Why I love… sorry… like America

I almost got carried away there. I forgot we English don’t express our emotions. We don’t love anything. Except for our wives and we certainly wouldn’t broadcast that. In fact, we probably don’t dare tell even them. No, the English don’t do love. We like things instead.

And even when we like something, we tend to criticise it. Americans don’t understand this. While my friends over here take umbrage with some of the things I write and mistakenly assume that I don’t like their country, my English friends interpret the very same comments completely differently. ‘It sounds as if you really like it out there’ they say. If I were relentlessly positive, my English friends would assume that I was taking the piss. We English know that nothing can be that good. There has to be a catch. And even if it is good we have to pretend it isn’t.

When Tony Blair described Britain as the greatest nation on earth in his resignation speech we all smirked. Had the same comment been made over here everyone would have slapped their thighs and said “Hell yeah, he’s right, we are the greatest”. But we don’t do that; it’s just not British.

So at the risk of sounding native, I’m going to indulge myself in an unseemly display of affection for my host country by identifying the seven things I most love about America.

Thing #1

Every so often on the freeway, out in the big wide open, bolt straight road stretching into a hazy distance, I’m struck by the magnificence of this country. I might be driving through the rolling Connecticut countryside, the prairie flatlands of the mid-West or in the shadows of Utah mountain ranges when I feel a tightening of the heart. An overwhelming fondness washes over me. Expansive landscape and big sky all around, memories come flooding back from my time as a teenager thumbing lifts through the Blue-Ridge mountains of Virginia (with my sixteen-foot wide sign: ‘Be original – Pick up a British hitch-hiker today’), a distant soft rock classic on the radio, thick warm summer air brushing against my arm resting on the open window. This, for me, is America.

Thing #2

At the heart of it, everything that is good about America comes from the first three words of a five-page document from 1787. You might expect Citizen Smith to address the Tooting Popular Front with ‘We the people’, or to find these words inscribed on a tombstone in Highgate Cemetery, but it is somewhat surprising to find it as the opening constitutional gambit of Capitalism’s poster boy. The much-acclaimed rallying cry of the French Revolution ‘Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité’ is simply a copy, with a couple of accents, from the earlier Declaration of Independence. And although the slaves might point to the odd failing in its application, ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ is nonetheless a pretty cool statement with which to start a country.

Thing #3

I love living in a country where you can swing a cat by its tail without mashing its brains on all four walls. We have two and a half times the floor space we had in London. I’m pretty much able to maintain a straight line on the sidewalks of Chicago or New York, whereas to walk down Tottenham Court Road or Regent Street is a game of dodgems without the rubber bumpers. Pedestrian collisions are rare over here and when they do happen the impact is likely to be cushioned by layers of fat.

Thing #4

There are things in life that once invented or discovered become indispensable. It’s hard to conceive, but once upon a time my wife existed without a Blackberry. But take it from her now and she would undoubtedly fall apart. More essential by far than her husband, it’s her umbilical cord to the world. And how did we function in a world without mobile phones or the iPod? How did we ever send e-mails before the Internet? And did we really go into record shops to buy pressed vinyl rather than simply press the iTunes ‘buy’ button? I know that life did exist before then and indeed that I was part of it, but I just can’t envisage it. Similarly, before I came to America I knew nothing of valet parking. I thought it was normal when dining out to drive round and round in circles for hours beforehand searching in vain for a parking space or to alternatively to subject myself to the fear of God in badly lit underground car parks full of lurking shadows and threatening noises. I didn’t know you could park outside the restaurant, leave the key in the ignition, walk straight in and emerge two hours later to have your car returned right in front of you. Valet parking is luxury that has become a necessity in my life.

