I have just returned from one of the best conferences I have attended, at the Renmin University Summer Institute on Theology and the Humanities in Beijing. More on that later, especially since I will be spending a good deal of time in China over the next few years. But as I was there, the USA showed another sign of unravelling (I never thought I would see its actual decline), the riots broke out in London and then across the UK (social unrest is always a sign of profound economic shifts), the Eurozone finally showed that it is on the brink. Meanwhile, the planned economy of China is motoring ahead.
10 August, 2011
30 May, 2011
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Lenin was not always averse to the USA, admiring the deep radical tradition there, drawing upon an occasional revolutionary slogan:
It reminds one of the American saying: “If you steal a loaf of bread you’ll surely go to jail, but if you steal a railroad you’ll be made a senator.”
Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 17, p. 136
30 May, 2011
No need to look for alternative universes in a distant galaxy, for one exists across the Pacific in that weird and paranoid place between Canada and Mexico known as the USA. Apart from seeing the rest of the word as full of baby-killers and communists and Islam, it appears that communism has infiltrated the USA as well.
How? Through Sesame Street.
Yes, that blandly liberal show for kiddies is really a ‘vehicle for spreading the radical agenda of the left side of the political spectrum’. So says the fair and balanced Ben Shapiro in his new book, Primetime Propaganda, tellingly subtitled, The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV. Apparently, Sesame Street and shows like it have ‘secret, political messages’ that have shaped the social, economic and foreign policy of the United States. News to me, since every time I hear about US foreign policy or watch TV, I come across ever more right-wing crap. Alternative universe is the only viable explanation for such an idiotic argument.
30 January, 2011
6 November, 2010
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Once one has tasted Marxist criticism, all ideological hogwash forever becomes repulsive (Ernst Bloch, Literarische Aufsätze, p. 137)
I was reminded of this great quotation by Benjamin Korstvedt’s odd book on Bloch’s philosophy of music, a book that should be subtitled: How to Pussyfoot Around Bloch’s Marxism. It makes me wonder whether a neo-McCarthyist era is unfolding in the USA, from where Korstvedt hails (with all the bullshit about healthcare and socialism and the t-shirts that put Obama in line with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao).
5 November, 2010
A brief comment in the midst of the overflowing analysis of the US midterm elections. Sadly (maybe not!) the cynics among have been proven right after the ‘Change we can’ election of 2008: things seem to be even more fucked up in 2010. However, opinion is divided over whether it is more of the same, with poor working class voters systematically excluded from election processes while two parties of managers,owners and professionals fight it out – so an insightful analyis from Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb. Similarly, but from a more specifically economic angle, Rick Wolf identifies a long-term from the 1970s in which things have been very, very good for the small group of owners of capital while wages have flatlined since then. (That confirms my own anecdotal experience of the USA as a country comprised of islands of extreme privilege surrounded by an ocean of systemic poverty, backed up by Ken Surin’s analysis of the US as a third world country that ‘succeeded’.) But both analyses suggest another possibility, namely the politics of decline. Deep down, the gut sense seems to be that the everyday situation is progressively, slowly, inexorably getting worse for most people. So you get Obama back in 2008 capturing a desire to recover a fading dream, the Tea Party seeking to recover ‘America for Americans’ and so on. A backward-looking utopia is also deeply reactionary. Not only do they clearly indicate a sense that the Golden Age is past (however contructed it might be), but their persistent failure and bitter disappointment is also part of the package.
Actually, I’m suprised someone hasn’t decided to blame the Soviet Union. Not for secretly implanting Obama in the White House, but for getting itself dismantled. Those were the good old days, two superpowers threatening each other, the USA the leader of the West etc etc. Damn the fucking USSR: now they are gone, the US has lost its way.
11 October, 2010
What makes a place sensual? Is it topless bars or erotic dancing? Is it a dubious reputation, like Paris or Rio? Is it golden sunsets, beaches and fine wine – the sort you see only on tourist advertisements? Is it, as Annie Sprinkle once opined concerning porn and erotica, the whole chicken or a feather?
For me the criteria are very subtle, concerned above all the carriage of the body. Learned through a long, supple and largely sub-conscious apprenticeship by children and teenagers, the way we carry your body involves posture, shape and movement. For example, it concerns the way one stands, turns or tilts one’s head, holds one’s shoulders just so, positions one’s body in relation to others, interacts on the street, uses eyes and mouth, or moves one’s hands – in short, the way we are present in and with our bodies.
