I was sitting one Saturday in March in a rented flat on East 63rd Street, just off Fifth Avenue, New York, when I was startled by the sound of drumming outside. I went to a window and saw 12 black men vigorously beating their drums on a trailer attached to the back of a lorry. There was one curious thing about them: they were all dressed in Greek national costume. It was the Greek national day, and they were getting ready to join the annual Greek parade down Fifth Avenue.
On impulse, I went to the telephone and called my old Greek-American friend Taki Theodoracopulos, and asked him what he was doing at home in New York on this beautiful day instead of taking part in the celebrations. I told him that several of his black compatriots were here waiting for him. Taki, a columnist on Another Magazine, is well known for his right-wing opinions and his intolerance of “affirmative action”. I wondered what he would think about blacks joining in the Greek parade. He said he imagined that they were impostors from Britain.
I don’t know who the drummers were, but it seemed unlikely that they were Greek. It is not, however, uncommon for Americans of different ethnic origins to join in each other’s parades in celebration of American unity in diversity. This is especially true of the St Patrick’s Day parade, which takes place in New York a week before the Greek one. Americans of every kind then become Irish for the day, and even Ukrainians wear green. The only people who resolutely don’t wear green are the British, for whom St Patrick’s Day is an uncomfortable occasion. When I was working at the New Yorker a few years ago, I emerged from the office on St Patrick’s Day to be greeted by cries of “Brits Out!” from a group of Irish Americans on the street corner. Did they mean out of Ireland, or out of New York? And will the growing number of Brits now moving to New York find things uncomfortable?
It has been pointed out, correctly, that the English (not the Scots or the Welsh or, above all, the Irish) have the greatest difficulty among all the peoples of the world in becoming accepted as ordinary Americans, even when, like Harold Evans, they take out American citizenship. This is partly, I imagine, because the United States is defined as a nation by its revolution against the English, and therefore finds it hard to regard them as suffering immigrants yearning to breathe free.
But there is also the problem of the way the English speak. They like to imagine that the Americans adore their accent, which may be true of some Americans to whom it suggests charm, wit and refinement; but it is just as often associated in American minds with deviousness, exploitation, snobbery and decadence. The English accent (or “British” accent, as the Americans insist on calling it) is particularly potent in the worlds of old art, antiques and rare books, in which upper-class Englishmen are assumed to possess some kind of genetic expertise, their ancestors presumably having been painted by Gainsborough or Reynolds. Sotheby’s and Christie’s often employ English aristocrats as salesmen because of the comfort and reassurance they give to newly enriched Americans starting out as collectors.
British journalists, on the other hand, enjoy a dodgier reputation, as exemplified by the character Peter Fallow in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, the ultimate drunk and sponger. Here is how I myself am described in a review in the Washington Post of my book, Some Times in America, which was published in the US in March: “Alexander Chancellor”, the reviewer, Jonathan Yardley, began, “in certain particulars is an entirely familiar type, or stereotype: a vagabond journalist who has touched down in any number of places . . . without managing to establish a permanent footing in any of them. His prose is smooth and sly, his wit is quick and (when appropriate) self-deprecatory, and his appetite for whiskey and tobacco is prodigious. We have seen his likes many times on this side of the Atlantic, and one thing is certain: We shall see it again.”
If this is the stereotype, there are many exceptions to it, especially among the British journalists who have made America their home. Christopher Hitchens, for example, is appreciated not only for his intelligence, wit and brilliance as a writer, but also for his readiness to promulgate iconoclastic opinions of kinds that terrify most American journalists. But, unlike some others, such as Andrew Sullivan, a former editor of the New Republic, Hitchens has not adopted American mannerisms.
Sullivan has acquired the ultimate mid-Atlantic accent, which to the British sounds jarring and treacherous, but which may well sound British to the Americans, who can seldom tell an Englishman from an Australian by his speech. Sullivan is among British journalists in the US who have deliberately tried to jettison their Britishness so as to achieve full acceptance in their adopted country.
There is also a halfway house represented by Alistair Cooke, whose accent has acquired many American characteristics while continuing unashamedly to acknowledge its British roots. This may be the best solution for a British immigrant, given his difficulty in convincing Americans that he is truly one of them.
The British who transfer most comfortably to America are writers, actors and academics, who are taken more seriously there than they are in Britain. For many, the US offers greater opportunities and rewards, and a more stimulating creative atmosphere. When Martin Amis was thinking of leaving Britain for New York three years ago, he said: “America is a much more dynamic and vibrant place . . . It is more like a world than a country, and that would be an exciting place for a writer to be.”
For the time being, Amis is still living in London, but his friend Salman Rushdie has already debunked to the US. The New York Observer recently described his arrival at the fashionable new Italian restaurant Babbo off Washington Square: “Suddenly, the conversational hum began to sputter. Someone famous was moving through the room. The agent looked up from dinner to see writer Salman Rushdie being led to his table. Mr Rushdie’s shy eyes sparkled through his wire-rimmed glasses, and a subtle smile played on his thin lips. He was clearly enjoying the moment: the buzz of being a VIP in a hot restaurant in the hottest city in the world.”
Rushdie was a VIP in Britain, too, protected around the clock for 11 years by the Special Branch, always the centre of attention at parties and in restaurants; but he suffered a lot of sniping – a lot of it pettily about the cost to the British taxpayer of his allegedly blasphemous references to Islam in The Satanic Verses. It is understandable that he should have felt cooped up in London and yearned for the free, fresh wind of America in his thinning hair – even if he had not happened to fall in love with a young, US-based Indian actress and model whom he met, appropriately, at Tina Brown’s star-studded launch party on Liberty Island for Talk magazine.
We must hope that his exhilaration has not been dented by the grousing that has already started in New York about the dangers of his presence there. “We don’t want to die because of his fatwa,” the agent in the restaurant was quoted in the New York Observer. “It’s so passive-aggressive toward people in Manhattan.” Americans, who cancel their holidays abroad over the slightest whiff of trouble, tend to worry about their personal safety more than the British do. But the glamour of New York, its promise of freedom and riches, and the hope it offers of escape and personal re-invention, remain as appealing to Britons as they do to all other peoples, despite the disadvantages of being British there.