Thing #5

In England we bear our disappointments like a huge cross that we carry with us right to the very end. I’m still suffering from Cambridge United’s relegation from the league two years ago. Writing about it now brings a slight tremble to the fingers. Here in Chicago there was a surge of excitement earlier this year when the local football team – The Chicago Bears – made it to the Superbowl for the first time since the mid-eighties. It was a big deal. The Bears star player Tank Johnson was even given leave of absence by Judge Moran to play in the game before starting his jail sentence. Unfortunately the Bears lost. Badly. Everyone was depressed for twenty-four hours, but by Tuesday it was history and, as we all know, the Americans don’t do history. Tank has since completed his sentence and is now setting his sights on becoming NFL’s Man-of-the-Year. I like living somewhere that spends more time dreaming of tomorrow that it does remembering yesterday. It makes it easier to forget Cambridge United and get on with my life.

Thing #6

Entertainment USA could never be Entertainment UK. The inspiration for artistic endeavour in England tends to comes from a spirit of youthful rebellion (from ‘Look Back in Anger’ to ‘Anarchy in the UK’ to Tracey Emin to ‘This is England’) that exists outside the mainstream. In America it is an intrinsic part of the culture. While it could be argued that this alienation and resentment is what gives Britain its creative edge, it is nevertheless a joy to be in place where good contemporary music, art and literature is on every street corner. The American edition of The Week devotes space to extensive album reviews and contemporary literature that in the English version is given over to summarising The Archers. With 8,839 television stations (one of which – HBO – is good), American media is so targeted that it helps me understand who I am. The commercials on my radio station (Q101 – “everything alternative”) tell me that with the right training I could get a job with prospects, perhaps one day rising to become a store manager. The advertising breaks in CNN the twenty-four hour news network seem to think I suffer from twenty-four hour headaches. And the Fox Soccer Channel is convinced that I am suffering from erectile dysfunction. Back home I’m nothing more than a number to the media; here I’m somebody, even if that somebody is a jobless Joe with a sore head and a droopy dick.

Thing #7

The tie, a noose-like symbol of corporate enslavement if ever there was one, is, to my delight, rare attire in America. The informality over here suits me. This week I had a presentation to make in a Fifth Avenue boardroom in New York, but I also wanted to go to see my favourite band in a grungy low-life club the previous night and I like travelling light. I was able to find clothing that could cover both extremes, something that would have been impossible in England where the uniform of the meeting would be a suit and of the rock concert some ripped jeans and a putrid t-shirt. The British like uniforms. Punks, Mods, Football fans, Businessmen, Pupils, drunken Scotsmen… they all dress up. Even an invite for drinks party often specifies what to wear. I hate dressing up. And so I love living somewhere where I don’t have to. The only event I’m aware of that has a dress code in Chicago is the World Naked Bicycle Ride on June 9th. One of the baristas at my local Starbucks gave me a flyer. She made a point of going to the back of the store to retrieve it. I think she had brought it in especially for me. How am I to interpret this? I asked her, while she was making my Grandee Cappucino, if she would be participating. I was thinking it could be a good opportunity to test out my new telephoto lens, although I elected not to share this. I walked slowly out of Starbucks that evening, heavy with thought. Could it be my physique, I wondered, that had prompted her to think of me in connection with the World Naked Bicycle Ride? Or is it that I simply look to her like the kind of person who should be cycling down the middle of Chicago without any clothes on?

Ever since first visiting the States as a starry eyed fourteen-year-old, I’ve had more than a soft spot for the place. My instinct as an outsider feels a strong sense of belonging in a nation where many think of themselves as immigrants in their own country, as likely to define themselves as Lithuanian-Irish as American.

Werner Herzog describes America as a place of “loyalty, frontier spirit, optimism, self-reliance”.

That’s what I love about it. Which, of course, is why I, as a Brit, criticise it.

I will miss it.

Unfortunately it is looking likely that I’ll be missing it sooner that I would have liked.

In her Christmas letter this year Ros wrote that her New Year’s resolution was to get rid of one of her two jobs. With her usual super-efficiency she has managed to get rid of both of them and so ‘Blog from America’ will soon become ‘Blog from South-West London’.

“Bother”, said Pooh Bear. “Shucks”, said Charlie Brown. “Fuck it”, said I.

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