Reading such bodies requires a little intuition and much patience, but it’s deeply satisfying. So what are the most sensual places on earth?
Top of the list must be Ukraine. Ukraine!? Through a mix of fortunate genetics and excellent upbringing, Ukrainian women and men would have to be among the most sensuous on the planet. The way they amble among a crowd, the unconscious ability to move a thigh or slide perfectly shaped buttocks in a long stride is simply amazing. As is the turn-and-look movement while talking, the carriage of the head and the inquisitive eyes.
Russia is comparable to Ukraine, since they were part of the same country for many years, but some subtle differences soon show up. Ukrainians are more up front in their assessment of you, but not Russians, at least the ones I have met. Walk down a street and none of the Russian beauties looks at you. Or at least it seems as though they don’t look at you. No matter how surreptitiously you try to glance at someone passing, you never catch any one so much as flicking a look in your direction. And yet you get the distinct feeling that you are constantly being checked, surveyed, and assessed in the most sensuous manner possible.
Serbia wins a spot here since it is the historical point where many ethnic groups have fought, razed the city and then rebuilt. The result is a mongrel people, and mongrels are by far the strongest, healthiest and have the most positive outlook on life. As a result, Belgrade women have the smoothest, olive skin, taking every opportunity to show off as much of it as they can (at least in summer), long dark hair, lithe flowing bodies and the challenge of a direct and sustained look.
I can’t leave Denmark off the list, especially Copenhagen. The key here is the blending of bicycles and people. Flowing hair, long thighs descending into high-heeled boots, baskets overflowing with beer or bread or clothes, all moving in a slow, sensuous rhythm along every city street.
Greenland: an unexpected entry on this list, but Greenlandic people are stunning. Meet a tall, well-endowed Greenlander on the street, with jet-black hair and the tough eyes of one who has seen far more than you will ever hope to see, and you will be smitten.
Last for now is China, although this is a very subtle one. Initially I simply didn’t get it: Chinese people in China were, it seemed to me, as missing in sensuality as the many I had met in Australia. The men wore their pants impossibly high (amazingly avoiding the squeak I constantly expected) and the women were reserved, if not withdrawn. But then, after some time in China, the subtlety began to dawn on me: a fold of clothing at a metro stop, a surreptitious glance on the street, a careful move of a hip.
I can’t leave this discussion without pondering the most un-sensual places on earth.
USA: sorry, but you just don’t have it. Brash and awkward and botox ain’t sensual.
England: ditto, but worse. Everything doesn’t work here – posture, movement, carriage. A turn-off.
Germany: Big, clumsy and rough. For some, that may mean sensual, but not for me.
Latvia: curious one here, since the military-like precision of their manner may do it for some. Not me.
Norway: sorry about this Norway, but you are slick, glossy and a little obscene. Too much money and simply no sensuality; even in high-heels, you look awkward and ungainly. Go to Ukraine to find out how to do it. And running or riding about town in yet another expensive sports outfit is not sexy.
France gets a thumbs-down as well. I know many will be surprised at this, but France is just too self-absorbed, too convinced of its own sensuality that it’s like one great wank. Not much fun for anyone else.
23 March, 2010
Ken Surin has this fantastic essay (that was originally part of his Freedom Not Yet book) called ‘The USA as a Third World Country’. He goes through some key data to show that on matters of inequality of income (in which the USA ranks behind Vietnam and Ethiopia, for example), the chances of living to 60 (ranking below Portugal and Malta) and health care, the US is clearly a third world country that works – that is, is relies on massive and systemic exploitation of a poor majority.
As for health care, some stats on the ‘the best health care system in the world‘. These are from 1991 and are obviously worse now.
