Immigrant Song

It’s 45 years since I added my name to generations of immigrants to America. On January 3, 1976, to be exact. It wasn’t my first trip; I’d been there seven months earlier, to celebrate our first anniversary with my wife’s family, the trip their present to us – a huge gift in those days.

My wife loved England and Leeds, but maybe the idea of it more than the reality, after all, the first half of the 70s were a bleak, grey time in Britain. I, like all those who journeyed across the ocean before me, saw opportunity in the US. To do what, I’m not sure. Live a more open life, maybe.

But our journey was faster than those thousands who left from docks all over Europe. We didn’t go on a sailing ship, no journey for weeks in steerage. Just seven hours in a 747 after a flight down to Heathrow. Another plane trip and we were there, in Cincinnati, at the start of a new life.

I’d move again, pretty much 10 years later to the day, and this time on my own. Another flight, this time heading west. Not so much following Horace Greeley’s advice, but the footsteps of so many who’ve found disappointment and hope for something better in fresher pastures. I was divorced, a pretext for something different. And the West Coast has always had a sense of allure.

Not California for me, but Seattle. Still the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen, with both salt water and mountains to east and west. And the most liberal place I’d known – a huge relief after the stultifying, rabidly conservative Midwest. For a while at least, I felt as if I’d come home. Home to the very edge of America. About as far as you could go without wading into the Pacific.

The city seemed new, still shiny, barely out of the wrapping. A place constantly remaking itself. After a fire in 1889 they’d simply raised the street level and rebuilt. Hell, the last building that had been my home in Leeds was built before the first white settlers arrived in Seattle. It was, people claimed, a city where it was okay to fail.

That’s true, or it was back then. Not just of Seattle, but almost anywhere in the west. You fail, move on and try again. But when you’ve gone as far as possible and not succeeded (although success was such an intangible thing), you have to be allowed to keep failing where you are. And I did fail, more than once.

Seattle would be my hone for pretty much the next 20 years. Eventually, on terms I could define to myself, I succeeded. And then I left.. I came back to England and eventually Leeds, and realised that this was home. The prodigal returning, maybe. No place like it, Toto.

Why think of all this now now? After all, it’s 15 years since my return, seven since Leeds became home again.

The time of year, perhaps, those anniversaries of Western movement. It coincides with reading about Montana, the homesteaders of Ivan Doig’s English Creek trilogy, and Jonathan Raban’s Bad Lands and about immigrants in Hunting Mister Heartbreak. Different eras, different outcomes, but still that sense of flowing to somewhere new. It’s appealing, seductive, even if I’m quite content here with no intention of moving again

I had my adventure, and I started when I was young enough to be malleable. I could live cheaply and enjoy it. I had momentum. Time change, rapidly and often radically. I was lucky, I know. 45 years…it can’t really be that long, can it?

My new book, To The Dark, came out last week in the UK. I hope you might consider buying it or borrowing it from your library (hard as so much is closed now, I know). But if you request if from your library, it might start wheels turning for them to get a copy. And the ebook comes out February 1…

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