Taken in by America is a “by the way” telling of the story of how America came to be as it is, of what makes the American tick. It’s a tale of two people, outsiders—an Australian couple who spent a year in the land of the free from May 2006 to May 2007 then a further two months in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election—and the story unfolds as they travel around the USA, taking rooms in motels, renting, subletting, and being guests in American homes. And it’s a tale of two siblings, hostile twins who combine to form the Union.

The colonial American’s seventeenth-century Puritan origins taught him to mask his real identity. The nineteenth-century trader carried on the masquerade, selling confidence while giving nothing away. Trade is in the American’s blood, its twin aspects of sweet commerce on the one hand and the confidence trick on the other giving rise to the courteous ‘hail fellow, well met’ American for whom you are fair game.

These elements of the story are laid out early on, as we travel across the terrain that gave rise to the Connecticut Yankee—Phineas T. Barnum being the foremost exemplar. By the time we’re nearing Hollywood, the American is on the verge of realising his manifest destiny and it’s clear that his nation is governed by Mercurius—the ancient Roman god of trade, commerce and profit who emerged as the trickster spirit of modernity.

The American doesn’t think of himself as a product of pagan mythology but insofar as it’s rooted in medieval religion his is an essentially mediaeval outlook. He takes it for granted that there’s a transcendent overseer, a guiding hand that strives to shepherd him toward the Good and which rewards his efforts at self-transformation with the promise of redemption. Yet he’s thoroughly modern, too, this dual entity, and is just as much the product of the Scottish Enlightenment which flowered in the lead up to the American Revolution in 1776.[1]

Taken in by America is no scholarly tome but a form of adult entertainment, a burlesque—for America itself is a burlesque, an exaggerated copy of the classical republican ideal. And neither is it a travel guide—though a mine of information on how travellers might make the most of any time spent in the USA is contained herein—but an argument, developed around historical and contemporary anecdotes, which leads to the conclusion that America is a stacked deck.

Chapter   1    Mercury V8


“If he’s the Democrat candidate for the 2008 presidential race,” Meryn served notice, “I’m coming back.”

It was February 11th 2007 and we had just left Philadelphia, Mississippi. Ronald Reagan delivered his first major campaign speech as the Republican Party’s 1980 presidential candidate in that town. He had gone there to court good ’ol white supremacist Dixiecrats. Meryn was responding to the news from Springfield, Illinois, that Barack Obama had just announced that he was running to be elected president of the United States of America in 2008.

Like Governor Reagan before him, Senator Obama had blown the dog whistle. Unlike Reagan, though, Obama was sending a message to educated Americans—by announcing his candidacy in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown—that they should help save the Union.

Meryn had been sold on the junior Senator from Illinois by a colleague with whom she had shared a room at a Chicago conference in the Spring of 2005 and we’d both witnessed Obama’s impressive style during a visit to the Capitol in Washington D.C. in late 2006. There was no doubt about his capacity for the top job, I suggested, but nothing would stand in the way of Hillary Clinton’s being nominated as the Democrat candidate in the presidential election so I wouldn’t be booking annual leave for late 2008.

We returned to Australia from the USA in May 2007 but Meryn reckoned we’d be back. We were, touching down in Chicago, Illinois, sixteen months later, to drive through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina, the Virginias, Indiana and Missouri in the weeks leading up to the American presidential election then back to Illinois for the big event on Tuesday November 4th 2008. That journey reaffirmed my belief that America merely masquerades as a Christian nation, being governed all the while by the pagan deity, Trickster.

I boarded the Jumbo—Meryn was attending a conference in Glasgow and would meet me in Chicago—alongside numerous gum-chewing passengers and settled in for the long haul across the Pacific. The in-flight entertainment was portentous: Fawlty Towers’ conman, Lord Melbury; Andrew Denton’s interview with Jerry Seinfeld; and the Oscar winning Civil War and Reconstruction era epic ‘Gone With The Wind.’ Tocqueville stayed in my bag.

Los Angeles International Airport’s ranking immigration authority declared the whole planeload of green forms null and void due to shoddy use of the guillotine so while my fellow travellers went back to the drawing board the travel visa in my passport took me to the front of the queue. The black officer who allowed me entry to the USA was enthusiastic about we non-Americans wanting Obama to become the next president. He made it clear that he, too, wanted Barack to be number 44 but asked “What is it about the rest of the world? Why is everyone so keen on an Obama victory?”

Around at gate number whatever it was for the domestic leg to Chicago, a middle-aged American introduced himself to the woman sitting behind me by remarking on the fact that she, like his wife, was a knitter. He moved effortlessly from that tidbit of information to the news that his son was on his third marriage despite the fact that he, the father, was doing good works in the Church. The woman assured him that Jesus would heal the wound. I could almost certainly guarantee that Meryn would not be within earshot of such intimate conversation between strangers as she sat in the departure lounge at England’s Manchester Airport. The American has childlike faith in the power of redemption.

At Chicago’s O’Hare a young Australian woman who had missed her connection to Denver thought that American airport staff were “all dickheads.” Not so, I said, just disorganised; it’s the flip side of the emphasis on freedom. “Dickheads,” she insisted, as she climbed in to share the shuttle to the motel. Meryn arrived later that evening and next morning we took the ‘El’ to Diversey, a short walk from our chosen car hire franchise, stopping off Downtown, for a delicious Mexican lunch and an hour or two examining Donghia fabrics in the otherworldly Merchandise Mart.

