Writing by Reading Writers: My Special Relationship With America
It’s been an interesting start to the New Year for us, and we promise a full update on our shenanigans soon. But for now, allow us to present some writing from one of our own–last year’s Don Louth Award winner Steve Partridge. Part memoir, part pop-culture run-down, all very rocking.
Please to enjoy.
I am stereotypically English and idiosyncratically proud of being a Basingstoke Boy who has lived in his home town nearly all of his life. I am also a contradiction, because since the age of about three and a half I have lived a secret sub life in a virtual paradise a zillion imaginary miles away from my physical and spiritual home. My paradise is called Americana. My Americana, my personalised, piece-meal, custom built Americana has multiple cultural threads which over the years have woven themselves into the counterpane of my traditional British layer of cultural tissue and morphed it into a duo-cultural comfort blanket which lies over the temporal and frontal lobes of my brain, ready to be engaged at the flick of a brain cell. Let me tell you about my special relationship with America.
It started on the Christmas before my fourth birthday. My Canadian aunt Alice in Calgary sent me a small boy’s cowboy outfit comprising of a leather waistcoat with a sheriff’s star and matching leather chaps, which did up with two sets of straps on each leg. They were secured by stainless steel buckles to the back of a pair of blue jeans. To go with the cowboy outfit I was given, by my parents, a matching pair of golden toy cap pistols with a gun belt and two holsters and endless reels of paper-caps which could be fitted into the pistols and fired repeatedly (the acrid smell of salt-peter still comes back to me when I think about it). I must have shot and killed at least 10,000 imaginary Red Indians and black hatted bad-men in our small garden and maybe some white hatted good-men as well. There was no escape for them, whatever they tried to get away from the quick-draw of the South Ham Kid was never good enough; they were gunned down while hiding in bushes, shinning up trees, climbing fences or cowering behind the garden shed. I was, without any doubt whatsoever, the fastest gun on the South Ham estate. Well maybe not the whole estate, but certainly St Andrew’s Road.
Today this preconditioning of young boys’ minds through simulated imaginary war games, encouraging them to re-enact the near total genocide of a poorly armed indigenous stone-age race of native North Americans is unacceptable. The native North Americans who were previously content to engage themselves in their own inter-tribal wars found themselves having to form cross tribal alliances to fight heavily armed European invaders who arrived from across a vast lake in huge wind powered canoes. The invaders, driven by their insatiable desire to ‘Go West Young Man’ and make their fortunes, traded with them, killed them, infected them with incurable diseases, shot their bison, stole their lands, minerals, precious metals, furs and raped their women. To assuage their guilt, they attempted to convert the indigenous survivors to Christianity with the prize of eternal life, in exchange for relinquishing their nomadic life style, most of their land and an agreement to live in open prisons, called reservations.
That behaviour is of course now quite rightly judged by liberal, postmodern, post-truth, North Americans to be morally wrong. However, today the tables have been turned and it’s North America and the west who face attacks from tribally based political groups from the middle-east who have railed against an Anglo-American alliance who intervened in their internal political affairs. And Ironically, President Donald Trump has described these terrorist groups as behaving like stone-age men when engaging in war with the west.
My father would encourage my developing cultural Americana counterpane by entering a room and saying, in a very poor imitation voice of the miniature American cowboy actor Alan Ladd, ‘Hey bud go for your guns.’ He would pretend to draw his imaginary six guns by slapping his hips with the palms of his hands while transforming them into the shape of a gun with his thumbs imitating the firing hammers. Next he would either make a gun firing noise in the back of his throat, or simply say, ‘Bang-bang you’re dead’ and leave the room. I never ever won one of these surprise ambush shoot outs, however, my resurrection was always instantaneous, and, as far as I know, achieved without divine intervention. This process continued until I was nearly seven years old, when in a moment of frustrated inspiration I pointed out to my father he was always the loser because he never actually had any guns and I did, even if they were only toys.
Regularly on Sunday evenings our family of three would jump on the bus to visit the Plaza cinema at the top of Sarum Hill. This was the golden age of the Western and my father was keen to see the afore mentioned Alan Ladd, (it was rumoured film directors made him stand on a box in a shallow trench to make him look taller), John Wayne, James Stewart and Roy Rogers beat the bad guys into submission in such notable epics as ‘Hondo’, ‘The Searchers’, ‘The Far Country’, ‘The Man From Laramie’, ‘Shane’, and ‘Winchester 73’ (The subliminal message being, superior weaponry will always win a war, a strategy which hasn’t always worked in real life). When Roy Rogers’ records were played on the Light Programme, particularly his hit record ‘A Four Legged Friend’ my father would lead the community singing. Later on in the 1960’s his favourite TV programme was ‘Rawhide’ whereas my mother opted for the comedy romance show ‘I Love Lucy’. She would also ‘nip off’ to the cinema with my aunty Kit to see ‘Singing in The Rain’, ‘The Seven Year Itch’, ‘Roman Holiday’ and ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When she came back she would tell me about them in great detail and how she and my aunty Kit had cried at the end of the film.
