In Britain, certain sections of the media love to talk about the "special relationship" - the special relationship, that is, between the British and the Americans. This is primarily a political notion, though naturally, since we speak the same language, share many of the same reference points and have some significant historical links, the relationship is bound to feel closer - more special - than our relationship with most other nations. Do many Americans feel the same way, though? Does this idea of a special relationship matter in the slightest to the average American? Leaving aside the positive sentiments which Blair's support for Bush and the US caused some to feel, my own hunch, as a regular visitor, is that for probably the vast majority of Americans the question is simply irrelevant.
And, somewhat disarmingly, that's more or less what we are told in only the second paragraph of an introduction to a new book that sets out to explore, in drawings and handwritten quotations, what the British think of the Americans and what the Americans think of the British. "You're only on our radar in broad strokes," writes New York-based TV commercials director Judith Krant. "But know this: when we are alone, amongst ourselves, we don't talk about y'all at all."
So it's no surprise that the artist and illustrator behind Us & Them, Paul Davis, is not an American but a Brit. Why would an American artist even bother, unless he or she was a total Anglophile who knew Britain unusually well? The book is already out in the UK and it will be interesting to see how it's received in the US when Princeton publishes it in September. Davis has emerged in the last few years as one of the most ubiquitous and distinctive of British illustrators and the book is another sign of his growing popularity.
Davis himself wants to assure us of the book's veracity - "because it's impossible to make this stuff up". His method in both countries was the same. He approached people wherever he happened to find himself and asked them what they thought of the Americans or British. He drew the speaker - sometimes later, based on photos or video - and wrote down a quotation. I'm afraid it's bad news all round. Americans see the Brits as formal, snobbish, pear-shaped, imperialistic has-beens who have bad teeth and don't breed lookers, though two or three people think we are civilised, articulate and smart, and, yes, someone loved the accent.
If the Americans often seem baffled by the question - "It's so kinda like I dunno" retorts one space cadet (sorry, I'm being snobbish) - the British response is a little more detailed and a lot more judgemental, whether psychological ("They're fearfully over-confident based on profound paranoia") or wildly apocalyptic ("They are nothing but evil"). There are still plenty of Brits in the book with nothing to say about the US, though, and this is peculiar because whereas Americans who haven't visited Britain know virtually nothing about the place apart from the "broad strokes" (Benny Hill, Monty Python, Diana, Blair), the British are awash with American culture.
Here's a list of just some of the US TV series watched avidly in Britain in the last 20 years: Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, Cheers, LA Law, Homicide, NYPD Blue, Frasier, Seinfeld, Friends, ER, Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, 24, Six Feet Under, Will & Grace, Malcolm in the Middle, CSI, The Shield, and not forgetting The Simpsons, from which my own daughter is not alone among British kids in being able to quote huge chunks of dialogue. I take it there's no need to start listing films, music, software, sneakers, soft drinks, fast food and military initiatives. After all of that exposure to the American way you would think we could manage something a bit more insightful than: "How come their cheerleaders are ever so slightly chubby?"
In Davis' world, the two nations do have one thing in common: we are both equally stupid. I'm not sure this tells us anything very useful about Britain or America. In terms of its revelations, is Davis' exercise anything more than a case of ultra-selective quotation? "It's a very bizarre system you guys have," says one American. The joke here is that the man himself, with his long grey locks, little pink face, all-black clothes and silver pendent, looks pretty bizarre. But was this really the only thing he could find to say to Davis? Even after further questioning? Almost anyone could be made to look like an idiot if you startled them from their thoughts in the street with an unexpected question.
A few of the people Davis draws look normal enough, you might almost say pleasant, but on both sides of the Atlantic many of his characters are grotesque: ugly, angry, vacant, empty-headed, consumed by anxiety, totally deranged. The man who barks out "I love the Brits - but, you know, we kick ass" has mad eyes, piranha teeth and a face like an overheated furnace. The woman in the Chicago hotel who accuses us of arrogance - "AH HATE IT!" - gets screwed-up features and a shrivelled body. The guy who suggests that Americans are like children is a Nike swoosh-wearing thug, his portrait scratched on to the page with even more loathing than usual. Davis doesn't do compassion, nor is he exactly a satirist. He's a master of misanthropic disgust. Clearly a lot of Davis' fans share his acerbic vision, but we shouldn't be too complacent. He would lash us, given the chance, with the same barbed and ferocious pen.
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