Nixon: The first president of whom A M Homes was conscious
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Kids in America

The novelist A M Homes grew up in late-1960s Washington DC amid race riots and the sexual revolution. Here, she remembers a city like no other.

The writing of a novel is an act of the imagination predicated on the belief that it is possible to invent something out of nothing, and that by sheer will and careful selection of words, details and events, one can create lives out of whole cloth. It only works if one believes it can be done – it requires a leap of faith akin to Philippe Petit walking the high wire; there is no room for self doubt. That said, a novelist develops over time, many years spent absorbing, observing, processing. And so when one is asked where a novel comes from, one is faced with a curious process of unpacking the social, cultural and personal seeds that were the fodder for the book.

I think of myself as someone who is truly a fiction writer. My stories are not thinly veiled versions of real life, they are not based on friends and family. But the books do come out of my own experience, my efforts to make sense of the world around me, both on an intimate and much larger social scale.

A novel bridges the gap between the known and the unknown – it is in that space between things that it accrues its power. The novel is not a record of what literally happened but a sketch of what may have happened, what still might happen; it is an illustration of the gap between our public and private selves. At its best, it is an illumination of who we are.

I consider my work to be deeply American – I think of it along the lines of the work of artists such as Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman, or film-makers such as Alexander Payne and the Coen brothers – simultaneously serious and satirical.

I was born in Washington DC during a snowstorm in December 1961. My birth was illegitimate: my biological father was married with children, my biological mother much younger and unmarried. Their affair was long and tumultuous. I imagine it against the backdrop of the Kennedy era, the “Great Society” and the postwar expansion of the American Dream. I imagine their affair dipping into a fantasy world where all things are possible. I imagine my biological father with a swaggering sense of machismo, bravura about what it means to be a man, and possessed by the notion that he can have it all – “all” in this instance being a life, a wife and a mistress. My mother was a young woman trying to find herself as women’s roles were beginning to change. I imagine bouffant hairdos, cocktail parties, the loosening of the social formality of the 1950s, a feeling of prosperity and, with the advent of the birth-control pill, the dawn of the sexual revolution. For context, consider that 1961 sees the publication of Joseph Heller’s darkly comic novel Catch-22 and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, the great novel of suburban aspiration and alienation. The Cuban missile crisis would take place the following year. These are the literary and cultural seeds that birthed me.

I grew up on the edge of Washington DC, a city unlike any other place in America: the nation’s capital, yet it had no power to govern, no vote, no senators and no voice. It was a divided city, too – by day filled with white bureaucrats who worked for the government and who left at dusk. In the 1960s, the residents of Washington were mostly black. It exploded into riots after the assassination in 1968 of Martin Luther King. In response, President Lyndon Johnson ordered thousands of federal troops to bring order. Marines with machine guns stood on the steps of the capitol; soldiers guarded the White House. The FBI director, J Edgar Hoover, suggested that the rioters should be shot. It was the largest occupation of Washington since the civil war. By the time it ended four days later there had been more than 6,000 arrests and more than 1,200 buildings had been burned. It took decades for the city to recover, economically and perhaps more importantly spiritually.

At the age of seven I was aware of a great sense of sadness, of a dream dashed, the implosion of hope and a wave of overwhelming failure. My mother was a volunteer in the DC public- school system. The children would pat her hair – so different from their own – and say, “Mrs Homes, you got good hair.” Politically active liberals, we were a family who marched on Washington and didn’t eat iceberg lettuce or green grapes because they weren’t picked by union workers. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised that the union leader and civil rights activist César Chávez had nothing to do with caesar salad.

I got my political feet wet in 1968 working for Hubert H Humphrey’s presidential campaign. With a friend whose father was well-placed in the political landscape, I’d hunker down after school in a basement and make “HHH” memorabilia – key chains, glass ashtrays, all painted with a red, white and blue “HHH”, which we then sold door to door. We believed we could make a difference.

