A Nation’s Capital

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I’ve returned home after a visit to Washington DC, the first time I’ve been there since I was 14.

One thing that struck me was the number of families and school parties from across the US. I don’t think twice when I see school groups in London, but the UK is a lot smaller than the US. For a family from Texas to visit Washington, they need to travel roughly as far as from London to Kiev. For the school party I saw from California who were visiting Washington, Philadelphia and New York, it was the equivalent of travelling from London to West Africa. It’s not surprising that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime visit for many people.

But one of the other things that struck me was that the purpose of the visit and what they see is very different from a visit to London. It’s a visit of homage and touchstones, of values and memorial, of seeing at first hand the tributes that have been erected to the birth of the nation and what is stands for.

No visit would be complete without walking round the tidal basin to the Jefferson Memorial, seeing his statue in gleaming bronze looking out over the city, surrounded by extracts from his writings, including the Declaration of Independence. A visit will also be made to the Lincoln Memorial, with Abraham Lincoln sitting on a vast but simple chair and, again, with extracts from his speeches carved into the sides of the Memorial.

The Washington Monument is a marker for all tourists and there are more recent memorials that are well-visited too – the World War II Memorial, showing the dates 1941-45, odd to UK eyes; the Vietnam War Memorial, so simple as to bring tears to the eyes; the Korean War Memorial, where as many Koreans as Americans seemed to have left flowers and wreaths when I visited; and the Martin Luther King Memorial, with a statue situated between that of Jefferson and that of Lincoln and of the same height.

As I walked round these beautiful and moving memorials, I tried to think of any similar congregation of memorials on this scale – and designed to have such significance – in London. I drew a blank. It’s partly, I think, to do with Washington being designed as the nation’s capital and having that specific function, whereas most other capital cities have other lives. It’s also that the country and the city are, by European standards, new and they don’t come with the historic baggage of buildings that we live with.

But I also think that the American people are more used to declaring and prescribing values and what the country stands for than most English people could articulate. Americans have constitutional rights. And they pledge, on a regular basis, allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. I can’t think of anything comparable in the UK.

I’d be interested to hear any comments.

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