Letter from London: A Specious or Special Relationship? 

Those of you in the United States reading this right now may not be aware of the cold snap you have just sent over to us. More than numbing, it was like a meteorological kick in the teeth. No need for us to fall out, though. We have sent to you our own fair share of icy winds in the past, often those having come at us from across the Russian steppes. But it does get me thinking about the so-called special relationship. We are still thick as thieves, aren’t we? Even if the late Helmet Schmidt did once say that if you mention the UK’s special relationship in Washington, ‘no one knows what you are talking about’. Added to which, my New Yorker friend likes calling us a small island. ‘The UK is 35 percent of Texas,’ he teases: ‘Including Scotland.’

Either way, it must have been one hell of an Atlantic crossing for all those chill winds. The second-largest ocean on earth, 150 million years old, takes no prisoners this time of year. In my childhood imagination — presumably from all those black and white movies on TV — it was always full of U-boats plus the odd Coleridge albatross as rendered by Gustave Dore also in black and white. With an average depth of 11,962 feet, none of us at school really knew what was going on down there except for giant cables and weird fish. In fact, just like a relationship, not just a special one, either, the deeper you went, the more interesting it became. I was amazed for example to learn the Puerto Rico Trench was an incredible 27,841 feet. From the air, the Atlantic was always a swirl of faraway greys, a glorious dull blob between two colourful entities. Skywards, I never saw balloons. Talking of which, we have just been told our RAF swing-role Typhoons remain on standby for such an invasion. Even though we are supposed to be on standby anyway. This whole balloon malarkey is more like Orson Welles and his adaptation on radio of HG Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds,’ than it is anything real.

A transatlantic accent. That was a real thing back in the day. Inherent in its muttered duality was a kind of cute anti-nationalism. On a good day, it was what you got when you mixed Martin Amis with Saul Bellow. It was Shirley Bassey, Graham Nash. It was Ronald and Nancy Reagan sounding more English than was necessary when conversing with the Queen or Margaret Thatcher, and Thatcher’s own replies with the faintest of American burrs. It was Jagger doing the Blues, then Country, then what he thought was Rap. Or it was Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ — ‘All the way from Washington/Her breadwinner begs off the bathroom floor/”We live for just these 20 years/Do we have to die for 50 more?” It was the accent of the late Fred Hughes, Andy Warhol’s business manager for 25 years. Tucked deep inside all this talk of air currents and balloons and sliding intonations however is the possibly of something far more invidious. This is the rail derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which makes you wonder what a Chinese climate balloon would read in that. As leading authors of pollution themselves, they have plenty of experience.

Health matters. Something called the AAA Screening Programme within our NHS gives everyone of a certain age an abdominal aortic aneurysm screening. My New Yorker friend who is privy to all kinds of state-of-the-art medical insurance testing had never heard of it. I nearly burst my aorta when he told me the US has borrowed something like 120% of its GDP — more than $31.42 trillion in December 2022 — and the UK a staggering 90%. Not that the US is without its own ‘Entitlement Programs’ — Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, Unemployment, welfare, etc. Indeed, another friend says the US will have to sacrifice these or its overseas military empire in order to survive this period.

My New Yorker friend and I have a special relationship. It has lasted approximately 36 years. Right now, he is more interested in American writers on British culture than anything else. Though recently reading the uncensored diaries of American-born British politician Chips Channon, he is now re-devouring the works of Edith Wharton, presently ‘The Buccaneers’. He was telling me about the very young wealthy American women in it doing the London Season in the 1870s, and one of them marrying an English duke. I told him I was simultaneously dipping into Peter Ackroyd’s T.S. Eliot biography, and how fascinating I found Eliot’s concerns over his great champion and fellow American Ezra Pound alienating too many people in London. This was before Pound abandoned the city to be ‘better understood’ in Paris, and long before his wretched descent into fascism. Attractively, Eliot was really hoping for a literary revolution when he first came to London. He met other American writers here such as Hilda Doolittle and John Gould Fletcher. But it had been Pound who polished the genie from Eliot’s lamp.

