Letter from London: Whither Goest Thou, America, in Thy Shiny Car in the Night?

Still from David Lynch’s Lost Highway.

The optics — a range of views — how it looks from here — not necessarily how it is. Having decided to write about our present perceptions of the United States from over here, these were just some of my notes. Russian leadership is so out of control right now, it is small wonder some of us find ourselves peering across the pond. As I have said before, I spent five good years in the States. Notions of liberty, however theatrical, were draped everywhere. Through hand-coloured platinum prints of Edward Curtis photographs initially, I began a real passion for Native American history. I still have a number of good American friends. What I wanted to know was if we still saw the US as the Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave, a Melting Pot, Eagleland, Uncle Sam’s Country, the Great American Experiment, El País de las Oportunidades, La Terra dei Sogni, HaMedina HaTova, Turtle Island? With optics, I had to remind myself, feelings count as much as facts. Besides, where in the world hasn’t changed? Chang Tang in Tibet? Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland? The fact we are made to feel so close to the US means we shudder slightly whenever we feel it smoulder. I’m not talking about the special relationship here. I have already attempted to write about that, and everything grows so out of date so fast, anyway.

From where I am looking — I happen to be in a well-known American coffee franchise in central London writing this paragraph — we know that many political constellations in the US have changed, or been rearranged. Not just towards hardening divisions or sulphurous tribalisms like the ones we now have over here now, but also in terms of a seeming loss of hope. There used to be so much when I lived there. It is no secret to say that many of us here in London would welcome its return. ’My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth,’ said Lincoln a long time ago. So where has it gone? Or has it always been there all along? Now, come think of it, even Madonna is in intensive care.

Here’s a weird question. Should we as Brits be so arrogant as to blame ourselves for some of these changes in the US? There are some over here wacky enough to believe the improbability of our own Brexit result was partially responsible for encouraging Republicans to vote for someone like Donald Trump, thereby setting off the ricochet of disgruntlements not so dissimilar to our own. Some even more madcap observers go so far as to say Brexit also emboldened Putin, playfully citing ‘Comrade Chaos’ — one of the nicknames for former prime minister Johnson — a contributing factor.

So large, in fact, does the United States loom over here, especially among those of us who have taken the trouble to explore its vast and fascinating interior, we are probably expected to behave by the US in a certain way. It would certainly be no surprise if the shadow cast over us has great significance. With all the ‘egesta’ beginning to really hit the fan now inside Russia, I was actually searching online for coverage of its initial moments on some of the more major US TV networks at the time. While the story was still breaking, there was surprisingly little on at first — nothing on Putin, Prigozhin, Shoigu, or Gerasimov. In fact, during those first few potent minutes, I had to trawl the UK, French, and Middle East channels — as well as Telegram — for updates.

We Brits can be just as bad, if not worse, of course. The day after the coup, some UK newspapers led not with Russia but an American story, albeit with a slight UK twist, about Taylor Swift turning down an invitation to talk on a Meghan Markle podcast, Markle being a woman who one malodorous UK columnist — Jeremy Clarkson — wrote viciously should be seen paraded naked through crowing streets. Meanwhile, not so far from Meghan Markle and Hollywood, a lot of Brits were saddened by hikers in California finding human remains in the mountains where UK actor Julian Sands disappeared over five months ago. At the same time, Californian music idol Lana Del Rey — quintessentially American to many young fans over here — turned up 30 minutes late for her set at Glastonbury, meaning her performance was cut short by six songs. Informed punctuality, I was remembering, used to be such a thing when I lived in the States. Has that gone out of the window? Not entirely, if you believed late British foreign correspondent Ann Leslie, who sadly died last week. (I had the pleasure of meeting Ann through novelist Paul Pickering, and was invited to chaperone her as an elderly doyen to a few events.) ‘Young journalists, especially in America, are much more earnest,’ she said. ‘Computers have done something very peculiar to them. They’re all super-efficient and terribly boring.’ To be fair, people on the European mainland have grown poor at things like acknowledging emails or messages. I find South Americans much better at this. Maybe it’s all that intellectual rigour from the likes of Jorge Luis Borges.

