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A Yank at Oxford in the Bicentennial Year


ISSUE:  Summer 1976

“Ye Tories all rejoice and sing
Success to George our Gracious King
The faithful subjects tribute bring
And execrate the Congress.
These hardy knaves and stupid fools,
Some apish and pragmatic mules,
Some servile acquiescing tools,
These, these compose the Congress.”

No, this verse was not sung in England, nor was it composed by our recent Presidents. Rather, it was crooned with some gusto by Americans in the Loyalist stronghold of New York City—in 1776. It is not likely that this fact will be well publicized in the United States during the effusive Bicentennial celebrations. In fact, the Big Apple’s Bicentennial planner, when asked how his city would get around its Tory history, simply replied, “By ignoring it.”

An American is far more likely to hear the other side of the 1776 rebellion in Great Britain, and the satirical Punch magazine, in the most detailed attention yet lavished upon the American anniversary in the British press, delighted in doing just that in a recent cover story. Entitled “The Bicentennial Racket,” the piece was adorned with Paul Revere, a capitalist glint in his eye, strewing gaudy souvenirs everywhere as he announced, “The Tourifts are coming! The Tourifts are coming!” The picture of the Buy-centennial presented by Punch was not an attractive one. The “commemorative kitsch,” from yo-yos to Independence Hall sawdust, is enough to repel virtually anyone. In a broader context, the editors saw the Bicentennial as a “mammoth exercise in self-congratulation which the organizers hope will remove, or at least push aside, the doubts generated by Vietnam, Watergate, social unrest, and massive unemployment.” But what really rankled the British sensibilities was the Orwellian re-write of history which is taking place all over America. One classic example bears repeating here. White Plains in New York State was the site of a serious defeat for the Americans on October 28, 1776, in a battle described in a recent history:

Then came silence on the extreme right and a humiliating message to Washington: Hessian and British had stormed Chatterton’s Hill; the militia had run away again; Smallwood’s men had stood for no longer than a quarter of an hour; Webb’s regiment and part of Haslet’s command had held their ground but had to retreat when they were left alone; some of McDougall’s men had not pulled the trigger.

Yet, in 1976, the co-chairman of the White Plains Bicentennial Committee didn’t quite see it that way:

It was not a defeat, it was a victory, because it defeated the British generals’ plans and when you’re defeated in your plans, you’re lost. There are a lot of skeptics who say, “You got thrown off the hill.” Yes, we got thrown off the hill but we stood our ground. It’s our hope that we’ll get the historians to see it our way. We’re looking around for a nice poet who will do what the poets did for Concord and Lexington.

Despite these irritations, the British for the most part are swallowing their pride and observing the Bicentennial in appropriate ways. They have lent us one of two original copies of the Magna Carta and are participating in numerous cultural and academic exchanges. Among the outstanding exhibitions on display is the British Museum‘s “The World of Franklin and Jefferson,” the premiere of which drew Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller. There is a joint British-American effort under way to salvage the Bon Homme Richard, flagship of John Paul Jones, which sank after an epic Revolutionary War battle on September 23, 1779, off Hamborough Head, England. The British may also give us the remains of Pocahontas, if they can manage to locate them in or around St. George’s Church at Gravesend. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London’s East End, which cast the original Liberty Bell in 1752, is molding a duplicate to be displayed near Independence Hall in Philadelphia. (The Master of the Foundry used the occasion to insist that “there was nothing wrong with the [original] bell. . . . Bad hanging and a succession of poor casting caused the crack.”) In a unique and somewhat surprising tribute, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) sponsored a special program to thank Americans for their contribution to the language. Without their counter-parts in the New World, noted the BBC, Britons would not be able to “go dead broke,” “get even,” or even “keep a stiff upper lip”—all of which, with their current problems, they need to be able to do.

