I exaggerate, the kinder of you may say. But I repeat, without rancour if not entirely without rue, that I know this to be the case, because I know my country. I know the tribes of Britain. I have seen fifty summers, and during the course of my life I have long been fascinated this side obsession by the caste, class and clans of my people. We may not wear physical gourds on our intimate persons, but we certainly wear notional ones, and our war dances, face paints, initiation rituals, fetishes, tattoos, taboos and blood feuds are no less fascinating to the anthropologist than those of the tribespeople of Papua New Guinea.
But as Kipling wrote and Billy Bragg repeated, what do they of England know that only England know? My travels in the last year or so have taken me to Mexico, Brazil, Malaysia, Madagascar, Uganda, Kenya, New Zealand, Indonesia and, more importantly for this occasion, to every one of the 50 states of the USA. I was in America for the run up to the presidential election, but for the ballot itself I was in Kenya, the homeland of course of Barack Obama’s father. I asked a Kenyan with whom we were working whether he was pleased that America looked to be about to have its first black president, and one of Kenyan extraction at that? ‘Very pleased,’ he replied. ‘But you must remember Mr. Obama’s mother is of European extraction. If Barack Obama had stayed here and been elected as our leader, he could have become Kenya’s first white president.’
My love affair with America began – began where? Perhaps with the berolling bevalleys of betwattled absurdity that were the National Geographic films, perhaps with the lifestyle advertisements in those National Geographic magazines, perhaps with Wagon Train, Rawhide and The Lone Ranger or with Bewitched, Dick van Dyke and Lucille Ball on television. Not, with rock and roll I’m afraid. Elvis never did much for me, apostasy as I’m sure it is to confess. Nor did Blues or Jazz or R&B at that time. Certainly not Steve McQueen. I have always disliked cool. For me it is simply another word for cold. But Spenser Tracey, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn – they certainly helped me fall in love with America. Although to be honest gangsters, cowboys, dancers and movie stars weren’t, as they were for so many, the real pull. A major influence on me was P. G. Wodehouse. He adored America and ended his life a proud US citizen. He first went in Edwardian days when, as he later recalled, you could simply pop into a shipping line office in Cockspur Street, buy a ticket and be on the boat train to Southampton in an instant. No nonsense about passports and visas. Everything Wodehouse wrote about the energy, vivacity, warmth, welcome and excitement of America thrilled me and I vowed to go there myself as soon as I could. I little thought that one day I would have a Manhattan apartment of my own, a green card and even be made a Kentucky Colonel. It’s true. One doesn’t like to boast, but Steve Beshear, the Governor of the State – actually the Commonwealth of Kentucky – bestowed that rank upon me, uniquely in the gift of Kentucky, last year. Unlike Harland Sanders of Fried Chicken fame, who was accorded the same title, I don’t use it. But if you choose to call me Colonel Fry I shall certainly answer and with pride. But all this lay ahead of me in a future I could not possibly imagine.
I had American family too. Those from my mother’s side who survived the horrors of the holocaust went to Israel or America or both. All that is, except for my mother’s parents who chose to make their home here in England. American relations would descend into our drab early 60s British world of grey weather, grey trousers and grey attitudes dripping colourful slacks, pants and jackets, sparkling jewels, thrilling cameras, perfumed furs and expensive tchotchkes of all kinds. They brought these treasures to us in Pan-Am or TWA overnight bags or ‘grips’ that also contained thrilling trophies of their jet travel: miniature salt cellars and pepper pots, paper napkins bearing the airline’s crest and foil sachets that held moist lemon-scented cleansing squares, or ‘handy freshen-up wipettes’ of unimaginably exotic strangeness and wonder. Over these precious souvenirs my brother and I would fight like wild beasts. Back home in the states, as my Yankee cousins made clear by their astonishment at our conspicuous lack of them, they had ice machines, air conditioning, stereo sets and colour televisions. Damn it, in Britain even our TV was grey. In my eyes my American cousins were little short of gods: their basketball sneakers shamed my plimsolls, their t-shirts laughed at my short-sleeved air-tex and their Levi jeans made a blushing disgrace of my bagged corduroys. The details of suburban American living I think excited me more than the mythology of the West or of Chicago’s South Side or of the surfers of Santa Monica. I liked trying to understand what bake-offs, yard sales, drive-in movies and spelling bees were, what sophomores and semesters might be and what homecoming queens and commencement and proms and Spring Break and Elks and Shriners and pledge rings and trick or treat could possibly portend.