Chicago

I have no idea whether George Orwell ever visited America, and if he did, whether he went in search of a drink and some mild entertainment. Orwell, whose essay on the humble pub inspired JD Wetherspoon to launch his franchise, had simple tastes – a few comfortable chairs, a good range of ales on tap and above all, as few distractions as possible. The insidious creeping of piped music and televisions when there is not a sporting event on would have appalled him in the modern day, once he had had time to digest the implications of the surveillance state.

America has few pubs, except those that take the name from some dubious Irish heritage and qualify mainly by serving Guinness. And yet, every few minutes one comes across another bar, in the suburbs as in the centre of town. These bars contain as many distractions as possible; multiple sports on multiple televisions, live or just loud music, or pool (the rules are quite different here and caused no little consternation). Chicago, the second or third city of the US, depending on who you listen to (it is smaller than LA), has some outstanding examples of the kind of entertainment that Orwell would not have abided well.

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First there was turtle racing in a nondescript little bar called Big Joe’s in the north suburbs. Even greyhound racing barely comes close in entertainment value and sheer strangeness to turtle racing. To avoid gambling, which is subject to tighter laws in America, tokens are given out with the purchase of every drink that are then pulled from a hat to determine who takes which turtle. The intended result is that everyone drinks quite a lot in order to win either a t-shirt, or a free drink, but mostly glory. The turtles are then released from the centre of a table and the first one to the edge wins. In the event of a complete stop, not unknown, the remaining is order is determined by those closest to the centre. The very fact that I am regaling rules about this sort of thing should be an indication of some of the effort invested in it, but words really are insufficient.

Then there is a bar called Carol’s, where beer comes in pitchers or cans and a honky tonk band plays every thirty minutes until five in the morning. That would have been remarkable enough, and so would the Mexican guy in his Stetson hat looking to dance quite harmlessly with any of the ladies in the audience (Oceana it was not). But perhaps the greatest thing about this bar was the old chap in the T-shirt that read ‘not a menace to society anymore’ and sat with his imdb page printed out (unfortunately, the poor chap had not been credited for any of his bit parts, but appearing in The Untouchables is certainly something worth dropping into conversation).

The name Chicago is now synonymous with the musical, and it had good reason to be considered one of the entertainment capitals of America during the prohibition era (1918-1933). While Al Capone and John Dillinger flooded the city with crime and gangsterism, they also flooded with with booze, thus ensuring that just as in the north of England, girls could go out in the winter wearing very little and ultimately culminating in an Oscar for Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Those with more refined tastes, though by no means similar to Orwell’s, can take their business above the street, since Chicago is a city of skyscrapers. The Willis (formerly Sears) Tower was once the tallest in the world and Chicago can also claim the the first skyscraper (in the 1880s). The John Hancock Tower is not quite so large, but does boast a cocktail lounge on the 95th floor, from which you can see the sprawl of the city and the vastness of Lake Michigan.

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While New York is more famous for it’s skyline, Chicago has some outstanding and bizarre sights. The Tribune Tower (named for the city’s oldest newspaper) has what appears to be a gothic cathedral as its crown, as if a skyscraper had just burst out of the ground beneath Rheims. Not only that, but it is studded with bricks and rocks from famous buildings around the world, from the pyramids at Giza to ‘Injun Joe’s Cave’ from a Mark Twain tale.
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While LaSalle Street is all Romanesque tributes to capitalism, Millenium Park houses a theatre in the style of Frank Gehry, both important elements of the city’s history. For while Chicago was late to the party (it was incorporated only in the 1830s after existing as a trading post and fort for protection against Indian raids), it has been at the centre of the American story ever since with its proximity to the farms of the Mid-West, its railways and its beef trade. And yet, it is characteristic of America that as the country expanded it not only drew from its outer limit but took capitalism and democracy with it.

Politics describes one of Chicago’s most characteristic contributions to the world. Known as ‘the Windy City’ initially not for the breeze off the lake but for the politicians’ frequent use of the filibuster, Chicago has long had the kind of machine politics which is so unfamiliar to us. Its system of insider dealing has given it two Mayors called Richard Daley (father and son), serving forty years between them. This year Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, was elected Mayor despite a legal challenge to his residency qualifications.

Chicago is also the heart of the American union movement, which again is quite different to Britain’s. Back in the 1870s a fire destroyed so much of the city that workers were placed in a situation analogous to that following the Black Death in Europe in the Middle Ages – increased bargaining power by sheer demand. Some of the benefits of that collective bargaining have been national, but unions in America more frequently compete to get contracts for their own members and to get the best deals.

It is a not infrequent consequence of having a powerful elected Mayor that while the city benefits more than it might otherwise expect from vanity projects, it often ends up with trade-offs such as the bizarre system where the city of Chicago employes people to drive workers to public utilities (be it fixing a pipe or painting a fire hydrant) and cannot have their role transferred so that they then sit and read the paper until required to drive their co-workers back.

Nonetheless, George Orwell would have appreciated the writings of Upton Sinclair, whose exposé The Jungle changed conditions in the meat-packing plants, and whose Oil! was the inspiration for There Will Be Blood.

The world owes a considerable debt to America’s history of dissent and collective outrage but it is not always through the ballot box that changes are reached, frequent though elections are in the US. Barack Obama’s healthcare bill caused a huge groundswell of debate, but it was difficult to see any other discussion than that at the level of the political elite as an influence on the Act’s initial or final form. In 2011 and 2012 the issue of public debt is becoming increasingly pressing, giving more responsibilities to officials who will have to tread a fine line between the unpopular and the unconvincing, their own political base and the demands of their opponents. The Republicans are opening their gambit with a plan to cut huge amounts, just as Mr Obama launches his re-election campaign based on achievements despised by the Grand Old Party and investment in the economy.

Thus Chicago, like the rest of the country, and Mr Emmanuel like Mr Obama, are due some difficult times. It is fortunate that like California, our next stop, they have plenty of distractions. Life may be no bed of roses in many parts of Britain, but there is a constant strain on the American psyche that goes some way to explaining its popular culture. The other factor is sheer inventiveness, and I am sure that Mr Orwell would have been somewhat amused by what is on offer in any case.

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