AN AMERICAN LOOKS AT BRITAIN by Richard Critchfield. Doubleday, $22. 95.
THIS IS A BOOK by one of you about all of us. Who you are is, I think, pretty certain—a rebellious daughter who submitted to expansion and miscegenation but maintained a version of the mother language and adopted a republican system derived from a French book. God knows what us, or we, are, Richard Critchfield has, at the outset, the problem of finding out. Even the name of the country he deals with is unsure. “Britain” is properly Brittany, where the Bretons—immigrant Welshmen, really—live. “Great Britain” merely means a bigger Brittany: there is no imputation of national grandeur, and certainly no boast about size is intended. The full title of the union ruled from Westminster is the Linked Kingdom ot Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is an island containing England, Wales, and Scotland. “UK” is a reasonable shortening, though it sounds like a drug or a missile. Its citizens could be called Ukasians, which fits a land of increasingly Eurasian composition, with some blacks on the side. They do not like to call themselves Britons, the term possessing an odor of woad. The Britons, anyway, are the Welsh. Americans use the disdainful “Brits,” just like the IRA. “I hate the Brits,” says the mistress of the hero of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities; “It’s our technology will beat the Brits,” say the Provo gunmen. We are certainly both hateable and beatable, but Mr. Critchfield is kinder to us than he need be. According to him, we are not beaten yet, and, if not likable, we are at least tolerable.
Mr. Critchfield has had long experience of tolerating alien cultures, chiefly those of the Third World. He treats the UK with the objectivity he once brought to Indian villages. He has English blood, but he was born too far away from your Eastern Seaboard to be Anglophile in the Washington Irving or Emerson manner. The original survey that eventually grew into this book was commissioned by The Economist, a British publication renowned for accuracy in its figures and disinterestedness in its conclusions. Mr. Critchfield’s survey of the economic situation throughout the L’K is remarkable for its accuracy and copiousness. As a UK citizen living in Europe, I have been taught more by this American than I have by my own compatriots. No submerged patriotism rises in me to quarrel with his findings. He finds Thatcherian Britain to be in a bad way, and he shows why. Neil Kinnock, a Welshman like Lloyd George, will probably be the next Prime Minister. Nobody really thinks that a return to socialism will help restore our economy or our morale, but the UK does not like authoritarian government, especially from a woman, and it will be possible to look down on Mr. Kinnock’s Welsh accent.
What is wrong with the UK, Mr. Critchfield rightly believes, is the fact that it is not a unity. It is split between the rich and the poor and between the North and the South. The comparable regional division of the United States was resolved by a civil war. Our own civil war—the agrarian versus the mercantile interests—which anticipated yours, resolved nothing. It ended in a republican breathing space that, through dictatorial means, established Britain’s mercantilist importance. Eventually a limited monarchy brought about a national situation that has not changed much in three hundred years. We have muddled through everything. Today there are people who are growing sick of the muddle.
There is the danger, or hope, of Scottish secession, the dissolution of the Act of Union. There is even talk of the whole of the North’s breaking away from the South. The industrial areas are not part of the “green and pleasant land,” the Home Counties where the stockbrokers and money-marketeers garage their three cars. The locale of the “dark satanic mills” is suffering from unemployment on a perilous scale. ( Those mills, incidentally, which Mr. Critchfield takes from William Blake, had nothing to do in Blake’s philosophy with the Industrial Revolution. They were intended to be churches.)
The Church of England is a mere cricket club. The British have lost their faith.
If the anthropologists are right, it is a common perception of right and wrong, and the presence of God, more than anything else, that holds a society together and keeps it from breaking down. Now, ominously, in Britain the old Christian consensus is gone. What is going to take its place?
True, the only theology in Britain which sustains any rigor is Islamic. The church bells ringing over the Sussex meadows please visiting Americans, reminding them of Mrs. Miniver and The White Cliffs, but they are mere decor. The call of the muezzin is a reality. It has called Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, a British citizen, because of a book he wrote. The Brits have only their material gods, of which Mrs. Thatcher has been a high priestess. Mr. Critchfield sees a vulgar, grabbing country, drunk on XXXX lager and tending to violence.