It is doubtful that any of this activity has pierced the public consciousness. A recent Gallup survey showed that only 5 per cent of the British population could identify the major event which occurred in 1776 (while 70 per cent of Americans could do so). In Oxford, where the proportion of knowledgeable citizenry is presumably much greater, the Bicentennial elicits little more than a bored yawn. Firstly, Oxford considers itself the center of the civilized world, so she is hardly concerned with the periphery—if indeed, America is considered to be in the civilized dominion at all. Secondly, 200 years is not much of a history in the Oxonian perspective, and I must admit that the Bicentennial does seem less impressive after a few months here. My college quarters, for instance, were constructed in the 14th century; my living room wall, then, is about three times older than the United States (and looks it). In fairness, some Oxonians have taken proper notice of their former colony’s anniversary. A series of “Bicentennial seminars,” organized by Professor H. G. Nicholas, brought together a score of colonial historians and some hangers-on to debate the whys, wherefores, and what ifs of the Revolutionary War.

Perhaps it was the attraction of this heritage which motivated several Virginians to form the Committee for Reunion with England. The editors of Punch might well have agreed with the Committee’s assertion that, “It’s time we realized that the Revolution was nothing more than the self-serving acts of a bunch of hotheads and caused a lot of problems for this country which can now be corrected only by reunion,” The Times of London publicized their cause, and as a result a score of Britons were enlisted in the movement. Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that he was “prepared to accept any reasonable proposition,” but on second thought remarked that, “We British have enough problems already!”

Despite Britain’s problems, the values and institutions which undergird the island kingdom remain intact. Respect for both the institution of royalty and the royal family itself is nearly universal. Despite the natural, anti-monarchian sentiment which any American would feel given our history, I have been struck by the singularly important and beneficent influence of the Queen in the United Kingdom. She provides continuity and stability by linking past with present, and it is the glorious past in Britain which is stressed. The “current events” shelves in Oxford libraries have books which reach back to 1900. The U. K. even has an Ephemera Society, founded to preserve the minutiae of the past. The Society, whose President is poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, collects “all the printed oddments of everyday life,” from school report cards to out-of-date railway timetables. The group’s purpose, one can surmise, is to insure that things that are here today and gone tomorrow are still here tomorrow.

The Queen is certainly part of the present. She visited Oxford on a clear, crisp March day and stimulated more activity in the city of the bells in twelve hours than had taken place in the rest of the year. Plebes and patricians lined the streets to greet the monarch, with Union Jacks streaming from most buildings. Prim and proper ladies, who normally eschew public displays of emotion, acted not much differently from the screaming teenie-boppers who were such an integral part of the Beatles’ performances in the early 60’s. The plans for the Queen’s visit were more elaborate than a spaceship launching. One Oxford college which hosted a dinner for the royal entourage sent a detailed itinerary and instruction sheet to each student, even noting when and where the students would “undoubtedly wish to applaud.” I saw the Queen on a street corner with the other plebes. As her limousine moved slowly past, I waved to Her Majesty, and she waved back. Prince Philip, the gallant escort, waved, too. This may not sound very eventful, but I was almost as excited as the time I saw Walter Cronkite crossing Fifth Avenue in New York. An American friend in Oxford was able to have a brief conversation with the Queen later that day. She observed that a disproportionately large number of Americans had been elected to head the undergraduate student “common rooms” (college associations). Her Majesty offered a royal explanation: “I suppose that’s because Americans like to talk so much.” I’m still not sure how to take that.

Nor am I sure I will ever learn all the protocol involved in British dining. Formal table manners are second nature to a Briton, and we self-conscious Americans, fully aware of our inferior breeding, provide much amusement for our British hosts as we fumble our way through dinner. At a recent repast in my college Provost’s lodgings, I tried so very hard to guard against the faux pas. Absolutely undetected, I mimicked the every moment of my table companion to the left. As she lifted her salad fork, I lifted mine. Our soup spoons lay geometrically parallel. The dinner over, all guests arose, and my lady guide led me to the threshold of the parlor through which the other women had already passed. I glanced behind me, and was astonished to find the men still standing by their chairs. “Ahem!” called the Provost, barely able to conceal his mirth, “Gentlemen stay after dinner for a bit more port and conversation.” Accompanied by the incredulous stares of my dining partners, I slunk, scarlet-faced and smiling wanly, back to my seat.

