Uncle Samson by Beverley Nichols was published in 1950 and I don’t think it has been reprinted since then, I don’t suppose it ever will be now, so I feel quite lucky that I stumbled across this one in a secondhand bookshop in Moffat. I had to add the book onto Goodreads as it didn’t appear on their lists. The book is the author’s thoughts on life and society in the USA in various parts of the country. I doubt if it was ever published in the US as although he praises the country and particularly the people for some things, there are plenty of things that he criticises.
In 1950 the recent independence of India was obviously still big news in the US and Nichols got tired of people jumping down his throat about the British Empire. After being lambasted for the British treatment of Indians he finally turned round and said – well at least we didn’t kill them all as you did with your Indians.
He says: America is a country where religious hysteria gushes through the fabric of the body politic with the force of a geyser.
One day Nichols was given a ticket for a New Year’s football match at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. He was puzzled by the ticket as it said on it: IMPORTANT This ticket is issued for use by a member of the Caucasian race only. It was followed by various dire threats about what would happen if it fell into the hands of a non-Caucasian.
What did it mean? Would he be allowed to use the ticket? He wasn’t Russian. Eventually he discovered it meant that black people couldn’t use the ticket. Bizarre. But of course in the 1950s the US was still a very segregated country and that upset him a lot. It was a subject he returned to again and again. He mentioned that the US was pouring money into the UK when they could have been spending it on housing as black people living just half a mile from the White House were living in shacks made out of flattened cans. He didn’t seem to realise that the money we were getting in the UK was loans which were obviously business transactions and indeed it was only a few years ago that those loans were paid back in full, with interest of course. That’s why the money wasn’t spent on making black neighbourhoods habitable. Sitting towards the back of a bus caused consternation. There’s room at the front said the conductor. But Nichols was happy sitting where he was, when he offered a young black man a light for his cigarette the poor chap started to tremble. Nichols was inadvertently getting him into trouble.
On a brighter note Nichols visited Walt Disney Studios and Walt showed him around personally. Nichols was very impressed with him, particularly that he queued up with everyone else at the canteen, and that everyone called him Walt.
There’s a chapter on American comics and comic strips. That was when I learned that there was a very popular comic strip called Blondie, I always thought that the band Blondie got there name from Debbie Harry’s hair colour – but maybe not.
It was the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous and Nichols was very impressed with that when he had it explained to him.
Meeting Charlie Chaplin was sad as Chaplin was being persecuted. In fact Hollywood had turned against Chaplin completely, seeing him as a communist. It’s like living under the Gestapo he said. Eventually he had to go to Switzerland to live I believe.
Beverley Nichols had travelled frequently to the US over the previous 20 years and had visited 47 of the then 48 states, so he knew his subject well. I found this to be a really entertaining and interesting read, despite it being written almost 70 years ago.