Low life

Two documentaries have made me determined to visit America’s Deep South before I die

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

‘ESTA refused,’ said the email from the official website of the US Department of Homeland Security. Franklin Roosevelt once said that the saving grace of America lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans are possessed of two great qualities — a sense of humour and a sense of proportion. This refusal, presumably on the grounds of a 40-year-old conviction for possession of amphetamine sulphate, showed neither. And why now? After all, they’ve let me in three times before.

The first time was to LA. The early part of the morning of my first day in the United States was spent doing pool aerobics with about 20 of the fattest women in America and we laughed our heads off as our tidal waves nearly emptied the pool. It was a fat women’s conference and protest. (‘We’re fat. That’s that.’) I attended in the capacity of a ‘fat admirer’. After seven days’ hard labour, I travelled up to San Francisco, where I paid homage to Jack Kerouac, an adolescent passion, by drinking a glass of beer in the City Lights Bookstore bar. In a dingy corridor of the YMCA hostel, I was sweetly propositioned by what must have been the shyest young man in America. ‘Believe the hype: get sucked in,’ advised a gnomic poster fixed to a San Francisco lamppost. Precisely. I loved the place.


The second time I went was to New York, to spend a week with a rock band called Hootie & the Blowfish, who at that time were riding high on a wave of adulation. I hadn’t heard of them, but they were pleasant, easy-going lads and only the singer took himself seriously enough to wonder why they’d been sent an obvious cretin like me. Everyone apart from the singer had managed the feat of having lots of money and maintaining a sense of humour and proportion. Travelling to a gig in a Hummer limo with a fantastic sound system, someone handed me the last third of a joint of grass. By the time I passed it on, my self-image had been transformed from George Formby to the Buddha, and the gentrified streets and boutiques of New York suggested a higher, cleaner and calmer civilisation. The street lights shining through the trees. The architecture underlit by blue and pink neon. I am easily impressed.

For the third and last visit, I flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to board a cruise ship. Two thousand passengers, all American, all of them on the Atkins diet, all cheerful, all with a sense of proportion. In fact, a sense of proportion was the theme of the cruise. It was remarkable how many of them confessed to me that a helpless addiction to Häagen-Dazs ice cream was what had made them balloon disastrously. We cruised the Caribbean eating eight meals a day, attending lectures on the Atkins Diet, and weighed ourselves morning, noon and night. On disembarkation day, a port security official lacking a sense of humour and proportion drew his gun on me and told me not to move or he’d blow my head off, but it was all a silly misunderstanding.

That was in 2010. I haven’t been back since. But the other day I watched two documentaries on BBC iPlayer back-to-back. The first was a life of Elvis Presley based on the food he ate. I happened to be reading Peter Guralnick’s excellent biography Last Train To Memphis at the time, and I was in love with America again, so it was a feast in more ways than one. After that I watched a long, strange documentary called Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. A southern-based country singer called Jim White hired a battered 1970 Chevrolet Impala from a scrapyard and took us on a cultural tour of his Deep South. There was no narration, just country music and occasionally Jim talking to the passenger-seat camera as he gunned that enviable motor car along the straight roads. The documentary was made in 2003, but he showed us the poor whites who, if they bothered to vote at all, presumably voted for Donald Trump last year. By and large they were poorer and more god-fearing even than the liberal left’s angry caricature of them. It was the most engrossing thing I’d seen for many years. The sense of humour was so tinder-dry that you could miss it, but their sense of proportion was magnificent. They were my kind of people, I decided. I could be happy there.

Four years ago, I thought I was going to die. Now it looks as though I’m not — at least not for a while. Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus has made me determined to go to the Deep South before that happens — on foot via Canada if I have to.

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