This notebook comes to you from Chicago, where I am currently drying off from the rain. I will try not to bore you by asking if you’ve been and then banging on about how beautiful it is, but I can’t promise that won’t happen. It is a ridiculously lovely city: full of pride in industry and progress, and full of pizza (as am I).
It feels like the opposite of the UK, where we have a tendency to fetishize the past at all costs: any hint of progress is met with a general suspicion that things will somehow soon not look so much like an episode of Midsomer Murders and will instead resemble the dark satanic mills bit of the Olympic opening ceremony. Ask anyone here what you should do with a spare afternoon and they all tell you that you should take a boat or bus tour of the architectural highlights, which largely feature stuff built in the past thirty years. The idea of a new building being intrinsically carbuncular is a long way away.
I came here to speak about the meaning of life at Chicago Ideas Week, which is easily the best gig I’ve ever been booked to do. It was a whole heap of fun, even if you don’t count the fact that when I was a comedian, I routinely used to play rooms above pubs to eight people, and sometimes that happened in Chertsey. Last week, I played the 2200-seater Oriental Theater, and that (sorry, Chertsey) was better.
I like America, mainly because every shop assistant is nicer to you than your relatives would be if you were at home in the UK. I also love how positive everyone is: ask a yes/no question of an audience in Britain, and you get a yes/no answer. Ask the same question here, and you get a round of applause. It’s like a whole extra level of yes.
And Chicago is packed with shops where you pay sales tax but get discounts, so everything ends up costing almost exactly what it says on the sales ticket, except you now have a purse full of tiny coins, and a mild curvature of the spine. But everyone is so darned nice about it that you end up not minding at all.
There are only a few things which vex me. The first is how every ad break on TV is full of commercials for medicines which may or may not cure a minor disease I have never heard of. The side-effects, without exception, seem to include a stroke, cancer and death. All to cure a minor skin ailment or mild allergy. Although I would say it, because I’ve grown up with socialised medicine and don’t know any different, I can’t believe they have anyone’s health in mind except that of their shareholders.
The second vexing phenomenon is new to me, because I’ve never been here in the run-up to an election before. The political campaigning is relentless, and every single bit is negative. I have always sighed on hearing the phrase, ‘There now follows a party political broadcast’ after a curtailed news bulletin. But, tiresome though they are, they do usually try to tell you something they believe to be positive about themselves, even if you don’t agree.
After five days of watching ceaseless accusations of insider dealing, sending jobs to China and (worst of all, it seems) building new offices in Wisconsin, every candidate now seems terrible to me, even the ones whose politics I largely share. I haven’t heard a single person claim to have done something well during their previous term, or promise they’ll try their best to do good things next time. The entire campaign on both sides appears is comprised of everyone slagging everyone else off. I’m beginning to see how voter turnout might be low next month. And it won’t be apathy which is the cause, it will be disdain.
It will come as no surprise to you, I’m sure, to discover I am finicky about drinks. I don’t like hot drinks at all, so the delights of the pumpkin spiced latte have passed me by. I do, however, like diet Coke (I know it is evil. Don’t write in). I especially like it in a can, because the aluminium tastes so nice. I can’t defend this position, I’m simply telling you because it’s true.
But cans are increasingly hard to find, since the plastic bottle achieved total market domination. I have long suspected that at least part of the obesity crisis is caused by the endless increase of ever larger, ever sweeter drinks. A can holds 330 millilitres. But a bottle holds at least half a litre, and in the US, they are 600 ml minimum. If you’re not drinking diet versions, that’s almost doubling the calories along with the volume. And that’s before all those lattes with their tooth-rotting syrups.
So surely it’s time to can the plastic bottles and re-launch the humble can. The calories we save we can consume in food, or booze, or something else vital. Our teeth will thank us later.