“It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”
— Barack Obama, Chicago, 4th November 2008.
How marvellous it was that the US election race this year should find its long-awaited finish line at the same spot as the Chicago Marathon — one of many high points I’ve shared with this incredible country through a relationship that stretches right across my adult life.
I entered the United States late one August night in 1981. Seventeen hours out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, we drove across a bridge and into Maine. Next morning, six hours and a brief stop in Portland later, I stepped wearily off the bus in downtown Boston — completing my journey from England to New England, where the history of this great nation had started.
That visit took me down the east coast to New York and Washington, in an arc via Pittsburgh to Niagara, and then back into Canada for a return flight home.
My memories of America from that trip? Coin-fed TV sets in lonely Greyhound bus stations. The wind on Cape Cod. Looking across the Charles River on a long walk out to Cambridge.
A quote carved into the Washington pavement —
‘One of these days this will be a very great city, if nothing happens to it’ (Henry Adams).
My love affair with America had begun.
* * * * *
Another journey, a year later and half a world away. A different bridge towards the sunset, this time across the mighty Orange River. Dusk is falling as I pull up at a roadstop to find some food. I’m about to go inside when my colleague shakes his head and walks past the door to a different window.
I can’t go in there, Baas, he whispers, unbelievably. And so I take my food outside, and we eat together in the truck. South Africa — the apartheid years.
Politics had meant nothing to me until that day when a lifetime’s perspectives were transformed inside a moment. I was twentyone years old.
* * * * *
The years since then have shown me a little more of America. South Florida to San Francisco, via three thousand miles of heartland in between.
The Everglades and El Capitan. The Cascades, Tahoe and Yosemite. Great cities. Small towns. Reservations. Freeways. Skyscrapers. Corals, Keys and canyons. Mountains and volcanoes. A blue Nevada sky. The Golden Gate. Malls, motels and convention centres. Deserts, bayous, beaches.
I’d come to look for America. And yet on all my journeys since that night in Maine, I’ve only scratched the surface. There’s so much left to see.
Through that time, four Presidents have come and gone, but some things never seemed to change that much. The cities grew, and the downtowns were reclaimed. But take the wrong turning off the freeway, and the world always looked very different. There were places to visit, and Places You Did Not Go.
In 2002 and two days before I ran the Chicago Marathon, I set off for McCormick Place to pick up my race packet. The Metra was closed, and I lost my way on foot. Nightfall, alone, in unfamiliar territory on the South Side of Chicago — as a foreigner and a stranger that wasn’t somewhere I felt safe to be.
Even now, forty years after racial segregation ended, any regular visitor to America knows that for far too long, a different kind of separation has endured.
Economic barriers define racial tensions in cities and nations everywhere, and Britain is no exception. Yet in America, perhaps the visitor witnesses the economic divide more starkly simply because the gap between rich and poor, like everything about this country, is on such a larger scale.
* * * * *
From Chicago’s finish line, I flew to Houston, to renew my acquaintance with the wilds of Texas, and Mexico beyond. And then, just a few months later, America and I had a difference of opinion. If truth be told, the seeds were sown in a retreat from Baghdad in 1991, from the hanging chads of Florida some nine years later, and during Tony Blair’s visit to Camp David in 2002.
2000 was just another election year, we thought. America chose another President, albeit very narrowly. Some things would go well, some not so well. That’s how life is. But this time was different. The world faced new problems.
Somehow, we, the USA and Britain, contrived to take a different view from everyone around us. We distorted the facts. We let our standards slip. Finally, in March 2003 — and I can still recall the moment — we took a unilateral view.
We saw trouble at the gates of freedom, and we looked in upon ourselves to find the answer. We took freedom away, whilst proclaiming an iron will to restore it.
* * * * *
I’m sad to say that my love affair with America has fallen sour, these past few years. It’s been hard to discuss with you when you’ve really not been listening. And frankly, I’ve been cross enough with my own country, through most of that time, to worry too much about criticising yours.
Looking back, eight more years lost in the battle for the environment of this planet, the divisions we’ve sown amongst the brotherhood of nations and the thousands of lives lost — these are missed opportunities we won’t forget.
That’s all history now — that was yesterday, when all was night. And it’s clear that somewhere back along the road, a glimmer of new light began to show. Slowly, through most of last year the flame grew, unseen. In the snows of Iowa, and in the deepest chill of New Hampshire last winter, that fire dared to flicker.
Since last summer, and all through this autumn, beyond America’s shores — we sensed the opportunity for your country, and for our wider world beyond.
Barack Obama had set out the scope for change, but would America really dare to embrace a new world vision, when she’d chosen isolationism for so long?
This morning I woke my kids to tell them that America has a new President. And so the darkest hour really did precede the dawn.
At last the arc of history has bent her bow. The marathon of this election is over, and those few short but eternally long miles from the South Side of Chicago to Grant Park have finally brought their man to reach the finish.
Divided by an ocean we are no more. We stand together again, united in a future. And fresh in the certain knowledge that tomorrow begins today.
One day soon, I’ll come to look for America again. We’ve been apart too long.
4. GO British ! Chicago Marathon 2002
From Scratch: A letter from London
What history looks like
8. Lakeshore reflections – Chicago Marathon review
173. Lines from the New Hampshire primary
110. The hands that built America – Houston skylines
174. The hidden history of Texas – on Buffalo Bayou, Houston, USA