A Transatlantic Love Story

Photo: ©Jamel Shabaz, featured in Issue Two of  Us of America. 

Photo: ©Jamel Shabaz, featured in Issue Two of Us of America. 

In the interest of what in the USA might be called ‘full disclosure’, I must preface this piece with a confession of my absolute Britishness. This is neither a point of pride for me, nor, I had thought, of any special interest. It was a fact, and in the way of the British, on some level I am embarrassed about it. Before knowing a North American, and subsequently navigating the demands of a romantic relationship with one, there were peculiarities of my (national) character that I had not particularly closely examined, and details about Americanness that I had perhaps been aware of, but not at all really understood. Nothing provides the opportunity for self-knowledge quite like the intimate proximity of difference; especially when that difference is assumed to be so slight. A meagre ocean, a couple of hundred years separation, bound by language, united by mutual cultural imitation and geopolitical reliance. They are not so very unlike us, I thought. A little more… upfront, perhaps. Really, what do we do differently? The summary a friend gave to me was ‘circumcision and personal space’.

When I first travelled to the States I went, like many pilgrims to that great mythology, directly to New York City...I went to feel the dream.

I considered myself to be highly literate in Americana, cultural and musical, to be fluent in the cinematic iconography of that broad steppe of multifarious yet supposedly United States. I had read Didion and Baldwin, I had seen John Wayne movies, the presence of magical places with monumental names and distinct personalities expanded like a breath in my imagination – Nashville, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans… New York.

When I first travelled to the States I went, like many pilgrims to that great mythology, directly to New York City. I went wanting to be in Annie Hall, or see the 1970s ruins of the white-flight to the suburbs, the energy of punk and hip hop as the ‘80s broke, the vast grids and the skyscrapers that stopped Le Corbusier in his tracks: ‘mon dieu,’ he said, ‘they beat me to it’. I went to feel the dream. I tried to make the same joke to everyone I spoke to – that I was from Original York, that they were pretenders to an older crown. This was met universally with an utterly blank expression. Not only had every New Yorker, in their admirable self-assuredness, not considered the composite nature of their name, that ‘New’ was a qualifier to indicate there had been a previous ‘York’, they also held history in such low regard that they could not understand my perverse need to emphasise it. At times all we have on our little British island is the memory of an illustrious past, but the New Yorker has no need or interest in it. They have a relentless, never quite grasped, Gatsbyian future, they have a resolute and confident ownership of the present; ‘Hey, I’m walking here,’ as the cliché goes, which means ‘this is mine’.

John Wayne's  The Searchers  (1956).

John Wayne's The Searchers (1956).

Woody Allen's  Annie Hall  (1977).

Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977).

My American is also a New Yorker, of the upstate variety, and had migrated to the UK many years before we met. In fleeing his Americaness, he did, in a sense, simply cement it within himself, as outside of the USA it became one of his most notable features. He swaggered into my life, heavily tattooed, leather-jacketed and brash, as if conjured by Lana del Rey herself, with a taste for the archetype and a subversive, irreverent humour. On the surface he was the American. We once took the Greyhound upstate, and then drove from Syracuse to Buffalo. My foreign eyes were enchanted by the vastness, bewildered by the patriotic flags on the porch of each house, standing wooden and alone in its own broad, mowed yard. This was not my land and I was totally perplexed, totally intrigued, totally seduced by its strangeness. Part of my love for my American was for this America of his birth.

The delicate intricacies of our most private selves, which we share with our partners or nearest familiars, reveal to me not only the inevitable emotional gulf that must be bridged between two people, but something more essential about the cultural strategies of communication which shaped how we made ourselves at all. The quick expressiveness of my American, the speed and willingness with which he can articulate his feelings, I find alien to my own emotional experience. Each insight for me must be slowly and carefully turned around in my mind for inspection, held up to the light of analysis from all angles before I dare form it into words, never mind speak them; revelations occur slowly, first bud, then bloom, then fruit. For my American this process happens out loud, in a stream of self-analysis, which is both impressive and gloriously overwhelming, yet deeply confusing to me. But why must we have closure, I would think, can we not simply never speak of this again? 

