I moved to England a year ago armed with a good resolution. I was determined not to become a ninetyday expert. I would spurn the opportunity to pose as an authority on British attitudes, morals, intellectual trends, and intentions concerning the Common Market. I have held to this resolution. Regretfully I declined the use of the title suggested by a New York publisher: My Romance With England - In Letter and in Verse.
However, I have remarked a few aspects of life in Britain so notably at variance with common American beliefs that they may be worth setting down. I shall state some of these beliefs and follow them with pertinent experiences.
ITEM: The British are slow and inefficient, and you can’t get anything done.
My wife and my daughter and I staggered down the Queen Mary’s gangplank at Southampton officially Custodians of twenty-six pieces of luggage, evidence not of affluence but of departure too hasty to allow proper packing. Nine were wooden crates of some size. A young pinkfaced porter took us in charge. He was diligent, efficient, pleasant. We had to wait perhaps ten minutes for the attention of a customs officer. He looked serenely at the mountain of debris on his counter, overcoats in plastic bags, straw baskets full of books and magazines. I told him that, regrettably, I was unable to assemble everything directly before him, because of the crates, which were somewhat scattered. And what, he asked, might be in the crates? I pointed to the nearest one, holding an electric typewriter. On the other hand, I said, that big one across the way, the six-foot-high one, contained five crossbows and a sufficient supply of quarrels, or arrows; four of the crates held books; and so on.
“If you would be so good, sir,'’ the customs official said, “as to conduct me on a tour of the shed and point out to me the various parcels.” As we came to each piece he marked it with his blue chalk. Not a lid was lifted. When we returned to the counter, he spoke to another passenger who was waiting. He waved graciously toward my pile of impedimenta on the counter.
“In a moment, madam.” he said, “there will be space enough here to drive a pantechnicon through.”
He smiled, to ensure I understood his attitude was ironic, not sarcastic. He had been with me perhaps five minutes. From my point of view the operation had been a marvel of politeness. From his point of view it had been completely efficient, and his estimate of me as a nonsmuggler was wholly correct: in the entire lot of twenty-six pieces there wasn’t five cents’ worth of contraband.
A representative of British Railways took perhaps six minutes to arrange shipment of the heavy stuff to my house in Kent. The porter stowed the rest in, around, and on top of the car I had hired in advance. I knew approximately what I should give the porter, but it suddenly occurred to me that he was too good to be real, and I told him I had no idea. I asked him to tell me what he thought would be proper. He named a figure I considered absurd, lower standard of living or no lower standard of living. My memory is faulty, but I think it was five shillings, or seventy cents. At any rate it was a sum which, offered to a New York porter for handling twenty-six pieces, would have put me in danger of dismemberment. I gave it to him, and 50 percent more, and my heartfelt thanks.
A gale off the French coast had made the Mary twenty-four hours late on that voyage. Information on her arrival had been sketchy. She docked around six in the evening, and the driver of my car had been waiting on the pier since two that morning. He was bright and cheerful. Our destination was a town a hundred miles away. The roads were dark and winding; the directions our driver’s office had given him faulty. The trip took four hours. We found the house, in an obscure lane, and two doors down, the caretaker’s house. This gentleman, whom we will think of for the rest of our lives as the inimitable Mr. Edwards, had waited for us until nine thirty. He returned and opened the place and brought in the luggage. We made tea and toast for the driver, who was cross-eyed with fatigue and obliged to return at once to Southampton. He was perfectly cheerful about it. “Mustn’t grumble,” he said, as he bored off into the night. (It’s a phrase one hears frequently in England: “Mustn’t grumble.” And another: “Not to worry.” For example, one tells the laundry-truck driver that one has, for the third time, forgotten to make a list. “Ah, well, not to worry,” he says.)
ITEM: The British used to be courteous, but they aren’t anymore.
As an English waiter places a dish before a customer he says “Thank you.” He also says “Thank you” as he removes it. A minor commercial transaction, the purchase of a loaf of bread or a shilling’s worth of postcards, involves six thank you’s: the customer is thanked when he gives the order, when he hands over the money, and when he receives the package; and, of course, he replies each time.
Coming down from London late one night, I was in a first-class compartment with two couples and a man, all in their middle thirties and all acquainted. An engine drivers’ slowdown strike was in progress, and the train was making what I judged to be about seventeen miles an hour. The prospect was dreary. The others began to denounce the working classes in general, and engine drivers in particular. They seemed remarkably bloody-minded. One was for instant induction into the armed forces. Another was for dismissal and blacklisting. The third favored decimation.
“That’s it!” he said. “Line ‘em up and shoot every tenth one of the beggars. That would put paid to it!”
There was a murmur of agreement, and then someone suggested that it was a bit stuffy. The decimator-elect was nearest the window. He asked the other man’s wife if she would mind. She said, not at all, actually. He asked his own wife. She was in favor. He asked the man opposite him, who had in fact made the suggestion. He voted in the affirmative. He asked the third man. Quite. There came now a distinct pause. After all, I was seated farthest from the window. I had said no word, but I was obviously an American or something of that sort. (I was still wearing an American-made, off-the-peg suit, which to an Englishman of a certain class appears to be of red serge.) Still, there was no way out. I was present, and I had to be consulted.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” the would-be scourge of the engine drivers said. “Would you mind terribly if I opened the window a bit?”