Our eight-week tour was immediately threatened by my new Visa card having ‘DEBIT’ emblazoned beneath the logo. Meryn didn’t help any, either, by taking the side of the car rental people when they pointed out that without a credit card there was no way I could complete the pre-arranged deal to hire a small automobile for eight weeks. She followed the logic of their argument whilst I stuck doggedly to the single-minded notion that, America being the quintessential trading nation, I would not leave empty handed were I to stand my ground.

The car rental staff (one of them holding a well thumbed copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying) hung in there but eventually relented, unprepared to squander the goodwill on which the business prided itself. Phew. A financial crisis narrowly avoided. The only available vehicle was a ridiculously outmoded (with petrol at $US4.20 per gallon) V8 Mercury and we used it to get back to the Elk Grove Village motel. I would fight that battle on the morrow—which turned out to be a gorgeous sunny day.

Meryn and I were looking out over Downtown Chicago from the Hancock skyscraper when the car hire company called to say they’d swap the gas guzzler so we headed south in a Dodge Avenger and came to rest in Lincoln, Illinois, founded in 1853, and the only town in America named after Abraham Lincoln before he became president. Lincoln had helped survey the town and been counsel for the company whose railroad was its raison d’être.

The courthouse, there, subsequently played host to the Circuit Judge and a group of lawyers (Lincoln among them) on their regular two-month fall tour of the Illinois Eighth District.[2] Meryn was enamoured of the building, still standing, and took pains to measure the breadth-to-length ratio of the window frames. Her house was being rebuilt while we took our two-month fall tour.

The sun had set, the camera was back at the motel, and we’d already lost a day to the V8 so she completed a back of the envelope calculation and emailed the architect. Lost a day, that is to say, on our way to Oxford, Mississippi, where Barack Obama and John McCain would engage in the first of what are euphemistically referred to as televised ‘debates.’

Illinois was celebrating the sesquicentenary of the seven famous Senate race debates between incumbent, Stephen Douglas, and challenger, Abraham Lincoln. Those stump speech contests in 1858 had taken Douglas’ opponent to national prominence as the make-or-break 1860 presidential election loomed on the horizon.

We could not take the advertised celebratory stroll around Charleston (where the fourth debate had occurred) and spend a couple of days in Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, so chose the latter. I went in to a motel, there, and ran through the checklist of basic requirements concerning whether or not they had a non-smoking room with free wireless internet, MSNBC TV, fridge, and a microwave. They did, so I fetched Meryn to sign the paperwork.

The Gujurati desk clerk was able to differentiate our accent from that of other non-American English speakers so we followed up on that and learned that he’d been a university student in Australia until expelled part way through his course by the Howard regime. Meryn mentioned the Haneef case; he knew it well and was amused when she vent her spleen against Australia's self-appointed deputy sheriff representing George Bush’s interests in Southeast Asia, the (now deposed) Prime Minister.

 We turned on Andrea Mitchell’s lunchtime show. The deepening financial crisis had moved apace since the subprime loan scandal had reared its head in our Boston motel in the winter of 2006-7.[3] Ms Mitchell’s guests, political pundits, were coming around to the realisation that Trickster pulls the strings of American capitalism.

Downtown, at the Illinois Capitol, we were entertained by a group of children whose grossly overweight supervising teacher admonished the pupils to get some exercise and take the stairs; she made her point forcefully, then entered the elevator and rode up to meet the excitable group of grade schoolers as they were herded into the Senate Chamber by a young docent.

The school kids were to provide the audience for a meaningless ratta-tat-tat rote spiel that nothing would prevent the docent delivering in its entirety in the allotted time. It reached us as an uninterrupted staccato stream of consciousness, right down to the “doesanyononehaveanyquestions” ending exactly four minutes on from the initial cannon burst. An extraordinary feat, to be sure, but devoid of any semantic content—the frequent mention of Barack Obama’s name notwithstanding. Meryn had read both of the increasingly famous Illinois Senator’s books and so filled me in on his time in that place as a State legislator.

I returned the favour with respect to Lincoln’s having represented Sangamon County in the Old Capitol building on Sixth Street. It was there, at the State Capitol, in 1858, that Abraham Lincoln announced he wanted to be the next Senator for Illinois, and there, while we were driving through Mississippi in February 2007, that Obama had told an enthusiastic crowd that he wanted to be the next President of the United States of America.

 We visited the Lincoln home—nowadays another of those high standard National Parks Service (NPS) sites—and pressed the buttons on the mechanical model of the slain president’s funeral procession. Later, we paid the entrance fee at the much talked about Lincoln Museum opposite the Old Capitol Building on Sixth Street and devoted an afternoon to its various digital exhibits but, ever the old fogey, I preferred the NPS’s more prosaic approach to the subject.

Just after sunrise on the autumnal equinox, the Dodge pulled into the Oak Ridge Cemetery off North Grande and slipped through an array of Stars and Stripes. Gliding past graves, it veered left at a mausoleum and came to a dead end. There was nothing for it but to walk the final leg. A sign posted on a makeshift chain wire fence informed visitors that Lincoln’s tomb was undergoing renovation. So we got back in the car and drove to the town which had been the region’s pre-eminent centre of commerce in antebellum America: St Louis, on the Mississippi River.

