Just as the President has his ‘Summer White House’ on Martha’s Vineyard, I am also vacationing on this lovely Massachusetts island. The lovely thing about holidays is having some time and space to think…
I have long been fascinated with America, whether indirectly – through culture such as films – or directly, through an interest in history and politics. As such it is both a pleasure and a privilege to visit the USA, this being the sixth time, three of the previous occasions being as a teacher leading a school trip. Needless to say, not having thirty-plus teenagers in tow is a pleasure in itself.
Watching the Republican Presidential debate – happening in August, a full fifteen months before the Presidential Election – two thoughts occurred to me. One was the calibre of politicians. Definitely, speaking on national TV and with a live arena audience of thousands is a daunting task, but the stutters and misspeaks made UK politicians look pretty good – as communicators at least – in comparison. That said, the brutality of some of the questions was quite unlike the usual British fare, even allowing for Paxman-esque grilling on Newsnight.
The other thought that occurred to me, one which has come to me before and which I find quite captivating is this nation of the USA as some kind of grand human experiment in governance and society – even in the progress of civilisation – which is in many ways unfinished. This is so true and not just of the USA, but of all countries, of all mankind. The sense that we can change things and improve things and the recognition that what has gone before need not exclusively dictate what lies ahead is a powerful idea and one which I wish was more widely embraced. It is only when people assume a lack of agency that they become powerless. This is not to be glib and to ignore the inequalities in society which give some people greater say than others, but it is a reminder to the majority who presume a lack of power or those who, fir similar underpinning reasons, are apathetic to the system that they take back their society and find a different way forward. Such a way must be for the common good though, and that should be defined as the will of the majority with acceptance and tolerance for minorities to dissent and choose alternative paths as long as those paths don’t bring about unnecessary conflict with others.
Old-school in-flight entertainment
Normally my flights to the USA pass with the aid of the films and television shows which are available from the entertainment panels in your seat, not so this time. Unfortunately my flight across on Aer Lingus involved no such digital entertainment. As a result I was forced to revert to the old-school entertainment of reading a book. One of the downsides of my career change to being a teacher was that I lost a lot of the time when I would normally be able to read a book; whereas I would once read for an hour or so in bed before going to sleep, I now find it difficult to get through a paragraph, or if I’m lucky a page, before I fall asleep. Gone are the wonderful corporate days where a one-hour commute to and from work on busses and trains would allow me to read hundreds of pages of books, magazines and newspapers every week.
So the luxury of a six hour transatlantic flight to read was most refreshing. Indeed it reminded me just how quickly one can turn the pages when you’re in the mood to read and not to tired. I was quite surprised when I managed to polish off the vast majority of a book during the flight, which somewhat vindicated my decision to bring four books with me on the trip!
And that book was John Tomsett’s book This Much I Know About Love Over Fear, an absolutely superb book about teaching. If I get around to it during my trip, I’ll put some reflections on the book together as a separate post.
Before arriving on the Vineyard, I was able to spend a few days with friends at their apartment in Cambridge, only a five minute walk to Harvard Yard. Whilst in the Boston area I was able to fulfil an ambition that I have held for over five years – to visit the homes of John Adams, one of America’s founding fathers. I first came across Adams via the HBO miniseries and was so engrossed that I read the book by David McCullough. From that point I have read a whole host of stuff about the American Revolution and the founding of the Republic; it is one of my favourite eras of history. Indeed it was this interest which motivated my desire to tour the northeast US in 2010, taking in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., seeing all the sites involved in that period of history. Unfortunately, visiting in April, the Adams Historical National Park was not open due to it being out of season.
Finally visiting the three houses associated with second US President John Adams and his descendants, including his son John Quincy who was also US President, was inspiring and humbling. The small houses where Adams was born and where he had his own children gave an insight into the challenges of life in the eighteenth century. It was difficult to appreciate the remoteness of the houses given the modern suburban sprawl of Greater Boston. That there was clearly a motivation, in John and in his family, to have an education and achieve something was even more remarkable given his origins. To then see Peacefield, where an established John Adams spent his latter years was tremendous. To be in the rooms where Adams corresponded with Thomas Jefferson was remarkable. That John Quincy, a president, Charles Francis, a historian come diplomat, and Henry, a renowned writer all descended from the second President gave an insight into the values and expectations which Adams established for his family.
During some downtime on the island, I re-watched the HBO miniseries. Many of the exchanges in the script are either directly lifted or closely inspired by the writing of Adams and his contemporaries. It is clear that the players in the Revolution understood that ideas were just as important as action in finding a better future. I think that this is a lesson which we need to remember in 2015.
It is a real pleasure to have the time to read and put thoughts to paper. Sat in the dayroom on the front of the house, with the windows open and a gentle breeze blowing through the screens, tapping away on a laptop, superb. In the background the TV is on and CNN’s White House Correspondent is reporting live from Martha’s Vineyard. If this were Facebook I’d have a really difficult choice of emoticon – feeling… relaxed? Blessed? Positive? Thankful? All of the above.