Health Care Expenditures (percent of GDP) (1) United States 13.4% Canada 10.0 Finland 9.1 Sweden 8.6 Germany 8.4 Netherlands 8.4 Norway 7.6 Japan 6.8 United Kingdom 6.6 Denmark 6.5 Doctors' incomes: (2) United States $132,300 Germany 91,244 Denmark 50,585 Finland 42,943 Norway 35,356 Sweden 25,768 Percent of population covered by public health care: ALL NATIONS (except below) 100% France, Austria 99 Switzerland, Spain, Belgium 98 Germany 92 Netherlands 77 United States 40 Life Expectancy (years): Men Women Japan 76.2 82.5 France 72.9 81.3 Switzerland 74.1 81.3 Netherlands 73.7 80.5 Sweden 74.2 80.4 Canada 73.4 80.3 Norway 73.1 79.7 Germany 72.6 79.2 United Kingdom 72.7 78.2 Denmark 72.2 77.9 United States 71.6 78.6 Infant Mortality Rate (per 1,000 live births): United States 10.4 United Kingdom 9.4 Germany 8.5 Denmark 8.1 Canada 7.9 Norway 7.9 Netherlands 7.8 Switzerland 6.8 Finland 5.9 Sweden 5.9 Japan 5.0 Death rate of 1-to-4 year olds (per community of 200,000 per year): United States 101.5 Japan 92.2 Norway 90.2 Denmark 85.1 France 84.9 United Kingdom 82.2 Canada 82.1 Netherlands 80.3 Germany 77.6 Switzerland 72.5 Sweden 64.7 Finland 53.3 Death rate of 15-to-24 year olds (per community of 200,000 per year): United States 203 Switzerland 175 Canada 161 France 156 Finland 154 Norway 128 Germany 122 Denmark 120 United Kingdom 114 Sweden 109 Japan 96 Netherlands 90 Note: the murder rate for the above age group is 48.8 per 200,000. Even subtracting this entirely still puts the U.S. near the top of the list. Premature Death (years of life lost before the age of 64 per 100 people): United States 5.8 years Denmark 4.9 Finland 4.8 Canada 4.5 Germany 4.5 United Kingdom 4.4 Norway 4.3 Switzerland 4.1 Netherlands 4.0 Sweden 3.8 Japan 3.3
In sum, advanced U.S. medical technology has not translated into better health statistics for its citizens; indeed, the U.S. ranks near the bottom in list after list of international comparisons. Part of the problem is that there is more profit in a kilogram of cure than a gram of prevention. And since the USA has one of the highest levels of income disparity, the widespread poverty has a much greater effect on one’s health much more than the limited ministrations of a formal health care system.
23 March, 2010
We have to stop this bill, which will ruin our economy, ruin our health care system, the best health care system in the world.
John Boehner, Republican House Leader (USA).
20 January, 2010
Deserts, bayous, oil rigs, wild west towns, aviophobics, an occasional wrinkled Cajun, an attendant called Jesus, the Superstition Mountains – all part of the journey on a long haul train in the southern USA. I must admit that rail is not the first word to jumps to mind when thinking of the USA, which is precisely why we decided to travel across the country by train. We had to get from Los Angeles to New Orleans and back again. And since flying is one of those unpleasant modes of transport one uses only as a last resort, we decided to take the train. I was also keen to travel in parts of the USA most Americans couldn’t be bothered about: the south-western deserts, the border zones with Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas, even the Cajun coast of Louisiana. The thought of travelling through such vast stretches would make the over-sensitive bourgeois liberals of New York shake their heads in disbelief or shiver with foreboding.
The days on the train pass slowly, punctuated by meal times, smoke stops, relaxed hours looking at the passing landscape, reading, walking the length of the train, roaring freighters dopplering past, and the train whistle adroitly pumped with the individual signature pattern of each driver.
The train was the Sunset Limited, which takes two days to travel between Los Angeles and New Orleans. Like few other countries in the world, the trains in the USA keep their ancient names, such as the Southwest Chief, the Wolverine or the Northern Arrow, rather than being called the ICE or Sydney to Melbourne overnight XPT. The Sunset Limited is the most southerly of the four great lines that cross the country from west to east. The route takes you south and west from Los Angeles, running down California through Palm Springs and then into Arizona (night-time in both directions).
Legendary and not-so-legendary towns become railway stops – Tucson, Yuma, Markopa, El Paso, Del Rio, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans, Thiboudaux, Lake George. In some places, like Tucson and San Antonio, the stations have held to their former glory, patiently enjoying the new rise in rail travel. In others, such as Houston, they have been beaten back beneath freeways and the impatience of a modern city, so that now it is a pitiful station building with a few benches salvaged from the earlier building, and an electricity substation on the way out.