I had expected to see the Eads Bridge but the semi-trailers on the spaghetti flyover carried us miles into Missouri in their wake. This, even though it was early on a Sunday morning, reminded me that tackling the interstate is not for the faint-hearted. Having clocked up more than 25,000 rental car miles on our previous visit to the USA, you’d think it would all be second nature but it took some time to turn around and head back to the Downtown exit. Disentangled from the spaghetti, I pulled over on main street and stared out the window while Meryn scoured the Road Atlas in search of the nineteenth-century landmark.

A middle-aged couple strolled along the sidewalk. The woman blew a huge bubble of gum that burst all over her face but a protruding tongue cleaned up the mess and hauled it all back in without her breaking stride. Meryn soon found the Eads Bridge I’d been looking for and we made our way over. A sign near the entrance warned there was no access but approaching traffic proved otherwise so we rode over the River on the steel structure that first spanned the Mississippi in 1874. 

St Louis steamboat interests had fought long and hard to protect what they regarded as their water highway—America’s extensive navigable freshwater system—being superseded by rail transportation. The surest way to halt the train had been to stand in the way of any bridge being built across the Mississippi River. But, as Abraham Lincoln put it to the jury of the Effie Afton case in the United States Circuit Court in Chicago in September 1857, were the boat owners to succeed in this then instead of having the option of year round east-west railroad travel, the American would be limited to carrying on trade during those months when the Mississippi, free of ice, afforded relatively safe passage—would be prevented, that is to say, from realising his destiny to go west.[4]

Bridges were built, the steamboat gave way to railroads, and Chicago stepped into the limelight to challenge St Louis’ status as the pre-eminent city on the western frontier. The writing was on the wall when St Louis lost the right to host the 1860 Republican Party National Convention to Chicago and the whole thing subsequently spelled out when Mississippi River trade all but ceased during the Civil War. By the mid-1860s, Chicago had taken over as the dominant centre of regional commerce. St Louis businessmen realised that they needed a bridge of their own.

The St Louis Merchants Exchange called upon one of its own, J. B. Eads, to lay the groundwork for building that bridge. His salvage company had hauled the Effie Afton up from the river bottom after it had gone down following a collision with the pylons of the first railroad bridge to span the Mississippi. And it was Eads who had designed and built the ironclad warships that Ulysses Grant used to defeat the rebels on the Cumberland, Mississippi, Tennessee and Yazoo Rivers.

Born in 1820 and named for his mother’s cousin (the future president) James Buchanan Eads had arrived in St Louis on a steamboat that exploded and sank as it came in to dock. Thirteen years old at the time, he spent the remainder of his life coming to terms with and striving to conquer that river. Self-taught, like Lincoln, and no less ambitious, Eads established a salvage business to capitalise on the fact that paddleboat boiler explosions were commonplace on America’s arterial waterways. A successful businessman with ties to the White House—President James Buchanan was there from 1857 to 1861 and a Missouri colleague, Edward Bates, was Lincoln’s attorney general—Eads submitted a plan for constructing ironclad gunboats when war broke out between the North and South.

He’d no experience with design of warships before he started and none of building bridges either but Eads had supreme confidence and proposed to construct the world’s first steel bridge, incorporating unprecedentedly wide spans of more than 500 feet. Doubts about the integrity of his engineering threatened to drive off potential investors but Eads secured funds from those who, like Andrew Carnegie, were prepared to examine the track record and listen to his explanation of how he intended to apply the principle of the lever. Work commenced, allegedly at the spot where he had been pulled out of the freezing waters along with his mother and sisters when the steamboat sank in 1833.[5]

When it was nearing completion, the Army Corps of Engineers demanded the St Louis Bridge be torn down. Eads enlisted President Ulysses Grant’s help, the Corps of Engineers backed off, and the Eads Bridge opened on July 4th 1874, paving the way for steel construction to become commonplace. We drove back across the Mississippi on the landmark and were satisfied. Ideally, we’d have capped off our St Louis visit by stopping off at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers but it was upstream and inaccessible, Meryn reckoned, if the map was anything to go on. So we headed south instead.

A Mexican restaurant made a fine late afternoon lunch and we crossed the Mississippi from Missouri to Cairo, Illinois, where Mark Twain’s Huck and Jim had got lost in the fog and failed to take the bend up the Ohio from the Mississippi.[6] There was no mistaking it when we were there. A citizen of St Louis who’d come to Cairo to see the Ohio flow into the Mississippi for himself was disturbed by the sorry state of the park. Broken branches lay across the path and trash was scattered everywhere.

Hurricane Ike—more destructive, even, than Gustav, the hurricane that had enabled Bush and Cheney to skip the Republican Party convention in the Twin Cities upstream—must shoulder some of the blame, the citizen acknowledged, but the authorities in Springfield were failing in their duty to adequately manage the important site, he maintained.

Two years had passed since we’d looked down over the source of the Ohio from high on a hilltop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I stood, now, at its mouth, relieved to be free of the impossible demand that Detective Hamilton had made upon me back then.[7]

A massive grain barge came down the Mississippi from St Louis and turned left to head upstream, crossing the clearly visible demarcation line where the blue water from the east was sucked under by the Old Man and went rolling on down to New Orleans. Ulysses Grant had been there in the early 1860s as military commander of the District of Cairo, his authority extending all the way up the Ohio to the mouth of the Cumberland River. James Eads met Grant at Cairo in January 1862 when the first of the ironclads, USS Carondelet, was commissioned.

