Monday, 24 August 2009

America: Glittering Towers & Dead Flowers

Friends tellin' me that maybe I need
Some psychiatric help
Yeah they're always so quick to tell you
Just how to get on with it
But I look into the mirror
And all I see is age, fear
And agony.

If I could just remember what it was like
When I was younger
Before all the joy and happiness
Was replaced with hunger
Now all I've got to show for the seeds that didn't grow
Is agony.

Eels (Agony)

I BELIEVE I FIRST WENT TO AMERICA in 1969 or 1970. I had to take several large envelopes containing typed copies of the financial statements of the company that eventually became American International Group from the Bermuda office where I was working to the offices of the company that was our largest shareholder, C.V. Starr, in New York City. The financial results were not produced on a particularly timely basis as the company was then a private concern and not beholden to SEC regulations and a large shareholder base. More than three months would pass after any reporting period before we'd finish consolidating the international operations and type the statements. These statements, an original and nine carbon copies, would be distributed to the company executives. Maurice R. Greenberg, the Chairman, in NYC, would get the original copy, Ernest E. Stempel, the President, in the Bermuda office, would get the first copy. As the carbon copies became less distinct, the recipients were of diminishing importance.

I was given a day's notice that I'd been chosen to take, by hand, the statements to Mr Greenberg and the C.V. Starr executives in their offices at 102 Maiden Lane. I think the trip must have been rushed as the company car took me to the Bermuda Airport at some speed and I went straight over to the departure gate and boarded my flight, clutching my envelopes. Two hours later I was at JFK feeling very much the foreigner. I got myself a yellow taxi cab and was taken to Central Park South and checked into the rather old hotel our company's lesser employees were housed in. I was on a floor which seemed like a long way up.

My reservation at the Barbizon Plaza had been for a single room. However, I'd privately arranged to meet a friend in New York City who would stay with me for my three days in town, then fly back to Bermuda with me. I changed the room to a double and charged the difference to the company. They never queried this. The next day my friend travelled over to Maiden Lane with me to deliver my envelopes; we were given a private tour of Greenberg's office as he was not in town. Then we went to see a risqué movie in Times Square. When in New York City…

As a schoolboy, ten or more years before, I had been warned, as all the male pupils were, never to sport a crew-cut or American-style haircut. Later, I was threatened with expulsion for having a Beatles' haircut. So it goes. If we used American spellings or expressions in our English classes we were automatically failed. We did have a few American pupils at Warwick Academy and I imagine they had a difficult time reinventing themselves to gain passing marks. Coming from an English family, it was normal for me to churn out the right stuff.

We had American friends as young children; all were from military families stationed at the US Air Force Base or Naval Operating Base. The neighbourhood in which I grew up had a number of homes let to the US Coast Guard, the folks next door were Americans. White, of course. The Bermudian children were always welcomed in the homes of their American neighbours, and we would be bundled in station wagons and taken to Horseshoe Bay for barbeques and beach parties. The Americans never seemed short of food, and a variety of it, and they looked a good deal healthier than we did.

Our American neighbours, the Coast Guard families, left in the early 1960s. I did write to one friend, Gayle Easter, for a few years, her family was relocated to the US Gulf Coast and then Rhode Island as I recall. My last contact with Gayle was in about 1974, she was working at the Doubleday publishing house in New York City. Where might she be now?

By the 1970s I had made other American friends outside the US military, I am still as close as can be to a few of them. These were friends I shared books, art, films and travel with, all rather international in outlook. They are in this blog, in some fashion, most of the time. In my mind, always.

I had American relatives as a child. My grandmother's cousin, Mrs. George Hill, who we called "Auntie Lily", had left Lancashire for New York back in the 1920s. Lily had red hair, was deaf as a post, and visited Bermuda from time to time. She lived on Staten Island and had two sons, Donald and Jack Hill. Lily's granddaughter came to Bermuda at least once, a bit of a hippie-chick. Where might they be, if they are alive?

In 1974 I joined that most American of religions, the Mormons. I travelled to Utah for the first time in 1978. I found, looking in the phone books, Lancashire surnames. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young sent many missionaries to England, in particular to the north-west, and the Lancashire folks took the ships from Liverpool to the USA and crossed the Continent, many on foot, eventually turning up in Utah Territory. My grandmother told me that when she and her siblings were small, in the very early 1900s, if they misbehaved their mother would threaten them: "The Mormons will come and take you away!" They took me 70 years later. So it goes.

I'd studied the American War of Independence at Warwick Academy, and wasn't particularly excited by it. I do recall that when the War was won and the American Founding Fathers were sorting things out, they offered to make George Washington their King. Washington declined, bless him. How things might have been different! Did he consider the fact that he had no son when he said he thought not?

