Taking Liberties With Labels

This month, I return to one of my favourite subjects – America.  All my life, I have indeed been watching America, as the refrain goes.  And as I write, the Razorlight analogy extends further because there is trouble and also panic in America.

I’ve been here before.  On the eve of the 2016 election, I wrote a letter to my old friend, begging her not to fall under the spell of a man who would charm her in order to abuse her.  As you know, she didn’t listen and…   …well, let’s just say she’s feeling pretty used right now.

Another obsession I seem to have is for words.  In particular their use (and abuse) as labels and, as far as I can deduce it, their etymology.  One of the most fundamental principles of psychology, albeit one which is still hotly debated, is this: Language determines Thought.  Using the very words that people use, I have always contended, it is possible to form a deeper understanding of them.

Let’s begin with that most American of words: Liberty.  Like the statue that bears its name, the obsession with the principle is one with strong French connections – but one re-purposed into something uniquely star-spangled.  As is frequently the case with the words we analyse, a greater insight can be gained from the words not used and so it appears to be the case here.  As the American colonies were crystallising in their rejection of King George and taxation without representation, revolutionary France was discovering her penchant for Liberté – but as part of a tripartite, together with Egalité et Fraternité.  Is it telling that America seems to have cherry-picked one over the others?

This seems less clear-cut on second glance.  The cradle of the America we know today was Philadelphia, the site at which the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.  Tri-lingual word-nerds will instantly know that this city’s name was derived from the ancient Greek words phílos (beloved) and adelphós (brother) – hence its identification as ‘The City of Brotherly Love” – and that, just as France was nearing her revolution, the importance of fraternity was valued equally by both peoples.

And then we get to Egalité.  The notion of equality in America has always been somewhat problematical – the fact that the declaration includes the phrase “that all men are created equal” seems to neatly encapsulate America’s rather variable approach to a construct that is supposed to be, by definition, a constant.

800px-lady_liberty_under_a_blue_sky_28cropped29Whatever their reasons, by 1886, when France chose to bestow a gift on her anti-royalist co-conspirator, its manifestation was of Liberty, not Fraternity or Equality.  The location of the statue, at the mouth of the Hudson, adjacent to Ellis Island, the destination for incoming ships carrying fleeing immigrants provides a clear context for the Liberty it extols.  It is designed as a beacon to welcome and reassure those who see it that they are now free of the repression that forced them to flee their homeland.  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” says the poem inscribed upon her.  Liberty may therefore be viewed more as a defining characteristic of the process of becoming and American citizen than of America itself.

As seems to have been the case with Equality and Fraternity, the concept of Liberty was allowed to shift from this specific context to something wider, more self-congratulatory, more self-serving.  America’s eventual anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner was originally a fairly obscure poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, compelling his compatriots to sing with gusto that they inhabit “The land of the Free” but even then, such a sentiment was demonstrably illusory, a perversion of the specific principles espoused by the Statue of Liberty.  Doubtless, it was a high-intentioned celebration that American citizens were free of the shackles imposed on the feudal subjects of the Old World.  What it doesn’t address is that the citizenry at that time only included white people.

This pre-Civil War self-deluding notion of “the Free” may have simply become a historical quirk, an innocent indulgence from a time that knew no better.  We may even have come to see it as a harmless, unknown piece of naive jingoism, were it not for the actions of two Presidents, over a century later.  The US Navy had been using the song since 1889 but it gained its first Presidential approval from Woodrow Wilson in 1916.  Given that its words were taken from a poem called Defence of Fort M’Henry and with its strong themes of conflict and resolute defence, perhaps its sentiments resonated more strongly at a time when America felt uneasy about the unfolding ‘Great War’ in Europe.

It’s certainly feasible that its images of stoicism through embattlement may have sustained America through her eventual involvement in war – and the beginnings of the Depression a decade later.  Seemingly uncoincidentally, President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional resolution of March 3rd 1931 to make The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem of America.  At a time of huge economic uncertainty and its attendant tendency for existential re-assessment, there was a clear benefit to reminding Americans, at every opportunity, that they were undeniably “the Free” and “the Brave”.