Autumn had begun. The Dodge now carried us over the Ohio past leaves changing colour on the trees to Mayfield, Kentucky, where we spent the night. Jerry Seinfeld had stayed in room something or other and his key was on display, along with the newspaper article about how a fellow entertainer had told him Mayfield Super 8 was a good place to stay. It was okay but nothing to compare with the splendid sight, next day, of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers which flow almost side by side as they prepare to empty their contents into the Ohio upstream from Cairo.

Ulysses Grant’s capture of Fort Henry on February 6th 1862 meant that he and his men “had a navigable stream open to us up to Muscle Shoals, Alabama.”[8] The follow-up victory of Fort Donelson, ten days later, might have opened the way for Federal forces to end the American Civil War swiftly, according to Grant, but

Providence ruled differently. [General Halleck failed to seize the initiative and] Time was given the enemy to collect armies and fortify his new positions; and twice afterwards he came near forcing his north-western front up to the Ohio River.[9]

Whatever the case, Ulysses S Grant was promoted to Major-General because of the Federal victory and, as the excellent documentary we viewed in the National Parks’ Service theatre explained, it’s where the great Civil War hero came to be known as “Unconditional Surrender Grant” in another of those curious coincidences which characterise American history: in 1854 Simon Buckner had loaned a destitute Grant money to return home from California; now, here he was, a Confederate general at Fort Donelson left to surrender to Union General Grant’s forces because his commanding officers had fled the scene.

In view of his having been a Good Samaritan to Grant eight years earlier, Buckner hoped to be given some leeway. Grant sent word to Buckner that he could have credit but that “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” The Confederate from Kentucky understood. In 1885, he visited his old friend and former adversary a fortnight before Grant’s death and was a pallbearer at the funeral.[10] 

Hamilton had been on to something, I thought. I had no desire to catch up with him, of course, but the thought of travelling downstream to New Orleans from the source of any one of those west Appalachian rivers—the Cumberland, Ohio, Tennessee—had begun to take root.


Chapter   2    Seeing Double


We arrived in Los Angeles in May 2006, Meryn and I, and hit our first snag at immigration. The uniformed officer took fingerprints and informed us that our fresh new five-year visas did not allow entry into the USA for a whole year. The sentence took on greater authority in being pronounced with a Russian accent but was softened somewhat by the fact that this official was an attractive blond in her mid-thirties whose own mother, she told us, was only ever permitted to stay for six months at a time.

Our protests that we’d gone to considerable expense to obtain the visas—that the consulate official in Melbourne had wished us well for our planned year of travel in the USA, that we had return flights for then—made no impression so we stopped talking and listened, reading between the lines that, come November, we could leave for some European destination and return from there to the USA for another six months.

Bloody hell. We would have bought return tickets to London with stopovers in the USA had the consulate put us in the picture about the unspoken rule. We were unaware, then, that America is a pair of hostile twins, that since consulate and immigration officials work for different departments what the one tells the individual traveller will invariably be at odds with whatever the other says.

Still, we were in, and so collected our baggage and breezed through customs with confidence, pinching ourselves at being back in the USA—for an extended stay. Jet lag and another hour passing through security for the connecting domestic flight to JFK did not suppress our great delight in being there. A couple of hours later, noses pressed against the Perspex, we were staring down at the snow on the Sierra Mountains. That leg of the Sydney to New York flight is invariably lightly booked so we each had a window seat to begin with and then a middle row to stretch out on when ready for sleep.

A night in Manhattan’s Sixty-third Street YMCA and a three-hour Greyhound ride the following afternoon saw us at Union Station, New Haven, Connecticut. One of the first built outside of New York, the nineteenth century New Haven train station stood at the junction of two railroads, the one north to the capital of Connecticut, Hartford, and the other east to New London. My aversion to taking taxis is ever under challenge at these moments but there was nothing especially difficult about finding a bus and making our way to the student apartment we’d sublet for the summer.

A month before taking my year off from work I’d asked an under-thirty colleague at the office whether he had a particular website to recommend concerning our obtaining accommodation in the USA. “Craigslist dot com.” He tossed it off with that youthful air of owning the territory, mildly despairing of a hard question concerning digital technology ever being put to him (or his generation) by someone my age. “Craigslist” was the right answer, of course, especially as regards summer accommodation in New England. The supply, there, of apartments for a three-month stay from late May far outweighs demand and our accommodation was a done deal prior to our arrival.

Rather than try to explain the route, our driver took us beyond the bus terminus to the corner of Trumbull and Whitney so that it was a short walk to Orange Street where Mordecai, the law student from whom we’d sublet, awaited us. He showed Meryn around while I lugged the suddenly very heavy bags to the third floor residence. The hand knitted pullover which had easily warded off the chill wind turned against me during the climb and by the time all of our stuff was in the bedroom I was shy of stairs and dependent upon Meryn for the lay of the land—Mordecai having vacated in a heated rush to be with his lover in Manhattan.