“By all means,” I said.
He dropped it two inches and sank back into his seat.
“Yes, by God!” he said. “That’s what we ought to do — decimate the lot of them!”
ITEM: The typical Englishman would die rather than strike up a conversation with a stranger.
The English may be diffident with each other, but a lively sense of hospitality and innate politeness lead them easily enough into conversation with strangers. During one train journey an Englishman of mature years offered me a conversational gambit, having clearly recognized me as American or Canadian. We were joined by another man of about the same age as the first, say sixty-something. Both men were knowledgeable, well read, informed, widely traveled, and fascinating. One was a retired major general; the other was head of a pharmaceutical house. They enjoyed each other, and at the same time made ingenious efforts to please me. The major general got off at my stop. He said to me, wistfully, I thought, “You know, I’ve seen that chap on the train for years, but we never spoke before.”
ITEM: The British are devoted to bleakness and austerity.
True, they send their sons to schools boasting of cold showers at five in the morning in the dead of winter, but the young aren’t meant to be comfortable. The mature Briton, on the other hand, is deeply concerned with comfort and is expert in obtaining it.
The first-class railway compartment, capacity six voyagers, is a case in point. I am assured that the carriages in use today are cattle cars compared with the best of the prewar period, but I find them delightful. Going up to London on the 9:09 out of Etchingham once a week or so, I occasionally spare a sympathetic thought for my friends habituated to the 8:57 for New York out of Wilton, Connecticut. The distance is about the same, and British Railways, like the New York, New Haven & Hartford, runs the engine in front. The similarity ends there.
The compartment has arm rests; ashtrays (a red triangle on the door signifies a nonsmoker); a wide baggage rack and a narrow one, for umbrellas and the like, under it; reading lamps; a small sign on the wood-paneled wall naming the wood, usually exotic; and adjustable seats. One car away is the buffet, where one can have a cup of coffee or tea, or eggs with ham or bacon and a pint of stout, if that is one’s pleasure.
Because I had heard that British trains had become unpunctual since nationalization, I occasionally checked arrival and departure times.
I do not claim this as a national standard, but, slowdown strikes excepted, the worst that I have noted so far has been a 45-second lateness in arriving in London. A countrysquire type in the compartment with me on that day (it is a rarity to have more than three people in the compartment in the morning, and quite often one is alone) was not pleased. He had taken his watch out of his pocket as we passed Waterloo Station, and when the train came full stop at Charing Cross he looked up and said, “Hah! Damned near a full minute!” Clearly it had just been brought home that once more the welfare state had brutalized him.
It is a cliché of clichés, but the common pub is one of the most comforting devices man has originated. It is incredible, and depressing, that the pub, that combination of bar, club, and restaurant, should be totally unknown in the United States. The wineshop, where one may buy fine wines by the glass, is another delight, and I know a bar that serves champagne in tankards, not in fragile stemware.
The Briton’s determination to be comfortable is clear in his mode of dress. Aside from certain rigidly governed strata of society, typically the City businessman and the Guards officer off-duty, both of whom wear what might be termed a mufti uniform, the Englishman dresses for comfort. Observing an audience at the Theater Royal in Brighton, some of the men in dinner jackets and some dressed as if for a hike on the beach, some of the women in silk and some in twentyyear-old tweeds, my wife remarked, “These people are wholly unconcerned with what the public thinks; they know that they are the public.”
One is often reminded of the doggerel:
ITEM: British food is dreadful.
British food is certainly not as bad as it is said to be, excepting food in the cheaper kind of restaurants. A really cheap restaurant in England, something on the level of a Nedick’s, can be unspeakable, dreadful. A good restaurant will offer food plain but appetizing enough, if wholly unimaginative, and a superior one. usually French, Italian, or Chinese, will present a cuisine good to excellent. One need not expect to find the typically rewarding, even enchanting “little restaurant” of France, however. British chefs do best with fish and with roast meats. Their desserts are the worst in the Western world. The British know nothing about desserts, plum pudding excepted. They are not very keen on desserts, which they call “sweets” (also the generic term for candy). They may end a meal with a “savoury,” which can be Welsh rabbit or mushrooms or sardines on toast. Or with cheese. Or with walnuts and port (“Clockwise, sir! Clockwise!”).
ITEM: British weather is horrible.
The winter of 1961-1962 was held to be a terrible one. On two or three occasions, in Scotland and the north of England, snowfalls actually blocked the roads, and there were heavy snowfalls around London. There were two snowfalls in Kent, one of which was several hours in melting. It rained a good deal, and the temperature on occasion fell to around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. When Mr. Edwards came in every morning to see to the fireplace, he was likely to say, “Not a very nice day, zur. Horrible weather, this. Can’t understand it.” Still, in midFebruary I could wander around the grounds in a flannel shirt, looking at daffodils four inches high. I wondered, then, how American weather seemed to the Englishman who had my house in Connecticut, as he looked out at seventeen inches of snow on the level.
