‘Blowing Down the Road’: An Englishman’s journey from Sheffield to Savannah
When Sheffield social worker Tony Tingle retired, he decided to fulfil his lifelong dream of a trip across the heartland of southern USA. He was so inspired by his journey and the people he met there, he has published his first book, Blowing Down The Road, at the age of 67.
Phil Turner caught up with him to see what kind of state he found America in…
I have a confession to make. Tony Tingle is my father-in-law and I helped him publish his first book, which was released at the end of October, so any accusations of nepotism are to be expected. But anyone interested in the state of US politics, the history of the human rights movement, or even folk who just love to learn about the kind of music that America has brought to the world over the years will find something to savour in his debut novel, Blowing Down The Road.
Originally a blog just for friends and family as he fulfilled his lifelong ambition by travelling across 21 states and three time zones from New York to New Orleans and Santa Fe to San Francisco, five years on it has become his first published work. I chatted to him about the people he met, the music he listened to and the effect of Trump after America’s first black president.
As someone born and raised in Sheffield, where did this affinity with the US come from?
We watched a lot of Westerns and crime films and I started collecting singles so the images and sounds of America were with me from an early age. America just seemed like completely the other end of the spectrum from Sheffield, which much as I love it, is dark, grey and confined. All my family lived within just a few streets, so even going to Attercliffe seemed like a big deal at the time. America on the other hand, was big, bright and unconfined and that was a massive draw.
The music that first hit me at the time was probably The Beatles who were heavily influenced by US soul and rhythm & blues and then the images of civil rights movement in mid to late 60s got me thinking for first time about what seemed a most obvious injustice of people being killed and mistreated just because of the colour of their skin. I don’t think I’d really thought about that before. There were elements of racism in Sheffield, of course, if you went down to Attercliffe which was the main place people from the West Indies had settled in 60s, there was tension but it was nothing like on the same scale as the US. There were these images of dogs being set on demonstrators, batons being used and people being threatened with guns. It jolted me into thinking about the kind of world I lived in and how people were fighting for their rights.
You made this trip five years ago when Barack Obama was US President. I imagine it would be a different experience if you went now…
Obviously there has been progress since the 60s, we’ve had a black president of course but there is certainly a feeling of things coming full circle. Black people are being killed by police in the most banal of circumstances, so I think the book is timely, as it feels as if that whole issue is back on the agenda.
You spoke to people with quite differing views to your own and managed to keep it friendly. Do you think that would that be as easy now?
No, I think you’re right, it wouldn’t. The racist, misogynist right has been emboldened by Trump. Just as I reined my views in so I could have conversations rather than shouting matches, they did the same but I think that would be less likely this time around. The sense I get is that things are much more polarised.
Look at the support Bernie Sanders got in the run up to the election, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if he’d beaten Hilary Clinton. I don’t think it’s outrageous to say that an element of the people that voted Trump would have voted Sanders. There was an element of racism in the Trump vote but also lots of people wanted to kick the establishment and Clinton represented that.
Do you think Obama could have done more while he was in power? Was he radical enough?
From my point of view I would have liked to have seen him do more. He came into the presidency on a massive wave of support but once he got the presidency he let that slide and didn’t use it in the way he could have done to gather backing for his policies. Republicans had sufficient support in the House of Representatives and the Senate to block what he wanted to do. But maybe he could have got around that by tapping into his base and keeping that support active and on the streets.
It was very noticeable how run down parts of the country were. I particularly noticed going south from New Jersey there were miles and miles of abandoned factories and warehouses – you really got a sense of the desolation for the American people.
Obama didn’t put the economy back on its feet, he didn’t follow through on Obamacare as he could have done and left a wounded duck that Trump’s now trying to finish off. That’s the one area he could have really made a difference. It was a missed opportunity.
It’s such a vast country and you spent much of the journey travelling alone. Is that a curious sensation, that feeling of being somehow outside of things?
Well you’ve got to like your own company for sure. I wanted to be in my own headspace without someone tugging on my sleeve saying ‘go left’ when I wanted to go right, so that’s why I did it on my own. And that approach lends itself to being reflective because you set your own agenda and get the room to reflect on what you’ve done in a way I never had before. You don’t actually live life normally because you want to push yourself to do things you can write about.
For example, I went to the Southern Poverty Law Centre in Montgomery one day. I’d emailed them before I went to try to set up a meeting but it had been left up in the air so I just thought ‘sod it’ and turned up anyway. I’d never do that normally. I’m very formal, far too formal sometimes.
I’d also emailed this writer I liked called Tom Miller who lived in Tuscon, Arizona and arranged to take him out for dinner. That’s not me at all. It made me think for writers it must be a strange life. You must be always thinking about everything you do and how it can inform your writing, even in fiction.
You covered 21 states and three time zones. Where would you go back to first?
It depends what you want. Arizona is spectacular and everything I expected the wild west to be. There’s Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon and the deserts – it’s a landscape we just don’t have in Europe. Equally, if you want a taste of the music then go to New Orleans. The people there think they are a different breed to the rest of America and to a large extent they are. Their background is a mix of French traders, runaway slaves, people from the Caribbean, so the place has got its own identity and they are very proud of it. It’s surrounded by bayou country which is unlike anywhere else in the US so the geography of the place, its history and experiences they have been through, as well as the fact they invented a form of music, it all goes into the melting pot. They are very independent.
Any plans to do another trip?
I’d love to – if enough people buy this maybe I’ll get permission from the wife go again. I’d love to travel up west coast of Australia. There’s nothing there at all. It would be fantastic.
A book launch to celebrate the release of Blowing Down The Road will take place at Waterstones in Orchard Square on Tuesday 21 November at 7pm where you can meet Tony who will be signing copies of his book and talking about his experiences.
Buy your tickets here – or in store.
Blowing Down The Road retails at £7.99 and will be available in Waterstones, The Famous Sheffield Shop, Forgotten Fiction, The Porter Bookshop, Books On The Park, Next Chapter Books, La Biblioteka and Amazon.