It was immediately apparent that we had taken over the lease on a bachelor pad and that, once we’d cleaned up the kitchen it would suit us very well. I shook hands with Declan, Mordecai’s roommate, who, we’d been told in email exchanges during the negotiations for the lease, spent most of his waking hours at the hospital. Declan welcomed us and insisted that we should feel free to use the tins and condiments left behind by Mordecai since he, Declan, always ate at Subway and knew nothing at all about that part of the house.

I shut my eyes to the mould and took the plunge behind the shower curtain. Meryn, meanwhile, made the kitchen fit for human consumption to occur in, and went through the cupboards to boot. All towelled and fresh, I came out of the bathroom to the prospect of buckwheat and matzo balls. I knew about buckwheat cake from Sonny and Brownie’s cover of ‘Sail Away’ but had never dined out on it.

Buckwheat, then, was the first addition to our range of home cooked meals. If you can find the grain at all it will probably be in the Kosher aisle but few supermarket staff seem ever to have heard of it—or at least not that product as pronounced by a fifth generation Australian.

Mordecai’s was a ‘cooked in’ kitchen. And the larder was only half of it: there was a full range of pots and pans, crockery, cutlery, coffee machines, and Tupperware type storage containers together with enough rolls of aluminium foil to have the Bush Administration indict us on WMD production charges.

True to Mordecai’s word, Declan appeared only at rare intervals. When he did flit through one morning I asked about the smell of gas in the kitchen. He recalled that he and Mordecai had smelt gas, too, when they first moved in but that the real estate agent had had it checked and no leak had been found. One gets used to it. Well one doesn’t but it would clearly be bad form to make a fuss so, as difficult as it was for me with my squabbling Irish Catholic upbringing, I bit my tongue. We were subletting and should take up issues only with Declan and/or Mordecai; they’d then intercede with Honey Pear—her downstairs—the prickly real estate agent whose ubiquitous For Rent signs blighted the neighbourhood.

That directive—that all communication be funnelled from sub-lessee to lessee to landlord—fell at the first post because Ms Pear lost no time in obtaining our (sub-lessee) cell phone number for her office girls to dial daily. American telecommunication corporations have “got you coming and going” to use a Merynism: they charge the customer for both made and received calls from the moment the number is dialled.

The Pear assault drove me to distraction. First thing in the morning the phone would ring with notification that the agency would be showing someone the apartment at 2 pm or tomorrow at 10 am or on “Saturday morning around eleven.” I thought that by paying the rent we’d have the run of the place but Honey had us pegged as patsies, de-facto caretakers who’d clean up and learn to come and go in accordance with her schedule of inspections for would-be post-August tenants.

Ms Pear and I came face to face when one of her minions phoned to say the painters would be in the next day. “Oh no, no, no,” I protested, “This is too much.” The painters, it was agreed after we had traded points of view about the payment of rent, could begin once we’d paid our final day’s rent and moved out—three months hence. And could they please stop phoning to say they were bringing someone through? Email exchanges with Mordecai had established that the lease entitled the agent to bring anyone in with a couple of hours’ notice. If that’s how it worked then so be it, I said, but why must we suffer the annoying phone calls? They promised to desist, but it was an agreement honoured in the breach.

Things weren’t turning out the way we had ’em planned.[11] Still, New Haven was a delightful university town and we enjoyed being there. Comcast gave us the sixth series of The Sopranos—we’d not seen the fifth yet—as well as Big Love. We crossed paths with Declan over News Hour with Jim Lehrer and acquired a taste for Book TV with its platform for authors. The fact that the piles of books which lay about the apartment leaned to the left struck me as all of a piece with the pink fridge magnet that claimed watching some 1950s’ musical had made Mordecai gay.

Of course everyone knows that gay men are thick on the ground in the Republican Party so being homosexual in America does not necessarily incline one to the progressive side of politics. Being open and honest about it does that. That Declan’s first loves were history and philosophy explained the book on top of the stack nearest the television set—Robert Fogel’s The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism. Not what one might expect of a trainee surgeon at Yale; nor would you imagine him spending the summer working to get a Democrat in the White House and yet he did, as a volunteer for JFK, John Forbes Kerry, in 2004. Long faces all round.

We liked Declan. Warm, busy, easy-going, he was our type of guy. So it came as a surprise, to be sure, when he told us that he would be leaving for California and thought we might like to meet Bob, the poet who’d be subletting his bedroom. We should have seen it coming. Still, a 35-year-old would probably be able to fit in with a couple of old fogies just as well as an intern?

Roaring twenties music was coming through the hi-fi system the night Bob came round. I turned the volume down as Declan introduced us and subsequently turned it off so as to re-assure our new flatmate that he wouldn’t be subjected to my musical taste once he’d moved in. He liked all kinds of music, Bob said, just so long as it wasn’t too loud. That was a good sign, one which counterbalanced the Rastafarian visage.

It soon became clear—he relocated the internet router and hi-fi system from the living room to his bedroom and piled dirty dishes in the kitchen sink—that Bob was 35-going-on-15. Born and bred in New Haven, Connecticut, of Haitian parents, he was fond of playing with his telephone—beeping from this to that option for twenty minutes at a time—in the kitchen. At 3 am. I asked if he wouldn’t mind playing with the device in his bedroom since our room adjoined the kitchen and we preferred to sleep through the wee hours? The bewildered look he gave me suggested that he judged me to be from Mars.

