To Albion's aid with gum and nylons

Rich Relations
June 9, 1995

It is December 1943. George Orwell is doing his wartime shopping. "Scene in a tobacconist's shop. Two American soldiers sprawling across the counter, one of them just sober enough to make unwanted love to the two young women who run the shop, the other at the stage known as 'fighting drunk'. Enter Orwell in search of matches. The pugnacious one makes an effort and stands upright.

Soldier: 'Wharrishay is, perfijious Albion. You heard that? Perfijious Albion. Never trust a Britisher. You can't trust the B-s.' Orwell: 'Can't trust them with what?' Soldier: 'Wharrishay is, down with Britain. Down with the British. You wanna do anything about that? Then you can - well do it.' (Sticks his face out like a tomcat on a garden wall).

Tobacconist: 'He'll knock your block off if you don't shut up.' Soldier: 'Wharrishay is, down with Britain.' (Subsides across the counter again. The tobacconist lifts his head delicately out of the scales)."

According to Orwell, that sort of thing was not at all uncommon. "Even if you steer clear of Piccadilly with its seething swarms of drunks and whores, it is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the negroes. On the other hand the Americans have their own justifiable complaints - in particular, they complain of the children who follow them night and day, cadging sweets." And not only sweets. Some months later Orwell spoke to an American soldier who told him that the previous day a girl had come up to him on the pavement and seized hold of his penis with the words, "Hello, Yank!" Here is a heaven-sent opportunity for the skilled historian, and David Reynolds makes the most of it. Rich Relations is a feast of a book, a cornucopia of sex, lies, bubblegum, and acute observation. It is in one respect an extended dialogue with a legendary image: "over-sexed, over-paid, over-fed, and over here", or "free-spending, free-loving, free-speaking", in the words of Time magazine. Any thought that this is also over-familiar can be swiftly dismissed. The Reynolds treatment is fresh, full, and fertile of ideas. "The GIs' odysseys were part of the Americanising of Britain, but they also contributed to the Americanisation of the United States" - service overseas creating a sharper, prouder sense of what it meant to be an American. The period 1942-44 may have been a long wait, but it was also a formative one.

The usage of "occupation" in this Anglo-American context is not new. Basil Liddell Hart, too, was writing about "occupied England" at the time, and the expression has been regularly recycled ever since, notably by Angus Calder in an influential study of The People's War (1969). Like "Airstrip One", it is clearly meant to be descriptive, and at the same suggestive - of other occupations, often hostile, of forced choices (collaboration, fraternisation, resistance), with their neck-prickling associations and slow-burning exhumations, individual and societal. Typically it is deployed for metaphorical effect; but the metaphor, or more exactly the analogy, has never been properly explored. Now, at last, it receives its due. Relations between the occupiers and the occupied - rich indeed - are revealed in all their compelling ambiguity. Cousins and strangers, allies and invaders, friends and rivals . . . there were Anglo-American affinities, to be sure, but there was also antipathy, or merely apathy. Winston Churchill's "natural Anglo-American special relationship" (another coinage of this period) was not experienced as such by many of those most directly involved. On the contrary, it seemed most unnatural. Their relationships were more foreign than special - a surprising discovery, then and since. Paradoxically, the underlying theme of Rich Relations is that the two peoples were, after all, foreigners to each other. At least in the upper echelons, specialness overcame foreignness; but not completely. Wartime Anglo-American relations were a hybrid. To explicate their foreignness is to illuminate their specialness. David Reynolds achieves both.

From this perspective the book is of a piece with his previous work on "the special relationship", a phenomenon extraordinarily resistant to definition or specification. The term itself is commonly tricked out with inverted commas, verbal or actual, as here. These little marks are evidently meant to convey something: a certain coolness - scepticism, perhaps, or irony - a post-modern awareness that words are playthings, ideas are constructs and nothing is as it seems. The inverted commas promise more. Yet the cupboard is bare. Analytically, scholars have done little better than politicians. "It is special," said Margaret Thatcher. "It just is. And that's that." In the matter of specialness, attitude trumps analysis.

