A first contact with American culture

A first contact with American culture
Mainly About Books
By the books editor

The current protests in the US and the Black Lives Matter campaign that has spread to other countries take my mind back a good way to what was, in effect, my first true contact with American culture.

This was on a flight to New York (where a further flight would take me on to Chicago). This was also my very first flight, which added to its memorability. In those days there was more room on airplanes, with three comfortable seats in a row, and space to spread one’s self.

Beside me sat an American couple who must have been in their 60s. They were, in the ordinary American way, pleasantly chatty. The woman asked about the book I was reading on the fight – A Land by Jaquetta Hawkes, a book about the continuities of British prehistory – I was then on my way to an American university to study anthropology and archaeology. She looked at this, but it did not seem to be her kind of book, nor did it interest her husband.

However, in the course of the flight I had a sudden introduction (beyond what I already knew from Huckleberry Finn) to American culture.

My new acquaintance turned out a judge, but he was also it transpired part owner of a casino and nightclub in Las Vegas. He presented me with a sloganised keyring, and said that when I came to Las Vegas I should be sure and look them up.

Now, as even then, I knew that the businesses in the fabled desert city were largely owned by Mormons and the Mafia, this struck my Irish innocence as a very strange conjunction.


As little more than a schoolboy, I had not much experience of judges. Indeed, the only one I knew was Judge Durcan, the father of the poet Paul Durcan, who on occasion would drive me and Paul and his younger sister to our schools. I could not imagine Judge Durcan owning a casino – indeed I would have thought it impossible for a judge in Ireland to own such a thing.

But I was to learn that what was thought inappropriate in Europe was thought quite the normal thing in the USA.

However, this was not the only departure from the civilised norm of my native Ireland. We got talking as one did in the 1960s about the racial protests; on that I got an earful and a half. The judge told me that African Americans – though he did not use that word in those days (and I a doubt if The Irish Catholic would actually print the terms he did use) – were bereft of any trace of civilisation.

I mumbled something about the beauty of Benin bronzes, and what about…now, I was told, if the medieval Africans could cast bronze, they learnt the skill from white men, the source of all civilisations.

I was good mannered enough, in those days, not to argue over-vehemently and promised that when in due course I did get to Las Vegas I would be sure to call in”

Nowadays I suppose I might suggest to him that Africa was the birth place of humanity, that its traditions, myths and philosophies are the oldest known; that it was a continent whose cultures were immeasurably ancient, but whose people had managed to preserve their environment unsullied from prehistory with thriving herds of animals for instance, only to have it virtually destroyed in little more than a century by white Europeans intent on ‘development’, for the benefit of Europeans – and Americans. But that would not I think have gone down well.

I was good mannered enough, in those days, not to argue over-vehemently and promised that when in due course I did get to Las Vegas I would be sure to call in.

This was the start of my education into the reality of life in America.

I quickly learned that great as America was in so many things, she was also, as Michael Harrington had so recently told us all in The Other America, a place of darkness for many of its people.

But the views of a Catholic socialist such as Harrington would (I expect) have been shrugged off by that other epitome of American civilisation, my friend the casino owing judge. He had very distinct views about whether Black Lives Mattered.