I like English weather. Even in that notorious winter I did not encounter the dread bone-chilling, penetrating British damp. It rains often in England — how else could the country be so lush and green? - but nine times in ten the rain seems light, drifting, misty. One can walk in it with indifference. It is soon over. I have driven through three rainstorms in nine miles.
The weather changes frequently, adding to its interest. On one day in April in Hawkhurst, Kent, there were five separate periods of blue sky and sunshine; it rained three times; and there was a brief but brisk fall of hailstones as big as peas.
Summer evenings in England are delightful. It is still quite light at nine thirty and not wholly dark at ten,
I should emphasize that when I speak about British weather I am speaking only of what I know — Kent and Sussex, held by some to be the loveliest counties in England. If I had spent six months under the smoky sky of Manchester I would have a different opinion.
ITEM: Great Britain is in decadence and will never recover a dominant position in Europe or the world.
Perhaps. I would not care to venture a large wager in support of the proposition, however. The British political scene is difficult of assay. British conservatives are not as reactionary as their American counterparts. They can accept notions thought madly radical a short time ago: the Common Market, decimal coinage in place of the quaint, sacred pounds, shillings, and pence, a cross-Channel bridge or tunnel, and, mirabile dictu, driving on the right-hand side of the road. All of these things will come to pass. It is a cliché to say that British leftists, while determined, are never as radical as they look. Many, I daresay, are at one with the engine-driverdecimator-elect who would not open the window without my leave. Meanwhile, the whole mass moves on, slowly but implacably.
From a field I know better than I know some others, I will cite an example that may be pertinent.
Automobile racing is an important sport in Europe — five million people used to watch the Mille Miglia races in Italy—and national rivalries are intense. Racing is commercially significant: race-winning sells automobiles abroad.
When racing resumed after World War II the British had nothing to drive. Neither had the Germans or the French. The Italians had a superior car, the Alfa-Romeo, and it won races. In 1947 a company called British Racing Motors was organized, and plans for a car were laid down. Time passed. The Italians kept on winning races. The BRM was designed, the engine tested. Another year. It was run on the track. Difficulties were encountered. In Italy Maserati cars were challenging the Alfa-Romeos, and the new Ferrari was fast and most formidable. The BRM was still not right, and vast amounts of money had been spent. The British public was asked to contribute. The car began to appear at an occasional race. It did badly. The engine blew up. Brakes failed. Cockpit heat literally blistered drivers’ feet. The designers kept going back to the drawing boards.
The German Mercedes-Benz factory, flattened under saturation bombing, announced a return to racing and produced a car that was practically unbeatable from its first appearance onward. The BRM kept stumbling along. One long-heralded appearance was a short one: the car broke its drive shaft on the starting line. The other machines roared away, leaving the BRM, in the dark bottle-green British racing colors, sitting impotent and alone in front of the grandstand. The car’s reputation was so bad that foreign crowds jeered when they saw it.
In 1961 the BRM suddenly began to go very fast, driven by an improbably good-looking, ramrod-straight, mustached guardsman-type named Graham Hill and by the American Ritchie Ginther. It won its first time out in 1962, although some said the victory was due more to Hill’s virtuosity and daring than to the car’s ability. But it won the next time as well, the important Grand Prix of Holland, and without requiring any heroics from Hill. The once-dominant Ferraris could get nowhere near it. Hill won the Grand Prix of Germany and of Italy, where Ginther took second place.
Meanwhile, two other British manufacturers, Cooper and Lotus, both having started operations in garages smaller than some American living rooms, had been winning important races. Indeed, in 1959 and 1960 the Australian driver Jack Brabham had won the championship of the world in Cooper cars. Cooper won the second race of 1962, the Grand Prix of Monaco, and Lotus the third, the Grand Prix of Belgium. Cooper, whose first cars had had rear-mounted engines, made this positioning so effective that front-engined cars fell hopelessly out of contention, and even the great Commendatore Enzo Ferrari had to redesign his machines hastily. The 1962 Lotus which won in Belgium was the most radical racing car in decades: it had no chassis or frame of any kind. In essence it was two long, stiff gas tanks, with an engine bolted on in the rear and a steering gear bolted to the front. It was very light, and the Ferrari drivers could not keep it in sight.
Suddenly it appeared that the stodgy, stick-in-the-mud British had the fastest cars, some of them remarkably advanced and radical in design, and the biggest pool of competent Grand Prix drivers, always very rare birds; of the sixteen who completed the 1961 season, nine were British, among them the incredible Stirling Moss, winner of more races than anyone else has ever won. The 1962 world championship was won by Graham Hill, and until the last race his closest challenger was Jim Clark, another Briton. The Manufacturer’s championship was won by the British firm BRM. It was the old story: having lost a great many battles, the British were winning a war or two.
I was told of a crotchety retired naval officer who refused his housekeeper permission to burn a 1910 world map which showed the Empire in traditional red. “Nonsense,” he told her. “It may be quite useful one day.”
He will have to settle for less. But it may be, in its own terms, not a great deal less.