• The wrong part of town

    (Photo by Patrick Hendry)

    A week before the death of George Floyd, I re-watched two classic 80s American comedies – National Lampoon’s Vacation and Coming to America. Two scenes struck me even then. 

    In the first, Chevy Chase’s Clark W. Griswold plays it cool after driving the family into an African-American city neighbourhood, and nonchalantly asks someone for directions back to the highway while his car’s tyres are quietly removed. 

    In the second, Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem and his aide, Arsenio Hall’s Semmi, rock up outside a tenement in Queens and go in search of a bedsit to rent as their luggage is pilfered from behind their backs by the locals. 

    Why did audiences laugh?

    Neither scene would probably be made today, and yet either would still resonate. The only difference might be the addition of Hispanic Americans alongside the African-Americans. 

    And the argument would probably go that the joke is not on the poor African-Americans in either case. It’s on the bumbling white guy and the African prince. As long as they’re the butt of the joke, it’s ok. Right?

    We all get the joke. It’s about deprived urban neighbourhoods. The same jokes are directed at Liverpudlians or Glaswegians in Britain, with possible undertones of anti-Irish sentiment. In Greece, theft is invariably blamed on Albanians. 

    A version of these jokes could probably be found everywhere in the world: poverty and its associations with crime and potential violence. The popular imagination will always be inclined to put a name and a face to that threat. 

    Of course, nothing confers an inferior social status like state-sanctioned slavery. That is a level of dispossession of which America – and many other societies – are still grappling with the consequences. 

    On the subject of popular imaginations, Britain Isn’t What It Used To Be

  • Someone tell me what to do

    (Photo by Grant Durr)

    The world already had ‘strong leader syndrome’. And now this… Behind all the shock at the sudden curtailment of freedoms (in countries where they existed), how many of us are secretly relaxing into it?

    A few years back, I read Witold Szablowski’s book Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny. Its basic premise was this: even after rescue and recuperation, dancing bears will still dance whenever they see a human. It’s hardwired into them. 

    Szablowski argued that the same goes for humans. Even after the chains of Communism were removed across Eastern Europe, give people a strong leader who tells them what to do, and they’ll still dance for them. 

    Who’s dancing now?

    There was much disapproval of the rise of leaders like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Then democracies like Hungary and Brazil voted in Viktor Orban and Jair Bolsonaro. Westerners shook their heads some more. 

    Then mature democracies like the US and Britain began voting for a bigger, culturally narrower, more intervening state. In Britain, they even voted voluntarily to curtail their own freedom of movement. 

    “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”

    George Orwell

    I want to be free

    But with freedom comes pressure. If what comes next is up to you, then on your head be it. Suddenly we are confronted with the tyranny of (almost) infinite choice. 

    As soon as I limit those choices, things get easier. I can be anything! No, I can be male. I can be anything! No, I can be heterosexual. I can be anything! No, I can be British…

    I can do anything! No, I can’t leave my country. I can do anything! No, I can’t leave my house. I can do anything! What are we current allowed to do? 

    From one perspective, it looks like a prison, from another, it looks like the happiness of someone else telling you what to do, so you don’t have to think about it anymore. 

    Talking of freedom, Is It Your Right To Migrate?

  • Same place, different century

    (Photo by Emma Francis)

    Stuck for a good read? Try two books about the same place from writers who were there a century apart. I’ve done it twice now, by chance. I recommend it. 

    First, I read Siberian Journey: Down the Amur to the Pacific, 1856-1857 by Perry McDonough Collins, an incredible account of his trip as the first American to travel the length of the Amur River on the border of China and Siberia. 

    I followed this up by reading Black Dragon River: A Journey down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires by Dominic Ziegler

    Collins travelled the Amur as Slavs from Russia were craving out territory for the Tsar. He envisaged a new America in the Far East, rolling back the primitive Chinese. Ziegler’s contemporary travels revealed gleaming Chinese cities looking across the Amur at impoverished Russian settlements. 

    From US Grant to Kerouac

    It happened again when I read the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – American civil war hero and president. He published them in 1885, just before his death. They largely recount the civil war years and the battles he was engaged in. 

    I followed this up with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, published in 1957 and chronicling his road trips across the US in the late 40s and early 50s. I hadn’t intended them as comparison pieces, and yet they were. 

    Kerouac’s crazy drives from coast to coast, with almost no sleep, occasional fuel stops and bouts of drinking, happened to take him through both Vicksburg, Mississippi and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Both were sites of major civil war battles Grant described. 

    A hundred years from now…

    I was struck by how these two men were treading the same ground less than a hundred years apart, yet one was bogged down in constant mud, trying to pull mule trains of munitions and bedraggled soldiers through the mire, hitting the major obstacle of rivers they couldn’t cross. 

    The other was crossing the entire American continent from coast to coast in a matter of days, in an automobile on bitumen roads. For one, the conditions were so harsh they imperiled life itself, for the other, it was a joyride.

    Same place, different reality. 

    More travel and books? Here’s how to spend a long haul flight

  • Are nomads bad?

    Highway in America stretching to mountains in the distance
    (Photo by Diego Jimenez)

    I’ve been listening a lot to Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Western Stars. I love it. It’s one of his strongest records for a long time, in my opinion. The songwriting is so condensed and focused. 

    Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire, slippers tucked under the bed
    But when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head

    Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Wayfarer’

    Western Stars is all about the wandering life, not being able to settle. Is that an affliction? It is in a settled society. 

    The question ‘are nomads bad?’ can seem a little brutal. Of course not! Most people in settled societies look with benevolence towards those humans still living a nomadic life. 

    Nomadism is seen as a fragile trace element from our shared past – a survival from an earlier age. When it’s at a comfortable distance – on TV or in interesting books, for instance – it’s cherished. 

    Wandering is not a crime

    But what about the Gypsies in your town? What about the government in your state when someone tries to live without a permanent address? How sympathetic are we then?

    Which got me thinking about all those road movies, all those novels, all those ballads at the heart of the American myth of the hobo wandering man just chuggin’ on up the highway…

    Is this our Gypsy ancestry trying to find an outlet in a world that no longer accepts the nomadic instinct? Are all those misfits and loners who don’t quite fit in just the natural, honest truth about the human being?

    How many lives might be fixed by not trying to settle? Just being one with the road?

    Talking of borderless people, Is It Your Right To Migrate?

  • Why does America love a jail?

    Prison bars casting a shadow
    Send that boy to jail! (Photo by Uriel Soberanes)

    ‘Lock her up, lock her up, lock her up!’

    Remember the Trump rally chant? Well, Hillary Clinton isn’t the only American they want in jail. Incarceration is a top US pastime. Why?


    The figures are genuinely amazing. 2.3 million people – the equivalent of the entire population of Botswana. America’s prison population is larger than any other country in real terms and per capita.

    That’s ANY OTHER COUNTRY. Not just where you live, which is probably the UK (4.5 times lower) or maybe Europe or Australia, if my blog is really starting to fly. No, anywhere…

    Let’s face it, there are some pretty populous and pretty repressive places out there. But none of them – not China, not Russia, not El Salvador, not Turkmenistan – can touch The Land of the Free. How the hell?


    The US government is not to blame. No, the federal government locks up people at a lower rate than France or Italy. It’s the states and local districts.

    Individual American states love jailing people. It hasn’t reduced violence or crime rates in America. It costs Americans a lot of money. I’ll leave the ‘Why is America so Violent?’ debate for another day, just soak up this stat:

    If US states were independent countries, they would take the Top 20 spots in the league table of prison populations per capita globally.

    A full deck. Slam dunk. You can’t get near that.


    For more, read this article in The Economist