Thu, Nov 13, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Love and loathing across the pond

There is a special relationship, but the way Britain reacts to America has always been complex and full of contradictions

By Peter Beaumont  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

"You know the thing that shocks me repeatedly?" asks writer Isabel Fonseca of the difficulties of speaking to the English.

"It's how you think you are communicating with them and at the end of a conversation you discover you have not communicated at all."

"There is an illusion of a common culture," adds Fonseca, who has lived in Britain for 20 years, not least with husband Martin Amis.

"But there is a cultural difference that's masked by appearing to have the language in common."

It is the understanding thing between Britons and Americans -- closest of allies, friends and sometimes baffled collaborators. Next week, however, the understanding, and the frequent lack of it, that comprises the "Special Relationship" will be put to its sternest test when an unpopular president from the country Britons love best is welcomed here on the first state visit in decades.

What is certain is that US President George W. Bush will be greeted with a public upsurge of anti-Americanism not seen since the Vietnam War. And what is also certain is that, for all the anger that will be piled on Bush over the war in Iraq, it will not affect the enthusiasm the vast majority of Britons retain for most things American -- if not its foreign policy. The relationship between Britain and the US -- or rather Britons and Americans -- has not been this complicated in a long time.

Yet while the special relationship is easy to define in its specifics -- the close connection between the two countries' intelligence and military infrastructures and the exchanges of political ideas, although that has been largely from Washington to London in recent years -- the wider connection between the two societies is more challenging and sometimes uncomfortable.

Britons -- as Matt Wolf, the London theater critic of Variety observes -- now shop enthusiastically in malls populated by Starbucks, The Gap and McDonald's, while younger British urban residents dream of living in lofts modelled on the Manhattan lifestyle. If they go to see a film this weekend, it will almost certainly be American, whether it's Tarantino's Kill Bill or Finding Nemo. British television is crowded with American shows.

There is a mutual fascination that drives Hollywood stars to flock to the West End stage and British musicians to America's urban landscapes and vast open places. It is the same fascination that fuels a steady flow of Rhodes scholars to our universities and a reverse flow of Britons to Yale, Stanford and Harvard.

For one group, in particular -- Americans resident in the UK -- it is not where the cultures meet but where they differ that stands out.

David Schwartz, a stock market historian who has lived in Britain for 20 years, believes it is a mistake to focus on high-street phenomena and Hollywood's ascendancy, arguing that they represent not a merging of cultures but simply the assertion of the brands of the world's most powerful economic power. He sees the differences in the way the two nations go about their business.

Bob Worcester, founder of the polling company Mori and an American resident in Britain for 34 years, has been one of the most forensic analysts of relations between the two countries, collating not only his own polls but also those of other organizations, on how the two peoples view each other. And what surprises him is how "brittle" that relationship is at present.

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