The train passes through some of the most amazing countryside in the USA. From the massive Huey P. Long Bridge out of New Orleans – crossing the treacherous and swirling Mississippi – through to the dry reaches of the California coast in between the San Bernardino Mountains and the coast, the sheer variety and extent of the USA stared you in the face.
The only shame is that some of it had to pass during the night, but that gave a whole new angle if you sleep by the window with the curtain open: moonlight, thundering engines dopplering past with blaring headlights, stations at ungodly hours where people stepped off and on, blearily and with pillows under their arms or perhaps for a nicotine fix. Colorado and most of New Mexico passed this way, although I slept a sleep of deep exhaustion on the way to New Orleans. I made up for it by sleeping the window on the way back, and for once a broken sleep was a pleasure since I would jump out at every opportunity. Chances to sleep later were, after all, plentiful on the train.
But I must admit that Texas was the most fascinating. Texas? The redneck lone-star state? Yes, and western Texas at that.
Sun is riz, sun is set, here we are in Texas yet.
Apparently this comment came from travellers making their way across Texas – and it still applies. On our eastward run, we crossed the border from New Mexico at first light and had still not made San Antonio by dusk. From the arid zones of western Texas, which bordered on the New Mexico deserts and where those stories of the ‘wild west’ emerged (Billy the Kid, the OK Corral, the Apache Wars, to name a few) to the increasingly lush parts of the east that bordered Louisiana, the train passed by landscapes that reminded me deeply of Australia. The barren mountains and saltbush-strewn desert plains certainly did so, as did the absence of bus services and airports. But the Australian echo was strongest with the emphasis on water: metal windmill pumps scattered the landscape, while in the scraggly towns the architecture unwittingly raised water as the most vital issue. Here the most important – indicated by height and solidity – constructions were the water towers by the houses, holding what had either been pumped from the ground or caught in roof guttering. The likenesses held until I looked at the simple houses – often shacks – for it is difficult to find low, stuccoed, colonial Spanish buildings in Australia, except as an oddity in a suburb of Sydney, but certainly not in the desert. And you realise soon enough that the image of Hollywood Westerns, in which every space west of New York City seems belong to the Wild West, is grossly exaggerated (nothing new in that). For the ‘west’ is really a small portion of the southwest, running from western Texas, through New Mexico and Arizona to the Mohave Desert of southern California.
By dawn on the second day – on the way to New Orleans – the landscape had changed beyond all recognition. We had passed through the industrial engine of Texas – flashing lights of oilfield towers in the night, blaring headlights of freight trains passing by with a blast on the whistle in the pouring rain, Houston and its port of Galveston. By the crossing of the Sabine River into Louisiana we plunged into the extraordinary wetlands of southern Louisiana. Suddenly the vegetation – riotous, mossy, varied from evergreen cypress to deciduous trees with their leaves turning in a late autumn – was strangely familiar from the time I had lived in North Carolina. Bayou and alligator country, rice paddies and pine forests, crayfish farming and the Arcadians.
Out of the window – wide and clear – is where the action is meant to be on a train. Trains are set up so you can look outside: panoramic windows, observation cars with the seats facing outward, tips for photos – all of these tell you that the real action is outside the train. I was often drawn to the windows and what passed through them, since I could not resist their pull – like a television in a home or, more preferably for me, a fire late at night, cigarette in one hand, a mug of port in the other. But much of the attraction is what goes in inside the train, in its corners and hidden spaces, in the corridors and stairs, luggage cars, showers and toilets – which are precisely those spaces where you find other people travelling in this ad hoc village in motion.
Our cabin was a compact ‘roomette’, as they call it. The usual thing to say here is that as soon as I opened the door I realised that it was definitely more an ‘ette’ than a room. It is true that even in the simple act of trying to get dressed one seriously risked breaking a limb in the effort to twist into one’s clothes. Forget any complex manoeuvres such as energetic sex, rap dancing or touching your toes. Climbing into the compact cylinder of a top bunk made the even the most athletic Olympic gymnast or the most flexible contortionist look tame. But anyone who has travelled on trains knows that space is at a premium and that sleeping quarters are compact. The real fun – for me at least – is to see what they have done with the space, to marvel at how what is really necessary for comfort can be packed into such a small space. And I thoroughly enjoy it.
