Christopher Hitchens Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 398 pages, $22.95
This little book can be succinctly described as a hostile account of the Anglo-American “special relationship.” It claims to deal in ironies. But it has missed some. For example, one of the curious things about the special relationship between Britain and the United States today is that it is far more often referred to by its left-wing opponents than by its supporters. Indeed, they are obsessed by it, especially in Britain. (Americans care much less, one way or the other.) I don’t think I have ever heard Mrs. Thatcher speak of the special relationship, except once or twice for public consumption. But her critics on the Left are always bringing it up and using as a stick to beat her: it is dead, finished; she is “clinging to an outmoded concept,” “indulging in hopeless nostalgia for a vanished past,” etc. Left-wing journals like the Guardian regularly announce its demise, every six months. But if it is extinct, why do they go on about it? If it is, as the British journalist Christopher Hitchens argues, something to be ridiculed, why does he think it worth a book?
That brings us to a second irony. Whether the old special relationship still functions or not, there is certainly a new one, which has come into existence in recent decades, and Hitchens is a member of it. It is a special relationship of American and British writers who hate the West in general, and its two principal components in particular. Some are academics. Some are journalists. All are transatlantic commuters. They swap anti-Reagan and anti-Thatcher jokes at international gatherings, write for each other’s magazines, praise each other’s books, award each other fellowships and prizes. Some are more anti-American than anti-British, others the reverse. But all use “Anglo-Saxon” as a term of abuse, all have the itch to swat a WASP. They control certain areas of academic and media power and usually do quite well for themselves. But times are not always easy.
Hitchens played the shadow special-relationship game from the London end for some years. He did not hit any jackpots, but did establish himself as what might be called a left-wing odd-job man. By temperament he tends to be more anti-British than anti-American, however, and in London the reverse is more remunerative. For this and other reasons, he has found it more convenient in recent years to operate primarily from the western end of the Atlantic, where he has been notably successful pursuing a career as a fashionable left-wing pundit. He regularly pontificates on political subjects in magazines like The Nation (thus keeping his left-wing bona fides in good order), while dishing up assorted bits of right-thinking cultural chitchat for glossy fashion outlets like HG and The Tatler (thus assuring his ticket to the beau monde). Blood, Class, and Nostalgia belongs to the solemnly left-wing side of Hitchens’s production. Presenting Britain as the senior, corrupting partner in a story of Anglo-American skullduggery, it is a natural result of what I suppose we must call (yet another irony) Hitchens’s intellectual sojourn.
The book seems to have been hastily put together and shows few signs of serious historical study. Various episodes in Anglo-American relations are dealt with in an anecdotal manner, but there is little attempt at systematic treatment of how the special relationship developed or how it came into existence in the first place. The War of 1812 gets only two brief references, and Hitchens’s ill-informed aside about the burning of Washington suggests to me that he knows very little about it. Yet it was from this unfortunate war, the Treaty of Ghent that ended it, and the subsequent agreements about the Canadian frontier and the demilitarization of the Great Lakes, that a pragmatic Anglo-American understanding first emerged.
The notion that Britain and the United States were not “foreign” nations to each other, but something different and closer, was not, as Hitchens seems to suggest, a conspiracy between two elites. It would be hard to conjure up a more intense dislike and suspicion than existed between, say, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson on the one hand, and Casdereagh, Canning, and Wellington on the other. It was, rather, a popular emotion, quite spontaneous in origin, based on common sense and shared feelings, spreading upwards; only much later did the elites begin to reflect it. But all this Hitchens ignores: it would not fit in with his preconceived themes or give him the book he wants. In the event, what he gives us is some material about Admiral Mahan, the historian of naval power, something about the Adams family, and good deal about Churchill and Roosevelt. There is a section on Churchill’s staunch ally Ronald Tree—whom Hitchens sneeringly describes as “the acme of Anglo-American gentry”—and his house, Ditchley in Oxfordshire, which Churchill requisitioned occasionally during World War II.
Hitchens also includes sundry pompous reflections on military intelligence and nuclear power, but has virtually nothing to say about Canada, without which the origins and nature of the special relationship between the United States and Britain cannot be understood. He is also wholly inadequate on the Middle East, a part of the world that once divided Britain and the United States but now helps keep them together, as events have shown since the publication of this book.
I have called this book “little,” though in fact it runs nearly four hundred pages. But much of it is padding. At a rough guess I would say that a quarter of the book consists of quotations. Indeed, the quotations include the one really interesting section. Hitchens reproduces “The Burden of Jerusalem” and “A Chapter of Proverbs,” two little-known poems by Kipling (who is now out of copyright) which Winston Churchill sent privately to Roosevelt in October 1943. According to Churchill’s letter, after Kipling’s death “Mrs. Kipling decided not to publish them in case they should lead to controversy and it is therefore important that their existence should not become known and that there should be no public reference to this gift.”
Hitchens claims that neither poem “has yet appeared in any anthology of Kipling’s work” and that he himself “unearthed them” in the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park. They have in themselves nothing to do with the special relationship that is the ostensible subject of this book and Hitchens includes them, I think, because the first, which a casual and untutored reading might construe as anti-Semitic, has a certain sensational value. It is certainly a powerful piece of verse.
But it is the high point of a book with a low, ignoble tone, sneering toward the British, condescending toward the Americans. Sometimes Hitchens forgets he is anti-elitist and slips into a snobbery, both social and intellectual, which seems to come more easily to him. He describes Walter, Annenberg and Rupert Murdoch as “arrivistes.” The term, disagreeable in itself, is in both cases inaccurate, though for different reasons, and its employment is characteristic of his slapdash manner.
Hitchens is capable of writing good, even stylish, prose, but here he often slips into hurried journalese. TV Guide is “massively circulated,” a “simulacrum” is “faked,” Thomas Paine fails to “choke off” the “original sin of slavery,” Conrad publishes Nostromo when “Anglo-American hegemony” is “a safe bet,” England is “the has-been country par excellence.” Remarks are “breathless,” officials “apparatchiks,” events “exclusive.” Hitchens cannot bring himself to write “so-called,” it is “soi-disant”; a mistake is “a bêtise.” “Gushed the Post” is how he begins one sentence, and it is clear he is a great reader of gossip columns, from which much of his book seems to be compiled. He jeers at Mrs. Evangeline Bruce for not being invited “to Charles and Diana’s wedding.”
What can be the point of this irrelevant malice? Can it be that Hitchens does not receive as many Georgetown invitations as his knowing tone would lead us to suppose? The risk of studying gossip columns is that you may end by writing like one. Thus Hitchens: “The Queen and Queen Mother became frequent visitors to Winfield House, and word was soon passed that Her Majesty felt the ambassador had been ill-used.” Both Britain and the United States are ill-used in this tendentious tract, but it is of no great consequence.