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Sunday, 18 May 2014

Full stop. Capital letter

There are certain, rare moments in life when what went before stops dead. When what follows is quite different. Marriage is one obvious junction and ours occurred in 1960. This was Wednesday, December 28 1965. I suspected life would change but it’s taken forty-nine years to say just how much.

In the New York Port Authority building (above) a barber, shaving me with a cut-throat razor, noticed a neck rash and suggested a massage. The rash was not unexpected. More than a day before, wearing a three-piece suit. I had travelled by train from Bradford to Glasgow. A bus had transported me to Prestwick airport on the western Clyde. A propellor plane took eleven hours to fly to Iceland, and seventeen hours to Kennedy. I wore the suit to avoid carrying it, I sweated, a rash formed.

In my pocket was a bus-ticket to Pittsburgh. The carrier was Continental Trailways not, as I had romantically hoped, Greyhound. Romance, curiosity, daring and a year's hard work had brought me to this point. I was about to start a six-year stay in the USA by my own choice.

Six years in a foreign country. Forget the common language, the USA is far more "foreign" than say France and Germany where I had lived for short periods. Its foreignness shaped my life.

When I returned I saw Britain differently. More international, less comfortable. Less charitable, better informed. Secular. More cramped. I was more communal and (inexplicably) more confident. Less prone to cliché. Better informed about industry. I supported US world views until leftwing friends (rare in Pennsylvania) compensated.

There's more but the romantic 1965 innocent with the sore neck had gone for good. A carpet rolled up. But how many other carpets since? We’ll see.


  1. The element of compression turns the remembered comment of a barber in New York into a whole chapter of autobiography. It is rare for life to follow the rules of grammar.

  2. I am interested to know that in 1965 planes still refuelled in Iceland. (On my 1949 voyage we, I'm told, stopped in Greenland.) You certainly had plenty of time to think about your fate. (A bit cruel to dump you in Pittsburgh at the beginning of winter.) I'm keen to know if you have been back to the U.S. since? My guess is you are an adaptive sort and fit in right away.

  3. Lucas: I've reflected on that barber a good deal in the intervening half century. If one discounts airline employees, bus drivers, customs officials (all part of a process for digesting and spewing out travellers) he was the first proper working American citizen I met. In many respects he lived up to the stereotype: over-familiar, laconic, fiercely independent, slightly parochial. Not that I'm complaining, you understand; he was one of the reasons I had just travelled 2500 miles.

    Having asked me conventional barber questions and discovered a rich source of unexpected responses he turned to the rest of the barber-shop (I insist it was a barber-shop not a salon) and indicated me with his thumb: "Brit. First day in the US."

    I am glad to say I embarrassed him slightly with my enquiry about a tip. "Oh, say buddy, that's kinda up to you."

    And now to my parallel state of my mind. I was conscious that this was a significant day in my life. Feverishly I looked around for "significant" detail and I had a notebook to record my discoveries. Still have it and only a miserable three or four pages are used. Many of the images were pre-encountered in movies and on TV and what I really needed was "context". I remained alone on the long bus trip to Pittsburgh when a real writer would have found someone to talk to. Conversation provides context. As does the passage of time - but time must first pass.

    Stella: Some things that might interest you appear in my response to Lucas.

    I flew to NY via Loftleidir - Icelandic Airlines - because they were cheap. Nothing was fixed at this stage and if the Pittsburgh job offer had not been confirmed I had enough money for two months of job-hunting (among the 39 other companies I had contacted) and then it would have back home, tail between my legs.

    Time to think. I've written a lot about life in the USA, not least in the blog that preceded this one, Works Well, still mouldering on untended. But new perspectives open up as I get older. The idea of a life divided into quite separate periods, though hardly original, is new to me. I used the barber story some years ago but it takes on a slightly different feel in the role above.

    US weather. I was lucky, 1965 - 1966 proved to be a mildish winter. Just as well given a news story I heard over the radio while staying at the Pittsburgh YMCA prior to finding an apartment. Two horrific details: Snowfall over the weekend (I think) in Oswego, NY, 103 inches; overnight temperature in International Fall, Minn -47degF.

    "Fit in right away". It was more pre-emptive than that. I brought with me a huge amount of book-acquired knowledge about the US together with endless and tiring waves of enthusiasm and curiosity. Often US citizens were blown away by my attitudes and, especially, my unfailingly diverse vocabulary. I specialised in viewing US behaviour, traditions and artefacts and commenting on them in ways they had never previously experienced. Quite quickly I took on an odd social status - part guru, part talking dog, part miser. That latter role was entirely alien to my neighbours: I was frugal with what I spent on myself and family (I maintained savings just in case things went pear-shaped and I needed to return to the UK), buying things second-hand, for instance.

    You must remember that this was a long time ago and some areas of the US, eg, western Pennsylvania, were still remarkably unsophisticated. People who routinely drank gin and bourbon were shocked that I should debauch myself drinking wine from the state liquor store. For them wine = wino. Needless to say I exaggerated my foreign behaviour, well aware from Shakespeare of the privileges that go with the role of Fool.

  4. Do you recall feeling intimidated by the US? Or did you arrive with a feeling of superiority? Were you already married with kids? How did the children feel about being uprooted -- it was, after all, the time of the British Invasion -- Mary Quant and the Beatles and all that.

  5. A year after I made my first visit to the US, New York and Pennsylvania also, though the western side of the latter, very near New York State in fact. It's one of my earliest clear memories;I was four years old and was made much of everywhere I went, the memory of that and another trip ten years later, covering the same ground, retain an atmosphere of warmth, openness and affection from family and strangers alike, and also good and abundant food, even when there wasn't much money about, my aunt's family were fairly rural people, Dutch-Irish extraction, quite poor and not very aspirational at that point.

