Britain has a strange relationship with America. It is like that of a man who married a woman, and then the woman divorced him way back in 1776, and now said woman – let’s call her Liberty – has gone on to better things. She has got rich, glamorous and strong while the man has gone a bit sour and is starting to look his age and probably needs tablets to keep it up.
Lots of Brits love America, but there is a lot of prejudice too. To hear some, it is a land of fake and phoney. A land of crazy religious types and airhead celebrities, of creationism and Kardashianism.
Well, I’m a Brit who loves America wholeheartedly. Always have, just like my Uncle James, a former hippy who decamped from Sussex to San Francisco in 1971. I went to my uncle’s third wedding when I was eight years old. It was by a swimming pool. His Mexican wife made us burritos and chilli burgers. We visited Yosemite and Disneyland and Lake Tahoe and drove on the Pacific Highway. My parents had to remortgage the house but I had found heaven.
I have been back many times since. My parents house-swapped with a family in Baltimore when I was 16, and I spent a month as a suburban American teenager, just like in a John Hughes movie. In 1992 I walked around the base of the World Trade Centre, impressed by its sheer immense enormity. On a book tour in 2007 I visited a lot more places – from artsy Portland to highbrow Boston and magnificently superficial South Beach.
I got engaged in New York, and married in Las Vegas, in a kind of conveyor-belt service that lasted fifteen minutes. And just now I have got back from three weeks in southern California, where I worked and pleasured in LA and San Diego.
Of course now I am a grown up, there are a few things that unsettle me about the US. Mainly the total faith in personal responsibility that leads to the belief that guns should be freely available but healthcare shouldn’t. The most visible shock in almost any American city is the number of homeless people. In San Diego there is a whole road which is known as Veteran Village, where former veterans (many of whom are amputees) sit in chairs on the sidewalk, with their HOMELESS AND HUNGRY cardboard signs. Yet veterans are mythologised and given lip-service wherever you go, even the killer whale show at SeaWorld starts with a speech in which the audience are asked to applaud the armed forces.
I spoke to a twenty-one year old boy (he looked no more than a boy, his eyes twinkling with sincerity like a young Emilio Estevez) in Santa Monica and he said that he had lost his job, had been allowed too much credit, hadn’t been able to pay it back, and was now on the streets. It was the American Dream in reverse. I gave him some money and have never seen anyone more grateful for anything, ever. It broke my heart.
But then, America is also full of beauty and kindness and wonder. The flip-side of personal responsibility is that people believe it is their duty to be pleasant, to be kind, to be courteous, not at the government level maybe, but at the individual one. Service is miles better here, even when a tip isn’t involved. Smiles are more frequent, even when cosmetic dentistry isn’t involved. People will tell you about the location of a parade you haven’t even asked to see. Your children will be showered with compliments. Thirty something men can happily chat to a five year old boy without that British fear of looking like a dangerous predator.
Yes, Americans don’t know how to drink compared to the British, but that is because they don’t need to. Brits drink to get near that state of confidence and levity that Americans seem to wake up with.
Yes, LA is a surreal place. A collection of disparate dreams (and some nightmares) woven together by freeways. But it brims with an uncredited intelligence, has the most gorgeous modernist architecture (horizontal to NY’s vertical), bubbles with multi-cultural energy. One day I was driven around by a young woman from El Salvador who told me that there are over fifty brilliant Salvadorean restaurants in the city. A high-powered film producer told me that no-one in the film industry knew anyone before arriving into town. Hollywood is a meritocracy. Brutal maybe, but fair. Talent rises.
Yes, they are health-obsessed in kale-munching, yoga-matted Santa Monica, but it is not a simple looks obsession. It is about health, and longevity, and feeling as good as a human can feel. They may want to live for ever, but so would you if you lived in Santa Monica.
When I close my eyes and think of America I think of the infinite Powell’s bookstore in Portland, the crazy fountain show outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas, of eating pastrami in a New York deli, of roadside diners, of hash browns and ranch sauce and root beer, of driving along interstates and skateboarding along a sidewalk in Baltimore, of art deco Miami, of the most staggering art collection in the world at MOMA, of riding Eliot’s bike (with ET in the basket) as an eight year old at Universal studios, of late night swimming in a cheap motel with my father. In America, they are willing to see the best in you, because they see the best in themselves. That isn’t arrogance, it is optimism.
So yes, my love remains undimmed. America, you are infinitely complicated, and you have more than enough issues to warrant therapy, but I could still explore you for ever and not even begin to get bored any more than you can get bored in dreams.