Letters from America

Last August I moved to America – to Charlottesville, Virginia. So far the U.S. has been fascinating, and super fun. But there’ve been a few things either lost in translation, or just wonderfully strange. I’ve tried to record some of them here:

Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

First published by New Statesman, 17th August 2017

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite. Continue reading

Going to Church in America

First published by First Things

We are late for church. It’s Sunday morning in Char­lottesville, Virginia, and we’re late for church. I pull up in the car park, and my wife and I get out. We rush to the entrance, and I swing wide the door and hold it open for her. And then we find ourselves in a wide vestibule area.

The carpets, weak olive. The walls, light gray. Colors no one would live with, as Updike says.

But we can’t be that late, because smiley people—blazers and bow­ties—are still there to thrust pro­grams into our hands.

I lean forward and gently pull open the doors of the sanctuary. What we find inside is quite aston­ishing. It stuns me. It stuns Holly. It is beyond our wildest imaginations. I simply have no frame of reference for the sight that greets me. Continue reading

Chocolate threatens my marriage

First published by The Spectator Life on 29 November 2014

Mr and Mrs Smith: they have nothing on us. Their conflict, mere child’s play. Because since moving to America last summer my wife and I have been engaged in an increasingly frenetic game of cat and mouse over chocolate.

I only have myself to blame, because in a moment of madness I swore to give up chocolate, the substance which brings much pleasure and many pounds.

The logic went like this. 1. American chocolate is dreadful. 2. I am not tempted by dreadful chocolate. Therefore, ceteris paribus… 3. I will not eat chocolate in America.

But the premises were false.

First, naively did I assume that the America I knew as a child, when the chocolate options were exhausted by Hershey’s Kisses and Reese’s Pieces, would be the same country I encountered a quarter of a century later. Continue reading

The misery of men-only parties

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 September 2014

Last year my wife Holly and I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, a stunning colonial town nestled in the Shenandoah mountains. Charlottesville was just voted America’s happiest city by the US National Bureau of Economic Research. We happily wander the downtown promenade, or visit the viognier vineyards, but there are some customs we’ve found hard to fathom. Chief among these is what can only be called the ‘sausage fest’, parties to which only men are invited.

Arriving to take a job at the University of Virginia, I was thrown in among the nexus of relationships a big academic institution affords. Add to that the Americans’ unjustifiably high estimation of Brits (in contrast to our unjustifiably low estimation of them), and I was well set up to make friends.

Holly, though, had to wait a while for her work permit to come through. So when the wife of an academic colleague sent us an invitation to his 30th birthday party, I said: ‘Go on, give her call. She could become a friend. Tell her we’d love to come.’

‘Delighted James can come,’ was the reply. James? Eh?

This apparently is par for the course. Wives organise parties for their husbands but when the ‘big night’ arrives, very much leave them to it. I find this problematic both personally and in principle.

Personally, I don’t really enjoy a party sans femmes. Stag weekends, for example. I’ve always found them a necessary evil. Why do I like parties with women? Not because I’m still after them. No, because — and maybe saying so is in itself sexist — why construct a social situation only to extract from it all charm, all vivacity, all grace? Women have been a force for good in the world. I truly believe that. Or as Inspector Morse once put it, ‘I have always believed femininity to be the guarantor of civilisation.’

But there’s a principle at stake too. When it comes to the bother about the burka, I hold the unremarkable position of being enough of a liberal to think the veil oppressive, but enough of a pluralist to concede women should be allowed to wear it. Deep down, though, I feel that if male lust poses a threat to society, it’s incumbent on men, not women, to deal with it. Why must how women dress be determined by how men are?

Where I am in the States, though, the prevailing position seems to be even more radical. It is as if male lust requires not just that our womenfolk remain covered. It requires that they not be there at all.

Maybe I should be more exact. For in truth it seems that the Virginians’ under-lying fear is not an evening with women. It’s an evening with women and bourbon.

Another ‘sausage fest’ I attend, again organised by the man’s missus, is held in his house. When we arrive there’s no sign of women and children. The eight of us take our seats, whereupon a single 20-ounce steak is placed on each of our plates. No potatoes. No accoutrements. Just meat and, in the middle of the table, a helluva lot of bourbon.

My wife likes to introduce me as a ‘one-pint wonder’. It should be said, I have the suggestion of a paunch and am at best ‘ugly handsome’, while Holly is slender and beautiful. Nevertheless, she can drink me under the table. Recall the opening scene of that sweeping epic Raiders of the Lost Ark. Remember the thin dark-haired heroine who has challenged a burly climber to a drink-off? She slams a shot. He matches her. Then he slowly keels over into the snow. Our first date was rather like that.

So as Woodford Reserve swills in my mouth, and the mantelpiece swims through my glasses, it strikes me that it really should be Holly representing us at this sausage fest. They’ve invited the wrong representative of Team Mumford.

Instead as the night wears on, my conversation becomes more convoluted and my analogies weaken. At 2 a.m. we eventually pile out into minus 12°C. I stumble home, ‘the crunch of frost beneath the foot’. I traipse up the drive shouting ‘HOLLLEEEE’ like Brando in Streetcar.

