My friend Rose calls from Virginia to tell me a southern belle story. A Spartanburg lady was driving to a cocktail party when she had a flat tyre. She got out of her car and waved down the first trucker who drove by.
‘A trucker!’ her friends exclaim in horror. ‘Why child, you could have been raped!’ ‘Well, I thought about that,’ she says. ‘But I reckon I can muddle my way through a rape, and I don’t know a damn thing about changing a tyre.’
Rose has southern belle pedigree, including a degree from a college called Sweetbriar. She’s also a lawyer who defends folks who wouldn’t stick out in a Faulkner novel, and she can change a tyre wearing sling-backs and a Chanel suit (size 4). I met her in the 1970s when she lived in London. Like all Virginians, she is Anglophile to the bone.
‘I’m never coming to England again,’ she says on the telephone.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Do you know what the exchange rate is?!’ she drawls/snarls.
I do. It’s nearly two dollars to the pound. Americans who used to come to England every year are now staying home, muttering about a president who’s ‘gonna bankrupt the country’. These are Americans who love English cathedrals and West End plays, Heywood Hill bookshop and Tate Britain, the Chelsea Flower Show and Great Dixter.
But there’s another group of Americans over here who can’t stay home because Starbucks reaches five bucks: the thousands of Americans stationed on airbases throughout Britain.
Over the years I’ve got to know some of these Americans, who rent two of our cottages. Lakenheath and Mildenhall, the two largest American airbases in Europe, are 45 minutes from here and our tenants are usually pilots and their families. We try to look after the wives and children left on their own while husbands are in Afghanistan and Iraq. We celebrate their homecomings.
When Sam was small, they’d take him along to the air fete at RAF Mildenhall, an annual event that brought out half a million people to watch the planes. He loved the base’s Disney-like world of Main Street America: Dunkin’ Donuts, Taco Bell, Popeye’s Chicken. But all that ended after September 11. Security tightened. The air fete was cancelled. This year is the first since 2001 that a fete, albeit with ‘static aircraft’, is scheduled. That is, was scheduled. Now it’s been cancelled. New terrorist threats? No, it’s a bigger problem: a $3 billion budget deficit in the air force.
‘The exchange rate is a killer,’ explains Roy, who flies helicopters. ‘But this is about the war in Iraq.’ They’ve also axed the shuttle buses and cable TV on base. He grins politely but he’s worried.
The adrenalin that flows in the early days of war doesn’t look at price tags. I doubt that when the war in Iraq started, Bush or Blair or Brown had any idea what it would ultimately cost.
I reckon the American bases in England will shrink even further. Families will be left behind in Florida and Oklahoma. And America and England will start to leave Iraq. Not because the war is won or because the body bags are too painful – neither Bush nor Blair has ever attended a funeral of soldier killed in Iraq – but because they can’t pay the bills. You can muddle through a lot of things, but you can’t muddle through a war.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on May 12, 2005