I watched the royal wedding with my family today. Beautiful weather, gorgeous setting, lots of pageantry – a great advertisement for England and the UK. I also liked the American flavouring – a passionate sermon from Bishop Curry, and I loved the choir singing Stand By Me. Nice, also, to think that it might have strengthened the old ties between Britain and America.
The Iliffe family are big fans of the USA, though it wasn’t always the case. My Nan never forgave the US after neither President Johnson nor Vice President Humphrey attended Winston Churchill’s funeral. My Dad, who was in the British Army, thought the Americans claimed too much credit for winning World War Two, at the expense of British efforts. So when I paid my first visit in 1993, I’d been brought up to think of Americans as ignorant braggarts. As it turned out, nothing could have been farther from the truth.
I hitch-hiked from San Francisco to Vancouver, then back down to Mexico, and ended up in New York – after two months, seventeen states, and over a hundred lifts. There were a few scary moments. One truck driver was a bit too excited by my presence and I nearly had to fight him off. Another man whose advances I spurned dumped me in the middle of the Texas desert, where I was stuck for 24 hours before being picked up by a Mexican guy called Jesus – yes, I was saved by Jesus! I also arrived at an all-night garage in Albuquerque, just as several police cars came swarming across the forecourt with sirens blaring and lights flashing – the place was being held up by a gunman!
Most Americans, though, were fantastic – very friendly, kind and generous. Many gave me money and bought me food, one paid for my room for the night, another gave me a Bible and a few prayed for me. In Louisiana, I was picked up by a couple of rednecks who were keen for me to go hunting with them. As several of the journeys lasted for more than an hour, the conversations were often deep and wide-ranging. I had the privilege of spending time with all kinds of people – businessmen, truckers, city dwellers, country folk, intellectuals, heterosexuals, homosexuals, soldiers, Christians, Mormons, cultists, criminals, and many more (though all but one were men).
The experience gave me an honest insight into the US and the people that live there, and helped me understand some of those big cultural differences between Brits and Yanks – such as attitudes to guns, Christianity, hospitality, ego and race. My pre-conditioned ideas about the US changed forever over those two months, and though there are many things that divide our nations, I think there’s so much more that unites us. I love the country so much that I’ve been back three times since, and am going again in August. Can’t wait!
Back in Blighty, I took my mum and aunt to the neighbouring town of Desborough today. This is where they grew up, so we visited the graves of my granddad and great granddad, and the town war memorial, where the names of two of my great uncles who died in the Great War are inscribed (pictured below). I also visited the local Anglican church, St Giles, where I found the names of several Iliffes on the walls, who had worshipped and served there since the 1700s. It’s a strange but satisfying feeling to go to a place where your own roots run so deep. But isn’t that the joy of history? In a world that’s changing so rapidly, the past is a place that’s safe (now!) and stays more or less the same.