It’s important to be even-handed at this point.  In many ways, pre-Depression America was flourishing and could be slightly forgiven for her blinkered optimism.  Already a major military power and the world’s biggest exponent of two of the century’s most defining industries, entertainment and transportation,  her riches led her to mount challenges to history’s favourite benchmarks.  America was already, the holder of ‘World’s Tallest Building’ – the Chrysler Building’s 1,046 feet would be surpassed within a year by the Empire State Building in a flurry of skyscraper construction in Manhattan.  Similarly, the title of ‘World’s Longest Bridge Span’ was held by one American construction after another, with New York’s George Washington Bridge, at 1,067 metres almost doubling the distance of its predecessor, the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit.  Plans for even more ambitious projects like the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge were a clear sign of America’s bravery, zeal and intent.  Freedom and Bravery: the words seemed to be perfectly apt.

However, Liberty seemed to be in limited supply among America’s black population, officially emancipated by Abraham Lincoln almost seventy years previously.  Institutional racism could not be so easily legislated against and over the intervening decades, forced labour and partition remained as prevalent as they had been before the Civil War.  And, of course, there were also the lynchings and abuses of justice.  Prevailing racial attitudes in the South, together with increasing mechanisation, cheaper transportation and the burgeoning growth of industry in the Northern states had led to The Great Migration – and America’s first real test of her heady aspiration that “all men” should be equal – a test which resulted in racial tensions and rioting in 1919.  Not for the last time, the threat to America’s mostly segregated status quo was re-presented as a symptom of the pernicious disease of Communism, by then on the rise in much of Europe, and the racial significance of the unrest was downplayed by the widespread use of name “Red Summer”.

And so, from 1931, it became possible for a whole country to clutch its chest and pledge allegiance to a flag which represented values that were demonstrably inconsistent where differences were only skin deep.  It would be another eighteen years before George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four introduced the concept of ‘doublethink’ as a satirical tool of his Totalitarian state but a prototype form of it was already in evidence in “the free world” well before the rise of the great dictators had really begun.

Over the rest of the 20th century, as subsequent American generations came and went, each more rewarded by the fruits of materialism than the last, and with only the concoction of external threat to rally around, the American notion of Liberty seems to have shifted, to mean something else entirely – namely the freedom to gratify the self.  In this way, the old notion of American Liberty seems to have become annexed by Libertarianism, the right for the individual to be free in all aspects of life, without recourse or consequence.

The words sound similar and are, of course, related but it is by no means inevitable that the two principles should become so conflated.  There is also a word from that same root that describes those who extol the rights of others to be free in all aspects of their lives, without recourse or consequence.  That word is ‘Liberals‘ – and it’s a label carries a whole different load of connotations in America today.  It’s the reason why we are presented with what appears, to non-Americans, the faintly ridiculous sight of those who value their Liberty decrying with equal passion their vehement disagreement with Liberals, to whom a litany of perceived impositions are attached.

Is that all this boils down to, then?  An existential struggle about which ideological group’s right to Liberty (however that may be defined) exceeds the other’s?  If X’s right to free speech supercedes Y’s right to be heard?  If A’s right to religious expression outranks B’s rights over their own body?  If P’s right to love and partnership infringes on Q’s right to their own beliefs?

As valid as they undoubtedly are, the questions are, I venture to suggest, not the sum of the argument.  There’s a lot of discussion about rights across this whole debate and very little mention of responsibilities.  It reminds me of a teenage conversation I once had with my Grandmother when I was fixated on and certain of my rights – a conversation teenagers are still having today – and I found I was unaware that there even needed to be a relationship between one’s rights and one’s responsibilities.  It’s a conversation I was reminded of the first time I saw Spiderman and Peter Parker’s teenage reasoning with his Uncle Ben – a conversation that uses his “powers” as a metaphor for one’s rights and draws a similar relationship with one’s responsibilities.  Societally, Western culture seems to have done a generally poor job in underlining this principle, leaving the job solely to caring older relatives to attempt to establish it as a fundamental value.  As one generation replaces another, what if that role ceases to be filled?

The correlation with teenagers is, I believe, of some relevance.  Occurring roughly a fifth of the way into a human lifetime, it’s a fairly universal expectation across most cultures that such coming-of-age conversations become necessary.  Would it be therefore hugely amiss to suggest that America herself, at the tender age of 244, is still in her late adolescence?  That the child prodigy who once mocked her slower, more ponderous elders with her youthful brilliance is beginning to understand the limitations of her own mortal capabilities?  Like a star student who suffers their first disappointing grade, she must now ask fundamental questions about herself, in order to learn from the experience and face the future with renewed confidence.