You might say I’m being overly judgmental about a culture I have freely embraced, indeed which has freely embraced me. I have been treated to the Americans’ outstanding hospitality, yet here I am criticising their mores. Perhaps sausage fests may be justified on the grounds that they provide important opportunity for the sexes to regroup. But sadly, over the course of a year, I’ve been to about nine sausage fests, whereas my wife hasn’t been to any birthday parties for the women. Maybe they don’t age in the same way.

Or perhaps you suspect the reason I feel uncomfortable about my sausage fests is because deep down I feel uncomfortable about my sausage. Well, in that, as with the sausage fest, you’d be better off asking my wife.

At The Hairdresser’s

First published by The American Conservative on-line edition on March 28th 2014

A man with a sharp metal object at the back of my neck has just confessed that his real job is acupuncture. Click Click. Click. Click Click. Panic. I can’t see his scissors. Click. Click. Click. What’s he planning to do with them when finished with my hairline? I’

I’m at a new hairdresser’s in a new city in a new country, and my chap’s primary occupation is plunging blades into human flesh.

Zzzzzrrrrrr. Now it’s the razor. Zzzzrrrrr. Maybe he’s clearing a space, prepping the target area.

I look left. Glance right. Here among the blasting and strong gusts and everyone in black capes gazing at their reflections; here on linoleum tiles layered thick with wet black curls, this is where I’m going to meet my end. Oh my God. I can’t die here: I need mood lighting at the very least. Continue reading

Struggling to pee at the NPB

‘It is my great pleasure to introduce to you … the president of the United States of America.’ The President rises, already on stage. He’s seated next to the First Lady on a top table facing the audience – flowers, etc. – very much like a wedding. In his wonderfully relaxed manner he limbers over to the giddy Democratic congresswoman who introduced him, taking his time to kiss her on the cheek. She almost feints. Then he moves on to shake the refreshingly cheery Republican congressman the other side of her. Then, finally, Obama no drama nestles in behind the podium.

It’s the National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) at the Washington Hilton. I’m here in the hotel. But I’m not in The Grand Ballroom. No, I’m four floors above the president in my friend’s hotel room, tucked under the duvet watching the event on the hotel’s internal TV network. Sadly, the cost of breakfasting with the President and 3,200 delegates proved prohibitive. I asked the chap who invited me whether he could lop off $1,000 if I fried my own bacon. But there wasn’t that flexibility.

The speech – on the theme of religious freedom – is Obama at his best: assured and aspirational and stirring. Last month he was criticised for not demanding Iran release an imprisoned pastor before entering talks about their nuclear programme. So today he addresses the tension between working with governments that ‘don’t always meet our highest standards’ and standing up for universal rights.

At one level, for Obama, this is just another day at the office. But what the post factum press releases leave out is the all-important context. The context is resplendent, unabashed civil religion. It’s not just the requisite ‘when I embraced Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior’. It’s the whole carousel of contributors: from the warbly, screechy gospel singer to the young Hawaiian surfer with one arm who ‘shares’ about recovering from a shark attack; to the U.S. international development secretary exegeting The Parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s the paeans to the Pope and invocation of overseas missionary and the heavy hymns. I think of home… Harold Wilson used to go through draft speeches excising anything that sounded like the bible.

The reason the Republican is cheery is because this is the one time in the year where partisanship is not allowed to protrude upon politics, when adherents from different denominations, even different faiths, and from of different political persuasions come together in a spirit of unity to pray for the country and her leaders. Last August this chap – Louis Gohmert (R-Texas) – excoriated Obama, calling him ‘the President of division and envy and jealously’ who has done more than any other since the 1960s ‘to stir up racial tension and violence’. This morning, though, Gohmert is all smiles. Standing arm in arm with the Democratic congressman, a quip: this is probably the only time anyone will see the congresswoman to my right.

The NPB actually extends beyond the breakfast. It’s a three-day conference, all taking place in this one 1,070-room rather nondescript hotel. It’s being going since President Eisenhower in 1953 – this is the 61st.

The day before, walking into the lobby had been a daunting prospect. It was teeming with preppy interns, busting with bellboys, secret service up against every column. All these people, threading in between each other. Appearing. Disappearing. If up then en route; if sitting then in meetings – hundreds of ‘spontaneous’ little get-togethers, their relaxed cover blown by how urgently participants press in, with their extra chairs.

I hover by the front desk while my friend checks in. I really am freeloading this week, right now holding out hope that we’ll get a room with two king sizes. And what reasons will he marshal to secure two keys – he’s forgetful?

‘Where is the concierge line?’ an old white guy asks a black lady. He’s wheeled his suitcase to the front of the single unmoving bunched queue. The lady, obviously aggravated, manages to be polite. ‘There’s just one line’, she tells him. ‘BUT I HAVE ELITE STATUS!’ he bursts out.

I am trying to pee, standing over the urinal in the lobby’s main loo. But it is impossibly difficult. It is impossibly difficult because of the Christian music blaring out from tinny speakers overhead:

‘Lord I lift you name on hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiggggghhhhhh…’

The early ’90s soft rock is inescapable, ubiquitous; in the lifts, café, outside on the smoking platform, even over the cab rank.