The roomette was upstairs, since the passenger trains in the USA are towering beasts with two floors. Of course, most of the toilets were downstairs, which you accessed via a narrow, twisting staircase. All very well if you are even moderately fit and held to a reasonable circumference. But not the man across the hall: he (and some others) made use of the solitary upstairs toilet. He would manage to stagger the four steps or so to that toilet and squeeze inside. However, since his bulk filled the cubicle, pressing up against all four sides so that he could see nothing below chin height, he would simply wedge himself inside and then let go, spraying everywhere since he could see neither his dick nor the toilet. A shit was another matter entirely. I learnt soon enough to: a) feel very sorry for the attendant who had to clean up afterwards; b) to head for the downstairs toilet.
A far better place to meet people was the dining car. Hitchcock knew this all too well, setting some of his most memorable scenes in the dining car – such as the fateful moment in Strangers on a Train when the murder pact was made between two passengers hitherto unknown to one another. I did not meet any would-be murderers. Or if one of them did happen to be a murderer, I did not find out and they did not offer me any deals.
We shared southern California with two painfully shy aviophobics. Passing south from Los Angeles and on its way to New Mexico, the train skirts the Southern California ranges, pausing – in the very considerate way of Americans – for smoke stops at Palm Springs and Claremont. I love to ask why people travel on long-distance trains – early in the conversation, in fact, for it’s a way to get the talk started. But in this case, the answer was a little embarrassing. Why? To admit to fear of flying is like admitting to a weakness.
The shy man from northern Texas was both embarrassed and relieved to be able to say why. As was the woman next to him from Alabama, travelling back for thanksgiving. Both made up the 10% cohort of Americans who hate flying so much they would rather use the train. He had a love of butter and cream on his potatoes and steak that would have made a cardiologist see dollar signs and he was fascinated by Australia, but talking with him was like the proverbial blood and stone. But then afterwards – to my huge surprise – he would warmly greet us every time we passed. Perhaps he never talked at all at dinner and felt that on this occasion he had made a huge breakthrough.
Later I would encounter train nuts, first time travellers, begrudging spouses, a man who nursed his poodle the whole way and a Canadian who spent his life on long-distance trains. But when I popped the question to a mother and daughter from Arkansas, who were off to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the answer came from another world. It beats the Greyhound, they said. The buses are so cramped, full of smokers and with filthy toilets. In the midst of their barely understandable banter in their southern drawl, talking about Hurricane Katrina (the mother had been living in Mobile, Alabama), food, children, bobcats, bears, crocodiles and alligators, I suddenly realised that flying did not even come into the picture. It was simply the bus or the train.
By morning (heading east) or evening (heading west) one arrives in Texas, El Paso to be precise. For some reason that is entirely beyond me, El Paso is where you meet first-time train travellers. For the petite California blond, who had been eying me off since Union Station, the train was another world. She was on her way to her home town, Dallas, for Thanksgiving. As with so many, she had drifted west, had gone to ‘school’ in LA, met a dentist, converted to Christianity and married. Why the train? The short answer was swine flu. The long answer: she was pregnant with her second child (her four year old daughter was with her), had a heart condition and her doctor had advised her not to fly, for a good number of women had contracted swine flu after flying and miscarried. And then the Hollywood film editor, who had just finished a major task with an animated film, had decided on a whim to take the train to Dallas too. His first time, the beginning of a break, part of the discovery of slower ways to travel. He had sold his car not long before, rode a bicycle in LA, and now was on the train.