‘Liberty’ as she stands, looking out to sea, was always supposed to represent freedom from persecution elsewhere.  The principle of Liberty was never about the right to simply do as one pleases – and it certainly wasn’t a cipher for a particular kind of government.  Even in a truly equal society, the rights of the individual are not inalienably superior to the rights of one’s fellow citizens and, as any properly-raised teenager should eventually attest, the freedoms of others occasionally have a detrimental impact on the freedoms of the self.

5108465b35e6de9a7d065627a00d0a9aThis is not a broadcast on behalf of the Democrats or the Republicans and neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden approve this message.  It’s merely an attempt to illustrate how the misuse of language and the absence of objective, critical thought have led to a meta-situation where the ultimate freedom seems to have become the very right to define what freedom is.

Check your history books and see what Orwell has to say on the subject and you’ll find that such a freedom is a symptom of the least free societies in human history.

CSG: Owning the Problem of More Consumption

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on November 25th 2019

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/owning-the-problem-of-more-consumption

The countdown is on to another Black Friday, which for many retailers and e-tailers, is still the most frantic, most lucrative day of the year. Throughout its relatively short existence in the UK, it’s a date that has brought about opportunity and controversy in equal measure. And yet, despite the countless headlines generated, only now is its greatest controversy truly coming into focus.

How did we get here?

If you’re unaware of its provenance, “Black Friday” was once just one of many terms used in America to describe the day after Thanksgiving (held on the fourth Thursday of November). The following day became regarded as the official ‘start line’ of the pre-Christmas shopping binge – the point when retailers often began to make a profit for the rest of the year. In accounting, negative figures are entered in red and positive ones in black, and the expectation of profit explains the relevance of the word ‘Black’.

Before long, the day became a chance for competing retailers to gain custom, increase revenue and gather sales momentum. By the 1980s, the practice had become well-established in the Eastern states but was relatively unobserved elsewhere. As recently as the end of last decade, you could see bargain-hunters setting up camp on Thanksgiving Day in the parking lots of most malls and stores across the US but still the term ‘Black Friday’ was all but unknown in the rest of the world.

By 2010, the effect of the internet, and the ‘credit crunch’ on consumers and retailers meant that ‘Black Friday’ had become a fixture in the British retail calendar. With the loss of Woolworths, MFI and Kwik Save, it was viewed by many retailers as the right idea at the right time.

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In less than a decade, we in the UK have gone from knowing almost nothing about Black Friday to having very specific expectations about what it represents.

Significant ‘one day only’ discounts very quickly led to unseemly scrambles and even scuffles around the UK, as shoppers surged to claim genuine bargains before Christmas. Suddenly, Black Friday was considered a necessary fixture in the shopping landscape, but it didn’t take long for a backlash to occur. Principally, most retailers would prefer not to give away discounts before Christmas at all, if possible. To some, there was even concern that such naked November salechasing hinted at desperation, even a lack of liquidity – a suspicion no business wants to bring about.

Others were concerned about the additional operational effort and cost, even the health and safety overhead that came with the need to provide crowd control. Notably, Amazon felt they could do better by holding such an event on their terms at a more fallow time of year – ‘Amazon Prime Day’ in July.

Very low down the list of reasons not to participate in Black Friday was the sense that the whole thing might be harming us all by fuelling overconsumption. With such significant change, there is almost always a ‘law of unintended consequences’ to consider. The whole thing started merely as a competitive device to win sales from others. Within a year or two, as it became clear that the buzz generated by Black Friday was too big to leave unexploited, leading to a ‘mission creep’ of more products, cheaper variants and more frivolity. The addition of the adjacent ‘Cyber Monday’ extended the principle further. Retailers found themselves able to predict a planned orgy of purchasing – a phenomenon that people in Sales and Marketing spend most of their careers trying to bring about.

The problems started to occur with what happened next – the effect on consumption. The Black Friday vehicle would lead to consumers being urged to replace or upgrade more ‘stuff’ with more abandon. Prices plummeted – and so, it seems, did shoppers’ inhibitions.

More Sales = More Consumption

Where extra purchases led to knock-on effects in waste, it started to become clear there would be an environmental price to pay for all this extra acquisition. Electronics had become a particularly favoured category for discounters and shoppers alike, but with e-waste already becoming the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, clearly, the compulsion to throw away old tech to allow for a Black Friday purchase has hardly helped to arrest that problem.

There was a similar effect in the area of clothing, already threatening unsustainably high carbon and water footprints to make the product. Black Friday added to the pressures, increasing the amount of clothing added to landfill sites to 350,000 tonnes each year. With consumption bolstered by cheap product, not expected to last, the problem of ‘fast fashion’ became even harder to combat.