She would say:
‘It’s a waste of time going to the cinema with your father. He’s only interested in Westerns and John Wayne’.
My father would say:
‘It’s a waste of time going to the cinema with your mother. She’s only interested in silly romances’.
So the bricks were laid on the foundations for my continued indoctrination into Americana. My next progressive step was a Saturday morning radio show on the Light Programme called, not surprisingly, ‘Saturday Club’. Introduced by Brian Matthew (who has just retired, under protest, from broadcasting on Radio 2 on Saturday mornings) Saturday Club introduced me to a genre of music called ‘Skiffle’ and, a singer from London called Lonnie Donegan, who had a Scottish father and sang like a deceased black American called Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly). My father proclaimed ‘Lonnie Donegan sings through his nose’. As far as I could see when he was top of the bill on ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ he sang through his mouth; but I didn’t argue. It would have been pointless. He would have cocked his thumbs and shot me.
With the influence of Lonnie Donegan I moved from the slushy, smaltzy, Hollywood, white hatted, good guy, cowboy music of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry to the down trodden roots music of poor blacks and whites like John Estes, Bessie Smith, Hank Snow, Don Gibson, and of course the king himself Elvis Presley. My hormones and social conscience had kicked in simultaneously, so my hair was slicked back in a pseudo ‘Tony Curtis’ style and I wore imported Levi jeans and black shirts. And, I tried to look tough. Difficult when you’re skinny and wear spectacles.
When the mid-sixties and, later the seventies arrived Americana took me over like an urban, urbane, uber tsunami. It wasn’t just the music. It was the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, Hippies, Yippies, long hair, beards, peace, love, cult films, cannabis, cold beer, poets, and free love. It swamped me with; Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollack, The Velvet Underground, Nico, Joanie Mitchell, Ronnie Prophet, Tom Paxton, John Steinbeck, Easy Rider, Lou Reed, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Highway 61 Revisited, Haight Astbury, Buffalo Springfield, Grace Slick, Lyndon Johnson, The 500 yard stare, Grandma Moses, Phil Ochs, Muhammad Ali, Doris Day, The Byrd’s, Norman Mailer, Muddy Waters, Arthur Miller, Ann Bancroft, Campbell’s soup tins, Easy Rider, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Roy Liechtenstein, B B King, Faye Dunaway, Faye Dunaway, Faye Dunaway and… Cool Hand Luke.
‘All I am saying is give… Americana a chance.’ And I did.
And so the list could go on until the present day. But that was when it all began. The point when the South Ham estate, Sandys Road and St Andrew’s Road, morphed into Greenwich Village, Laurel Canyon, Route 66, Music City Row, Broadway, Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, Alabama, the Mississippi Delta and the campus of the University of Southern California.
Some time in my late forties I told a friend of mine I had recently stood at the crossroads of St Paul’s Road, Bolton Crescent and Sandys Road where I’d seen a skinny black man called Robert Johnson in a blue suit and a trilby hat playing a bottleneck guitar. The notes from his guitar were distorting and shimmering, attaching themselves to the breeze and drifting down the road. Following the music were, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper on Harleys and Roy Rogers on Trigger, Alan Ginsberg was walking behind them reciting ‘Howl’.
Martin Luther King was shouting, ‘Free at Last. Free at Last. Thank God Almighty we are free at last.’
Pete Seeger was singing ‘We Shall Overcome’, while Willie Loman was delivering the closing speech from Death of Salesman. And as I looked on Edward Hopper started painting a life size picture of an all-night diner in real time on the gable end of a housing association block of flats. When the painting was finished a taxi pulled up and outstepped Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, John F Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn. They alighted from the taxi and walked into the diner. The juke box in the diner was playing Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is your Land’. The taxi driver turned in his seat and looked into the back of the taxi at a man dressed in a white suit and wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat.
He said, ‘Mr Williams, we’ve arrived.’
But Hank Williams, his head bowed down, never replied. For him, it was the day the music died.
My friend said, ‘Jesus what were you smoking?’
I said, ’Nothing. I just engaged the brain cell which controls my duo-cultural comfort blanket.’
He said, ‘What?’
I never bothered to explain.