I get back to find that London is fifty shades of grey and, if not exactly flooded, certainly heavily puddled, with an effulgent sky fitted tightly across the city like a dustbin lid. There are three new floors on the building opposite me (after four days away) – a reminder that cold wet countries tend to work longer hours, probably because there’s no outdoor life to enjoy.
Meanwhile it’s business as usual. A couple of policemen have been suspended for calling black people ‘monkeys’ – incredible in this day and age. A smart young black student was killed by a gang in ‘a case of mistaken identity’. The gap between rich and poor continues to jump. And British TV seems to be deliberately fomenting dislike of Americans.
What’s going on? A comedian encourages the audience to shout two words associated with Americans and they come up with ‘Fat’ and ‘Stupid’. The Sunday Times, no less, describes America as ‘basically a giant Westfield Mall with a desert in the middle and some smart people around the edges.’ A report describes the USA as ‘a holiday destination for adolescents’. American food is ridiculed. Two TV documentaries about the US Christian Right (basically tiny groups of mad people) appear on the same night, as if this was a national norm. A new TV documentary series looks at ‘the way in which rich Americans abandon their poor’. Reports on the increased fracking in the US suggest it will continue to deny climate change. Well, we’re not doing too well on any of those fronts, either. We can’t have women bishops.
For years, the English have been the villains in racist Hollywood films, especially in historical rewrites like ‘Argo’ and ‘Braveheart’, but it seemed to me that this was finally waning. The new head of the Bank of England is Canadian. France has overtaken the US as the leading holiday destination. Presumably the loss of faith in America is connected to our adoption of its capitalist and military policies, and our perception of the changing world order. Our mayor is creeping around India trying to get business and everyone else is sucking up to human-rights-challenged China.
Once, US influence in London was ubiquitous at street level; now it is almost entirely invisible. My daily evidence is anecdotal but I’m out and about in London all the time, and the one accent you no longer hear is the American voice that would make me look up and smile. Can we just remind ourselves that America has a black president and a great many powerful women in politics? Should they care what we think? Not at all; America is a democratic powerhouse that still has much to teach its grandparents, if only we can get past our Little England mentalities.
With student visas set to tighten, it appears that even fewer will arrive. It’s as if the UK just woke up to the fact that Europe is only 21 miles off its shoreline, and is catering to its neighbours. I’m ashamed to admit that I have not been back to America in a decade. This is set to change with the publication of the next Bryant & May novel, when I hope to return to New York at least. Sadly, I don’t sell enough copies to warrant a national tour – unless somebody makes a film of something I’ve written. Come on, all rights are currently available!