Since we got back from the US, we have begun catching up on recordings of ITV’s police drama, Wild Bill, which stars Rob Lowe as an American police officer who becomes chief constable (police chief) of Boston, Lincolnshire. It is serious, unsentimental stuff, that doesn’t overplay the American aspect. If it is not on PBS in the States yet, no doubt it will be.
Seeing that got me thinking. Americans living here (of which I am one) are a disparate and at times a curious bunch. I’ve written, uh, historical novels that include them:
We have been here since 1776. Early on most were “loyalists” who hoped US independence would fail and that Washington, Jefferson, and the rest of that lot would meet the King’s justice at the end of a rope. After the war, independent Americans rediscovered the country. The first foreign born wife of a US president was the wife of President John Quincy Adams: Louisa Adams was born in London just prior to US independence to an American father and a British mother and she had never set foot in the US until arriving there in her twenties as Mrs. Adams. The fictional “Cora” in Downton Abbey did “exist” – the 19th century monied American daughter marrying the titled British man. Famously, in real-life in that same time period, Winston Churchill’s mother was American; and he is hardly the only one with similar parentage since. American writers have also been here – Irving, Cooper, Henry James (who became a British citizen), and the list goes on. Uh, I’m rambling now. Let’s just say Americans have always been here doing all sorts of things.
We happened earlier yesterday also to catch part of an episode of another TV program – one about house buying in the British countryside: Escape To The Country. It included an American woman as half of the couple. Her accent… uh, well, my wife and I are still trying to figure it out. Yep, our accents. I am unsure about mine; but in nearly 20 years here I still have much of mine from New York, but I know it has also softened.
Part of what Americans learn immediately here is to lower the volume; the British do tend to be quieter in conversation. My rule: if I’m the loudest one in a room, I know I need to speak more quietly. Many of us come to sound vaguely like former USA men’s soccer goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who played for a decade or so in the English Premiership. We may develop a weird concoction now termed a “Mid-Atlantic” accent, which may sound pompous to Americans at home and is also not really “American” to British used to hearing Americans on US TV programs.
There are now estimated to be around 250,000 Americans resident in the U.K., of whom about 100,000 live in London. Upon settlement, driving on the left for us is initially the first big life hurdle; and we have to take the driving test. (I failed the first time – embarrassing that, in your young 30s.) More seriously, we (regardless of US racial/ethnic background) also tend to be a relatively affluent bunch. (We aren’t admitted if we require state assistance.) We are here mostly because of U.K. employment or (my category) a British spouse. (Unlike the US, the U.K. does not have mass immigration of people with no ties to the country: those admitted from outside of the European Union – for now – are here because of an employment offer, marriage/close family, or because they are refugees/asylum-seekers.) There are also thousands of US military people here, but technically they are not U.K. residents.
I have come over the years to detect that an American here is – as odd as this may sound back home – often perceived as “raising the tone.” When an American moves into a neighbo(u)rhood or starts a new job, probably because of our historical relationship as countries, how we are legally living here, and that there are not that many of us, we are usually rapidly accepted by the British. We are perceived as friendly and approachable, and I quickly hear the stories of visits to the Statue of Liberty, or Vegas, or Disney. If there is “dislike” of me as an American, I can’t say I have ever experienced it to my face.
“What do you think of Meghan?” I was recently asked by a woman barber. “She’s a harmless actor now playing the role of a lifetime,” I chuckled, “but she could have big trouble with people here if she thinks she’s gonna spend British taxpayers’ money redecorating her palace; the media will eat her alive and rightly so.” (When my wife said recently she’d seen the duchess didn’t want photos taken of her when at Wimbledon, thus causing the club to need to clear out lots of spectators around her, I thought: “Uh, oh, that behavior is not gonna be thought much of.”)
Speaking only for myself, I don’t want to stand out. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a Thanksgiving display in a supermarket – it was in Cambridgeshire, near a US base – and I shook my head: “There must be some other Americans who use this Sainsbury’s.” I can’t say I seek out other Americans: I have worked with some at a university, but I have no “ordinary” American friends here.
Regardless I do sense we here all love this country. You may know there is to be a new U.K. prime minister – a man who was born in New York and was a dual national until a few years ago when he actively renounced any claim to US citizenship. Personally I will not meddle publicly in U.K. politics or offer contentious political opinions on here: I consider myself a guest and have no patience with mouthing off Americans I do encounter here now and then. I hope only that we shall always be the closest of allies and friends and that those in our respective governments strive to make sure of that.
Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