I write this from a hotel suite in Houston so big that I actually got lost in it. It has a floor area somewhere close to that of my entire house, a bed the size of France, and everything the discerning visitor to Texas might need, including painted porcelain balls in a bowl, a yoga mat in the cupboard and a hotel limo which bears a giant cattle skull, complete with horns, on the grille.
I like Texas. I shouldn’t: there is pretty much nowhere in the US that is more alien to me. There are stars and stripes flags outside every other house, little white crosses on immaculate lawns that announce Jesus Is Risen!. There are gun ranges and bar-b-q pits, and the whole place is sport-mad. If your son or daughter plays for any kind of team, it is customary to post a sign outside your house advertising the fact, or maybe tie a coloured ribbon around a tree.
Texas was a republic before it was a state, and there is still some of that determinedly singular mentality in its residents. Spend more than a day in the company of Texans and the opposition to gun law ceases to surprise. And it is hot, punishingly so. When I brushed my teeth this morning the cold water came out warm.
Much of the state has been largely untouched by recession. In fact there are more jobs than people to fill them. “Dallas all about business,” said my media escort there. “Honey, there is no reason to come here unless you know someone.” The main reason to stay, she said, was the people. (I would like to add: the bar-b-q)
Because the old adage about Texas hospitality is true. Everyone wants you to have a nice day, and means it. Black, white, rich, poor, people ask after each other’s lives in ways that would cause deep suspicion in an English person. I didn’t even mind when the young man at Au Bon Pain in Dallas Fort Worth asked me to repeat “Cappuccino and a muffin please” three times because he found my accent so amusing.
“I would luhhhrrve (imagine this stretched over three syllables) to have an English accent,” said one of the ladies who came to my talk at the (enormous) University Public Library in Dallas. “Everything you Brits say sounds somehow more intelligent.” In return I have gleaned great pleasure from asking random Texans to say “Ma’am,” and “y’all.”, and teaching them English phrases like “splash the cash” or even “car park”, which seems to makes them hysterical with laughter. Please forgive the boast-y element of the next sentence: I repeat it just because I do love the Texan way with words. “Jojo,” I was told, during a signing yesterday. “You are hawter than a pistol in Texas right now.”
This morning, on my way to Houston, the driver happened to take me past Dealey Plaza, where John F Kennedy was assassinated. I don’t often feel moved by places of historical importance, but as the driver took me past the green knoll, and then the route where the president’s convertible had raced towards the hospital, it was impossible not to feel a chill.
No Kennedy has apparently been back to Dallas in the fifty years since the death of the president took place, a state of affairs that still causes palpable hurt. “The guy who killed him was a crazy,” I was told, more than once. “He didn’t even come from Dallas.”
“It’s kind of sad,” said my driver, a young black man who wasn’t even alive when it had happened. “For the people of Dallas it still kind of feels like yesterday.”