The final excerpt of a verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994. Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry. 2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.
Friday 1st April 1994, 18:30 (CST) / Saturday 2nd April 1994, 00:30 (GMT)
OVER LAKE MICHIGAN AND CLIMBING
With a setting red sun on the left and what seems like an ocean on my right, we’re climbing out of Chicago, out of the USA and out of my Easter adventure. The good news is:
I have a window seat
There is no-one next to me
Filet Mignon is still on the menu
The bad news:
‘Beethoven’s 2nd’ is the film.
Ah well, maybe I will sleep well. As always, travelling eastwards, the dusk is short. At a rate of climb, this is negated but at 26,000 feet, we only have 11,000 left to go. We’re an hour ahead of schedule (07:50 ETA) and heading for Detroit.
The reason I said “seems like an ocean” is because Lake Michigan is huge, about twice the size of Wales*, by my reckoning and therefore, you can’t see the shores — I guess they don’t call them “Great Lakes” for nothing! It’s practically dark outside now and hopefully, it may induce some sleep!
The flight time is approx. 6½ hours as opposed to 9 hours westbound. That’s the Jetstream for you!
I see land again. We’ve crossed Michigan lake… …into Michigan state (presumably). I see lights below but we have absolutely no idea what town it is! The sky behind us goes red, orange, yellow, green, blue; while in front, it’s a sort of murky navy blue. It’s still very clear and, from the black floor, you can see lights arranged in that familiar criss-cross pattern Americans call towns and cities.
The colours behind fade as the navy blue consumes all. And yet, looking along the plane (inside), there is illumination, a duty-free video, a hive of steward(/ess) activity and the occasional remark (or child’s shriek) of those adjacent. Eventually, the sky will darken (inevitably), the ground will darken (in Canada) and even the cabin will darken as people decide they would like to be awake during their first day in England.
What have I learned in Austin?
Despite my insistences that the US is not to be viewed as a single entity, I think for the purposes of this observation, I should contradict myself. Therefore, we have the UK and the USA. In many ways, Austin is extremely similar to Lancaster. Lancaster does not have a cityscape skyline, a ‘downtown’, an airport or any shopping malls. The similarity lies in equivalent terms. Austin, like Lancaster, is an historic, provincial capital. It is now a university town, partly dependent upon the adjacent campus for its wealth. It is relatively of similar proportion (in relation to overall population) although Austin is slightly proportionately bigger.
So what? If we see Austin and Lancaster as equivalents, microcosms of the United States and United Kingdom respectively, here’s the difference: the amazing things I’ve seen and written about — the stadium, the airport, the shopping malls, the trading and commerce therein. The number and variation of food emporia, the transport systems and the television channel variation. That is the distance between us and them. I haven’t mentioned the weather because that’s not Lancaster’s fault, but it does make a helluva bonus!
America is a place where, if you have the money, you have the choice also. Attempt to draw me into an argument about the ethics of wholesale commercialism if you may, but I warn you: it’s not nearly so linear as you think I mean. Yes, there are people without. Yes, it does not prohibit the creation of an underclass. It is not, however, simply a case of more money = more fun. While I concede that money increases the choice of fun, you can still exist in America on a moderate allowance. The temptations to overspend may be greater (who is this addressed to?) but I can testify 2 weeks of US living for under £200 — and that’s a holiday. Ask Paul or Rice how much you need to *live* in America.
The inherent advantage of the American Dream is not simply to earn more money. The financial motivations act as a catalyst to self-improvement, the desire to ‘make it’. If everyone believes this, life improves. Even the postage stamp salesman knows that if he strives, he can sell more stamps. By striving, he improves his standard of service. If everyone’s service improves, so do expectations. Then the stamp salesman must strive further. Some dismiss this as greed or money-grabbing. Does this negate the value of a country where motivation to please the customer is almost a religion? I say no. Yes, there are dangers in the plan; aren’t there dangers anywhere? “Try telling that to the people who have to work Sundays”. you cry. I agree. No-one should be *made* to do what they don’t want to do. Isn’t life about compromises, though? Do these people consider that their inconveniences are a by-product of a system which offers greater potential for them than any other country on earth.
Do you realise the cost of living in the States is remarkably low? Fast food, borne of competition and old-fashioned economics, much cheaper than at home — because it *has* to be.
I’m not trying to indoctrinate anti-Marxism onto the globe but remember this message the next time your meal is under-cooked or your train has been motionless for an hour. Something has gone wrong because someone has let it go wrong… …de-motivation.
I hope I’ve motivated you to understand why I never tire of the USA.
I’m sure your next question goes like this: “If you’re so bloody enamoured with the USA, why don’t you sod off there, then?”. The answer is simple. As Roy Walker puts it: “It’s good but it’s not right.”
The United States has achieved so much in its 200 years-plus of independence. Without the constraints of tradition or nepotistic perpetuation, it has excelled on its own merit. It has mineral wealth, room to spare and (if necessary) waste, a variety of climes and a massive resource of labour. We have a lot to learn from America but it does not embody utopia. We may not be able to match its impressive wealth of resources but what we can match and in many ways improve upon are much more important than mere commodities. We need the attitude of success if we are to succeed; how many champion athletes just walk onto the track and simply run? None. They have the attitude for success. We have the foundations for success: the best and most respected education system in the world, a history of innovation in science, technology and arts. Yet all this from a small, seemingly inconsequential nation. We have got something in the system right. What we do not seem to have is the knowledge of what is right, what else needs to be right and the belief that it can be made right. We tolerate ineptitude, we limit our ambition, we pretend to be the poorer cousins of the fold and we spread pessimism like a plague. We can never compete with the acreage-related strongholds of leading agricultural produce worldwide. We can use our advantages properly and have faith in our ability. This sounds like an assertion seminar because we need one. If this was a preach to the converted, the message would seem as regular as the Queen’s speech. America has these advantages but they are not exclusive. And the sooner we learn to appreciate this, the sooner we can stare them, as a nation eye-to-eye, instead of squarely in the navel.**
I’m sorry if this sounds like a combination of ‘Mein Kampf’ and the American constitution but a visit to America provides so much insight as to what we in Britain lack. It is only through reflecting on the successes across the pond that we can be made to fulfil our own potential. Just as denial of what we take for granted helps us appreciate it so does exposure to that which we choose to ignore in the pursuit of ‘fitting in’, which is fine as a day-to-day existence but limits the horizons to which you can aspire. Travel, as they say, broadens the mind. Does that go for travellers too?
03:25 (BST) <— Yes!
Yes, it’s completely black now (as promised). The steak was divine, as was the caramel ice cream which followed. I’m hoping that the Bailey’s that I’m now sipping will facilitate my quest for sleep. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. If you do feel preached to, there remains one final piece of advice: go to America. See for yourself!!
In the meantime, here’s to being British and being in Britain. Cheers!
Thank you; Goodnight.
PB (SOMEWHERE OVER CANADA)
* My reckoning was a little inaccurate: Wikipedia says Lake Michigan has a surface area of 22,404 sq mi and Wales covers an area of 8,023 sq mi. Lake Michigan is therefore 2.79 times the size of Wales. I’ve no idea why Wales is considered to be a standard unit of measurement for such purposes.
** Is any of this any less true in 2017 than it was in 1994?