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Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
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Sunday, 10 July 2016

How did I do it?

In old age excess reflection can sap you. You replay bygone scenes and note you were a different person. More energetic, more courageous.

I had this romantic view of the USA; Hellenophiles, usually better educated, are said to feel the same about Greece. I was influenced by movies which dwelt on domestic detail: huge front lawns (without fences), newness, meals that would have fed hundreds. More persuasive still was the Saturday Evening Post: coloured shots of barbecues, families sitting in cars with room to spare, mothers with tightly permed hair wearing skirts that jutted as if made of sheet steel. As I read more I learned that Americans drank dry martinis and Schlitz and were rich enough to book motel rooms in order to practice adultery. Britain, in contrast, was wearily and slowly rebuilding itself post-war.

Aged 28 I decided to work there. Many British journalists had done so and I'd read their accounts. The preparation took over a year. I discovered 41 magazines which fitted my modest work experience and typed 41 CVs, reasoning that not taking advantage of the photocopier would prove I was a hard worker. To each CV I attached a head-and-shoulders photo of myself wearing a bow-tie. Then the searching application for a work visa at the US embassy. Resisting the shocked reaction of my mother-in-law. Dispersing the contents of our London flat. Booking a cheap one-way ticket with Loftleidir of Iceland, the only airline still offering translantic flights in propellor-engine planes.

What astonishes me now is my confidence and the will-power needed to resolve a dozen major logistical problems. These days such qualities are in shorter supply, used up in the mid-sixties perhaps. I doubt I'd get on with that bumptious RR; I'd calculated, not in vain, bumptiousness would be expected of me in the US.


Avus said...

"with tightly permed hair wearing skirts that jutted as if made of sheet steel" a vivid simile, RR. I took the National Geographic magazine of that period (an unnecessary expense really, since a visit to the dentist/doctor would reveal piles of back numbers in the waiting room) and your memories coincide well with that.

Your energy then deserved your subsequent journalistic success in the USA. Will we be indulged with that portrait image of the 28 year-old RR, wearing the bow tie?

I have recently read a biography of Cicero and this quote seems apposite to your condition:
"As I approve of a youth that has something of the old man in him, so I am no less pleased with an old man that has something of the youth. He that follows this rule may be old in body, but can never be so in mind."

Roderick Robinson said...

Avus: One task above all others made me feel I'd earned any success I was due in the USA.

VR and our then only daughter (subsequently to become Professional Bleeder) were to follow me later by ship, assuming I found work in the US. In the interim they would stay with VR's parents in Folkestone.

I packed all our portable belongings (including a Royal Doulton dinner service we'd received as a wedding present) into an enormous steamer trunk and took it to our local railway station in north London for transportation to Folkestone. The weight was horrendous and getting it into the car was only just within my capabilities. At the station I was faced with many many stairs down to the platform. Finally, close to syncope, I did it and was told by a porter (they still had porters in those days - 1965) that the trunk could not travel by that particular service. But I had foreseen this jobs-worth reaction and had gained the necessary authorisation from British Rail.

I told the porter he could like it or lump it but from now on the trunk was his responsibility, I simply hadn't the strength to get it back into my car. I did offer to help him move it into a storage room and this we did together - during which I made him aware of the weighty work that lay ahead for him. After that I simply walked unburdened back to my car, feeling wonderfully shriven.

The trunk got to Folkestone, was later transported to Southampton, loaded on to the SS France (a cruise ship similar to the Queen Mary), arrived in New York with VR and PB, and was carried the 371 miles to Pittsburgh, where I worked, in a friend's VW Microbus. Six years later the trunk made the return journey to Folkestone.

Post the US, when we were settled in a house in Kingston-upon-Thames, I disposed of the trunk. I'd taken a dislike to it and reasoned that if we ever moved again professionals ("Stronger in the arm and weaker in the head" in my father's memorable words) would do the shifting.

I have never read Cicero.

Avus said...


marly youmans said...

Pittsburgh! Interesting landing.

Oh, I don't know. You've got a lot of gusto and boldness still--your singing lessons attest to it.

Blonde Two said...

Interesting. Mr B2 and I were discussing only today whether or not the 'can do' attitude was at risk in today's society. The possibility of settling elsewhere is always with me. I managed Devon but so far New Zealand and (more recently) the Scottish HIghlands have evaded me.

I place the blame entirely on myself.

Roderick Robinson said...

Avus: During my final working weeks in the UK before taking the Loftleidir flight (from Prestwick - Glasgow was socked in with fog), a number of people said they envied me. As if I'd been the recipient of accidental magic. Wryly I thought of all the sweat I'd put into the project. Yeah, very accidental.

Marly: I became sentimentally attached to Pittsburgh; by then the $60m spent on cleaning up the pollution had transformed the city and it was a great (admittedly provincial) place to live in. More than that it was the gateway through which I passed into suburbia, the real USA (Les Etats-Unis profonds?), the home of authentic rather than cinematic Americans.

I really like gusto. Thanks for that.

Blonde Two: Even to this day I'm not sure whether we ever intended to stay there for life. As it was, circumstances conspired to return us to the UK and this proved to be a professional blessing for me. Even so, living for a year or two away from one's homeland is enormously beneficial - it eliminates any tendency towards "my country right or wrong".

To those with a strong sense of family, emigration can be an ambivalent event and this may be a factor in your case. Though VR always supported me leaving the UK was much more of a wrench for her than for me.