A COMFORTING AMERICAN myth, as I well know from personal experience, portrays the Brits as lily-livered, weak-kneed, slow on the draw. This may have something to do with the upper-class accent, which to growling Texans sounds schoolmarmish. It is a good thing to warn readers, as Mr. Critchfield does, that the history of the British people has been a record of barely managing to keep violence under control. He has heard foulmouthed taxi drivers and been confronted with “aggressive body language.” The old controls are weakening. Violent crime, theft, and drug-taking are products of loss of heart. Liverpool, once a great port, resounds not with the noise of the Beatles but with the smashing of car windows. Radios are stolen to buy drugs. It is the new culture of the northwest.
Britain is run-down. The wretched football stadia that, in combination with the thuggish behavior of those who attend them, have been responsible for scores of deaths join with a decaying subway system and a rusting railroad network to present a large menace to the security of the citizen. If Britain seems also run-down in its technology—except where the Japanese have set up factories that contain compulsory gymnasiums—the blame must lie with the Oxbridge mentality. This seems to be an attitude that has placed too little emphasis on science and revered an outdated humanism. British scientists have, with inadequate equipment and funding, done great things (penicillin, radar, DNA), but never with the express approval of the establishment. The Thatcherian philosophy rewards the mere moneymaker but neglects science and technology. Our educational system is totally inadequate to meet new challenges. We have talent, but it is not encouraged. This applies as much to the arts as to the sciences. The closing of so many of our theaters for lack of subsidy is a sign of philistinism as well as economic shortsightedness. For tourists go to see plays, and tourism is a major industry—or could be.
Mr. Critchfield has much to say about the arts in Britain. A lot of what he says is inadequate. It is stupid to dismiss Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Britten as mere epigones of the “German style" and to conclude that British music is a negligible quantity. He does not deny our literary achievements, but he is talked into seeing our best modern writers as foreigners—by, appropriately, the foreigners George Steiner and Paul Theroux. An American like Gore Vidal is happy to see the best homegrown fiction in Barbara Pym, with her celebration of tea and spinsterhood. Americans need the image of an Upstairs, Downstairs England; they need what is called Masterpiece Theatre to reinforce their view of Britain as a cozy museum of stuffed fuddyduddies. Too much time is spent in this book on writers like Barbara Cartland and Jeffrey Archer, who represent the nadir of contemporary literature. How good we are, says Mr. Critchfield, at spy stories and detective fiction. How good we are, says Bernard Shaw’s King Magnus, in The Apple Cart, at producing chocolate creams.
There is a long chapter on the making of a television series based on the late Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. This is an excessive exposure of an acceptable, if superficial, entertainment, bur it serves to bring up the question of Britain’s continuing gloom over its lost empire. More, it kindly relates Britain’s imperial past to America’s own imperialistic adventures. The trouble with the defecting daughter has been an unwillingness to learn from the rejected mother. Britain was a long time in both the Middle and the Far East, but a wisdom acquired with pain meant nothing to the new meddlers. Mr. Critchfield has seen enough of India to know that the British concept of law—which is also the American—is still a living force, reminding him and us that the imperial idea, though it developed through muddle and the greed of merchants, looked forward to the bigger notion of a commonwealth, of which, like it or not, America is a part. But he prefers a “myth [that] still has its magic, in the garden parties and pageantry, the cozy cottages and pubs, the misty moorlands, the tolling bells.”Like most Americans, he likes to impose on the British a nostalgia more appropriate to a former colony than to a nation desperately trying to live in the present.
His peroration is kind. “It is true that Britain has a transcendent past and does not look forward to a transcendent future. . . . But it is not the Central African Republic. It is a great civilized power. And thank God for that.” We thank him for thanking God. We thank him more particularly for taking the trouble to look at us with a clear eye. Americans should read his book. We Brits or Ukasians are tired of the erroneous images of our country that still prevail in a civilization that began in our country. I will forget about the GIs in Germany who shot escaped British internees because they did not know who won the last World Series, the Chicago cabdrivers who ask, “How are things in Piccadilly Square?,” the bartenders who contend that Queens is so called because the Queen owns it. America has taught the British a lot about America, and reciprocation is in order. But, typically, we leave it to an American. He has taught me, at least, a great deal.