I’m not finding it easy to keep up. You’re supposed to write things on your website every few days, explaining your thoughts on whether Ryan Giggs’ becoming Sports Personality of the Year will help Labour recover in the polls, or why kettles don’t last so long these days. And you’re supposed to twitter every few minutes, with messages like “I’ve just seen a car”, or “I might have a raspberry later”, but I’ve managed to go six months without writing anything on here, and every day of that time I’ve thought ‘I must put something on my website today’, and then failed.
So I’m going to start with last summer, and try to catch up, though I’ll probably fail again, in which case I’ll be six months behind forever, like the very early days of Pathe news. Or I’ll fall further behind until I’m commenting on the prospects for a Prime Minister that’s now dead, or how I’m excited by a radical new band, the lead singer of which is now General Secretary of NATO.
So – to start with I had a week in the utterly splendid city of San Francisco; a place that illustrates more than any other that America is the best of worlds, the worst of worlds. On the morning of Independence Day I had breakfast with my son and daughter in a diner, with at least a thousand glittery balloons and Gene Vincent rattling from a jukebox, and the rushed diffident waitress held her notepad while looking away from us and asked if we wanted our eggs sunny side up and everything came with pancakes and she called out “Hey, extra hash browns for table nine”, and I thought ‘This country is marvellous, you’d need a heart of stone not to forgive them for Vietnam and Hiroshima’.
Because whatever else the place is so enthusiastic. Even when they’re bored they’re bored enthusiastically. A taxi driver, hearing my daughter ask where the famous hills were, said “You want hills – I’ll show you hills,” and sped up and down the ridiculous terrain, on a free ride, as if it was his personal roller coaster that he’d just finished building and he couldn’t wait to show it off. The tramps are enthusiastic, eager to relate how they’re going to get their ass together if only you give them the dollar they need to get going. A huge bus driver, whose stomach squeezed and moulded itself around his steering wheel let us travel free, saying “I don’t charge tourists.”
Anyone uninitiated would think “This country just can’t help but be overwhelmingly helpful to foreigners. I bet this place would never harm anything abroad.”
The celebrated Haight Ashbury lives up charmingly to its stereotype, its shops full of bongs and exotic pipes and contraptions designed to puff hash into five separate orifices at once, and now there’s a board game called ‘Weed’, in which the idea is to go round getting as wrecked as possible. Presumably if someone gets a card saying ‘Miss a turn’ they head off into a trance, take no further part and they’re the winner.
At one end of this street is the glorious Amoeba Record Store, that is literally the size and layout of a large supermarket. Except the signs hanging above the aisles say ‘Funk’ or ‘Middle-Eastern hip-hop’ instead of ‘Beans’ and ‘Ethnic sauces’. You get a basket as you go in, as if you’re getting your groceries, and you need someone with you to say “STOP – you must STOP now”, or you’d pick up more and more basket and then book a 35 hundredweight van. As it is I came away with about fifteen records, which, compared to all that was in there seemed pathetic, the equivalent of going to the Souk in Marrakech to buy a packet of Polos.
And we cycled over the Golden Gate Bridge, and went to the baseball where my daughter spent the game on a giant coke bottle that’s a slide, an innovation I suspect is some years from being installed at Selhurst Park. But the event I was there to speak at was a weekend put together by the International Socialist Organisation, and was itself wonderfully infectiously enthusiastic. It was held at a Mexican women’s centre, in the poor and Mexican part of the city called The Mission, and as we arrived around one hundred Mexican women stood outside waving placards and yelling slogans demanding something or other. “How brilliant”, I said to my son, “There’s a protest already.”
“Yeah but what you don’t know Dad”, he said, “Is they’re yelling ‘We don’t want that Mark Steel speaking in our building’.” About nine hundred people came to this event over the weekend, a figure which always makes me feel two thoughts quickly in succession – 1) Blimey, that’s impressive for a socialist event in California – 2) Hmm, it still leaves quite a bit of California to win over though.
But there was a joy to the event that seemed to leave everyone who went with a sense of realistic optimism. Much of this is due to the direction the country has turned in. Five years ago it felt the place was under the eternal relentless rule of Bush and his co-signatories to plans such as the Outline for Universal Totality of Subservience or whatever. So Obama’s election has created a sense that change is possible.
But also there’s something about the left in America that seems more inviting than the British left. Maybe this is because they seem, and this is a most peculiar phrase to say about any sort of Americans – more humble. For example I went to one talk about how to create an opposition to a media dominated by rabid outlets such as Fox News. And there were people who ran independent radio stations, and a student who’d been to Palestine to film people in Gaza, and someone who’d gone to live in a homeless camp and written their experience as a blog, and the whole thing seemed so disconcertingly positive. Unlike when events are put on by the British left, no one got up to castigate anyone else for taking the wrong line or felt the need to gently correct anyone, or say ‘While you were under fire in Ramallah you should have made more effort to argue a socialist perspective’.
There was a sense of everyone pulling together to somehow construct a coherent opposition, the room full of people exchanging e-mail addresses and arranging activities, and it was an unrecognisably warm sensation compared to the embitterment that flows through so much of the British left. Or maybe the Americans just can’t help being sentimental. So on Independence Day, which happens to also be my birthday, I was about to begin my talk on Tom Paine, the corset maker from East Anglia who went to America and inspired the war of independence. But the person introducing me said there was a quick announcement before I began, which I assumed would be about fire exits or a set of lost keys or something. But instead my daughter emerged from the back of the room holding a cake, and made the announcement which went “Today’s my Daddy’s birthday.” And then they all sang Happy Birthday. And then I had to do my talk. The cruel Californian bastards.