Friday, November 22, 2013

fifty years ago ...

Fifty years ago … I was upstairs in our house in Wimbledon, already in bed, reading – probably something like Jill Enjoys Her Ponies – when my mother came upstairs to tell me that Kennedy had been shot and killed.  I was vaguely shocked, I suppose – but not nearly as shocked as I’d been in January of 1963, when Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party, had dropped dead.  I think it must have been about 7.30 in the evening, and my mother would have been listening to the radio (we didn’t have a TV, which means, alas, that neither she nor I have any memory of George Brown, the politician, who apparently came on screen later in the evening to talk about JFK in his customary state – one for which Private Eye coined the phrase “tired and emotional.”   Hic).

But why wasn’t I more shocked?  I think it must have been because the US hardly figured in my nine year old life.  I’d not been there; it wasn’t somewhere where people Went (that’s discounting the fact that my mother was here, at a Kenyon College summer school, in 1948, and among other souvenirs has a photo of Empson playing baseball there).  My sense of it was limited to Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America,” broadcast once a week on the BBC Home Service; a handful of books, mostly set in the West, mostly featuring horses – Green Grass of Wyoming, which immediately became the state I wanted to visit; and My Friend Flicka; and a photo book – I think sent to me one Christmas by a former business colleague of my father’s – featuring Tennessee Walking Horses.  They were very handsome, but not the kind of thing to have made me at all interested in the death of a far-away president.  For, in those days – and really, until I first visited the country in 1979 – the US seemed very far away indeed.

There was, of course, a different (non-equine) America that also crossed my radar – one that was rather sniffed at back in Wimbledon.  This was an America of consumerism and Cars that were Too Large.  Peanut butter was condemned (by my mother) as being “too American,” (and therefore, in some inexplicable way, a Bad Thing); as was rock ‘n roll.  Little did I guess …

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