George Orwell’s America


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 ’bout 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.)

Theodore Dreiser… remarks in a public speech that “the British are horse-riding aristocratic snobs.” (Forty-six million horse-riding snobs!)

This kind of thing is not exceptional. 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 day and night, cadging sweets.… Before the war there was no popular anti-American feeling in this country. It all dates from the arrival of the American troops, and it is made vastly worse by the tacit agreement never to discuss it in print…

—December 3, 1943

So many letters have arrived, attacking me for my remarks about the American soldiers in this country, that I must return to the subject.

Contrary to what most of my correspondents seem to think, I was not trying to make trouble between ourselves and our Allies, nor am I consumed by hatred for the United States. I am much less anti-American than most English people are at this moment. What I say, and what I repeat, is that our policy of not criticizing our Allies, and not answering their criticism of us (we don’t answer the Russians either, nor even the Chinese) is a mistake, and is likely to defeat its own object in the long run. And so far as Anglo-American relations go, there are three difficulties which badly need dragging into the open and which simply don’t get mentioned in the British press.

1. Anti-American feeling in Britain.

Before the war, anti-American feeling was a middle-class, and perhaps upper-class thing, resulting from imperialist and business jealousy and disguising itself as dislike of the American accent etc. The working class, so far from being anti-American, were becoming rapidly Americanised in speech by means of the films and jazz songs. Now, in spite of what my correspondents may say, I can hear few good words for the Americans anywhere. This obviously results from the arrival of the American troops. It has been made worse by the fact that, for various reasons, the Mediterranean campaign had to be represented as an American show while most of the casualties had to be suffered by the British… I am not saying that popular English prejudices are always justified: I am saying that they exist.

2. Anti-British feeling in America.

We ought to face the fact that large numbers of Americans are brought up to dislike and despise us. There is a large section of the press whose main accent is anti-British, and countless other papers which attack Britain in a more sporadic way. In addition there is a systematic guying of what are supposed to be British habits and manners on the stage and in comic strips and cheap magazines. The typical Englishman is represented as a chinless ass with a title, a monocle and a habit of saying “Haw, haw”. This legend is believed in by relatively responsible Americans, for example by the veteran novelist Theodore Dreiser, who remarks in a public speech that “the British are horse-riding aristocratic snobs”. (Forty-six million horse-riding snobs!) It is commonplace on the American stage that the Englishman is almost never allowed to play a favourable role, any more than the Negro is allowed to appear as anything more than a comic. Yet right up to Pearl Harbour the American movie industry had an agreement with the Japanese Government never to present a Japanese character in an unfavourable light!