The growing debate about the wisdom of Black Friday became further complicated because, naturally, cheaper products offer a greater incentive to less wealthy people. There’s a danger that any concerns can sound a lot like better-off people telling less well-off people that they’re spending their money on the wrong things. Unsurprisingly, where that suspicion takes root, the urge for consumers to act sympathetically is often strongly resisted.

Reversing the Effect

Just when it began to seem futile to expect people to act against their short-term interest, a growing counter-narrative finally began to take effect. The effect of the BBC’s Blue Planet II on attitudes to single-use plastic was particularly notable. More recent activism by Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for the Climate and globally co-ordinated action by Extinction Rebellion further elevated the issue and this year, the Glastonbury Festival took steps to discourage disposable tents and dispensed with disposable water bottles.

As we in the UK look towards the second decade of Black Friday, we now seem to do so with a far greater level of environmental concern. It may not stop us buying, but even if it doesn’t, we’re likely to experience a little more guilt about that purchase than ever before. Does this extra consideration mean we give more thought to the product it replaces, with donating or other forms of re-use being more fully explored?

Until now, our choice between a tempting offer and a responsible attitude to the planet has always seemed to be one-sided. With extra encouragement to think longer-term, how far away are we from reaching a tipping point? Have you had cause to reconsider your company’s position on Black Friday, based on its environmental impact? As a shopper, have you changed your views about participating? Or is it still a fair way for savvy Christmas shoppers to get more value for money? Perhaps the responsibility should lie elsewhere: why should the shopper bear all the guilt from a process that offer such companies great benefits with little additional responsibility? Ultimately, is this all a symptom of a global problem that prizes economic growth over sustainability?

Unfortunately, only time will tell….

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 10.3

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.

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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?

POST-SCRIPT

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?

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 3

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.

Sunday 20th March 1994,  11:39 (CST)

PAUL’S FLOOR, AUSTIN, TX

Well, early to bed, early to rise makes Paul a dull boy!  No question of that particular accusation applying.  Yesterday, we did what most people go abroad specifically to do: we swam and sunbathed, played pool rugby, hung out next to a river, ate inordinate amounts of various fast food and sat outside until the early hours, watching the world go by.  I’m sure there’s one missing there…   …I don’t think we did anything else, though.

Well, apart from the fast food reliance, this *is* European too.  Granted the scenery is not up to Italian Alp/Dolomite standard but since when did they have 24-hour supermarkets, eh?  No, I won’t open up that old debate but I will say the two sides did seem fairly well reconciled here last night.  Dan* brought his (American) girlfriend to see us last night (the English one doesn’t know about her yet).  She was born in Greenwich Village in Noo Yawk.

I really wish I’d rang Dad on Friday night — not only because (whoops) I woke him up but also because if I’d rang him yesterday, he would have told me the scores.  Well, I won’t be making *that* mistake again.  We found the channel on the TV that shows English football (remember Keystone**: United v Spurs).  Yesterday was Sheffield Wednesday v Newcastle United.  I knew I was at home for this match and confidently told Rice et al it was 1-1, Cole for Newcastle, Andy Preece sent off, and I can’t remember who scored for Sheff Wed.  Well, Rice was predictably jubilant (again!) when Andy Cole’s goal went in; Paul muttering something obscene and magpie-oriented in the corner***.  Then the final whistle went and he (Paul) looked painfully at him as if I’d denied him the pleasure of seeing Wednesday equalise.  All I could say was “That’s why I couldn’t remember who scored!”.  I was right about the rest, though.

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I’ve cultivated the beginnings of a rather nice tan in one day, which I’m afraid means cream and T-shirts for a couple of days and hopefully, I’ll look like Grandad after a month in California by next week.  To all the detractors reading this, I’d just like to say a quick ‘I’M NOT BURNING’, so there.

Although this is a Sunday, it will not, I know, carry the atmosphere of a Sunday because Sundays are not allowed in the States, at least not Sundays like I or Luke know them (side-swipe)****.  There will probably be a doubling of evangelical TV programmes and that’s all.  Can’t hear any lawnmowers, though.  Sorry, Luke, it had to be said!

* Paul & Rice’s room-mate.

** Keystone was the place we stayed in when we were skiing in Colorado, two months earlier.

*** Rice is a Newcastle fan, Paul is a Sunderland fan.  In football terms, the two are sworn enemies.

**** I think this stems from a late-night, drink-fuelled ‘debate’ Luke, Matt and I had in our student house in Lancaster about the pros and cons of the American lifestyle (freedom from restriction) versus the European model (where some areas had by-laws that could force residents to cut their lawn each Sunday). 

