All this obsession might well have derived from the fact that I was so very nearly born an American myself. In the mid 1950s my father, a physicist fresh from Imperial College, was offered a job at Princeton University – something to do with the emerging science of semiconductors. One of the reasons he turned it down was that he didn’t think he liked the idea of his children growing up as Americans. This sprang not from a dislike of America so much as a disinclination, I must suppose, from having “Gee dad” directed at him over breakfast. Breakfast which would have been constituted of grahams or granola or creamed wheat or even hominy grits – the eggs would have been sunny side up or over easy and maple syrup would have been poured over Canadian bacon and link sausages: there would have been cream cheese. Not cream cheese, but cream cheese, that’s how they said it in America. There would have been stacks too of buckwheat buttermilk pancakes, waffles, bagels and blueberry muffins. There would have been fresh orange juice and Hershey’s chocolate milk and … but, no it was not to be. Thanks to my father’s decision I was born no t in America, but in England and my parents would be forever Papa and Mama or Father and Mother but never Dad and Mom and it was Force Wheat Flakes, Scott’s Porage Oats, boiled eggs and soldiers for brekker and the orange juice was prepared from frozen concentrate, just as our emotions, it seemed to me, also derived from frozen concentrate.
I was only told years later, when I was 10, about this opportunity my father had had to go to Princeton. This startling intelligence had quite an effect on me. I have written in the introduction to the book you lucky, lucky people have been presented with by the all-benevolent Spectator, I have written that the idea of having come so close to being American caused me to imagine a whole other self, the American I would have, should have become, a personage I dubbed Steve. I accorded Steve with almost magical powers and wealth. He could drive by the time he was 16, he wore Converse sneakers and Wrangler jeans, he ate hamburgers, whatever they were and drank cream sodas whatever they were from a bendy straw – even bendy straws were exotic in my country childhood. Only one place in Norwich had them. I grew up in a large house with gardeners, staff, a fireplace in every room and people to lay and light them, yet I felt like the most deprived child in the world compared to Steve. Steve was confident and happy and strong and secure in exactly the way that I was unconfident, unhappy, weak and insecure. He spoke in a sweet, lazy and sexy drawl. He was better looking, better nourished and better liked than I was. I longed to be him. He was American. I had fallen in love with America and could not wait to get there.
Of course falling in love with America almost always suggests falling in love with the idea of America, a phrase that makes little sense if you substitute the word ‘Britain’ for ‘America’ and suggest ‘the idea of Britain’. Britain does not present itself to the world or to its own citizens as an idea, an ongoing project, a work in progress in the way that America still so emphatically does. And I would not want you to think that my love of America meant contempt or estrangement from Britain. No one, I think, could accuse me of adopted American mannerisms, or being somehow unEnglish. Indeed if I had a gold sovereign for every time I have been told that I am ‘quintessentially English’ I would have enough gold sovereigns to stuff in a sock and knock the next person who told me that into violent unconsciousness…
For what is quintessential Englishness? Warm beer and the vicar on his bike on the way to a cricket match? Saturday night drinking and vomiting is surely more representative? Jade and Di worship? Club 18-30? The Garrick Club? Reality TV? Pub quizzes? Dr Who? Mean-spirited, hypocritical and opinionated newspaper columnists? Some people might say Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill are as British as you can get without falling over in a faint and yet both Churchill and Christie, as it happens, were half American.