Tomorrow morning we fly to the United States for a two week trip to two very different corners of the country; first to Orlando, Florida, and then on to Amherst, Massachusetts. It will be the first time I have set foot in the United States of America, although I have gazed across at it through the spray and the mist of Niagara Falls, and as with our journey to Paris last year, I am intrigued to see how this country that has played such a massive role in my own cultural life will live up to my expectations. Even more so than for the French capital, I think that it is an impossible task, as no other country lives so strongly in my imagination despite the fact I have never even been there. I cannot be the only one for, if you live in the west especially, American culture has been ever-present in our lives for the best part of a century.
In preparation for our trip I was looking through our bookshelves for something to read on the flight across the Atlantic, and I was struck by the number of books – and not just any books, but those formative books that shape your ideas and expectations – by American authors. However good certain books might be now, if I re-read them, they remain important to me because of the how and the when I first discovered them. Junky and Queer by William Burroughs, two slender volumes discovered on the shelves of Runshaw College library in my first year of Sixth Form. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, both bought at Manchester Airport on the way to Canada at the age of eighteen. Another Country, Giovanni’s Room and Notes of a Native Son, all part of a James Baldwin collection given to me by my dad during the first year of university and opened in the vast, cavernous hall of the Parkinson Building at Leeds.
And then there is the music. Regular readers of this blog will know about how I feel about Bruce Springsteen, but in my teenage years there was REM and Nirvana. During university, listening to old blues and soul tracks, dancing to Motown at a basement club in Leeds city centre. In more recent years, picking up on Gillian Welch and Wilco, or the recent album by the Lumineers, all of which gives me an idea of “America” that I surely cannot hope to find. What about television? Film? Food? One of my favourite Bill Bryson books is the wonderful Made in America, which gives a fascinating account of American language and culture, and makes you realise how much has crossed the Atlantic and become part of our everyday lives.
Of course there is another America as well, the country I studied during four years of International Relations at university, and whose escapades since September 11th have been the constant background noise of global politics since I moved to Berlin just a couple of weeks after the planes hit the towers. I know that I will not find in Orlando or in Amherst the America of Baldwin, Burroughs and Thompson, or the America of Cobain, Stipe and Springsteen. It won’t be the Wire or the Sopranos, Friends or the West Wing. But I am excited to find out what it is, and I will be sure to report back on these pages. See you in couple of weeks…
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Julia Stone