George Washington's family comes from the north of England and the family's coat of arms, with its stars and stripes, was adapted for the American flag. I suppose that was a nod to the General that he was comfortable with. Thomas Jefferson used a coat of arms that he may well not have been entitled to. There are more than a few Americans in 2009 looking for their coats of arms, titles, tartans, castles and manor houses, and links to the British Royal Family, an entry in Debrett's. One might buy a peerage on E-Bay if one has the dosh. Do they want to be like us?

When many, most, people hear my accent they start to say: "Oh! Are you Amer…?" And by then I'm looking over the top of my glasses and flashing the message: "I dare you…" with my beady eyes. And the person offers: "Canadian?" hurriedly. Years of watching American television in Bermuda are responsible for my Amer… I mean Canadian… accent. I believe I still write in UK English, and I use English words and expressions. Why should I care?

I care because I'm no huge fan of America. From the get-go the Founding Fathers seemed to radiate a superiority (never mind Jefferson's hypocritical blathering about equality!) over their fellow citizens, friends and foes. The Electoral College was conceived as a way of keeping the riff-raff out. Their heirs seem little better. The phrase "We know better than you do what is good for you…" might be carved over the doors into the Congress. The current dictatorial Leader in Bermuda was a US Citizen until it was pointed out he could not also swear allegiance to the Crown as a member of Bermuda's Parliament. Nevertheless, he rules as an American president might. No matter how close equality seems, it is always wrenched away by those in power. There is little peace in the American system, there never has been, all is confrontational.

The Woodstock generation now bears arms because it is a right. Why not show Jesus carrying a gun? You know he would. Well, you follow him, act for him, so your teenagers get your guns from the locked cabinet using the obvious key and jump in a beat-up Ford and drive to the high school.

Wait just a minute! You say. We are a Christian people, we follow a God of mercy and compassion and love who says to all: Come unto me!

Do I have hope for the Obama Administration? Not a whole lot.

A few days ago the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, granted convicted Libyan terrorist Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, responsible, it is said, for the Lockerbie airline bombing twenty-one years ago, an early release from his life sentence because al-Megrahi has terminal cancer. An action based on compassion and mercy. The American Government threw a fit before and after the release. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured the Scottish Government not to release the terrorist, and now that it has happened the Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, has blasted both Scotland and the United Kingdom Government. American citizens are being urged by some to boycott British and Scottish goods as a protest. Cancel the kilt, forget the Lairdship.

Back on 11 June of this year, a CIA aeroplane brought four Chinese Uighur detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they had been held for seven years as terrorists, after being captured in Afghanistan, to Bermuda under cover of darkness. Only Bermuda's autocratic Leader, Dr. Ewart Brown, and his unelected henchman Colonel David Burch knew about the Uighurs' transfer. Burch was on the aeroplane. The Chinese say that these Uighurs are members of an Islamist separatist movement that is listed by the United Nations as a terrorist organization. The USA apparently thought they were terrorists; why else hide them away at Gitmo for all those years? Why not invite them to Disneyland if they were pukka?

The British Governor in Bermuda, the British Embassy in Washington DC, the British Government in London, had been told nothing of the Uighur deal. One knows that the Americans are aware of the Bermuda Constitution which states that Bermuda, a British Overseas Territory, cannot discuss foreign policy matters with other governments without the British being involved. Obama and Clinton praised Bermuda for its compassion in taking in the Uighurs, ignored British protests, and said that America was a safer place with the Uighurs in Bermuda (they would not be permitted to travel to the USA, where they are not wanted). To this day, the Americans are stalling on giving the British authorities information on the four Uighurs dumped in Bermuda. Of course, the British have been left dealing with an angry Chinese Government. The Uighurs have no passports, the Bermudian Government doesn't issue passports that are non-British.

Where are the Americans? Praising Bermuda's compassionate acceptance (albeit illegally manufactured by Obama, Clinton and the CIA and FBI) of dodgy Uighurs that the Americans dare not permit on US soil. And criticizing the Scottish and British for the compassionate release of a dodgy Libyan who has a few months, apparently, left to live. Last week the new American Consul General in Bermuda, Ms. Grace Shelton, when asked if the Uighurs might be taken to the USA and resettled in a Uighur community near Washington DC said: "I think they are working and doing well here in Bermuda. We are satisfied with that." How dare she be so patronizing!

Should the Uighurs have been spirited into Bermuda by the CIA? No! Should al-Megrahi have been released early? No! His case was on appeal, I think that process should have been completed before any release was considered. Should the Libyans have thrown such a party for al-Megrahi on his return? No! Three wrongs don't make a right.

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