We had our moments, Bob and I, where we tried to find common ground. For his part, he assured me that he was not a Rapper but a Hip-Hopper, the latter having a respect for women which the former lack, apparently. And he took it upon himself to be my New Haven guide, starting with the “three streets named after the guys who invented New Haven.” Try as we might, though, we found none—common ground that is.

Patience is a virtue, I know, but I drew the line at the type of nonsense Bob passed off as knowledge. He told me, for instance, that AIDS was created by the CIA in order to wipe out black men. And he and his buddies had come to the conclusion that President George W. Bush ordered that explosives be planted on the various floors of the Twin Towers in readiness for the nine-eleven attacks, which explosives were timed to go off at regular intervals following the impact of the aircraft.

According to Bob, then, the two aircraft did not so much cause the collapse of the World Trade Center as provide convenient cover for the Bush Administration’s having done so. Apart from violating Occam’s sound advice that explanations should not be multiplied beyond the necessary, Bob’s conspiracy theory flew in the face of all that we knew about America in general and the dysfunctional Bush Administration in particular. The various departments could not have co-operated in any such diabolical plot to govern by fear.

Connecticut third floor apartments are notoriously stuffy in summer, we now learned. Ninety-five degree Fahrenheit temperatures and increasingly heated exchanges over the router interfered with sleep and left me irritated and irascible. Deep-throated Harley Davidsons roared through the streets after midnight drowning out the sound of distant gunfire.

It got worse. One night, a constable in an armchair sat at the doorway of a medieval building, flanked by men in brilliantly coloured robes. A pair of trumpeters led a motley parade of men on horseback, two by two. These were followed by a group of noblemen even more brightly attired than those at the head of the parade, attended by servants and puffed up with their own self-importance. There were horses, too, and trumpeters, but no pairs. And bringing up the rear was a single horseman, attended by even more lackeys.

A noisy group of bystanders alternately cheered and jeered at the aristocrats in the passing parade. Their waxing and waning communicated itself to the rest of the onlookers, who now became noisy and partisan. I was somehow separate from the throng but held in thrall, and on edge due to the din. A single voice detached itself from the madding crowd and was yelling directly at me, just as if I was responsible for the division that had taken hold. I awoke, scared and shaken. The hi-fi was on in the other bedroom and I could just make out the words ‘mother fucking.’ I pressed a button on my travel clock. A little after midnight. Bob must have been rehearsing his poem in readiness for a performance at the Hip-Hop Club. Time to get away.

We’d gone to New Haven for our first three months in the USA because Meryn wanted to conduct research in a Yale archive. She, too, had sleepless nights. Her tossing and turning was occasioned by long days in the vault copying extracts of hand-written documents from the 1830s that were too fragile to be photocopied. A chance encounter with a fellow researcher, however, provided her with a solution to the problem: she adopted his technique of photographing the sought after records with a high-resolution digital camera.  It was as much a boon for me as Meryn because we now had time to get out and about.

In June we rented a Chevrolet Cobalt for a week-long tour of Massachusetts. Setting out from New Haven we approached a set of traffic lights and were surprised to see a semi-trailer—Americans call them tractor-trailers—emerge from a narrow lane on the right. More surprising, still, the driver of the huge rig seemed intent on turning a very tight corner to come toward us.

He’d never make it, we agreed, and watched with interest to see how he’d get out of the fix. Interest turned to amazement and thence to wonder as it dawned on us that the semi-trailer was making a U-turn! In the blink of an eye the tractor-trailer went head first back down the narrow lane. We saw but didn’t believe. The light changed and we moved slowly through the intersection and east to the Connecticut River.

It was one of New England’s wettest months on record. The car, though, had good quality windscreen wipers, heater, demisters, and even power-steering—all the mod cons. Their very competitive rental-car market virtually guarantees that whatever you drive in the USA will be trouble-free. Unless you hit an elk and have it come kicking and screaming through the windscreen. Kangaroos aren’t in the race.

Make no mistake; it is a race. Hurtling up the wrong side of Interstate-95 at 65 mph (miles per hour) in driving rain is a wake-up call. And you daren’t slow down. ‘Keep up, or cause an accident’ is the code of the road. Heading for Providence, Rhode Island, I took an unexpected turn onto Route-1 South while Meryn had her head buried in the road atlas. “What’d you do that for?” she yelled. As navigator, she gave the directions. “I got into the wrong lane,” I lied.

I couldn’t tell her what was going on but wouldn’t be able to cover it up either, by the looks of things. Meryn acquiesced. To immediately correct a navigational error on the freeway is to court death so we had long ago agreed to persevere on any unwanted course until the danger had passed.

Aliens from a mirror image road system where one keeps to the left, we had found ourselves in all kinds of unanticipated trouble with our initial venture onto the highway outside Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in 2005. When Meryn said to make a right hand turn I went left, and vice-versa. And when she said “Turn left” she sometimes meant “Turn right.” We quickly adopted the terminology to “Turn soft” or “Turn hard;” it works as well to say “Take a hard” or “Take a soft.” North and south, on the other hand, give rise to a more intractable problem having to do with the hemispheres either side of the equator: instead of the sun traversing the Northern sky from right to left it does the opposite in America—from left to right across the Southern sky.