My foreign eyes were enchanted by the vastness, bewildered by the patriotic flags on the porch of each house, standing wooden and alone in its own broad, mowed yard.

The United States of America looms large on the global stage as a land of contradiction but ultimately one of affirmed self-reliance. But a private America haunts those that are born and made within it, one which I can comprehend but not experience. The promise of rugged freedom, of self-making and bootstrapping much hailed as the most indicative of the American character, for my American is a profound unfreedom. Something I had taken to be their belief in mobility and opportunity is for him a myth that entraps people; by obscuring the mechanisms of capital and race and their relative effect on your health, wealth and happiness (not to mention your likelihood to be incarcerated and your life expectancy) it is a system that tells them you can succeed, and if you don’t, it’s your fault. Both optimistic and cruel, the USA in all its shining, creative brilliance performs for us, performs an authenticity that is impossible. It believes in redemption as much as God, in self as narrative, in truth as plastic.

If everything is contingent, then everything is precarious. My American has taught me the anxiety of this, which I had never known before. I made certain assumptions of what nets I can expect to catch me even if the going got tough, however meagre the UK’s Conservative government insists on making them. No such assurance exists for him. The NHS is an enduring wonder, employment regulations and union protections are prized gifts. My privilege is to expect these things. His is to delight in them. His precariousness, in his own country and mine, has made him sentimental; he holds everything all the tighter, every trinket, every book, every memory, every opportunity. He needs to possess these to feel grounded. I let everything go for fear it will bog me down. 

Photo: ©David Hurn/Magnum Photos, featured in Issue Two of  Us of America . 

Photo: ©David Hurn/Magnum Photos, featured in Issue Two of Us of America

My own brand of Britishness (which is by no means exhaustive, we are not nationally monocultural nor temperamentally coherent ourselves) dresses everything up in extra words to hide even open hostility. Directness is a form of social misdemeanour; politeness rules every exchange to debilitating degree. I would estimate a good 80% of the arguments of my transatlantic relationship spring from the affront I take at bluntness that I perceive as rudeness. I will not have an order barked at me, even if that order is ‘watch out for the bus’. That’s ‘watch out for the bus please’. I might even add an ‘excuse me’ for good measure. I have never once gotten straight to the point. Even this article is testament to that. When Americans speak on the phone they deliver information then hang up; it’s true, I promise, watch Mad Men and you’ll see. Saying goodbye on a British phone takes half an hour and is delivered in a bizarre sing-song: ok, goodbye, yes, see you soon, lovely to speak, give them my best, take care, you too, alright, bye, bye, bye. Despite the repeated conflict that ensues from ill-defined divergences such as these, we persist. Minor and major, what separates us also binds us. Because I don’t want someone to only get where I’m from, I want someone to show me where they are. To delight in each other’s eccentricities, each other’s native oddities, is a pure joy. 

Internationally the perceived personality of the United States is shifting, and for many this complicates their previous admiration, and their assumptions about what absurd things can and cannot happen in that, in our, world. The US is aging, and conservative forces are manufacturing a historicity to suit their needs. New to nostalgia, this is now the most potent force in Trumpist, reactionary politics; but ‘Make America Great Again’ sounds like a familiar refrain to an ex-colonial centre like Britain. We know well the sting of our dominance in decline, we too have yearned (erroneously) for the return of past ‘glory’. But whether the hunger is for greatness, or fame, or fortune, something about grasping the nature of the American condition demands an artistic imagination as well as the skills of salesmanship. Say the thing. Say it out loud and will it to be real. This is what makes the place innovative, creative, destructive, dynamic, productive, pioneering, alluring. This is for me the most quintessential quality of the land of the free.

Words: Frankie Mace