London has always had Americans. Further back in time, Benjamin Franklin was often seen reading and writing for an hour or so in his bath each day which he conspicuously parked right by an open window overlooking Craven Street, where twice from 1757 he lived for a total of 16 years. There was John Adams from 1785 to 1788 at 9 Grosvenor Square, a square today no longer home to a heavily antennaed but never prickly US Embassy. Adams was first minister plenipotentiary to Britain, striking brand new trade and maritime deals after the American Revolution, not so dissimilar to those still dragging their feet over our post-Brexit relations. Adams and wife Abigail would often pass on foot the home of neighbour Lord North, British PM during the Revolution. Tensions surfaced again in the War of 1812 over London’s violation of US maritime rights. It would have been even worse if Britain had supported the Confederates in the Civil War. In other words, to present both sides as eternal bedfellows would be a misappropriation of the bedsheets. History did and does continue to intertwine us, however. Stepping out of Green Park tube station last week, I was thinking about John Steinbeck in 1943 at 116 Piccadilly when a war correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune. Nearby worked Edward R. Murrow, who once covered 57 consecutive nights of bombing for CBS during the Blitz. There was of course also Edward and the splendidly named Wallis Warfield Simpson. Plus ça change. Is not Harry now in a special relationship?

I am not making any particular case for one but can confess to previous considerations on this theme. I had a fantastic American girlfriend while living in New York and we used to joke gamesomely about the special relationship. I remember one hot summer showing her around London after we had visited Rome and Paris, and feeling quite distant to my own country. It was as if a cultural shift had taken place within me and I was becoming Americanised. In the mix was what I perceived as the strictures of Britain, its continued obsession with class, its surreptitious nature. It interested me last week that a Philadelphian friend of mine in London reckoned we Brits more risk-averse than Americans, which I told him might go some way towards explaining why I have so many American friends. Anyway, my girlfriend on this UK trip met an aunt and one of my five sisters, and I remember with a smile the confusion over a certain word. ‘How are your tubes?’ my girlfriend was asked, as we sat down to dinner. She looked across at me, not sure what to say. ‘Fine,’ she said, straightening the bowl of soup on her mat. ‘Do they work OK?’ she was asked. At this, my girlfriend looked even more astonished. It was only then I realised that on one side of the table we had a discussion on the merits of the London Underground, while on the other was one about my girlfriend thought were her fallopian tubes.

I have enjoyed the company of one or two well known American actors here. Not just during those epic few days with Matt Dillon while he was editing his film ‘City of Ghosts’ which he had just shot in Cambodia. The funniest moment for me came with Tim Robbins. Director Michael Winterbottom had just ‘wrapped’ on his underrated ‘Code 46’ written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Michael’s parties were legendary and we were all still making merry at about two o’clock in the morning when the doorbell rang. For some reason it fell to me to answer. There were three helmeted policemen standing right outside in the half-light. ‘We have reason to believe you are making too much noise,’ said one of them. At the same time, he, like his fellow officers, was peering over my shoulder, and I could tell at that moment they wanted to shut us down, maybe even bust the place. Whatever, it was not a good vibe. ‘We have received a serious complaint,’ added the policeman. As he spoke, the others began to recognise one or two faces behind me. ‘Is that so and so?’ and ‘Is that Tim Robbins?’ they said. ‘Sir,’ I said, ‘Mr Robbins is conducting some hugely important business in our country which has massive implications not only for us, not only for the country, but also the continued survival of London as a centre of our film industry. Therefore, you would not only be helping us but the entire country if you could please allow us for a little bit longer to be a little quieter as we enjoy this extremely important global farewell party.’ To my surprise, they nodded and left.

In truth, relations were never dead in the water. We are just small players. Last week saw the release of a UK policy paper on what it calls its Arctic Policy Framework. Within it, the US is inevitably described as a close partner for the UK: ‘We share the vision of the recently published US National Strategy for the Arctic Region.’ Where you go, we still go. Only Harold Wilson by refusing to commit British troops to the Vietnam War stood alone. Also just released was news that the US in coordination with the UK have sanctioned members of the Russia-based Trickbot cybercrime gang. There must be so many such Anglo-American projects. I am not even mentioning Ukraine. Even our border policy will soon be matching the US, though unfortunately this will mean Americans having to receive permission before arriving, as well as paying what is described as ‘a small fee’ to enter. This is part of a new Electronic Travel Authorization scheme which should be fully digitised by 2025.

Finally, I overheard an American and Brit in a London bookshop last week. They were being highly completive with one another. The Brit was saying, ‘I read the whole of Don Quixote in January.’ I could see the American looking riled. ‘In which language?’ he eventually said back. That same afternoon, I tried speaking by phone to a friend of a friend at a well known American newspaper. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the number for their direct line. The automated voice on the other end kept asking question after question, none of which helped, and eventually told me it did not understand: ‘Goodbye’.

Peter Bach lives in London.