Unbeknownst to me before I got out from Down Under, my good sense of direction is tied to the position of the sun. And since it is second nature, I instinctively know where I am—in Australia. The situation was reversed for me in the USA. While my sense of where A is in relation to B remained intact, the cardinal points were rotated through 180°. The upshot was that I had to think through where north, south, east, and west were. This necessity to consciously orientate oneself was disconcerting—Meryn had emigrated from England to Australia as a twelve-year-old and instinctively associates April with springtime—but relatively inconsequential by comparison with the switch from the left to the right hand side of the road.

The interstate system, integral to President Eisenhower’s defence strategy, was a mixed blessing. It made railroads obsolete, laid the tracks on which global warming runs, and yet saved small towns from being overrun with passing trade. Trade is to the American what fear of authority is to the Australian. Passing trade leaves the interstate freeway and travels along the backroads slowing in stages from 55 mph on the outskirts to 25 mph on Main Street.

Crossing Narragansett Bay on the toll bridge from Conanicut Island, we checked in to a Newport, Rhode Island, motel. It had never been our intention to pay homage to Alan Bond but we enjoyed mingling with the yachting fraternity at the Marina. It was as hot, there, on America’s Cup Boulevard in June 2006, as it had been that September day in India, 1983, when, bemoaning the pitiful state of the reflecting pool at the Taj Mahal, I was disappointed to hear the latest score—Liberty 3, Australia II 1—concerning the famous boat race. When I learned, months afterwards, that the property shark had ended America’s 132-year winning streak and given convicts a good name it was Christmas.

The following morning we drove to Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was there, at the tip of Cape Cod, that the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower in 1620. I’d imagined being able to see both the famous harbour and The Atlantic from the road along the narrow spit but saw neither because of the vegetation that held the sand in place. It was something of a let down.

Whole crustacean was on offer at the café we called to for lunch but our selection was shoestring chowder with fringe benefit. We chose, that is to say, the least expensive dish on the menu and were spared, thereby, an introduction to the hostess. She chatted instead with the couple who had ordered lobster and told them she’d met her husband, the proprietor, when she’d stopped in for a beer. The rest was history.

Meryn and my eyes met. That’s why we were there—history. Cafés and bars are full of it. But it wasn’t just the knowledge of how the forty-year-old had come to be living out on Cape Cod that interested us. We learned, too, that it’s no better on the Florida Keys, that the road south-west from Key Largo is all scrub and no ocean as well.

Meryn took a turn at the wheel on our way to the motel at Hyannis. Shouldn’t she be closer to the middle of the road? No, but it sure felt like it. Being a front seat passenger made me a back seat driver. And being in America made the motel clerk from Gujarat, Mr Patel, homesick. “Ah, Australia,” he beamed when Meryn handed over her driver’s licence. We were welcomed as citizens of a civilized, cricket-loving country.

“Your Prime Minister played cricket in India.”

“Yes, we saw his bowling action on TV,” I replied—promptly, to head Meryn off at the pass. She hated John Howard. A nasty, mean-spirited, “lying rodent” (according to his colleagues), our then Prime Minister was a national embarrassment, and I didn’t like him. But Meryn hated him with a passion for deploying the politics of fear and didn’t mind saying so. We soon gained the impression that Mr Patel’s American customers didn’t like him, either—presumably because he gave short shrift to any guests from other than great cricketing nations.

A broken down old Buick couple struggled into the reception area and interrupted Patel’s recollection of having padded up with Garfield Sobers at Adelaide Oval during his student days. He quickly bustled them out in order to further develop his cricketing career but Meryn stumped him with a mischievous question about his degree from the University of the Pineapple in Parsippany, New Jersey, a framed copy of which hung on the wall.

He buttonholed us on the subject of Adelaide Oval when we returned the key to reception next morning. We made it clear that cricket isn’t our thing and wanted only to snap the graduation certificate and be out the door. Poor Patel—abandoned as always to baseball tourists fresh from Dunkin Donuts. But we’d left a jacket behind so I had to go back and face the music. There, at reception, a lithe black couple from the West Indies made everything right. I don’t like reggae; I love it.

Black clouds piled up over Plymouth, the next port of call, and rolling thunder heralded our arrival at the famous rock which commemorates the Pilgrims’ arrival in America. Having concluded that Plymouth was more likely to provide safe harbour, they had moved there from Provincetown after a few weeks. And, as luck would have it, were introduced to an English-speaking Patuxet Indian, Squanto, who happened to live there. They might have perished, this vulnerable band of colonists, but for Squanto. He was a gift from God, according to the Pilgrims’ long serving Governor, William Bradford, and Americans have ever since regarded the experience of redemption as of divine origin, and central.

There’s no denying the fact of the extraordinary coincidence which brought the Pilgrims to Squanto’s shore: the Mayflower had set sail for the colony of Virginia but drifted 500 miles off course to put down anchor at Cape Cod. There was next to no chance that there’d be an English-speaking Indian at journey’s end to guide them through the wilderness. It’s not surprising that the seventeenth-century Calvinist colonists credited God for contriving the meeting with Squanto.

Nowadays, we’re inclined to regard it as just one of those things; extraordinary, yes, but not divine. And if serendipity is divine, who’s to say that it’s the work of the Judeo-Christian God? Happy coincidence is, after-all, the hallmark of Trickster, that pagan divinity whom we still acknowledge on April Fools’ Day.

The colonists called their settlement New Plymouth. On April Fools’ Day, 1621, the Wampanoag Chief, Massasoit, accompanied by Squanto, signed the first treaty between native Americans and colonists. New Plymouth survived until annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Company of Boston and Salem in 1691. A year later Trickster turned up in the village of Salem and assaulted the senses of Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam.