    We travelled by Aer Lingus, no refuelling stops, 'I will take you home Kathleen' over the speakers as we landed. It was a charter flight, something to do with haulage which was my dad's work; as my elder siblings saw us off and watched us going along the passageway toward the plane at the relatively recently redeveloped Heathrow, my sister said 'Look, a glass tube full of haulage contractors!'

    Do you think it was US life in particular which made you less prone to clichè, or your living, as it were, in a foreign language so you reappraised the expressions you used more closely, or simply perhaps a maturing process that would have happened anyway? One impression from my second trip was that while I loved the warmth and emotion and lack of embarrassment and inhibition people were more ready to show among my American family, I was a little torn by the awareness that it could lead to a degree of sentimentality and self-indulgence. My brother, a couple of years older, inclined to adopt a self-protective cynicism and always uncomfortable with too much affect, was more conscious and critical of it.

    Or perhaps it was the clichés about American life you'd picked up from books and films that you had shed?

  6. Stella: Another interesting question. I did not enter the USA feeling in any way superior; I'd read too many accounts by etiolated, excessively academic, over-inflated Brits, who sneaked back home and wrote self-serving accounts about how they'd scored over unsophisticated Yanks; who'd received US hospitality and then sneered at hamburgers; who'd picked holes in US idiom without recognising its vigour; who'd condemned Americans (all 300m of them) as racists while being careful to avoid living in Brixton.

    At the time I was sympathetic about the USA as a worldwide political and cultural entity (I fear there's been some backsliding here during the subsequent decades), I knew a lot about the US and - more important - I wanted to know more, I knew if any publishing company took me on I'd give good value, and I was quick to realise (because it came as something I hadn't expected) that suburban America was what counted. To give credit to virtually everyone I met, my sympathy and enthusiasm were quickly recognised and encouraged. And since the US prizes confidence I was keen to show them they had - perhaps unwittingly - nurtured this tendency in me. Best of all, the US taught me to discard notions of class, one of my great delights being the terse and intentionally hilarious language of people whom I might have labelled working-class a few months before.

    VR and three-year-old daughter arrived three months later. Another daughter was conceived there and thus has two passports. I asked VR what was the most surprising revelation and she said "Being warm." VR got on with our neighbours at three different addresses, which is more than can be said at the two places we occupied in London.

    Seen from Pennsylvania the British invasion seemed like a silly-season prank dreamed up by the newspapers. I couldn't recognise the London I'd left behind and wrote to Time to tell them so. While in the USA I wrote a novel about the collapse of a Garden City woman's marriage and a London literary agent, just starting out, lunched me on behalf of it. My greatest literary triumph - so far.

    Lucy: It's the eastern end of Pennsylvania that's close to NY state. We lived there for a year or so (in Philadelphia) until I got a better offer. Your reception there echoes many of my own experiences. I could quite well believe that your sister's marvellous observation occurred after she had visited the USA; the oral tradition was highly developed, especially among artisans, and I felt the need to compete. When I found I couldn't match the terseness I devised a special US variant of English-speak which worked about half the time.

    Losing my clichés. Much of the time I was paid to edit technical articles. This exposed me to the linguistic faults of professors, and such, working at MIT, Caltech, Berkeley. Given my lack of formal education I found this exhilarating and in any subsequent discussions with the authors I was careful to use words like "gerund" and "past participle", concepts long forgotten by these specialists in particle physics and hydrodynamics. As a result I benefited from the US spirit of generosity; during my six-year stay I received perhaps a dozen letters from authors, thanking me for the way I'd improved their articles. No academic in Britain would ever concede such an admission. It must have been round about this time that my own writing improved, encouraging me to write a novel. Clichés were more rife (and there's one straight off) in the USA and thus the warnings were ever-present.

    Sentimentality; careless and imprecise use of the word "love". I fear so but I have now concluded that the pro- and anti- genes are built into the US and UK DNAs. I avert my eyes and ears from their utterances in this field, while they accuse me of heartlessness and comical Euro-restraint. I will survive.

  7. Lucy: An example of US/English-speak, devised to keep my end up in close-run conversational exchanges in Pittsburgh.

    Colleague, speaking about someone we both held in contempt: But he went to college (ie, university). What do you figure were his majors?

    RR: The drawing of water and the hewing of wood.

  8. Robbie, this is a very interesting post and topic, comments included. I recognise and share most of your observations about Americans. Though my own experience was different, having been to school and lived in the U.S. from about age 9 to 20 or so, I still felt and was seen as a foreigner, but usually in a positive way, as though speaking a few languages, being small and having lived in various countries gave one some kind of special status. Americans, particularly non-urban ones, tend to be easily impressed by things that are commonplace in Europe and they will be over-generous with admiration for qualities they attribute to your 'different' status. This certainly boosts self-confidence and I've never come back from a trip to the U.S.A. without feeling the effects of those shots of confidence and "can do" encouragement.

  9. Natalie: One has to be very careful with these retrospectives, it's essential not to be patronising - the way you pick your words suggests you are aware of this obligation.

    Looking back I realise I was asking them to take a step further than merely being hospitable, I was asking them to pay for my "differentness". Which they did; it may have been my greatest achievement. Later I was head-hunted for a job and this was flattering. In a sense I was head-hunted for the last job I had (a poorly conceived launch which ran out of money) and logic suggested I return to the UK. I often wonder what might have happened had the magazine prospered. I couldn't help feeling as we left on the SS France that one of the US's clichés is demonstrably true - it is a land of opportunity.