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 2

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.

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Saturday 19th March 1994,  08:39 (CST)

PAUL’S FLOOR, AUSTIN, TX

Firstly, this isn’t the important announcement I was going to make*.  Would you believe it, my pen exploded shortly after I wrote that.  In fact it wasn’t really yay important anyway; I’d just taken a photo of the Mississippi/Missouri and was thinking how it must have dried up because it seemed to be but a trickle in a really wide river bed, but no.  The ‘really wide river bed’ is where the flood** happened.  Anyway, it doesn’t require any more about that story.

I arrived at Austin Airport, picked up my case (which came out early, for a change) and just walked out.  Austin is not an international airport so there’s no passport control and certainly no deluded customs officials who think everyone nipped over to Holland for some contraband before they left for America.  Anyway, Paul & Rice were stood outside and after the customary greetings, everything instantly became normal — only it was in 85° heat.  Well, 98° was a bit ridiculous.  Bloody exaggerating Americans!!

I dropped my stuff off at Chris’s — the guy with the ‘phone.  He’s actually really cool — he’s got an acoustic and a bass.  His mate’s got an Epiphone telecaster.  Yeah, so we walked to this ‘English Pub’ place for a — I’ve forgotten what Paul called them, the initials I definitely remember — JCB and why do I remember that?  Because it’s a chilli burger and JCB is about right, ‘cause it’s that powerful!

I picked up my bags from Chris’s place and we bussed it to Paul’s (shit, my jeans are still at Chris’s — they were the first things to go in this heat!).  As we approached 1333 Arena Drive, it was sort of how I imagined it, except the apartment complex is on the right hand side, yet I’d somehow imagined the left.  Actually, ‘complex’ is a good word.  It must be the size of, say, Fylde residence rooms*** — much bigger than I’d expected.  Anyway, as we approached, there was a police car stopped, but with lights flashing and two cops talking to two guys.  Paul said “Oh crap, there’s not been another shooting, has there?”, at which point, I nearly did (crap).

The apartment, I can tell you, has charms beyond the capability of a camera lens.  Of course, I probably will take some photographs**** but I think people should read this first — to be warned, as it were.  It’s very modern, both in the fact that the building is new and that there’s no furniture.  The living room consists of a TV set and what I would call a viewing area — i.e. the rest is just floor.  Paul, Rice and Dan all have mattresses  now — I don’t but hey!  Who cares?  I’m writing this in ‘bed’ — lying on a cotton sheet on the floor.  It’s a good job I brought this pillow!

Just a couple more things of interest: when it came to the gift-giving, Rice looked like a seven year-old on Christmas morning and because it was from (lickle, ickle) Lyndsey, he had the inevitable inane grin from the rest of the evening.  Paul was a little less overt — well, he’s like that, isn’t he?  You know on the Pink Panther when you can see what he’s thinking in a bubble above his head, well when he got his salad cream and curry powder, I could just envisage salad cream and curry powder sandwiches over his head…   …don’t ask me why.

Also (and I kick myself for not staying awake throughout) was a new episode of ‘Beavis and Butt-head’(!!) where Beavis gets bitten by a dog and pretends to have rabies.  Yes, I slipped in and out of consciousness and didn’t last much longer than 10:30 — but I had been up 22 1/2 hours by then!

Anyway, it’s apparently going to get pretty warm so I’m afraid, girls, I shall be forced into getting a sun-tan!  Ha ha ha ha ha!

Oh yes, Paul & Rice found Luke quite amusing when I told them about Vicky — I wonder what happened on Thursday night.  I’m praying that Matt emailed the night’s events through.*****

Well, gotta get up!

PS Sorry for waking you up, Dad.

* See final entry of ~Pt.1.  There are lots of back references so it’s probable best to read all the entries in sequence.

** The ‘Great Flood of 1993‘.

*** A reference to part of the campus at Lancaster.  According to Wikipedia, there are 16 blocks of student accommodation within Fylde College.

**** I’m sure I did take photographs on this trip but I can’t remember seeing any of them developed – another sign of the time!

***** I have no memory of this at all.

Diaries Of A Texan Traveller – pt. 1

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.

Synopsis:

I call this account “a video diary in non-video form” because ‘diary’ sounds…   …well a little drab and soft really, doesn’t it?