Our neighbours were diplomats with immunity. They parked their cars wherever they wanted – they didn’t have to pay parking tickets – their children behaved badly at school and occasionally, in a bid for attention, they stole things, like our bicycles. We could see our bikes at the top of a nearby driveway, but no one could do anything. The local police couldn’t even knock on the door and ask for their return.

Nixon was the first president of my conscious life –he loomed large in the period 1969- 74, my most formative years. We often encountered his two teenage daughters and their secret service agents as they shopped for shoes in the local department stores, and the President himself on class trips to the White House, where we played on the enormous green lawn while Nixon welcomed various heads of state.

In our neighbourhood, almost everyone’s parents except mine worked for the government. The CIA and FBI went door to door gathering information, like little old ladies collecting for charity. They wanted to know if we’d noticed anything strange at the neighbours’ houses, people coming and going at odd hours, people from other places (or did they say “races”?). There were oddities – war planes parked beneath trees in Rock Creek Park, which was just behind our house, or hippies camping out in our basement as they came to town to protest.

In 1972, Nixon made his celebrated trip to China –he described it as the week that changed the world – and when he returned a friend and I were taken out of school and to the national zoo to see First Lady Pat Nixon welcome the gift of two giant pandas. I remember a news camera being aimed in my direction and a nice news lady asking, “What do you think of the new giant pandas? Already disillusioned, I said, “Well, they’re not really very big, are they?”

My parents took me on marches against the war and to Leonard Bernstein’s anti-inaugural “concert for peace” in 1972 at the National Cathedral. It was a cold January night and we stood outside the packed cathedral on the street with thousands of others listening to Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – all of it very dramatic, and a powerful signal that something had to change.

My own social and moral development evolved alongside the American people’s growing awareness that our government wasn’t really “by the people for the people” but a series of off-the-record relationships and deals made in back rooms. The older brothers of my classmates had to register for the military draft as they graduated from high school and be prepared to fight in a war that they were opposed to. Others conscientiously objected and some left the country for a safe haven in Canada. It was a complex personal coming of age that ran parallel to a large-scale redefinition of American political culture. I was torn by the simultaneous and contradictory desire to conform, to be good, and also to claim my autonomy as an anti-authoritarian and rebel.

In our family there was a similarly complicated unfurling of history, secrets, decision making and grief – combined with flashes of hope, a fine moment of promise and a belief in a better future. It was strange time and place to be  a child: a multi-layered existence with shifting standards, exceptions, and different rules for different people.

The 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters ordered by President Nixon and the subsequent Watergate scandal had a big impact in confirming my sense of what was right and wrong. I was at summer camp deep in North Carolina, amid tobacco fields and a surprisingly deep racial divide, when Nixon resigned. The camp counsellors were crying, saying things like, “I bet my mama’s having a heart attack.” I knew that at the same time there would be a sense of celebration at home. It was at that moment I realised that Washington was not just an oddly old fashioned swampy southern town but that the decisions made there, the reverberations of one man’s behaviour, were not just local, but national and even global.

The idea that a government could repeatedly and knowingly betray the trust of the people, that a president could so misuse his power – claiming that if the president does it, it’s not illegal – unfolded alongside my own family dramas, the unveiling of secrets, deeper histories and a sense that nothing was ever quite what it seemed. The result was a sharpening of my eye and an obsession with locating the truth and finding an articulation for that space between things that defines who we are. My need to parse fact from fiction in my own family led me to be more suspicious, to want to illuminate the space between public and private, to give language to that chasm.

The actions taken by a president or fictional character resonate and carry forward through history – and remind us of the depths of our responsibility to and for one another. I constantly think about why people behave as they do and what their behaviour means to them; how beliefs are formed and what they are used to defend or explain. I remain fascinated by Nixon’s struggle; with the way, even as president, he was so isolated. By how he would stay up late into the night writing for hours on long legal pads, scratching out a logic for himself.

I am perpetually reading the culture – the social, political and economic worlds as well as those of visual art, music and literature. All of it conspires to become the stuff of fiction. Everything I write about is a hope, a dream of who were are and what we one day might be; a dream that is born from all that has come before.

A M Homes’s novel “May We Be Forgiven” is published by Granta Books (£16.99).

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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