Whatever the table manners and other attributes of British life, efficiency and high productivity are not among them. Business hours are brief, and lunch hours are long. England does not need consumer protection so much as consumer service. Even the University restricts its academic clientele; nowhere have I encountered such limited library hours. These irritants, though, don’t faze the British, who are never in a hurry to do anything or get anywhere. Their easy pace of life can be refreshing, unless you are trying to do anything or get anywhere. I travelled to Britain by ship with a group of other Americans, and immediately after disembarking at Southampton we had our first experience with English inefficiency. The task was to transfer 32 people and their luggage to Oxford. A bus and a truck had been rented to do the job, and there was ample space for everyone and everything. A job which should have taken only part of an hour actually devoured the better part of the afternoon. The British troop commanders could not seem to satisfy themselves. Either the baggage was too tightly packed or too lightly packed. This dilly-dallying was insufferable to impatient Yankees, and as word of the third repacking reached us, audible groans reached our host, the Warden of Rhodes House. It was then, before any syllable of greeting or welcome, that his first words to us on English soil were spoken: “You lugged the luggage on the bus; you can bloody well lug it off again!” Stunned and chastened, we quickly complied. After innumerable rearrangements and seemingly endless consultations, we managed to depart for Oxford.

Hardly had I taken my bags off the bus there when I had my first encounter with the British class system, which may be declining elsewhere but is certainly alive and well in Oxford. Upon my arrival at Queen’s College I encountered for the first time the porter of my College, a kindly graying man in his mid-sixties. As is the accepted American practice when a large age differential exists, I addressed him as “sir.” He swiftly corrected me: “You’re ‘sir’; I’m ‘Bill.’” The class system is buttressed by a myriad of social and political inventions, not the least of which is the peerage and honors scheme. There was talk of establishing such a system in America during colonial times, and some scholars of the period have suggested that the Revolution might have been much longer in coming if we had had a bevy of Sir Johns and Lord Does.

Even in our day, the allures of status are difficult for many Americans in Britain to resist. Oxford teaches Americans the value of a hyphen. One who was known as Jeffrey Simmons Smith on arrival became Jeffrey Simmons-Smith by time of departure. (The name has been changed to protect the guilty.) One three-year American veteran of Oxford encouraged me to present myself as “Lawrence” rather than “Larry” since “Lawrence has more class and the English expect it.” This same individual confided in me that, of all the pleasures of British life, he liked having servants best. “They’re indispensable. Of course, I couldn’t write home about this; they wouldn’t understand.” This American (and many like him) has cultivated a counterfeit, but passable, English accent.

Irrespective of social classes, most Britons frequent a pub or two. For the lower classes, especially, the pub is the center of social life, and most pubs are segregated by class and, until recently, by sex. It is a rare student (and I am not one of them) who has not participated in “pub crawling”—going from pub to pub, sampling (or guzzling) the wares, until one’s gait is reduced to a drunken crawl. Despite, or perhaps because of, economic woes, Britons increased their consumption of alcoholic beverages by 37 per cent last year. (The Americans in Oxford may account for a good bit of this percentage.) The flip side of this coin, though, is tragic. The number of alcoholics is projected to grow from 400,000 to 1,500,000 in 1980. No statistic reveals more starkly the pressures which bear down on post-Empire Britain.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson claimed that, “Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic, and will be alike influenced by the same causes.” It may not be good form to disagree with Mr. Jefferson in the Bicentennial year, but after spending the better part of it in Britain I believe the mists of Monticello hid the real truth about trans-Atlantic divergence. For England and America are separated by much more than a common language. Our attitudes, life styles, demeanors, and, perhaps, even our very natures differ significantly.