I aim to make the reader feel part of every entry.  I hope to match the style of Michael Palin or Clive James* but I’m not sure how that will go.  I aim to include the unexpected aspects of visiting America, to educate, evaluate, criticise, elucidate, inform, encourage and probably mislead your perception of real life in this nation look upon as some sort of elevated monolith of the world community, when basically its peoples are the same as us with ambitions, fears, traumas and ‘Roseanne’…   …just like we are!

I also aim to stop writing like I’m at University – this is my holiday for God’s sake!!

Finally and most importantly, I would like to share my most fundamental motivation with you.  As Garth Algar** once said: “I just hope you didn’t think it sucked”

I think there’s a lesson there for us all…

Enjoy.

PB

* They both were, and still are, amongst my greatest influences of travelogue writing.

** sidekick to Wayne Campbell in ‘Wayne’s World’, 1992 film.

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n606aa-2008-09-13-yvr-2

Friday 18th March 1994,  16:49 (GMT)

MID-ATLANTIC – ACTUALLY, MORE LIKE SOMEWHERE OVER CANADA

Took off from Manchester this morning with no problems.  As always*, I had the filet mignon for lunch; an American Airlines speciality I must say.  The film (‘The Addams Family Values’) has just finished.  This means I have successfully endured the first 6½ hours without turning to this diary to keep me occupied – I thought I would have written reams and reams by now!  Well, there’s always the Austin flight (in addition to the 1½ more hours here!)

The reason I have not yet got bored is partly because of the bloke I met.  An artist from Huddersfield** no less!  More later – snack time!

* Stretching credulity a little!  Two months previously, I’d flown to Denver, via Chicago, also with American Airlines for a skiing holiday.  I’d had the filet mignon on that flight as well.

** Another friend from University (Matt) is from Huddersfield.

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Friday 18th March 1994,  17:40 (GMT)

PROBABLY STILL OVER CANADA

The Immigration and Customs forms have just been filled in.  Still just over an hour to go.  Everything looks white down below but as I do not have a window seat, I can’t confirm what’s happening right now.  The newspaper says ‘unseasonably cold’ for Chicago.  Oh well!

Austin is supposed to be 29°C – Chicago’s probably going to be 29°F!!  Anyway this bloke (Andrew) lives about 3 miles from Highburton*.  He’s into skiing and has watched Manchester United for over 20 years — now is it obvious why I haven’t started ‘The Liar’** yet?!  He’s going to Toronto to sell his paintings and we had an interesting chat about marketing art — you learn something every day!

* Matt’s family lived in the Highburton area of Huddersfield at the time.

** Semi-autobiographical novel by Stephen Fry.

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Friday 18th March 1994,  13:46 (CENTRAL; GMT-6)

CHICAGO O’HARE AIRPORT (T3)

I don’t fly to Austin for another hour yet so there’s plenty of time to hang out and take in the scenery — again!

Yes I’m once again sat in the little café in Terminal 3.  Everything is the same (Michael Jordan is everywhere!) — except it’s not snowing.  Little things spark off my memory like those bending iron columns — what were the initials again?  Must remember to ask Martin!*  Well, yes, they’re still here, not surprisingly!

It was a weight off my mind to ring Chris (whoever he is!)** who confirmed that Rice and Paul will be at the airport in 3½ hours’ time.  I think Dad was pleased I rang — from the very same ‘phone booth from which he rang Grandma only 8 weeks ago!  Not that he was to know that, but it sort of seemed right.

Blasé as I appeared before I left (well I probably was blasé), I’m not now; I can’t really comprehend that I was sat in that very yellow plastic chair 2 months ago (unless they swapped them around for some reason) — but the effect is just the same anyway!

OK: an in-joke for anyone who has been to an American airport before:  “Mr Bloggs; Mr Joe Bloggs.  Please contact the information desk.” — it really is the little things, isn’t it?!!

[Somebody’s just sat in my chair — the yellow plastic one!]

I wonder why that Customs official was convinced I’d been to the Netherlands***.  I don’t look like Jan****, do I?

Actually, I didn’t handle that very well.  We both knew it was kidology but instead of being British and saying “I’m sorry but I’m afraid there’s some mistake here”, I overdid the staunch defence bit and sort of whined “but I havennn’t been there!!!”  Oh well, better luck next time — there probably will be a next time.

At least I didn’t bleep here.  In Manchester, I couldn’t believe being bleeped a second time!  10 years of air travel… (sigh)

Oh I think I found some Pepsi in my regular cup of ice cubes! — oh no, it’s just a trick of the light.

