As we landed at Houston, I suddenly thought of my first visit to America, in 1965 during what we didn’t then call my gap year. Forty-eight years does seem a long time, but my fascination with this country is undimmed. The occasion of this trip was to talk at the British Studies seminar at the University of Texas, which has become a regular gig over the years, and Austin is now a nest of old friends. This time I made a new pal. Holly McCarthy is a graduate student, who became my cicerone, offering to take me across Austin on the back of her motor-scooter. After a deep breath, I cheerfully accepted. Really, it’s much the best way to see the town.
With all my American friendships and happy professional connections, on every visit I think yet again of what G.K. Chesterton said, that nowhere on earth does an Englishman feel so much a foreigner as in the United States. If nothing else reminded me that this is a different country, there’s language, and sport, not to say sporting language. A New York Times preview of last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, an event I was once lucky enough to attend, described one horse as ‘the pick of the backside’. Eh? Then came a headline in the New York Daily News reading ‘La La makes scrub eat his words’. Surprisingly enough, I know who J-Lo and LiLo are, but who was La La? She is, it transpires, the wife of a basketball player, and her husband had been insulted by ‘trash-talking Celtic scrub Jordan Crawford [who] had revived his teammate Kevin Garnett’s lewd claim that La La “tasted like Honey Nut Cheerios”.’ Enough already, but by my next visit, I must find out what a ‘scrub’ is.
My single most memorable experience in Austin was being taken the other autumn to a Longhorns game — the college football team. There’s no point in pretending that I understood much of what was happening on the field, and it was a long afternoon, 60 minutes of official play stretched out to more than three hours, under a baking sun. But a happy afternoon, what with tailgating — beer and food out of the back of the car — at the lengthy halftime. The crowd was friendly, and included all sorts; a group of Sikhs sat next to me in turbans and orange Longhorns shirts. But most astonishing of all was the numbers. That game was attended by 98,442 people, and soon afterwards the Longhorns’ crowd passed the six-figure mark. Old Trafford is the largest club stadium in England, where Manchester United played last Sunday in front of 75,500. My flight to New York the day after that game was also full of orange shirts, the ‘alums’ who think nothing of flying a few thousand miles to see home games. From Austin this time I went to Washington, where I watched Barcelona’s humiliation with my chum Franklin Foer, editor of the New Republic, a fellow Arsenal supporter, poor chap, and author of the entertaining book How Soccer Explains the World. I think that if I could work out the meaning of college football I might explain America, or at least begin to understand it.
More than three weeks later, the Boston bombing is still on the front pages. When I first heard the news I remembered Boylston Street, where the marathon finishes and the bombs went off, and where I used to visit the Atlantic Monthly in happier days when that famous magazine was still in Boston, and I still wrote for it. I also thought back to a small party at the Grand Hotel in Brighton at the 1984 Tory conference. Mrs Thatcher was chatting on a sofa not far from where I was talking to one or two people, Norman Tebbit among them. Hours later an IRA bomb wrecked the hotel, missing the prime minister but killing five people and gravely injuring others, including Margaret Tebbit. Like Peter Oborne, who touched on this in the diary a fortnight ago, I couldn’t help also thinking that all the IRA bombings over the years had been paid for in part with money collected from Irish Americans in Boston. No, my affection for America isn’t entirely unqualified.
No politician has been louder in denouncing the Boston bombers than Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York and friend of Bush the Younger. He thinks all Muslims are potential terrorists who require constant surveillance, adding that ‘We can’t be bound by political correctness.’ King is himself Irish-American and a lifelong supporter of violent Irish republicanism, who says he ‘will not morally blame’ the IRA for any of its deeds. He calls it ‘the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland’. For years chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, he is now chairman of the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, and altogether a noisy cheerleader for the American ‘war on terror’. As they say around here, go figure.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a former literary editor of The Spectator; his books include The Strange Death of Tory England.