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The assassination of JFK

The assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy occurred 22 years before I was born. Nevertheless, his presidency and untimely death are such important moments US history that I think most people feel a connection to them, even those of us who didn’t live through them. Myriad cultural references and endless conspiracy theories have kept the assassination in the collective conscious, while the presidency is still very frequently discussed in the context of the Bay of Pigs disaster, the announcement of the goal to land men on the moon, and members of the wider dynasty demonstrating political ambition.

The events at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on Friday 22 November 1963 have been examined and re-examined countless times. Over the years, despite making no special effort, I’ve must have read a huge number of articles about them and have seen countless documentaries, from sober retellings to explorations of outlandish conspiracy theories. I imagine most people are in the same boat.

And so earlier this week, I was intrigued to have the opportunity to visit Dealey Plaza for myself. It wasn’t quite as I had expected.

The former Texas School Book Depository is still there and looks much as it does in the assassination footage. The Sixth Floor has been turned into a museum to the assassination, which I didn’t have chance to visit.

As you can see in the bottom-right of the above photo, the building is marked by a large plaque. This sets out the long history of the site, dealing with the assassination only in the final paragraph, with seemingly permanent scratching acknowledging the conspiracy theories surrounding the “official” version of events.

On the road below, a crudely drawn “X” marks the spot the motorcade was passing as the fatal shot was taken, with part of the much-discussed grassy knoll immediately behind it. The road remains a rather busy traffic thoroughfare, albeit one with random strangers standing and gawping from the pavement (including me).

My over-riding impression was that the whole site was far smaller than I had imagined it to be. Dealey Plaza itself wasn’t very big, and the key locations are within a roughly 50m square. I always had in mind that the shots fired had to travel quite a long way to meet their mark, much like the Hollywood trope of the long-range sniper. In fact, everything was really rather close together. Despite thinking that I had a good idea of what had happened, my mental image was completely wrong.

Until I visited, I had no idea there was a memorial plaza to Kennedy a short distance away. The actual memorial takes the form of a sort of concrete screen, intended to be suggestive of a sort of open tomb.

In the centre is an empty plinth.

This caught me a bit off guard. Despite (or perhaps because of) the simplicity of the design, standing alone in an almost silent enclave in the centre of a very busy city with nothing to look at but the absence of a revered man is really quite a moving experience. The memorial was funded through contributions from thousands of individual citizens of Dallas, in a manner that seems both poignant and somehow dated: erecting a monument by public subscription feels like something that happened in the Victorian era more than the 1970s. Perhaps it’s due for a come-back.

I’m glad I visited, and feel like the visit has given me a new perspective on an important event of the 20th century. But at the same time, I have to confess that it all feels a little bit wrong to me. This is the scene of one of the most notorious murders of our time, and it feels a little bit like it has been turned into a tourist attraction. There is a even a café and gift shop. I’m one of the tourists, and appreciate the hypocrisy of this stance, but I can’t help but feel that this isn’t how anyone would want to be remembered. Would anybody really want such a focus on their death as opposed to their life? Why would anyone want to be remembered as the victim of their own murder, as opposed to being remembered for their lifetime of achievements?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what the subject would have wanted. Perhaps it is important to use the attraction of the historical site to make sure that people are educated about the historical event—and if someone makes a profit as a result, then that’s just the American way. But I have to confess that my feelings of interest and intrigued as I wandered round were mixed with a slight feeling of ickiness. Still, I’m glad I visited.


The picture of JFK at the top of this post is in the public domain. The others are all my own.

This post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .

Crossing the US-Mexico border

Yesterday, while Wendy was busy presenting at an international conference, I crossed the border from California to Tijuana to go exploring.

From San Diego, this was very straightforward. The Blue Line on the San Diego Trolley took me directly to San Ysidro, the district on the US side of the US-Mexico border. The Trolley stop is maybe 200 metres from the border crossing point, and there are helpful signs to put the way. There are also lots of slightly threatening signs from the US Government about covert monitoring.

There are, in fact, two pedestrian border crossings: one near the Trolley station, and one a short walk away by the Border Outlet Shopping Centre. I took the former (better sign-posted) option, walking up what felt a lot like a back alley behind a coach station to the border crossing point.

On entering through the slightly threatening no-return gates, I entered a border crossing, reminiscent of a typical airport border point. There was a very long queue for people with Mexican passports, but nobody in the queue for people who, like me, had foreign passports. This phased me a bit: I knew from my prior research that I needed to fill in an immigration card, but could see neither a card nor anywhere to fill it in. In the end, I just approached one of the border agents’ desks, where a friendly officer told me not to worry, it was quiet, and I may as well fill it out at her desk, which I did while she checked my passport.

We made small talk about this being my first time in Mexico (she was amazed), her previous experiences of visiting London and the sights of San Diego I’d seen so far. Before long, she’d stamped my paperwork and sent me on my way. After this point, customs x-ray searched any large luggage, but as I had none I was straight back outside and in a new country.

From here, it’s typically a 20-minute walk to the touristy area around Avenida Revolución, but I went a bit wrong, crossing over a highway on the footpath of a road bridge rather than the more direct pedestrian bridge, so it took me about half an hour. This walk is not through a particularly attractive area. I was pestered frequently by disabled and often elderly beggars, street sellers, and taxis pulling up alongside me to offer me lifts. Looking down on the vehicular border crossing, I could see stall upon stall with sellers plying their trade to people waiting in the long, seemingly stationary queue for the US border.