But the real prizes of the trip were the Cajuns, especially on the way back from ‘Nawlins’. They all seemed to be ancient, in their late 80s, had strangely large heads, creased eyes and the ability to talk non-stop for two days. One was from Thibodaux and was on his way to Houston for Thanksgiving – at the request (he made it seem like a demand) from his daughter. Since he was 87, she had wanted him to fly, so he of course decided to take the train, entirely on his own. But that was only the beginning. His eyes twinkled and his mouth never stopped moving: he had not been on a train since 1946, when he was discharged from the army, found the journey a bit of a drag and was glad to find someone to talk to (we settled down for a marathon), his wife – now dead – had been brought up by her grandmother (her mother was ill) who spoke only French, but the only thing French about him was his name …
The other Cajuns were an old couple in their eighties from ‘Nawlins’. Initially Andy gave me the impression he was a grumpy old shit and Millie an impatient old bitch, but soon they sparkled. He was a Cajun and she a hillbilly from Tennessee; he a train nut who had recently – with a group of his mates – restored an old steam engine, she a flyer who tolerated trains; he loved Cajun food and she couldn’t stand it. But they both had parents who lived to be close to 100 (her mother had actually cracked a ton recently). But they gave us a taste of Nawlins no tour or self-guided walk could match. To my question about spoken French (after some comments about the Arcadians in the Canadian maritimes), Andy said he had spoken broken French as a child, since his grandmother had no English. And in parts of the countryside along the coast a Creole French was still spoken. But increasingly people were making an effort to recover a spoken and literary French in these parts, especially since it was still in the living memory of some. Of course, names – both people and place – are persistently French, as are many of the words used, but in the centuries since the arrival of the Arcadians the language has undergone its own mutations in interaction with African slaves, Spanish and in the simultaneous succumbing and resistance to the dominant and dominating English.
All this while, during meal after meal as we passed along the Cajun coast, I had been wondering about the word ‘Cajun’. I knew a little of the story about the Arcadian French in the Canadian Maritime provinces, those whom the deeply humanitarian British had deported to Louisiana in the eighteenth century during the struggles with France, and some of whom had returned to their homeland in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. As we rolled through rice fields, crayfish farms, bayous and French-sounding towns, it struck me: Cajun is to Acadian as Injun is to Indian. In short, it was the Creole version of Arcadian.
But I was also struck by the sheer ignorance of the world outside the United States. Many of the diehard train travellers had never been outside the USA. Or, if one wanted a ‘foreign’ experience, Quebec would give you all you needed. It certainly saved going to Europe. Millie asked me in all seriousness whether we have turkey at Thanksgiving in Australia. And Drew, the well educated Hollywood film editor, had no idea where Denmark is and, when the Netherlands came up, asked: ‘it’s separated from Europe by a body of water, isn’t it?’
Even with all these aviophobic, provincial, garrulous or tight-lipped fellow diners, the best companions were the conductors. A train buff (wishing for trains ‘like Europe’) here, a silky-voiced and seriously self-important dining car announced there, and a busy man named Jesus in our own carriage for the return journey – they were full of the variety of the land that passed by outside the train. Rochelle, a young large-bottomed woman on the way to New Orleans, might have taken it a little easy, knowing when to relax and when things needed to be done. But Jesus – on the way back to LA – worked frantically the whole trip, so much so that he barely slept for the two nights of the journey. Hot water for decaf coffee (by doctor’s order)? I’ll get it for you. Help with you bunk? Let me help. And he would clean the toilets after almost every use (even after our obese fellow traveller). But he was also ready to talk. Coming from California, with a wife and older children, he had worked the long runs for years. Running over to New Orleans on the Sunset Limited, or on the Southwest Chief to Chicago and back, or more locally the Surfliner up to San Francisco and home again.
How did he put up with the strange habits of American train drivers to blast their whistles at every opportunity? Don’t even hear them, he replied. At one level it was a blessing, should one wish to sleep. But at another it was a shame, since the whistle was quite a performance. Depending on the driver, it might have been well-spaced short blasts mixed in with the occasional held chord, or perhaps a pattern of long-short, long-short, or six shorts and long, or … I would go to sleep at night imagining jazz bands or old rock groups deprived of yet another talent, drawn to the train engines and their magnificent whistles rather than the rigours of life in a band.
Apart from these myriad experiences, two moments etched themselves on my memory tracks. One was at El Paso and the other at Union Station in Los Angeles. At El Paso, on the border between New Mexico, Texas and Mexico itself, we stopped twice, once for breakfast (on the eastward journey) and once for dinner (in the other direction. Here the train rolls within metres of the Mexican border, which you can’t miss since it is marked by a high-security double fence. It felt like a war zone. Border security four-wheel drives patrolled all the time, watch-towers with surveillance equipment rose to the sky, and a dead-man’s stretch lay in between the two fences. Here it was perfectly clear that fortress America is not merely an emotional suspicion of the world but a concrete and razor-wire effort to keep all those ‘aliens’ out of paradise.
