-university years had been unconventional, and on arrival I inclined to friendship with my college’s less conventional members: a Roman Catholic baronet in flight from both his mother and his faith, a Canadian of devastating good looks who had come to England in pursuit of free love, not then the norm, an Indian whose parents had married across caste, a would-be poet who thought life was a Keatsian dream. After my years of confinement in hospital, I thought Oxford was a Keatsian dream, until a recurrence of tuberculosis took me away for another year. On my return I recognised that time was not on my side, began to pick up the threads of work and to make friends with people who had a purpose in life.

No group had a stronger purpose than the Americans. Americans in the Eisenhower years must have felt there was nothing their country could not do. That was certainly the spirit exuded by the Balliol Americans; it touched those British undergraduates with any imagination; it touched me. I made friends with every American in college; I remember each one of them vividly; many remain my friends to this day. The making of friendships between America’s and Britain’s best had been the chief purpose for which Cecil Rhodes had left his money. I would certainly not count myself among the British élite, but a surprising number of my Balliol contemporaries were destined to join it. My Balliol years formed a talented group, and the friendships which the foremost of them made with the Americans have lasted, to the very great benefit of my country and with some, I hope, to theirs. Through such friendships Britain succeeded in sustaining the mutuality which the victory of 1945 had bequeathed. The 1950s were the Eisenhower years. The United States bestrode the world, militarily, diplomatically, scientifically, industrially, financially. It had, through the Marshall Plan, just put Europe back on its feet after its orgy of self-destruction in the Second World War. It was girding its loins to face down Stalinist Russia in an ideological struggle for the minds of half the world. It was building a nuclear arsenal to lend its ideology force. It was pouring out money to fund the developing economies of poor countries and pouring money into science that would better the lives of poor and rich alike the world over. It was in the midst of its own economic boom which guaranteed the dollar, through the Bretton Woods programme, as the world’s unit of exchange. It was bursting with intellectual, literary, and artistic vitality. The petulance of French anti-Americanism in the 1950s was in large measure a reaction against the creativity of contemporary American writers, painters, dramatists, and scientists, to say nothing of the country’s economists, historians, philosophers, and political scientists.

It was not surprising that I was drawn to the friendship of citizens of such a country. The Oxford Americans of my youth were fitting representatives of the United States at one of its high moments. They were public-spirited, they were able, they were attractive in looks and character, they were brimming with self-confidence, about their own futures and that of the world we shared. Little wonder that I found in them confirmation of my parents’ assertions that the United States was neither a pale imitation of England nor a land of Hollywood fairy-tale but a civilisation in its own right. There was, of course, no hope of seeing it for myself. Britain in the 1950s was semi-bankrupt and in the grip of a dollar famine. Even had I had the money to finance a transatlantic visit, I would not have been allowed to exchange it. That was not a deprivation. None of my English counterparts had any thought of travelling to the United States either, and for the same reason.

Then, in 1956, a strange rumour began to circulate Balliol. An American who had been at the college before the war had conceived the idea of founding a sort of Rhodes scholarship in reverse, confined to Balliol undergraduates, so that young Britons could get to know the United States as Rhodes scholars knew the United Kingdom. He was rich, he was serious, and he did not want those selected to attend university but simply to travel through the United States in pursuit of some interest in the country that they could justify to the selecting committee. The first group of six departed that year. In 1957 I submitted a proposal to make a tour of the battlefields of the American Civil War. As I had chosen military history as my special subject in the Oxford final exams my proposal was taken seriously. There were some months of anticipation. Then, just before graduation, I was told I had been successful. Tickets and money would be sent on. I was going to go to America.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!