In the bar a cacophony. The place must be at three or four times capacity. We head for the restaurant bit. Stand waiting; debris of abandoned lunches, plates racking up as staff – squeezing between patrons – struggle to buss their tables.

There are supposed to be people here from all 50 U.S. states. But every American I meet seems to be from Colorado – Denver, Fort Collins and that Protestant Vatican which is Colorado Springs.

Initially, the National Prayer Breakfast had been just that: National. Now, though, very international. First evidence of this are the Lebanese BABES who drift through the delegates. Smell them a mile off: ‘strange synthetic perfumes, / Unguent, powdered, or liquid drown the sense in odours.’

I follow the scent up to the Middle East ‘suite’ on the 6th floor. There’s some spread: baklava and figs and Turkish coffee boiling on a stove. No alcohol of course, so our time is limited. But I am there long enough to be lambasted by a succession of young Arabs – and from diverse destinations – Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. The accusations concern the latter. Young brilliant Beirut biochemist: Why didn’t my country step in when it had the chance? ‘Now you have made two mistakes’, I’m told:

1. Going into Iraq.

2. Staying out of Syria.

The difference between these mistakes, the asymmetry between acts and omissions, fail to impress my biochemist; and both accusations presuppose Obama has what he termed in a recent New Yorker interview ‘joystick powers’ according to which he can ‘manipulate precise outcomes’. But the situation is too urgent to countenance those questions: the biochemist reels off figures double the BBC’s – a total death-toll of 120,000; two million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Beirut’s infrastructure will buckle under the pressure. Imagine London, two million extra people? I can’t. Self-interest, that’s what – to his mind – links 2003’s interventionism with 2013’s isolationism. And when, the next morning, the President elects to speak on religious freedom and not the Syrian crisis… well, they feel betrayed.

Hitting the D.C. charity circuit

I want to begin this post with a confession. I’ve been starting to suspect that my ‘letters from America’ might constitute a serious case of bad faith. To proffer even the gentlest mockery of a country which has found it in its heart to host me for a time: ‘Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend!’ Am I like the pacifist professor who lectures on the evil of armed forces all the while presupposing a peace and quiet made possible by the presence of soldiers on his nation’s borders? As Jack Nicholson puts it in A Few Good Men: “Deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties… you need me on that wall!” Continue reading

Befuddled by Football

First off, it should really be called ‘Throwball’. The foot seems to have very little to do with it. The game starts with a kick, certainly. But to call it Football seems as disingenuous as calling the 100 metre sprint ‘Gunfire’ because someone starts it off with a shot.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

It’s game-day in Charlottesville, Virginia and the spectacle is quite extraordinary. It’s not a match; it’s a pageant. In a town of only 40,000, Scott stadium – home to the University of Virginia’s ‘Cavaliers’ – holds over 60,000. And it’s packed, like a medieval city having come out en masse to watch its champions do battle – in this case 18 year-old amateurs fresh from their essays on who killed JFK. (And amateurs who – and I’ll be probably be rusticated for saying so – do seem to get crushed most weeks). Yet the dedication of the supporters is undiminished: the sea of jerseys and flags as orange as this month’s leaves. Continue reading

Shopping in Gynaecologie

I desperately need the loo in a shop called Anthropologie. I’m with my wife Holly – as opposed to my wife Leah, or my wife Rachel – and we are browsing ahead of her birthday. She’s flicking through the racks to hint at what she might like me to give her as a spontaneous present.

At first I was rather excited about the prospect of Anthropologie. For why might this not also be a trip to find myself some cool clothes? But the misspelling of ‘anthropology’ is not the only painful thing about the place. With brazen disregard for the most basic Greek vocabulary a shop trading off ‘anthropos’ only sells women’s clothes. Deceived, deflated, devastated, this excursion is going to be all about Holly after all.

Worse are the rumblings deep within. Why oh why is it that while one is browsing that one’s biology is so often obtrusive? But ‘fret not!’ I tell myself. This is America. And, mercifully, American stores are far more likely to have customer loos. Continue reading

We’re invited to a ‘sex party’

We’re invited to a ‘sex party’. I am apoplectic with excitement.

What in the world will this entail? I mean, all these people we’ve met in Charlottesville. They seemed so conservative up till now – the neighbor(u)rs who brought cookies over the Sunday morning we moved into our house; the engaging fellow-academics who had already differentiated themselves from their Oxbridge counterparts by their possession of social skills; the khaki slacks and button-hole Episcopalians with whom we galloped through the liturgy this evening. These people – who would have thought they ran a sideline in ‘sex parties’, apparently a deep-rooted ritual in these parts. Can it really be that the car-key game played by those liberal New Englanders in The Ice Storm has made it down south? How does this square with a University town renowned for its ‘hono(u)r code’? Which feels bikinis besmirch the beauty of the environment? Who are judgmental about jaywalking? Down on undergrad drinking? OMG! Who would have thought they could be so risqué? Continue reading