Checking for fresh optics to write about, we were told in the end that US intelligence had known beforehand that Prigozhin was poised to take action. It was also said Putin knew a day or two in advance about his former ally plotting rebellion. It was like another of those Stanley Kubrick moments in ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’. Some of us were reassured however when we read that the US was cautioning Ukrainians not to over-poke the Russian bear while the mutiny was ongoing. The US does after all call the shots.

Panning one’s eyes across an online map of the world shows just how simple it all is when they reach North America. Apart from Russia, China, India, Kazakhstan, Australia, and Brazil, our eyes enjoy few more simple landings than Canada and the United States. I remember one or two Americans taking great pride in their geographical certainty, with its impossibly long, straight edges for borders and state-lines. I would like out too.

If Brexit and its impact did in fact have influence on the US, which remains highly debatable, one separate concern we do have about coming over here in the opposite direction is the vexatious issue of abortion. Even the BBC was recently highlighting Kristan Hawkins saying she wanted to abolish abortion in the US, and has little patience for politicians anywhere who are insufficiently pro-life. We also note former US Vice-President Mike Pence taking a pop at rivals by supporting a 15-week national abortion ban. In fact, few matters concern some Brits more than staving off this issue from crossing these shores — other than guns — to the point where any moderation that may still be lurking in the British psyche is seriously reached for.

Of course, by far our greatest and possibly least innocuous cultural exposure comes through streaming channels. It used to be that our popcorn moments came in the cinema, or as part of a tight schedule on mainstream TV. Just as I watched Masterpiece Theatre on PBS while living in New York, famously introduced by Alastair Cooke, I also used to study dramas such as M*A*S*H as a boy. (New York, we read now, is enduring a weird blizzard of flying bugs.) Despite more recent moments of televisual or tablet genius such as Mad Men or The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, there has been since a possible dreariness in quality. The last American drama I found truly compelling was still Dopesick. That said, at the risk of reporting myself, apart from A Spy Among Friends, the same can probably be said over here.

As for US news more generally, it runs at times like a treadmill of violence. Take the story of Emma Brown, 12, who shot her father, Daniel Brown, 38, in the abdomen, in Poolville, Texas. Emma, as many Americans know, then shot herself in the head, dying two days later in hospital. Why don’t these stories surprise us at all? Are we really so anaesthetised? This is also the time of year in London when the capital is full of American tourists — and it is always a great pleasure to see them — but it is so confusingly difficult to match their genuine geniality with all that violence? The so-called fentanyl genocide is another American horror news story reaching us with increasing spikiness. Tent-lined streets with people overdosing left, right and centre are like a daily fix from across the pond these days. Beautiful San Francisco gets a particular puncturing. We had one adorable friend visit there on business the other week and she didn’t feel comfortable about leaving her hotel, she said.

As for the young over here, one young Londoner I spoke to last week said to me he and his friends whenever they studied the optics coming out of the States right now looked upon it all as ‘a bit of a mess’, as ‘bonkers’. I tried reminding him of the many great things to have come out of the US, but this didn’t really have much traction, to be honest, which is a shame. (‘We share a lot of music,’ he conceded warmly.) He was probably more interested in what was suddenly unravelling over in France.

London author Will Self once wrote: ‘Only America and the Americans have this ability to derange us with their capacity to reflect our own image. Not that they do this intentionally, really, it’s something we do to ourselves. And it follows that what we also do to ourselves is to relentlessly equate America with Americans, and the US government with its electorate — conflations we wouldn’t dream of making in the case of the German or Greek peoples.’

Optics go a long way. I was at an inner city book reading last week in a former car park not so far from where I live. People kicked their way through the litter to get there, only to arrive in this vast concrete paradise of words and glow and beautiful people with one almighty skyline and sky. To be fair, just as the sun began sinking in the West, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) had just formally agreed to readmit the US as a member. This was after Trump had withdrawn the US five years ago, accusing them of anti-Israel bias. Also, the US state department had just criticised the US approach in 2021 to the evacuation from Afghanistan by blaming both President Biden and Trump. Now, to many of us over here, even to those of us drowning not waving, this feels like progress.

Peter Bach lives in London.