I’m not sure how cool it is to admit this right now for reasons I don’t have to explain, but I’ve been an unapologetic Americanophile for as long as I can remember. And unless you count a few hours in LAX on the way to New Zealand, where we encountered some of the friendliest and most polite airport staff in existence, I’ve never even been there. (And any U.S. readers, if you find this hard to believe, try arriving at Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester from a long-haul flight and see misery and rudeness personified.)
But the thing with America is, you don’t have to actually go there to fall in love with the place; from the movies and TV shows, to the food and sports, the epic history and breaking news, we’re bombarded with US culture on a daily basis. It’s inescapable, and I bloody love it. I’ve rarely met an American I didn’t like, primarily because they tend to be unerringly polite, optimistic and have an ‘I’m here and let’s get it done’ attitude that I, as a shy, reserved and stiff-assed Brit, can only admire and aspire to.
Like most British families if you go back far enough, I have family links to the States. My favourite of which is my Great Grandfather Evans’ brother, Jonah (never was a man more appropriately named by the way). In the early 1900’s he emigrated there, got a job, bought some land, struck oil on it, made a fortune, then promptly lost the lot on women, gambling and horses. Later he came back to Wales and sporadically lived with my Great Grandparents on the farm whilst on shore leave from the merchant navy. What a story, and what a man. The very epitome of the American dream you might say.
As a hopeless history geek, I’ve always been fascinated by this amazing country’s heritage and heroes. From the early immigrants seeking religious freedom, to the pioneers from every corner of the World who moved westwards across the great plains and built a new nation with their blood, sweat and tears. From the native American tribes who fought so valiantly for their lands and culture, to the African American community who marched and campaigned with such dignity for civil rights. Men and women of every race, colour and creed, came together in this unique cultural melting pot, and despite the numerous conflicts of interest, turned it into the most powerful nation on Earth.
So many of my heroes have come from the USA that it’s impossible to mention them all. From that early president of Welsh descent, and lover of liberty Thomas Jefferson, to the Professor of Rhetoric turned soldier from Maine, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who saved the Union forever with his inspirational leadership and suicidal bravery at Little Round Top in 1863. From that semi mythical figure Crazy Horse of the Oglala Lakota who fought and died for his people, to the department store seamstress who refused to give up her seat in the coloured section of a bus for a white passenger despite the threats and intimidation, Rosa Parks. Just imagine the guts that must have taken. And then there’s Johnny Cash. A dirt-poor sharecropper’s boy from Dyess, Arkansas who who went on to become one of the most influential and charismatic musicians of the 20th century. As a kid I used to listen and sing along to his records with my Dad, and marvel at that beautiful baritone voice and southern accent. And I still do.
At a young age I read Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and was instantly and magically transported to the Mississippi river of the mid 19th century. Later I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and despite all the novels I’ve read since, I’ve never been so effected by a piece of fiction. It blew my teenage mind and opened my eyes to what writing should be. It almost had a musical quality to it, a thumping rhythm and urgency that i’ve still never seen repeated. I’ve read everything that Ernest Hemingway ever wrote. And i’ve been there with his deep and complex characters in the Spanish Civil War, 1920s Paris, and deep sea fishing off the coast of Cuba. I fell in love with, and mourned the destruction of, the culture and societies of the plains Indians as I devoured every page of Dee Brown’s Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. I’ve read it numerous times since, and it’s undoubtedly the greatest non-fiction book I’ve ever read. And I’ve been there, dusty and thirsty, riding every step of the trail with Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call driving cattle from Texas to Montana in the 1880s. I’m of course referring to Lonesome Dove, and quite possibly my favourite novel of all time. Love, sex, death, friendship, humour, violence; it has it all. And hell, all farmers are wannabe cowboys.
Speaking of farming, America has long led the World in agricultural science and technology and continues to do so. From early 19th century innovators and businessmen like John Deere and Cyrus McCormick, to Fritz Haber who developed the technique still used today to take the vast amount of nitrogen available in the earth’s atmosphere and convert it into nitrogen that plants can use. It is impossible to understate how this discovery has improved agricultural productivity. And then there’s Norman Borlaug who passed away just a few years ago, and who’s obituary read ‘… he taught the World to feed itself’. He is credited as saving as many as a billion lives with his wheat breeding and research programmes, and devoted his life to improving food production techniques. I could go on and on, but there’s no doubt that we’ve all benefitted from American scientific and agricultural innovation, wherever we are in the World.
There can’t be many people who haven’t seen and loved American films. Hollywood is everywhere. As a kid growing up in the 80s it was The Goonies, Karate Kid, and Back to the Future. It was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, and above all Star Wars. Always the underdogs triumphing over hardship and adversity with swagger and humour. For an awkward and geeky kid like I was, they were a glorious escape. As I got older it was The Godfather, Goodfellas, All the President’s Men, Casablanca, Saving Private Ryan, and perhaps most of all, It’s a Wonderful Life. Who doesn’t watch it without imagining living in 1940’s Bedford Falls? George Bailey I’ll love you ’til the day I die..
America is so many things to so many people. To me it’s all of these things I’ve mentioned and more. It’s Gettysburg, Omaha Beach, Iwa Jima and Khe Sanh. It’s NASA, Hollywood, and Silicon valley. It’s Elvis Presley, and the birthplace of Rock and Roll. It’s cheese burgers, fries, Budweiser, and Jack Daniels. It’s the fuck you attitude after the appalling tragedy of 9/11, and the inspirational stories of heroism and sacrifice that emerged from it. It’s breathtaking scenery and agricultural bounty of every conceivable kind, and friendly, tough, and hard working people. And that most of all. For me, it will never be the country of a spiteful billionaire from a gilded 5th avenue penthouse apartment, no matter how hard he tries to make it so. It will always be the country of truck drivers, teachers, office and factory workers, aye and farmers and ranchers, and all the rest of the ordinary people from every different faith, culture and background who get up and go to work to feed their families day after day. America is the eponymous hero of every Bruce Springsteen song ever written.
I recently asked on twitter what people’s impression of America was, what’s the first thing they think of. In amongst the numerous answers was one that really stood out to me, and that was a one word reply – ‘hope’, and that says it better than I can. Because despite all the recent turmoil there, despite all the divisions, violence, and anger, America is hope. For itself, and the rest of the World. And it always will be.