On the other side of the fence in El Paso is Ciudad Juarez. Initially it looked poor, thrown together with pieces of discarded wood, iron and concrete. And Americans share this view: a sleek man from Long Beach muttered about crime and drugs and the pollution cloud over the fence in Mexico. But I did notice that the Mexicans had the advantage of height, so their homes and churches and shops looked over to the USA. If you follow their gaze to the US side and look closely, you begin to notice that the ad hoc constructions on the US side are little better. The petite Californian blond with perfect if somewhat large teeth unwittingly admitted as much a little later, saying it was a pity we were travelling through some of the less attractive parts of America.
She was referring to the trailer architecture, as dominant in California and Louisiana as it is in Texas. They are not restricted to the trailer parks, the homes of the ‘white trash’ (i.e. working class), although there are enough of those too. Broken down and rusted campervans, or RV’s as they call them, or long and narrow dwellings made of fibro and corrugated iron that had that tell-tale look of prefabrication and back-of-the-truck delivery – these trailer homes appear everywhere, on small blocks in the towns, or perhaps on plots in the countryside. Often the plots are dusty, strewn with scavenged items, old pickup trucks in pieces, a mangy dog or three on the grounds.
These trailers, often worn, bent and stained, are simply everywhere. But there is one image that seemed to say it all. It was a cluster of trailers in various lots, strewn about as though some giant child had been playing with toy houses. In their midst was a sumptuous mansion with elaborate gardens and a pond with a fountain. Why build the mansion here, in the middle of group of trailers in a west Texas town? Was it a former trailer-trash who had won the lottery? Was it the owner of all the trailers, who rented them out to the poor workers? Was it a drug lord surrounded by his minions? It seemed to be a paradigm of the USA, with its islands of obscene wealth and privilege surrounded by a sea of poverty. It reminded me of a comment made to me by a good friend some time ago that the USA is a third world country that had ‘succeeded’. What he meant was the obvious and extensive poverty that remained largely docile and/or drugged while supporting a vicious ruling elite, oblivious to the fact that medical, educational and employment conditions in the USA, especially for the vast majority of the working poor, are easily exceeded by some of the poorer countries of Africa or Latin America.
The paradox was that I was travelling on a piece of machinery that had been the source of American wealth: the train. A quick look at the map of major rail lines in the USA soon shows that it still has one of the most extensive rail networks in the world, turning on the financial hubs of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and – a surprise to me – New Orleans. The lines and their hubs say loudly: this is where the money and the people are, with the direct effect that these places became even more important. Not only was it a network for shifting goods and people – the only way to do so not so long ago – but it also asserted the extent of the USA, pushing as close to the Mexican border as possible and running along the Canadian border in order to tell the British to stay right where they were in their colony.
The other abiding image of the journey came from Union Station in Los Angeles. It is a glorious building, finally completed in 1939 after 14 years of work, the ‘union’ of three competing railway companies and a celebration of LA as a major destination and economic centre. Despite the advent of the motorcar and aeroplane, Union has held on, still full of people and now the central metro station for LA. The sheer grandeur reminded me of Eastern Europe, except that here Spanish colonial, pre-conquest indigenous and modernist styles blend in a show of sheer opulence. No cost was spared in its construction: elaborate window frames, complex tiling, intricate ceilings, ornate seating and stunning light fittings combine to make it a place to while away hours between an arrival and a departure.
The sparrows at Union Bagel are some of the most well-fed I have ever met. Perched atop the nearby roof of the newsagent, they swoop on recently departed tables, scooping up the juicy remains, shitting on the seats (which patrons obligingly clean with their backs and bums), and chirping in sated laziness. But the other sparrow looked equally comfortable. Shaven and neatly dressed, he arrived and rummaged through the bins. In a few seconds he dug out some half-eaten bagels and leftover drink in the massive cups they supply only in the USA, pulled out some newspapers he had scrounged from elsewhere, and sat down to a scrumptious breakfast while catching up on the day’s news. What was he doing here? Eventually I realised that in a state where the idea of unemployment benefits is regarded dreadfully socialist, one needs to be inventive even to eat and read when out of work.