Mar 2007 Journal

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Out of love

I have fallen out of love with the English. Not overnight of course - it's been coming a long time. Our affair started as a forced marriage, neither side knowing what it was in for. I arrived in England as a teenager, not by choice but because England would have me. Gratitude put me on my best behaviour: I had been saved and I would love my saviour. Three early encounters won me over. I was taken to a posh club and allowed my first breath of all-male privilege. Next, an English acquaintance, having just gone to Cambridge, invited me to spend a day in Magdalene College. I was intoxicated by the autumnal harmony of stone and nature as we walked among the deer and planned to write a masterpiece. Then my mother, to top it all, arranged for me to join a county family on a shooting holiday in Yorkshire, where I was taught a new kind of ritual slaughter. I drank in everything: the clothes, the accents, the smell of the gun room, the tipping of the beaters, the brace of pheasants put in the cars of the departing guests. It was a world I didn't know existed, but I was determined to become part of it, to become one of 'them'.

The war turned everything on its head. No debutante balls, no shooting parties, internment followed by army service instead. I had a 'good war', as the saying went, but came back to nothing. No job, no money, no classy friends. Lacking a foothold in society, I decided to write a love letter to the English. It appeared between hard covers under the title Basic British - a fair success, but nothing to compare with Mikes's How To Be An Alien. My subject was, of course, how not to be an alien.

In spite of having published the textbook, I made little progress towards becoming a textbook Englishman. The people I mixed with socially were refugees like myself. We resolutely spoke English among ourselves, derived our opinions from the New Statesman and Nation, and anxiously waited for our naturalisation papers to come through. Marrying an English girl did not advance my prospects; nor did an ill-judged change of name. She thought us foreigners much more interesting and did not supply the oxygen breathed by the upper classes.

I suppose my eyes were opened by members of my family who had emigrated to America. When they asked me to visit them, I found them loud and cheerful, at ease with their rasping Kissinger accents and foreign ways. Not that they considered themselves foreign: I did who shushed them on behalf of the Ur-Americans of my imagination, just as I felt the need to protect the English from my foreign self until assimilation would make me part of the furniture.

For my relatives, the issue of assimilation never arose. They were Americans from the day they set foot there, becoming an instant ingredient in the American stockpot, adding their flavour even as they were being flavoured. Their strange names marked them out as the genuine article; my adopted name underlined my alien ambitions.

The melting-pot effect is not only comforting - it is highly productive. Jews flourish in it. In the arts in general, in literature and entertainment in particular. Compare a Bellow, a Mailer, a Roth with the meagre contribution of Jews to twentieth-century literature in England. It is as if they were leached and coarsened by the steady drizzle of antisemitism. There are, of course, a few prominent achievers, but without collective impact. There is no effective Jewish lobby. In America, where there is no shortage of antisemites, the Jewish lobby speaks with a powerful voice.

Bit by bit the blinkers came off. I learnt to distinguish between the genuine article and the show of tolerance that was indifference under another name. I saw through the double bluff of self-deprecation, the arrogance of learning worn lightly, the ice-cold heart behind good manners, and the many guises adopted by antipathy towards Jews - political, religious, social, competitive - rampant above all in my natural habitat, the educated middle class. I had to admit it: my quest was hopeless. And so love died.

Where does this leave the spurned lover? With another reason to be grateful to his hosts. For if it were not for that regular fix of antisemitism, a secular Jew such as I might develop a serious identity problem. Antisemitism defines me in the way that the space enclosing a sculpture defines its shape, mine being that of a cosmopolitan Jew who enjoys the twin blessings of a British passport and a time-share in the glories of the English language.
Victor Ross

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