The last time I was in Boston was September 1979. I’d hitched down from Newfoundland where I’d been living in a tent for three months, watching humpbacked whales. Slick, arty, prosperous Boston and its academic suburb, Cambridge, were not impressed by the ‘I haven’t had a bath since June’ look, and the oil stained oshkosh dungarees were two years too early to be gamine-chic. Despite the impeccable East Coast manners of my host city, I felt like a dirty blot on the clean, go-getting landscape of expensive shops and bars. I was glad to get on the plane back to Blighty, where everything was a bit old and patched, and unemployment was becoming a kind of new career. I then spent the next 30 years slagging off everything about America, from burgers to Bushes, along with every other lefty, yoghourt eating member of the chattering classes.
So when I flew in to Logan en route to lecture to American teachers at Leseley University in Cambridge Mass I was ready to find fault. The fact that the taxi driver needed a sat nav , that my hotel’s wifi wouldn’t speak to my ipad and that it was ninety seven effing degrees in the shade didn’t help. I dumped my stuff in my room and stomped out onto Massachusetts Avenue already swearing, already vowing I would never come back to this horrible, hideous, country ever again.
But as I walked grumpily down the street I noticed something: people smiled, they said hello. Not quite in the way that they do in the Caribbean where they ask ‘how are you?’ and expect a proper, detailed answer, but way more welcoming that the Tottenham Court Road on a Monday afternoon. I mooched into shops – mostly for the sake of the air conditioning – and found I was immediately engaged in easy, bantering conversations. It was like being at home in Wales, only with accents right off your favourite PBS series.
I bought a sandwich from a deli in Harvard Square with more ingredients than a Madhur Jaffery recipe and ate it listening to a Beatles cover band, and watching the kids in the Harry Potter queue. I wandered in through Harvard Gate, to the grassy quads between the buildings, where people lolled about on multicoloured chairs, obviously thinking Nobel prize winning thoughts (you could see the little bubbles full of equations above their heads). My grumpiness melted and I began to enjoy the feeling of being in the culture that I’d been exposed to on films and TV for most of my adult life.
But Boston this time round was different from 1979. Things are not so bright and shiny as they were back then: the sidewalks are cracked, shopfronts need a makeover and a lick of paint; the malls are quiet and there is rather too little traffic on the roads. The recession has bitten hard into peoples lives and taken the brash edge off American confidence. Kristie and Laura, Michelle and Patricia, some of the teachers I lectured to, had stories of life in small towns where seventy percent of the kids live in trailers. Hearing them, you’d think they were talking about Mozambique, not up state New York. Woody, the receptionist at the gym I went to, had been made redundant two years back and now had two jobs one at the gym from 5.30am until lunchtime and then at a bar from 3pm until midnight.
“And you know, ” he told me, with a sardonic smile, “it doesn’t really pay the bills.”
Woody’s friend, Michael the composer hadn’t had a commission for a year.
Over the course of my four day stay I had conversations with all sorts of people: Somali taxi drivers, Israeli retailers, Greek businessmen, Texan teachers, Dominican engineers, Persian composers, collectively embodying the idea of America as the rainbow nation, the land of opportunity for the whole world. Every one of them was feeling the cold wind of economic Winter, every one of them had fallen out of love with the materialist promises of a market driven ecconomy. But what none of them had lost was the hope and positivity that still seems to be in the air in America. The teachers lit up with enthusiasm when we spoke about inspiring their kids to read; Michael said he had been able to take his work in a new direction because of the space the lack of commissions had given him. Woody summed it up
“We try to stay positive.”
When I came back from my first visit to America in 1977 I told my father
“In America they like to say yes, but in the UK the word is always no.”
On that first visit I found the atmosphere of possibility intoxicating, invigorating. But by 1979 I’d had two years of University to knock my confidence back to zero, and the bright Polly-Anna optimism of Boston made me shrink, made me feel like the negative, failure prone Brit that I was. This time maybe we’d both changed. I’m stronger, more confident and I know my work has something to offer to American children. Boston has grown up a little too; it no longer takes affluence, success, the future, for granted, but it still hopes and moves forward. Now I feel we’re both ready to say ‘yes’. So I’ll be going back, and soon.