12 AUGUST 1972, Page 4

The London scene

Yanks in town

Minette Marrin

Taxi drivers, pub owners, and souvenir salesmen all agree — Americans are meaner than before, and they have started counting their change. 1972 ArneriCans mouth ' cheap ' and 'bargain' endlessly, even violently. They don't go to Bond Street and Mayfair; they go to the Reject China Shop, and haggle in the Portobello Road. Partly, like us they're poorer. "The Almighty Dollar is a thing of the past, love," says a cab driver who remembers with nostalgia the old big-spending American's of the American Bar AsSociation conferences. The East Coast smoothies on their graduation Grand Tour amid the lavish and ubiquitous servicement, have been replaced by package-deal invasions from Wisconsin and Georgia. (One thing worse, in this country, than being an American is being a poor American.) "Provincials, sweetie," cried a San Francisco marl ana lawyer in Haymarket, as though they were allowed to use the vocabulary of snobbery.

Least provincial and most ferocious, as everyone agrees, are Brooklyn Jews and New Yorkers generally, with their sharpness of face and clothes, and their "don't give me that" approach. Next least pro vincial, and most bland, are the West Coast arrivals, who don't wear ties, or worry, and who must be rich/tolerable because they've travelled twice as far as the others. In between are the hill-billies, the smalltowners and -timers, the you-ails from the South, the prairie farmers that produced McGovern, the famous people that produced Wallace, West Virginian's, North Carolinans and all the rest. All these can now come over in staggeringly cheap £80 group trips; at home they often haven't left their own state or neighbourhood. In the corruption of Europe they are exposed not only to bacteria in the water, but, worse, to Culture Shook. "Is it surprising," said the San Francisco lawyer with the quiet-American look, "that they act out?"

The ever-increasing package-deal bus groups are not the best cultural envoys. It is common at the Changing of the Guard for a bus full of flashing cameras and diamante spectacles to pass right in front of the spectators and at the Beating of the Retreat this year a fight actually broke out between several New York Italians over umbrella-vision-hindrance — in the presence of the Queen Mother no less. Imagine the lot of a courier, embittered from the beginning by Americans' meanness/poverty: at Windsor he will find his scarecrow charges taking pictures not of the Historic Buildings, but of all the girls, Posed in a courtyard under the traffic sign saying 'Dead Slow '. Though this kind of group will always question a bill, it Will equally depressingly believe the most Villainous lies. "The special taste of real English cider comes from the dead rats our rustics throw in." At Hampton Court: Ann Boleyn was notorious for having seven nipples and three extra fingers" Though the British Museum offers the Tutankhamun exhibition as well as its other splendours, the queue of Americans is often longer at Madame Tussaud's, Where American pop, film, and space heroes attract most attention. Though London Transport offers worthy expeditions and careful instructions, American Express has high sales for group assaults SUCh as 'The Prehistoric Stonehenger.' British travel agents, couriers and other exploiters must be excused for these atrocities — they are providing what's Wanted. It is only the high prices, not the abysmal quality of such trips, that Ameri cans are beginning to carp at, Wherever they go, rashes of horribilia break out, hot dog stands, souvenir shops, and cheap jacks.

All this was just tolerable when American visitors were delighted, self satisfied cultural adventurers, Oblivious to criticisms and resentments, like the travelling British aristocracy of the past. Like them the Americans knew they had to speak louder to be understood, and neither class remotely expected to be judged by the natives. But with the Vietnam war, and greater numbers of underconfident firsttime travellers, the US sense of superiority has waned. Americans have lost their gun boat attitudes; their moral gunboat has sunk. The gilt on the Embassy eagle aggressively spreading its wings over Grosvenor Square is wearing badly, and outside the massive building is the embarrassment of a permanent anti-war demonstration.

So the US tourists are uneasy and truculent, "Where the hell is Big Ben any way?" They seem to wander listlessly or crossly along the obvious trails. At Traitors Gate a young boy growled at a Beefeater, through a jungle of teethbraces, "The big spiel — here it comes again. Christ. . . ." Americans seem to demand directions, to push harder in crowds, especially the young who have dropped out of the private enterprise mystique. There is a man on Tower Hill, an out-of-work actor, a veritable Ancient Landlubber, who collars all non-American passers-by, and denounces the Yankees. His main complaint is their complaining, and standing all day by Tower Hill tube, station he must have plenty of evidence. It is in fact miraculous how he distinguishes the sheep from the goats. Americans are not as unmistakable as they used to be, until they speak. It is true that American types are both dramatic and well-documented, but by the law that all things American come to Europe, at ever-diminishing intervals, European trippers have begun to look the same.

American-spotting for the British chauvinist today is almost as difficult as virginspotting.

American hippy young are the same as other hippies anywhere, except that they draw surprisingly large cheques from American Express. And you certainly see Scandinavians in those strange bobby cocklets that once only mid-Western girls affected. But there is one class that stands out, and stands away. The few rich neo Jamesian visitors stay well clear of the masses of their fellow-countrymen. They stay with friends, if not at the better hotels, and know far more about London than the Inhabitants. You can occasionally recognise them on their genteel adventures in search of Dorset knobs, the Imperial War Museum and the Brampton Cemetery. These are the ones who know how to pronounce Beauchamp, who never wear loud plaids, sporting hats or ' see-thru ' rainccrats, who bid with assurance for trivia at Sotheby's and who almost talk English When they queue it is for the Opera, and they tip like an Englishman.

In fact they almost are English, and so are subject only to the contempt we reserve for ourselves. Which can't be very great, if we expend so much on the unfortunate Americans.