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.

Walking With Ghosts

It’s six days since we moved into this new place. Six days since I came back to Leeds and 37 years since I left. And I’ve returned pretty much to the neighbourhood where I grew up. It’s a feeling of both tension and relief. Even after so long, this is familiar ground. I know the streets, I know the shopping areas, I can find my way from A to B without thinking.

In these six days I’ve done a fair bit of walking. But at every turn I find myself face to face with the person I was all that time ago. He comes with baggage. A mother and a father, a dog, the friends of his youth. He’s the ghost who walks every step beside me.

Sometimes I almost see him from the corner of my eye, wearing the old dark blue Navy greatcoat he favoured once the weather turned cold, or the cheap hippie Afghan coat that stank of goat whenever it was wet. His hair is longer – but not long, school wouldn’t allow that – and sometimes he’s carrying a guitar. He always has a paperback book peeking out of his pocket. Sometimes he seems to turn towards me with a questioning look, as if to say, ‘You look strangely familiar. Do I know you?’

It’s been six days of walking here and there. The ginnels and alleys that were my way home from school. The road to the tennis courts. The park where I lay on my back on a summer’s night in 1968, having had my head torn apart by Easy Rider, the hill at Roundhay Park, which was cut into terraces then, where I’d spend warm weekend afternoons hoping to meet girls. The paddle boats that no longer exist on the lake. Seeing the faint outline of a shaggy little dog roaring over the grass, happy to be off his lead and free.

Heartbreak, joy, and the day-to-day tedium. An awakening into adulthood. So many of the streets and the buildings around here hold my stories. For six days now I feel I’ve been walking with ghosts, going to place to place and collecting those stories, putting them in a bag and moving on to the next one. Six days so far, but many, many more to come. Then, perhaps, there’ll be new ghosts walking.