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From Winstanley to Washington D.C. and New York

by Samantha Jones, a student of Winstanley College, Wigan

The politics and law students at Winstanley College, Wigan made a visit to Washington D.C. and New York in February 2005. Student Samantha Jones has written a lively account

Posted 20-Feb-2014

These students are enjoyng their visit to the Capitol. Click on the image to see a small video (Requires Flash Player)

Shining like a beacon of hope in the notoriously gloomy and depressing month of February was our Politics expedition to both Washington D.C. and New York. A group of around forty eager students from both Upper and Lower Sixth, riding high on relief as the January exams disappeared into history, embarked upon what was soon to become the trip of a lifetime. Standing in the shocking brightness of Manchester International’s very own Terminal Two, we were given a rather mild taste of what was to plague us relentlessly throughout our trip. By this I mean security checks and, oh how they came in their millions. Luckily for both staff and students alike, no one fell at the first hurdle and we all made it safely to our seats on a fine British Airways aeroplane, ready to leave old Blighty and her incessant rain far behind in pursuit of political enlightenment.

Before leaving for the United States I did have some reservations regarding its general political climate as the last time I had visited it, had been a mere eighteen months into George W. Bush’s first term and less than a year since the horrific events of the now infamous 9/11; the USA was still reeling from the effects of the world’s largest terrorist attack, suffering from shock and disbelief. The country’s foundations had been severely rocked and the full extent of the shockwaves had yet to be felt. In the back of my mind I wondered how we as English college students would be received by the American public given our perceived hostility to Bush’s re-election as all at Winstanley lived in hope of a Kerry victory.

After a reasonably lengthy and uneventful flight, we arrived at New York’s JFK airport only to be greeted by an immigration queue that was as long as the proverbial piece of string, watching helplessly as American nationals strolled past. However, within an hour we found that hell hath no fury like an immigration officer scorned and after we had had our passports checked, our photographs taken and our fingerprints scanned into a computer coupled with a short round of cold hard questioning, we were able to enter the land of the free.

A four-hour luxury coach journey to Washington D.C. took us through New Jersey, down the freeway made famous by the Sopranos’ opening sequence and then onwards through Delaware and other such states until we reached our hotel late in the evening. By the time morning arrived we were up and ready to go and after an 8am assault on Starbucks we found ourselves walking to Capitol Hill in the glorious morning sunshine surrounded by snow. It was at this point that it struck me how beautiful a city Washington is, albeit a little impersonal; the lack of litter is truly astounding!

Upon arrival at the Capitol we were ushered into the entrance area and issued with the coveted ‘International Guest Pass’ that would enable us to enter the House of Representatives’ gallery. The Capitol was designed by Dr. William Thornton and its cornerstone was laid by none other than George Washington in 1793. Over the years it has grown to incorporate new states, their senators and representatives, but one thing that has remained constant is the sheer breathtaking beauty of the architecture, in particular the rotunda, the very epicentre of the Capitol. Four giant paintings by John Trumball hang equidistant apart and depict fundamental events in American history. However arguably the most awe-inspiring aspect of the rotunda is ‘The Apotheosis of Washington’ by Constantino Brumidi suspended a precarious 180 feet above the ground. We also were able to visit the Old Hall of the House and spent time looking at the intricate statues – two donated by each state to commemorate their most prized citizens. It was interesting to be able to go inside the House of Representatives and see where our very own Tony Blair addressed its 435 members. It also amused me to think how the somewhat more miniscule Commons has to accommodate over 200 more members, which left me with the question; do the representatives appreciate their space?

Next on our 2005 tour of D.C. came the Pentagon, and I soon found out that Weapons of Mass Destruction were not the only things that the American military couldn’t find, as it soon became apparent that their sense of humour had also gone astray. We handed over our passports and filed into a quite lavishly furnished room where our guide, a young army officer, found it highly amusing that none of us were over keen on speaking. As we were escorted around the corridors of power we had the pleasure of being watched from every angle by two further military personnel scarcely older than ourselves and from armed personnel at every staircase. Various paintings of excellent quality lined the walls and depicted American exploits in World War II, events such as the Battle of Britain and D Day immortalised on canvas but with the rather glaring omission of a certain event known technically as Pearl Harbour. Their focus is most defiantly upon success, a theme that prevailed throughout the tour. We were shown the Pentagon hotdog stand located in its central courtyard. Allegedly during the Cold War it drove the Russians mad, as they believed it to be the entrance to a secret underground nuclear lair, when supposedly in reality it was simply a fast food outlet. Towards the end of the tour we visited a small room that had been turned into a memorial for all of those who had lost their lives at the Pentagon on the 11th September 2001, an eerily quiet place with a real sense of calm about it, a fitting tribute to the friends, family and colleagues that were lost on that day.
On a lighter note I think that it’s fair to say we were all amazed and incredibly impressed by our guide’s ability to walk backwards with consummate skill while giving chapter and verse on US foreign policy; if that’s how part of their $369 billion defence budget is being spent, it’s defiantly money well spent! Seriously though, I do believe that the Pentagon is well worth a visit even if I still fail to understand the reasoning behind many of the decisions taken within its five walls.

