A rude awakening from the American dream

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The Independent Culture
I FIRST went to the States just over 20 years ago, when I was still at school. My father was working there, and for the next three or four years I spent at least one school or college holiday with him and his family. He lived in Connecticut, in a small, affluent commuter town on the East Coast, about 50 miles north of New York; I thought it was the most exciting place in the world.

I wasn't really surprised that this should be the case, because, like many people of my age, I spent my formative years looking with longing across the Atlantic. The advertisements for X-ray spectacles to be found in every

single Marvel comic seemed emblematic. According to the illustration, these spectacles allowed one to see women in their underwear (although they did not, peculiarly, enable one to see through the underwear as well). Americans had fun things that we didn't have - X- ray spectacles were just the tip of the iceberg - and anyone with any serious interest in the good life owed it to themselves to get there as soon as possible.

Given what has happened to Britain over the last couple of decades, it is strange to recall that, in the mid-Seventies, America was a genuinely alien place. They had all-day TV - if we took a day off school, we had to stare at the test-card while waiting for Tales of the Riverbank. They had skyscrapers; we had the Post Office Tower, although I have still never met anybody who has actually been up there. They had McDonald's; we had Wimpy bars, and their sad, small, grey, hamburgers and their peculiar circular sausages. They had Dayvilles and Baskin Robbins; we had chocolate, strawberry or vanilla. And Americans saw films, and heard records, and read books months, sometimes years, before we did. It was difficult enough trying to live off popular culture here, because there simply wasn't enough of it to satisfy the ravenous appetite of a growing lad.

I went back to the States a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in well over a decade, and much of the point of it, as far as we are concerned, seemed to have disappeared. The purpose of going to America was to buy things that would annoy the hell out of your friends, and this time I couldn't find anything. Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard was like Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, except cheaper (I could've bought the new Bonnie Raitt album a week before you, but by the time I'd got home, phoned people up and told them, the advantage would have been lost, and I don't know anyone who likes Bonnie Raitt that much anyway). The Gap was the Gap, the bookshops contained the same books, only with different covers. I did, however, see a trailer for the Flintstones movie when I went to the cinema, so that will have to do. Yah boo sucks, na-na, na-na-na etc.

Thank heavens, then, for American television. Even though we pinch half their programmes and copy a few million others, there is still much that we could never hope to emulate. An afternoon talk show entitled Married Women Who Have Affairs brought back that old Seventies feeling of wonder: three married women on live TV with their lovers, explaining how, for the previous five or 10 or 15 years, they had deceived their husbands. There was no attempt to hide faces or disguise voices, but - a magnificent and baffling touch, this - all the names had been changed. For a moment there, imagining all those poor cuckolded men sitting at home and thinking, well, it looks like her, and it sounds like her, but her name's not Sue, I was getting some of what I came for, and I was happy.

Most British liberals under the age of 50 have, at some time or another, affected to despise America - Ronald Reagan] Born- again Christians] Vietnam] No self-irony] - as if Britain were defined by the Labour Party and the New Statesman and The Late Show, rather than by Margaret Thatcher and the Sun and Benny Hill. (Raymond Carver, Robert Altman, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Parker, Woody Allen, Humphrey Bogart and all the other Americans who are important to us don't count, according to this system of reckoning; they are historical accidents, honorary Europeans.) And American films are dismissed uniformly as pap - look at the absurd reverence in which we hold even the dreariest French film - and the American people as dim, nave materialists. But even those who get the States completely wrong (and that includes the Right, which admires American enterprise, health-care systems, electric chairs, armed police and so on) have always needed America as a Somewhere Else, somewhere richer and bigger and faster and flashier, and for most of this century it has been.

Now, peculiarly, we are beginning to look upon it not as the land of plenty, but as the land of denial. They won't let you drink, and they won't let you smoke (fair enough, but in Los Angeles, where I was staying, the earthquakes and the guns are likely to get you long before passive smoking does); they want to cut rude words out of rap records, and political correctness (which, as I have attempted to point out in this column before, actually means something on the other side of the Atlantic) wants to proscribe even the most innocuous campus thought and behaviour. And since they no longer have anything we don't have because they came over here and flogged us all their stuff, it is hard to see what, precisely, America means to the British psyche nowadays.

I missed the old America when I was there, this time. It used to be nice, fantasising about Somewhere Else; it was comforting to know that there was a city or a country where

people could buy and see and hear things which we couldn't possibly imagine. You know what you can watch on late-night cable TV in Los Angeles? Grotesquely extended highlights of the recent Sheffield Wednesday/Southampton clash, that's what, and when I heard the English commentator's voice, I longed for that feeling of disorientation you used to get when you travelled 12 hours on a plane. There's no place like home - apart from just about everywhere in western Europe and the States.