Gen. Sheridan (d. 1888) once said, “If I owned hell and Texas, I’d rent out Texas and live in hell.”
According to Michael Burleigh’s panegyric in today’s Times, Texas has come a long way since then. By the sound of it, given the choice between living in Texas and paradise, Prof. Burleigh would rent out the Garden of Eden.
He’s of course entitled to that opinion, as we’re entitled to ignore it. I certainly would – if this bizarre article didn’t evoke so many thoughts and recollections.
Recollections first: for my sins I actually lived in Houston for 10 years as a young man. Now if I were to seek an afterlife metaphor on the basis of that experience, I wouldn’t describe Texas as paradise. I’d describe it as comfy hell for the whole family.
This assessment is so diametrically opposite to Prof. Burleigh’s that so must be the criteria from which we proceed. As so they are: his are entirely material and mine aren’t.
This is worth a comment, for underneath it all one detects a clash between victorious modernity, as personified by Prof. Burleigh, and my hopelessly forlorn clinging to what used to be known as Western civilisation.
The benefits of modernity are all expressible in numbers, and Prof. Burleigh did his homework. His trusted calculator close at hand, he leaves one in no doubt that Texas is rich, its cities are growing faster than anywhere else, and it creates more jobs than the rest of the world combined (or words to that effect).
Even operating at that level, I’d be tempted to add that Texas’s riches are almost totally beholden to the market price of oil. Every Texan baby knows today’s value of a barrel, for his comfort depends on it.
When oil prices soar, the influx of immigrants from other states and countries is as impressive as Prof. Burleigh finds it. When they plummet, it’s impossible to hire a U-Haul truck – everyone is rushing for the exit (spoken from personal experience).
But with crude at today’s $115 a barrel, Texas is indeed as prosperous as Prof. Burleigh extols. So what more do we need?
Quite a few things, actually. First, I can solemnly swear that Texas is by far the ugliest place I’ve seen on my travels.
Houstonians say that you can stand on a stool and see into Oklahoma, and it’s only a slight exaggeration. The state is as flat as Prof. Burleigh’s prose – one has to drive 100 miles north of Houston to see hills the height of Hampstead Heath.
The space in between and for hundreds of miles in any other direction is barren, filled with ‘the brush country’, desert to you and me. Scorched earth with the odd bush about a foot high is all one sees, and the ugliness is so unremitting that one almost welcomes the sight of venomous snakes wiggling their way towards one’s boots.
That footwear, in addition to its symbolic folksy value, thus has life-saving significance: most snakes can’t sting higher than the top of a boot.
Add to this Phillip Johnson’s skyscrapers disfiguring the downtown areas of Texas cities and one can safely say that, yes, everything is big in Texas. But nothing either natural or manmade is beautiful.
Prof. Burleigh’s view seems to be that a house with a swimming pool would outweigh that drawback, but it takes living there for a few years to realise how deadly visual deprivation can be. Just imagine years of saying nothing beautiful at all, not a patch of forest, not a picturesque river, not an interesting landscape, not a building that’s neither dull nor a dreadful eyesore.
Trying to find some relief, people drive to the beaches of Galveston or Freeport on the Gulf of Mexico.
There they park their trucks right on the water edge and start tossing empty beer cans and burger wrappers all over the beach. Stepping on one of those would be unpleasant but less so than stepping on a tar patch.
These are more numerous than cowpats on a ranch, for just a couple of miles offshore one can see oil platforms pumping the source of Texas wealth, some of which settles as tar patches on the sand. Step into one and it’ll take about a fortnight to wash it off.
After I left Houston I took my English wife there for a few days. I wanted her to be amused and it worked: she couldn’t stop laughing for a second.
The first thing that caused her mirth was a musical-instrument shop (she’s a concert pianist) that advertised its wares by perching a grand piano on top of a 100-foot mast towering over a spaghetti junction.
Then I took her to a cute, mock-European plaza where every shop was called ‘Chez Michel’, ‘Chez François’ or ‘Brocante Parisienne’. Only one shop eschewed European flavour. It was simply called GUNS, in blazing 6-foot letters.
Then we had a drink at a lovely outdoor café styled after those in the Côte d’Azur. We sat under a multi-coloured umbrella looking at palm trees that could almost be real. But they weren’t: the outdoor café was actually four stories underground in The Galleria shopping mall, the cultural highlight of Texas.
Add to this seven months of 95 degrees-plus heat and 95% humidity every year, regular floods, hurricanes, and tornados, and you’ll have a realistic picture of hell on earth. (In his tourist enthusiasm Prof. Burleigh remarks blithely that “with air-conditioning, it’s not even as hot as it once was”. True, but that means spending one’s whole life in an air-conditioned space, never venturing outside for longer than a few minutes.)
Prof. Burleigh confuses standard of living with quality of life, and in this he’s truly a man for our times. Perhaps he should move to Houston or Dallas. Being an inveterate retrograde, I’ll take even Hull any day.
Y’all have a nahce day now, ya heah?