Our “common” tongue proves to be particularly deceptive. An American never considers himself a foreigner at first. After all, everyone speaks English and he should feel right at home. But he quickly learns how indecipherable some of the English dialects are, and often may have trouble making himself understood. So different is the American English that many a Briton cannot distinguish between the accents of the Bayou and the Bronx.

And no one will ever bridge the “humor [humour?] gap.” Soon after my arrival, I attended a screening of Mel Brooks’ movie, Young Frankenstein, with a dozen other newly-emigrated Americans. Only a few minutes into the movie we realized that the British students present were laughing at the wrong times. They would chuckle at the straight lines and remain strangely silent for the punch lines. They leered at us as we guffawed our way through the movie. The American laughter and the English laughter were practically distinct sets. I understood this better after wasting an Oxford afternoon in a futile search for a witty birthday card.

Oxford is not Britain, of course. The City of Spires offers a life much more leisurely in an academic world of its own. The earth could collapse but Oxford would remain undisturbed, or so it seems from inside the city walls. Change is a word regarded with considerable suspicion, and the plush existence of both students and professors has scarcely been altered through the centuries. Oxford is also a community full of itself. It might be fairly said that Oxford has a much inflated view of its place in creation. William Hazlitt queried in 1823, “Rome has been called the “Sacred City”:—might not our Oxford be called so, too?” No ordinary, dull-witted bloke is found within the College walls. Said G. W. E. Russell in 1907: “Wherever philosophical insight is combined with literary genius and personal charm, one says instinctively, “That man is, or ought to be, an Oxford man.” “All of my friends here lack at least one of Russell’s elements, so I suppose admissions standards have fallen of late. About the only competition to which Oxford will admit is from her sister institution at Cambridge, As Henry James put it: “If Oxford were not the finest thing in England, Cambridge would certainly be.”

Attitudes toward Americans range from warm and hospitable throughout most of Britain to condescending in Oxford and environs. In fact, condescension is an Oxonian high art, and its application is by no means limited to Americans— although we often merit special attention. The typical American in the Oxonian view is the tourist bedecked in flowered shirt and camera who stupidly does not understand that Oxford University is not a unitary entity but rather several dozen separate and autonomous colleges. One of my British acquaintances in Queen’s College loves to tell of the American who poked his head through the College’s front gate and asked, “Could you direct me to Oxford University?” I have suffered through that story a dozen times, and it has not seemed funny even once.

Heading the list of complaints about Oxford life which all Americans carry on their persons are food and heat. On the former, no one has ever accused the English of being connoisseurs. I’m not even sure there is an English cuisine, unless bland Brussels sprouts and tart peas qualify. If there is a real cuisine, it certainly isn’t served at Oxford. The problem with heat can be succinctly summarized: there isn’t any.

The academic system at Oxford is a time-honored one, and the personal attention and writing rigors of the tutorial system confer many benefits. Yet the English often seem to put a bit more emphasis on form than on substance. The debate becomes more important than the issue. The English love the language, and their agile use of it puts Americans to shame. Yet they sometimes get carried away with their own glibness. But British academics may have a point when they complain about the American tendency to over-quantify subjects which are imprecise by their very nature. The American Political Science Review is the object of particular ridicule, “Everything has to have a correlation coefficient or they won’t print it!” grumbled one professor. Still, the Warden of Rhodes House went too far when he claimed that the contributions to knowledge of my subject (voting analysis) could be “summarized on the back of an envelope.” I still say it would have to be a pretty big envelope.

Yet despite my quibbles about life in the mother country, Britannia has sheltered this unworldly American more securely than her sister states on the Continent. During a Christmas jaunt through France and Italy, I was locked in a cemetery in Paris, hit by a car in Florence, robbed at gunpoint in Rome, and nearly arrested for intemperately calling a dishonest Italian museum proprietor “stupido.” I even managed to tumble down the winding stairs of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. (As my inner ear discovered, the Tower does indeed lean.) None of this would have happened in Britain, especially in the Bicentennial year. Decorum wouldn’t permit it.

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