I walked through expanses of largely deserted civic architecture with broken fountains and such surrounded by closed up shop units. It was a bit eerie. I’m not sure whether this is attributable to me visiting on a Sunday or to the significant downturn in the Mexican economy in the decades since Tijuana was a real draw for tourists.

Here and there along the way, there were small stores and restaurants whose seemingly desperate owners practically begged me to come in and look at their wares, often offering free alcohol as an enticement. I’m afraid I declined.

My own idiocy in taking the wrong bridge notwithstanding, it was actually quite easy to navigate to Avenida Revolución thanks to the visible-from-everywhere Tijuana arch, which stands right in the centre. Rather disappointingly, the sign in the middle seems to have changed from the famous ‘Bienvenidos a Tijuana’ on a Mexican flag background to something “modern” sponsored by Samsung.

The area around Avenida Revolución was lively in every sense, with performers drawing large crowds, street vendors enthusiastically shouting about their products, and bars and restaurants making keen efforts to attract the passing traffic. The famed decorations around Santiago Argüello lent a party atmosphere to the whole area.

And yet, I found it hard to forget the scenes of deprivation and desperation I’d walked through to get to this point, not least as I knew I was going to have to walk back the same way before too long. This left me feeling a little melancholic. Nevertheless, I had a good wander around, aimlessly soaking in the atmosphere rather than rushing into any of the frequently advertised tourist attractions.

I got far less lost on the way back thanks to very frequent signage to the US border. I crossed back over at the other of the two border crossings I mentioned.

There could hardly have been a more marked difference between the manner of the crossing in the two directions. As soon as one stepped through the gates to the US border crossing complex, frequent stern signs forbade the use of mobile phones and cameras. Crossing back into the USA involved a walk through a labyrinthine concrete corridor ending with an almost whimsical spiral concrete ramp to even reach the border crossing point. I had to queue for a little over an hour to meet the US border agent, who questioned my intentions in crossing the border in some detail. He also seemed a little confused by the fact that my passport was for both the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, which hardly inspired confidence, but he did eventually let me through.

The fact that the US-Mexico border is the first controlled land border I’ve ever crossed probably says more about the remarkably peaceful times in which I’ve lived that it does about me personally. At the time I crossed the Denmark-Sweden border it was technically manned, but this just involved someone passing through my train cursorily glancing at passports. Some pundits currently predict something similar will be in existence between Northern Ireland and the Republic by the time this is published: I think that’s nonsense, but that’s perhaps a post for another time.

At the moment, I’m part-way through Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists. In this book, which argues for a borderless world, the US-Mexico border is cited specifically as one which inflicts economic harm on people on both sides. I found the apparent difference in living standards quite shocking: it seems mildly crazy that people living in two developed countries and so physically close to one another can have such different life experiences and prospects.

There has been much written over the last few months about the level of poverty in California, despite its reputation as a liberal state. Wendy and I have both been quite surprised to see the seemingly high number of homeless people in San Diego. Crossing the border, I felt as though there was a far greater degree of profound poverty in Tijuana, but perhaps California’s poverty is just better hidden than Tijuana’s. Appearances can, after all, be deceiving.

I’m glad I took the time to visit Tijuana while I’m over here in California. The experience wasn’t at all what I had expected: rather than a tacky pastiche Mexico “mini theme park” which I had thought would exist on the other side, the reality has left me more pensive and reflective than I would have expected. And that’s no bad thing.


Fairly obviously, all of the photos in this post are my own.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , , .

Flying and thinking

As I type, I’m 34,000 feet above Greenland on my way to San Diego aboard a British Airways Boeing 777-200. Wendy is snoozing next to me, fully reclined with eye mask in situ.

Apart from the miracle of travelling at 550mph across the globe in a pressurised metal tube, things aren’t going so well. The in-flight entertainment system broke after the first hour of the flight—perhaps I’ll never know what happens in the second half of The Greatest Showman—and for the last three hours we’ve had too much turbulence for me to be able to comfortably read. The combination of free alcohol, no entertainment and people strapped to seats is leading to a somewhat tense atmosphere with complaints being fired at the harried crew from all angles. Worse, they’ve now completely run out of gin on board.

We’re on a last-minute replacement plane whose interior has seen better days, and the resulting re-allocation of seats means that Wendy and I are sat immediately next to the toilet. I realise someone has to sit here, but I paid to select our seats so that it wouldn’t be me. Like most people, my sense of egalitarianism seems to have evaporated as soon as I felt that I’d got the raw end of the deal.

And yet, there’s rather lovely about being in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Fortunately, this plane doesn’t have wifi. So with nothing to watch, an inability to read, and a sleeping wife, I’m just sitting here and thinking. How often does anyone get the chance to do that?

I have a natural inclination towards spending time with my own thoughts. As I walk to work in the morning, I typically listen to music or a podcast, but my journey home is usually spent just thinking things over. I think it helps to keep me sane. Rarely, though, do I get the chance for a more prolonged period of thought.

I realise the irony that I’m now writing this thought down, laptop balanced on knee, with lots of turbulence-induced typos being corrected as best I can. If you’re wondering: I’m saving this in the Evernote app on my Chromebook to post later.

And that’s really all there is to say. I’m going to put my laptop away again now and return to quiet contemplation. Over and out.


The photo at the top was taken by me earlier today.

This post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , , .




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