5 past 8 now at home…   …I wonder what happened on Coronation Street…   …Shit!  What time did I ring?  25 past I think…   …well that was a close one!  I know I’m in Chicago and all but CORONATION STREET!  Sorry Mum!*****

* My brother Martin and I had discussed the RSJs visible from the departure gate area (for some reason) during my previous visit, two months earlier.

** Another British overseas student at the University of Texas who had become friends with Paul & Rice,  Crucially (and a sign of the time), he was the only person among their circle who had access to a telephone.

*** Looking very bedraggled and student-like as I did, it’s no surprise that I was spotted by a US Customs official who came over to ask me if I’d “brought anything in from Amsterdam”.  I took him literally because I couldn’t believe that he would need to speak in euphemisms, even though it was perfectly clear what he meant.

**** Another friend from University, Jan came from Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire but had a Dutch mother.

***** My Mum was a regular ‘Coronation Street’ viewer then.  She isn’t now.

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Friday 18th March 1994,  15:03 (CST)

CLIMBING OUT OF CHICAGO

As I see the last, faint cloud-obscured features of Illinois disappear, my mind turns to filling the time on this 2hr 20min flight.  It hardly seems worth starting ‘The Liar’ now.  There’s certainly no opportunity for conversation as there’s no-one next to me — but I got a window seat!

I realised that, unlike many of the passengers, admittedly American and ‘frequent flyers’; who were perhaps nervy about the take-off, I was hugely relieved, probably because I know Paul and Rice are waiting for me and that after a 9hr flight, this little ‘hop’ is a mere formality.  OK, so I’m blasé again!

Sometimes though, I sort of catch myself off-guard and have to remind myself that I’m now in the USA all alone (for the time being) and despite the facade of casual ‘shit happens’ acceptance, sometimes it is all a little unreal.

I heard a Texan in front of me chatting to an Illinoian (?)*, saying that they wouldn’t need warm clothes as it’s (I’m sure he said) 98°!!  So that’s what “damn hot” means!

The captain just said there’s some “bumpy air” on the way, although it’s pretty clear right now.

What can I see?  Well, a large, (very) straight road, probably an Interstate and just lots of fields, like the plains of Eastern Colorado — no circular fields here, though!

There is a grid of roads at right angles separating the fields and tiny houses are dotted randomly about.  In the distance, I can see a small town where two roads cross.  It just looks like a gigantic patchwork blanket!

Well we are in the Midwest here.  Agricultural heartland of the US.  There’s absolutely no variation for as far as I can see (probably about 40 miles) and it’s completely flat.

Whoahh!  A large town *quick look at the map*.  Could be Springfield, Illinois — I dunno!

8:25 at home; I wonder what’s happening at home.  More to the point, I wonder what’s happening in Lancaster.  Hmmm… Paul & Rice will be told.  Oh yes, Paul & Rice *will* be told**.

This clock-watching is a bad idea.  I’ll have to do something or this flight will seem the same as the other one — which for a 9-hour flight, wasn’t that bad, but for a 2½?!

Wait!  Captain announced we’re going over St. Louis.  I can’t see it but I can see a river.  Mississippi or Missouri, I don’t know.

<<Important announcement coming up!>>  (hereafter referred to as !*!)

* Actually, it’s an “Illinoisan”, according to statesymbolsusa.org.

** I have no idea what this was specifically a reference to, although it’s worded in a ‘Wayne’s World’ style.  I think it had something to do with a rumoured sexual encounter of one of my house-mates.

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Buddy, Can You Spare A Minute?

Hey America!  Hi there.  I’m a friend of yours from way back.  In fact, I come from the same place as Myles Standish so I guess I may even be related to a whole lotta you guys.  Anyways, I just wanted to say something to you, you know, ‘As A Friend’…

We in the rest of the world have been talking and, well, you gotta know, not many of us like this Trump guy a whole lot.  I know a lot of you guys do so I just need to let you know that it could cause us a problem.  We didn’t want to say anything and we nearly didn’t but like that Friends show says: “I’ll be there for you” so here I am.

ph-at-the-bellagio
Visiting the Bellagio, Las Vegas, Nevada in 2002 – with Caesar’s Palace in the background

Before I start, I know it’s your election and kinda your business so I appreciate you might not take too kindly to some guy from the “old country” stickin’ his nose in your affairs but before you get all ‘1776‘ on me, let’s get a few things straight:

First of all, you guys have our sympathy.  We in the UK have, as you might say, “been there, done that”.  We know what it’s like to have a vote to use and feel we’ve got a bunch of crooks and clowns on each side to have to choose between.  It’s only five months since we had the same deal here.  And, according to most of the rest of the world, we messed up then.  I know what you’re thinking: “why listen to this loser?” and I know how you value success.  Think about it though: whose experience is most helpful here; they guy who doesn’t realise what problem he avoided or the guy who knows exactly what his mistake was?

