Now Donald Trump really has done it. He’s cutting nearly half the budget of the Fulbright programme, the fund that has paid for 12,000 Brits to travel to the US to study and for a corresponding number of Americans to come here. Given that the beneficiaries include people who’ve done terrifically well for themselves – alumni and alumnae include Bill Clinton, Yvette Cooper, Onora O’Neill, Liam Byrne MP, the philosopher, and, er, Sylvia Plath – there has been a corresponding fuss. Some of the beneficiaries have written to The Times to suggest that the cuts will “devastate the programme and damage irrevocably the most successful cultural diplomacy initiative in the history of the United States.”
Well, maybe, maybe not. I got a Fulbright scholarship to the Columbia School of Journalism in New York, having been told by the present editor of the Today programme that American schools of journalism made mustard-keen reporters. It was a disaster. There were lots of pleasant people on that course but the self-satisfied culture of the place, the stodginess of the journalism and the general dreariness of college life in America was a shocking disappointment. Plus all the journalism students appeared to be teetotal. I had been reared on the stories of my grandfather who jumped ship (he was a seaman) in New York and had a very colourful time of it indeed; New York from the Columbia perspective just seemed like a less fun version of London or Paris. And at this particular school, they seemed to find it an unaccountable aberration if you wanted to go out at night, rather than do a course.
I cut and run, making my way back to the Evening Standard three months after I had left my farewell party from that paper’s Diary with a Hermes umbrella as a gift. I was sadder, wiser and poorer. My opinion of the US was not particularly enhanced, though I liked lots of people I met very much. But frankly, I got rather more out of a fortnight’s trip to Japan, on the basis of an essay competition, courtesy of the Japanese government, which was brilliantly run and left me with abiding goodwill towards the Japanese.
It’s not quite true that travel narrows the mind. And it may be that the other 11,999 beneficiaries of the scholarship were set up for life by it. But it didn’t work for me. After returning, I let the Fulbright people know I’d come back. They wrote saying that they were reviewing all their scholarship criteria to make sure that nobody like me would get one again. Fair enough.
PS In fairness, I should say that my Albanian father-in-law got a Fulbright to go from the former Yugoslavia to do research in biology at Jena university in East Germany in the 1980s. He enjoyed it.