BLOOD, CLASS, AND NOSTALGIA
By Christopher Hitchens
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 398 pp. $22.95
THIS BOOK seems to have been assembled out of two different kinds of material. The first is history, a study of the special relationship England has claimed with America in this century. The second is New Journalism, in the manner of Tom Wolfe. The central figure in the first is Winston Churchill, and the central object his wartime correspondence with President Roosevelt. The central figure in the second is Christopher Hitchens, and his social adventures as an Englishman abroad.
I am bound to say that I didn't care for the second part, even though Hitchens has some witty phrases, and some interesting information about for instance, the careers of Rhodes Scholars, and other groups that sustain the special relationship. Like so much New Journalism, however, this portion of the book is gossip in hypertrophied form, gossip about history. The reader feels trapped in one of the corridors of power, while buzzwords are bellowed over an echo machine.
The autobiographical elements derives its humor from the way Americans treat Hitchens because he is English. These Americans have an idea of England as one "huge theme-park for royal romances." That is one of the author's phrases I like, but I -- also English born -- have found it a good rule to pretend that all such Americans, and the Englishmen who play up to them, do not exist. Theirs is one of those collaborations in which each side makes the other look silly.
The gossip goes along, as it often does, with a pretty fancy style. What sort of history is it to write, in 1990, that France cast languorous eyes at Cuba? Or that British troops took charge of Saigon et ses environs? One of Hitchens' admirers, Jonathan Raban, says that Hitchens combines the manner of a lazy Balliol dandy with the killer instinct of a pit bull terrier (that's what we call intellectual sex appeal) and it looks as if the author has been reading his own publicity. He comes on like Rhett Butler, and seems to expect the reader to swoon.
But when we turn to the special relationship, we find that he has much to tell us that is interesting, and some incisive judgments to make. At the very beginning he describes that relationship as "at bottom a transmission belt by which British conservative ideas have infected America . . ." Principal among the ideas transmitted were those to do with empire (not using that word) and secret intelligence and the navy; and one effect of their adoption by America was to strengthen conservative forces in England. Hitchens calls it a means by which "the British Establishment was enabled to fight at far beyond its own weight, and to behave for some time as if it controlled a much larger country than it really did."
A picturesque formula for describing the relationship has been to call England Greece, and America a new Rome. One of the original uses of that formula (Hitchens is good at giving us such origins) is Harold Macmillan's dictum to Richard Crossman when they were both serving in North Africa in 1943:
"We, my dear Crossman, are Greeks in this American empire . . . We must run Allied Forces Headquarters as the Greek slaves ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius." (It is hard to believe that those people really began their remarks with "My dear Crossman," but I suppose they did.)
I would have liked Hitchens to pay more attention to that word "slaves," but he does point out, discussing the analogy, that England had been much more like Rome than Greece. Kipling for instance (in these matters quite a good historian) taught England to see itself as Rome -- never as Greece -- before 1914. Cecil Rhodes saw it that way. Walter Annenberg, ex-ambassador to England, commissioned a British historian, Michael Grant, to study the parallels between "the fall of the Roman Empire and the circumscription of American power." This could remind us of Rhodes' interest in Gibbon, and his commissioning a scholar to edit Decline and Fall translating all the passages Gibbon had left in Latin.
The greatest manipulator of the special relationship was, of course, Winston Churchill. He was its most famous son in the literal sense of having a rich American mother and a noble British father. And he won himself a prestige in this country that has spread far beyond the usual constituency for an alliance with England. Hitchens describes some of the American statues to Churchill, and the way his phrases and tones have entered into American political discourse -- used especially when a politician is under attack.
It is also interesting to note Churchill's use (like Kipling's) of the Bible and Shakespeare; for instance, sending Roosevelt chapter and verse references for the latter to look up. This had of course the secondary message that Englishmen and Americans use the same language and enjoy the same literature. But it would be unreasonable to ascribe such habits to calculation alone. This was just another of the ways in which Churchill was, authentically, the son of the special relationship.
Chapter 10 is entitled "Imperial Receivership," and describes how America "received" the British empire, and indeed other European empires, after 1945. A receiver, in the sense of someone appointed to take into custody the goods of a bankrupt person, pending litigation, is a very suggestive metaphor for the imperial tradition. The special relationship, cloaking receivership, was flattering but dangerous to England, concealing its dependency; but also to America, who took over where England left off, without acknowledging its own imperialism.
Reading Hitchens, one can only hope the special relationship will disappear, leaving both countries to cultivate other traditions in their heritage. And if it does, perhaps so too will the special relationship in literary matters, which sets Hitchens clanking his chains at Tom Wolfe's stirrup.
Martin Green, the author of "A Mirror for Anglo-Saxons" and, most recently, "The Mount Vernon Street Warrens," teaches English at Tufts University.