And then there’s this: a lotta you guys like to think of the USA as the pre-eminent country in the world and in many ways it is: economically, militarily and culturally – well popular culture, anyway.  As the world’s only super-power, Uncle Sam is a pretty big deal.  Since the Cold War started, we’ve grown used to a succession of your presidents being styled as the “leader of the free world”.  Y’know, sometimes that presumption of supremacy has rankled with us but we jus’ sucked it up and didn’t say nothing.  I gotta say, if you go with this Trump guy, we’re through with being OK with that.

Take a look at history – not ‘Hollywood’ history where the US cracked the Enigma Code or American servicemen took part in the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III but real history.  Look at how Greece rose and fell (the first time) and how Greek civilization got surpassed by the Roman Empire.  Since Churchill’s days, America has been described as the ‘Rome’ to Britain’s ‘Greece’.  Just remember that eventually, the Roman Empire contracted and disappeared.  I ain’t saying your time is over – jus’ that nothin’s forever.  There are signs if you know where to look: the past kinda catches up with you, y’know, like our colonial past caught up with us.  Thanks to Washington and his homies, you guys mighta got out early but we managed to keep ahold of Canada, much of the Caribbean, India, Australia, New Zealand and some other places.  It was pretty cool while it lasted but eventually, you gotta pay the price for all this struttin’ around the world.  So we managed to re-boot our Empire as a Commonwealth and some say that immigration from those countries was a good thing for us but we had to take a lotta responsibility we kinda didn’t see comin’.  Take it from us, when we look Stateside and see things like the controversy surrounding the use of the Confederate flag and the Standing Rock thing right now,  we recognise them as echoes of history no-one ever thought would keep comin’ back.  You gotta know, these things are jus’ gonna get more and more complex from here on in.  “Mo’ history, mo’ problems”, brother.

The reason you need to know this, guys, is that when some bozo keeps sayin’ “Make America Great Again”, you gotta be sure what he means by that because I gotta tell you, I think he’s bein’ deliberately unclear with you.  In so many ways, America is still great and never stopped being.  In the ways you might think he means by “great again”, you gotta ask: can he, or anyone else, bring back those days?  No amount of slogans on baseball caps is gonna make everything how it was and nor should it.  America still has nothing to fear but fear itself.

You think I’m over-reacting?  What about the last guy who shouted simple solutions to bring back former glories at controlled rallies, who threatened his opponents with jail, who blamed outsiders and gave no value to disabled people?  Well your country mobilized 16 million to help us stop him and over 400,000 of them never came home.  Y’know, I couldn’t believe when he tried to explain away his crazy-ass opinions as being “just words”.  If we’re in a world where that works as a way out for politicians, we’re in a whole heap o’trouble.  Like JK Rowling said, if you can remove the importance of the words we use that easily, “we’re all lost”.

I ain’t sayin’ Hillary is perfect – I don’t know enough about her to tell you I know better than you.  I mean she is without doubt an experienced political operator who’s been a First Lady, a Senator and a Secretary of State  so I do kinda find it hard to understand why she’s so mistrusted by so many of you but I guess you have your reasons.  I just hope it’s not simple misogyny.  You could do worse than have a woman as a leader – ask Germany!

I’m proud to be a pro-American.  I spent my 16th birthday in Florida – the first of many visits there.  I’ve been fortunate enough to visit New York City; Las Vegas; Austin, Texas and Colorado, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  I wanna go back and see more of your amazing country.  I love your people, your positivity, your values and your achievements.  I have American friends: I’m pretty sure some are Democrat-leaning and some are Republican-leaning and I hope none of you take offense at what I’ve said.  Whatever happens, I’m not gonna stop lovin’ America, watchin’ your movies, listenin’ to your music and readin’ your literature – but a few of us might think about consciously uncoupling for a few years if you get involved with that guy…

Anyways, I hope we can still be friends – maybe this will help:

I sure do appreciate you reading this.  Much obliged!