Whilst in Washington we also visited the Holocaust Museum. It houses one of the actual train carriages used to transport people to Auschwitz and whilst stood inside I found it painfully easy to think of the people it once contained and their subsequent fates. The museum also has a large airy room where it is possible to light a candle and spend some quiet time in reflective thought and remembrance. Our trip to Arlington cemetery was equally moving and as we stood staring into the eternal flame located by John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s grave, the sun began to set and a lone bugler played the Last Post.
At the Jefferson Memorial we made what seemed like the fatal mistake of standing at the foot of the statue and announcing: “This is all well and good but what’s so special about this guy?!” We were soon informed. A local passer-by stopped and began to explain about Thomas Jefferson and how he was the third President of the USA. However the conversation soon turned political and he told us of his distaste of President Bush and his administration and explained how more left-wing Americans were feeling very disheartened after Bush’s second victory. He then proceeded to give us an impromptu (and free) guided tour around some of the monuments and a brief history of Washington D.C itself. In my opinion he was one of the most interesting people I’ve met in a long while, leaving us with the immortal line: “Founding Fathers my ass.” From here we went to the National Archives and soon found that as well as containing the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, it also contained an instant cure for insomnia as well as thousands of constitutionally sexed-up Americans. 1776? So what? (My Politics tutor has warned me that I will become equally sad when I’ve studied the U.S. in the autumn.)

Compared to Washington, New York is like another dimension; the clinical and at times rather impersonal capital was replaced by the infinite vibrancy of the Big Apple, a place that’s dirty and gritty in a strangely romantic way and what one can only describe as more of a playground than a city. It proves that when America puts its mind to something it really can be bigger and better than anywhere else. Perhaps the icing on the cake was the location of our hotel, right next to the Empire State Building, which meant that we were at the heart of the action. On our first night in the city that never sleeps we all went to the top of the Empire State Building and just gazed at the world below us, the buildings, the lights, the people, the cars. To describe it would simply be a pointless endeavour as there are some things that just have to be experienced.

Whilst in New York we paid a visit to the United Nations headquarters, which is technically classed as international territory; the fun of being able to jump in and out of the US really never grows old. Each year over one million people visit the UN and we were shown, amongst other places, the General Assembly Hall, the largest room in the UN with seating for up to 1,800 people. The UN HQ really brought home the issue of what can be achieved when nations attempt to put aside their differences and come together as one. After all, but for its adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the 10th of December 1948 as the common standard of achievement for both people and nations, then the world would be a startlingly different place. It is a shame that such an institution has been treated so badly by both Bush and Blair.

One of the surprises of the trip was the size of the Statue of Liberty, or rather the lack of it. Yes, it is big but not nearly as gigantic as I imagined and seeing it appear out of the skyline as our ferry approached really was one of the strangest feelings only matched by seeing the Sydney Opera House, like being in a movie only I had $20 in my back pocket instead of a cheque for $20 million. Standing on Liberty Island looking out over the harbour I saw a Royal Navy ship leaving New York and sailing off into the distance, a sad reminder that all to soon we too would have to be saying our goodbyes.

On a less academic note, whilst in New York a group of us went to see ‘Chicago’ on Broadway, a very formal and sophisticated affair in contrast to an earlier night out at the basketball watching the Washington Wizards beat Milwaukee Bucks. Anyone who wasn’t hoarse by the end of the night wasn’t there. Blimps, promotions, cheerleading, oversized drinks, foam hands and adverts covering every square inch of everything, even the odd moment or two of basketball action. God bless you America because we had a great night. A repeat of this action was suggested for New York in the form of a Yankees game but the world came crashing down when some kind person pointed out that it wasn’t baseball season.

For our final night we dined at the Hard Rock Café and the company that we kept was of the highest quality. This ‘company’ being in the form of a custom made ‘Jagstang’ guitar signed by none other than the one and only Kurt D. Cobain. There was also more punk memorabilia in the Hard Rock than on the Kings Road, step back to ’77 if you will. We hailed a cab and on our way back to the hotel the driver explained to us naive teenagers the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’ of the American economy. He said that in the current situation it was possible to get two British pounds to the dollar and that the economy in the US is going from strength to strength. Not wanting to shatter his dream and mention the 9.2% rate of unemployment and the fact that since George W. Bush took office there has been the greatest sustained job loss since the great depression of the 1930’s, we paid the fare and left.

In my opinion our 2005 outing was exceptional, the week spent in Washington and New York was like a Tardis in the fact that until I experienced it I never would have believed it possible to fit so much into one week. Seeing so many places first hand and speaking to such a wide variety of people is invaluable, not to mention incredibly enjoyable and we paid visits to more places than I have time to mention. As well as souvenirs a-plenty and excellent memories in abundance there are a couple of things that really have a prominent place in my memory. For every gun, there is a person who is willing to help you out when you’re lost or need help. For every faceless corporation, there is a unique place that will selflessly distribute perfect memories to all who take the time to visit, for every car bumper with a sticker that proclaims: ‘when you’ve got 'em by the balls their hearts and minds will follow,’ there are good, honest people who find the Wolfowitz concept of ‘The New American Century’ as soul-destroyingly frightening as the next peaceful human being.

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