Monday, 27 May 2019


John Donne in his Elegy XIX, “On his Mistress Going to Bed”, written in 1633, compares the excitement of the New-found-land of America with seducing his naked mistress: “licence these roving hands”  he says.

On Friday we went to the Chineke! Orchestra playing a programme of American music as part of the Brighton Festival. (Chineke! is a not-for-profit foundation providing opportunities in classical music for Black and Minority Ethnic musicians.)

It was wonderful. We’d never heard a more impassioned or dramatic version of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ or a funnier Copland’s ‘I bought me a Cat’. In addition to these composers we had Montgomery, Weill and Ibert.  We realised, as we listened there was this unmistakable American sound full of optimism, grandeur and wit. It was like listening to the best Hollywood film scores distilled into an expensive, sweet perfume.

For sure, we have our own local difficulties right now and the recent EU elections may well show an unwelcome rise of right wing parties but something even graver is happening across the Atlantic.

America gave me more frissons of excitement than anywhere else I’d been. To land at Kennedy and see the New York skyline sent shivers down my back.  To watch Aaron Sorkin’s ‘West Wing’ and somehow (how naive!) believe it was a true to life insight to American politics; to see Jeff Daniels’ (Sorkin again): 'America is not the greatest country in the world anymore', The Newsroom - 2012 – and to know no other writer in any other country would dare to write such a critical piece or for it to be delivered with such brio; to remember the iconic westerns that shaped my sense of right and wrong and, as with Elmer Bernstein’s music for ‘The Magnificent Seven’, to find myself humming it as I walked into a difficult meeting. This was my America.

And these were reasons why I had believed that America really was the greatest country in the world, thrilling, brave, fair and always innovative. The dreadful Monroe Doctrine had long gone.

But America has gone sour. I can no longer recognise it as the place that  brought us Gershwin’s music, Elvis, MoTown, Tom Wolfe,  Mohammed Ali, Michael Johnson and Sorkin or James Stewart. America has been stolen and I want it back.  Because it belongs to the whole world, not just Americans, it belongs to all our memories of progress and adventure. I feel a sense of sacrilege that the vast canvas boldly painted in bright and exotic colour has been painted over.

Perhaps it’s characteristic of our times that electorates sit passively as the past is written out and its culture is traduced and replaced by  shrill and discordant voices. Politicians everywhere are now becoming the sort of people with whom you would not wish to converse, let alone break bread.

In 1976 on my  first visit to America I felt like Donne:

“How blest am I in this discovering thee!”

Not anymore, I’m afraid. Not anymore.

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