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…

A Sense Of Place

Nine months ago, I moved back to Leeds. Not just to the city where I’d been born and raised, but to the area where I spent most of my teens.

Back in those days, I couldn’t wait to leave. The city seemed small and stultifying. It seemed horribly provincial, and there’s probably nothing more deadly to a teenager. So I left, only to return, then leave again for 30 years in America.

But I never felt American. I thought England had shaped me, but that wasn’t true. Leeds had, although I didn’t realise it. I loved Seattle, and for a long time I was settled there. But circumstances change…

Returning to England, I didn’t want to be in Leeds. Going back there would seem like defeat. It took a while, and several novels set in Leeds, which meant plenty of visits to the city, to understand that I felt more comfortable, more at home here than I’d felt anywhere else.

Funny thing, though. I’d anticipated this move, but once here, I felt like I was walking with ghosts – mostly my own young ghost. But we’ve made peace on those streets and in the park. My work might take place in the past, but my life is very much in the present, and whether it’s walking around my neighbourhood or in the city centre, or even something as mundane as taking the bus into town, I realise I’m happy here. Happier than I’ve felt anywhere else. It’s finally sunk in.

I did the right thing to leave all those years ago. But I definitely did the right thing in coming back.

Imaginary America

America has become a polarised country. When I moved back to the UK, a little over eight years ago, it was edging that way, but since then it seems to have tumbled down a slope, to the point where there’s no common ground between the parties.

When I moved there in 1976 it didn’t seem that way. There were inevitable divisions, and I found myself in Ohio, a fairly conservative part of the country. But it was hardly extreme. It was, really, the place I’d seen on TV shows as I grew up. The houses were all detached, there were even white picket fences, and everyone had a car. Jobs were easy to come by and paid a damn sight more in real terms than I’d made in England.

There were FM radio stations that played rock, a breath of fresh air after living where I could only find what I liked on John Peel’s show or the Old Grey Whistle Test.

I learned to drive and passed my test in a month on the winter Cincinnati roads, where the snow stood a couple of feet deep on either side. I bought my first car, a two-year-old Mustang II with the hatchback, looking very sporty in mustard yellow. We rented an apartment, which was not only unfurnished but came with appliances and a laundry room – you had to have flat-hunted in England in the 1970s to understand.

It was a good place, a gentle place, really. I didn’t understand it at the time, but Cincinnati hadn’t quite dragged itself into the present yet. There were neighbourhoods that still lived in America’ Golden Age of the 1950s. But after what I’d experienced it still seemed like stepping into the future.

Part of my image of America had been born with Easy Rider. The freedom of the roads with a rock’n’roll soundtrack. Not something the Queen City could really offer. But I do recall when I stepped into my imaginary America. It must have been April of the year, a day that began chilly but quickly warmed up. I’d worn my brown leather bomber jacket and put it in the back seat of the Mustang as the temperature rose. I was on Interstate 75, cruising north somewhere, and Springsteen’s Born To Run came on the radio. It was the perfect moment, the one I’d been waiting for without even realising it. Quite suddenly it all came together, and I began to grin. I was in America, in the image that had lurked, half-formed, at the back of my mind. It was real; my imaginary America existed.

That was then, of course. The world’s a very different place now. Since I left I haven’t been tempted to return, even for a visit. These days, much of the America of my imagination is a dark, scary place.