Arriving at Boston’s Logan Airport from Heathrow’s terminal five feels like arriving in an old country. Boston’s terminal building is tired despite the high-tech immigration booths flashing like serried ranks of daleks. The officials still needed to supplement the daleks slumped behind glass and the cleaners slumped on benches. The airport shuffles along in eazifit clothes, neither welcoming nor unwelcoming, just not very interested. At least not interested in us.
White, middle-class, BBC English, suited and brogued, even if the photos the daleks took 'for the authorities’ made us look like ancient relics, we were as likely to cause trouble as Alan Bennett to write 'Filth'. We were nervous, all the same. 'New passports this way,' said a sign. We found this mysterious and asked a vaguely uniformed lady for clarification. She swept us on. We were willing to be swept. Eventually we were swept towards our luggage, then into the arms of our waiting children and out into the Boston night.
If you dislike foreign travel, beware of encouraging independence in your children. I regret not extending our highly successful rugby aversion therapy to travel overseas since we now have two children in the States. Not only that, with one in Massachusetts and the other in Texas, they live almost as far from each other as they do from us. The distance isn’t just geographic. From an MIT lecture on climate change to a rodeo in the old stockyards of Fort Worth, we viewed Trumpland in various guises from north(ish) to south(ish). Strangely, in all my visits to the US, I’ve never yet seen a mountain. To me, the USA is a large pancake.
What was it like, people asked on our return. Does Trumpland feel different from Obamaland? How can I tell? America is the unfamiliar familiar. Electricity, for example, is ramshackle, all loose plugs and hairdryers in bathrooms. Those great highways with swinging traffic lights are pitted and potholed. Clapboard houses look temporary and not nearly up to the weather. Shops of any old kind spring up any old where. Public transport – what’s that? There’s the Boston T, but you’d die waiting for a bus. Many cars are Japanese – 'we wouldn’t buy an American car, it would fall to bits’ – so from the air, even in Dallas the car flow looks quite European. I can’t see any of that changing.
And reactions were as expected. At liberal, socially progressive MIT, notices declared 'no to fascist America'. The only surprise was the absence of anti-Trump posters. Way beyond gallows humour, the current jokes are in coffins, lids about to close. Real, unbridled unhappiness. Black gloom. Genuine grief. Guts have been punched so hard people often sound a bit breathless.
In Texas, they’re breathing more easily, though forget the redneck stereotype. Trump may have won all 38 electoral college votes and his cleaning up of 94.6% of the votes in Roberts County may have been the highest margin in the whole USA but Hillary Cinton won Fort Bend, the first Democrat to do so since 1964, and she reduced the margin of Republican victory in Texas by roughly 7%. America isn’t mad, it’s simply fed up of being a first world/third world country and the trigger-happy rednecks, the America First evangelists, the gun-toters; and the glassy-eyed bible-bashers are simply a mirror image of the tyrannical liberals who promote progressive values through frowning disapproval and wagging finger.
If you want a real shock, go to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas. You’ll need to go twice. The first time you’ll be overwhelmed by JFK’s assassination. The clothes, the cars, the footage may be dated but the tension is absolutely contemporary. You know the shots are coming, yet you can’t quite believe it. When they do come, you feel them with that 1963 hammer-blow. As the motorcade turns into Elm Street, your heart races. I closed my eyes and suddenly found I’d become our old nanny. Twenty times she saw 'The Sound of Music' and each time hid her eyes in case the Von Trapps didn’t make it. Anyhow, once you’ve got over that awful exploding head and the whole 'now alive, now dead’ frisson, go back and compare JFK’s clear, powerful call to the whole of America to Trump’s angry meanderings. JFK to Trump in under 60 years. That’s the disconcerting story of America.
It’s not the whole story, though. We ate our Thanksgiving dinner with no sense of irony. Trump may be unexpected and, to many, unwelcome, but he will pass. Had he survived, JFK would have been neither as good as his supporters hoped nor as bad as his detractors expected. Trump will be the same. Flying out of Dallas in November 2016, my overwhelming impression is that America isn’t as confident as it once was, and that the next four years will be an uncomfortable bout of hiccups.
Afterwards – and there will be an afterwards – whatever else changes, I hope the US retains the quirkiness that finds the world’s largest collection of Robert Browning memorabilia in Waco. Browning amidst the whacky cults! Browning amongst the remains of Waco’s 24 Columbian mammoths! Remember the song Browning gives to Pippa in his verse drama 'Pippa Passes'?
The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven –
All’s right with the world!
Well, clearly not quite, not now, not ever. But just after take-off, when human America faded to dots and we had a God’s eye view of the great expanse, I thought of springs and dew-pearled hillsides and larks and snails. The only larks in the US are 'horned larks’ who prefer bare ground to sky. Birds, eh. They seem so familiar, then it turns out you really know nothing about them at all.