US10 – This was a big river/I want you all to know that I was proud

(Jimmy Nail)

American songs taught me about America long before I went there.

Up to now, on this trip, I’ve found an American song that, to me at least, helps tell the story.

This evening, back home, sorting out the last photos, I’m drawn to this picture of a destroyer in dry dock out in Seattle harbour. A naval song for the title – In The Navy by the Village People? Sloop John B by the Beach Boys? Neither feels at all relevant. What about an American shipbuilding song? I don’t know any.

In England, on the other hand – as well as Big River there’s Jez Lowe’s Taking On Men (the only song I know that mentions Barrow, the Chicago of north England, where my parents were born) – or Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding, Robert Wyatt’s version, no trumpets.

These modern English songs talk about the good old industrial days. Perhaps America doesn’t have such songs because its cities have been better at managing the transition to post-industrial – or if they haven’t, there’s no market for nostalgia there? Think of Bruce Springsteen’s My Home Town – that can’t be it.

Anyway I have ended up giving this post a title from an English song by an English singer.

What the picture made me want to write about was what I’ve been learning from N.A.M. Rodger’s history of the British navy (third and last volume out next month!). Setting up and operating a seagoing navy is one of the hardest things a state can do. You can’t just build some ships and recruit some crew. Knowhow and experience and an operation that is integrated from top to bottom make the difference; sending your ships out to sea in all weathers makes the difference; style and institutional culture make a difference.

Britain had this, did these things, from 1650 or so, according to Rodger. The US, evidently, does these things right now. In spades. So it is partly for military reasons that you wouldn’t say that Puget Sound “was” a big river – it still is one.

(Obviously, technically, it’s a big sound. In retrospect, Phil Spector was the answer I was looking for.)

On the style of the American navy, read Geoff Dyer, Another Great Day at Sea.

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Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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