There has been some refinement. We have long since discarded the evangelical mode so expertly satirised in Stephen Potter's Hands-Across-The-Seamanship. "First lessons concentrate on the necessity of always using the same phrases, and using them again and again. No harm in the general reader memorising one or two of them now: We have a lot in common.

After all, we come from the same stock.

We have a lot to learn from each other."

Evangelists had a sense of mission. They also had a point of reference, the greatest Anglo-American experience of their lifetimes, the Grand Alliance of the second world war, the very experience which Reynolds so expertly demythologises. Specialness for them was like the scriptures. It required not examination but exegesis, or simply revelation. The evangelist-in-chief was Winston Churchill. He dreamed of "the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples", and he dramatised its possibilities in his own life. Except as rhetorical appeal it did not survive him.

For some two decades the dominant mode has been the functional. In sharp contrast to the earlier work, this is neither militant nor inspiring. Functionalists aim to reconstruct not convert. They take their cue from the plain-speaking Dean Acheson: "I shall not bother you by doing what is done so often on occasions like this, of talking about all that we have in common: language, history and all of that. We know all that. What I do wish to stress is one thing, and that is that we have a common fate.'' A common fate entails common enemies, and a common interest in defeating or containing them. On this reading the Anglo-American relationship was a combination for a purpose - first a pax anti-Germanica and then a pax anti-Sovietica - not a sentimental attachment. The relationship was special (as Acheson himself privately conceded), but it was also seamy. It did not arise naturally from an existential sense of community. it had to be nurtured and, above all, negotiated.

The great exemplar of this mode was Christopher Thorne, his magnum opus the intricate, punning Allies of a Kind (1978). With Thorne's untimely death the mantle has passed to David Reynolds, whose strikingly accomplished debut, The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance (1981), was subtitled "a study in competitive co-operation" - the epitome of functionalism, and as neat an encapsulation of hybridity as any to be found. This book focused on the determinative period 1937-41. The next one (in partnership with David Dimbleby), An Ocean Apart (1988), ranged widely across the century. Here the relationship was characterised in Thornian terms as "hard-headed'' but also "remarkably close", especially between 1941 and 1945. "No modern allies have fused their war efforts so successfully. The ties of language and culture, though they could not eliminate friction, at least acted as emollients, allowing deep personal friendship to develop whose importance lasted well after 1945."

Since then Reynolds has written other books on other things, and, in between, some penetrating interpretative essays, notably "Rethinking Anglo-American relations'' in the journal International Affairs (Winter 1988-89), emphasising not only the co-operation and the competitiveness in the relationship but also the strong element of calculation - British calculation. "Back in the 1850s, Ralph Waldo Emerson, imagining America's future greatness, predicted that 'England, an old and exhausted island, must one day be contented, like other parents, to be strong only in her children'. For the British, the idea of a special relationship with America, of trying to harness American power to British purposes, was in effect an attempt to follow Emerson's advice." These essays also introduced a novelty: two criteria for evaluating specialness - quality and importance - broad enough criteria, no doubt, but almost alone in this analytically challenged field.

Rich Relations savours of and in some measure surpasses its author's earlier work. Chronologically, it follows on directly from the first book, but it is in every way a more ambitious undertaking. Part diplomatic, part military, part social history - "high politics and real life" - it is concerned primarily with quality, and incidentally with what might be called remembrance or, better still, resonance. Sequentially, it is the third of its kind, representing Reynolds's most determined bid so far for a wider and in particular an American readership. That is natural and laudable; but it has had the unfortunate side effect of adulterating his piquant prose. Moreover, ironically, this is a thoroughly Americanised text, complete with American spelling ("practicing"), American idiom ("free up"), and American tags ("historian John Keegan", "playwright Arthur Miller"): over here and overweening, one might think. Finally -speculatively - will this be Reynolds's last full-length word on the subject? Perhaps. There is a personal undertone to this volume, a consciously elegiac note, a sense of closure. G. M. Trevelyan is made to speak with marvellous simplicity at its end: "The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them." Requiescat in pace Anglo-America!

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain 1942-45

Author - David Reynolds
ISBN - 0 00 2551 6
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00
Pages - 555

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