It was raining cats and dogs when we were there, staring up at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables and crouching down to examine seventeenth-century tombstones in the burial ground. Meryn is especially fond of the Puritan death’s head design which reminds everyman that all things must pass.

Puritan Judge Hathorne handed down his finding that Williams and Putnam had been visited by Bridget Bishop the witch, that her spectre had hovered over them. The American set out on a witch hunt, and got a taste for it. There’s some that say Judge Hathorne’s great-great grandson—the celebrated nineteenth-century writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne—couldn’t stomach what had been done in the family name and so changed it.

We headed for Concord but stopped to see Lexington’s handsome timber tavern where the minutemen had rendezvoused in 1775. Meryn spoke to a docent who was huddled beneath an umbrella. All done up in eighteenth-century breeches, knee-high boots, and three-cornered hat, he thought the British had come and took up the case of Paul Revere’s horse. We should have owned up about the accent but didn’t want to have to admit to knowing nothing about The Crocodile Hunter.

Paul Revere rode through Lexington in April 1775 and warned the minutemen—Massachusetts militia who were to be ready to fight at a minute’s notice—that the British had left their Boston barracks and would be advancing on Concord to confiscate the revolutionaries’ gunpowder and weapons cache.

Eighty-five years after the event, Henry Longfellow immortalised Paul Revere for riding from Boston to Concord. Poetic licence enabled Longfellow to ignore the fact that the hero had had to walk the last part of the 14 mile journey because the British took Revere’s borrowed horse out from under him. His name didn’t lend itself to legend but Israel Bissel’s 345 mile ride from Watertown, Connecticut, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to tell his countrymen that the American Revolution had begun was a no less impressive feat.

So near Boston, and so remote, the village of Concord took us by surprise. Hawthorne had moved there in the turbulent 1850s and lived near his friend and close contemporary, Emerson. A wise old owl, Hawthorne did not adhere to Emerson’s philosophy yet stood by him when the time came for a commemorative daguerreotype.

I’m not persuaded by the great Ralph Waldo either but posed for a photograph at the front door of his house. The camera caught Meryn a stone’s throw from Walden Pond, at Gropius’ house. Bauhaus modernism looked uncomfortable to me, nestled there in Thoreau’s backyard. I’ve since come to think of that 1930s’ architectural statement being not so much ‘uncomfortable’ as ‘at odds with itself’—American.

Framingham nestles in the shadow of a turnpike, a toll road, and would therefore be given a wide berth other things being equal. Meryn’s research subject—born the same year as Hawthorne, and possessed of as much visionary zeal as Emerson—had lived there, though, and that tipped the balance. We didn’t find the house and never figured out how to determine whether or not a given toll road was privately owned either. The interstate highways are impressive; the turnpikes, by contrast, are by and large poorly designed, not properly maintained, and unsafe. 

Torrential rain put an end to a planned stopover in Boston so we headed for the port town of New Bedford. Timber, scarce in seventeenth-century England, was harvested by the boatload in colonial America and shipped back to the mother country. Bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, wheelwrights, sailmakers, shoemakers, tailors and other craftsman took the raw materials that came to market from the surrounding farms and lots and transformed them into barrels, gloves, houses, jackets, ropes, ships, wharves, and so on. Port towns concentrated colonial wealth along the coastal strip of the Atlantic seaboard. New Bedford had the added advantage of being a nineteenth-century whaling port.

Whales oiled the wheels of international trade in the horse-and-buggy era and occasionally rammed whaling ships. Herman Melville was a year-old infant when the Nantucket whaler, Essex, was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. He read a survivor’s account of that ordeal after leaving New Bedford on a whaling voyage aboard the Acushnet in 1841 and, taking literary counsel from good friend and neighbour, Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote Moby Dick, the first modernist novel.

Hawthorne’s Puritan ancestry haunts the pages of Moby Dick but Melville’s own forebears are there, too, no more convinced than Starbuck by Captain Ahab’s impotent boast from the quarter-deck that he would penetrate the mask. Melville knew that the first move an American makes is to don the mask.[12] His grandfather had dressed up as an Indian and thrown British East India Company tea into Boston Harbor in December 1773.

I was in the USA but five minutes before realizing that I’d have to cover up the fact that I was all at sea, that The Pequod I had charge of would be mashed to matchsticks if I did not open up my mind as Ishmael had. For now though, on dry land, I walked with Meryn around the town made wealthy from the trade in whale oil.

Wherever there has been wealth in America there’s a copy of Graeco-Roman architecture. New Bedford is no exception. Trickster is there, too, as Mercurius, the Roman god of trade, commerce and profit. The columns on the left of New Bedford’s Merchants and Mechanics Bank building don’t match those on the right. The plaque outside tells us that the reason we’re “Seeing Double,” there, is that when the Greek Revival building was constructed in the 1830s the merchants and mechanics contracted separate firms to carry out the work. It gradually dawned on me, over the following months, that it’s the story of the United States of America: the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.

Chapter   3    The Staircase Group

Shortly after taking up residence in New Haven, Meryn and I were out and about for the Memorial Day celebrations. Memorial Day is akin to Anzac Day in Australia but without the rain or the football. Memorial Day weekend is the beginning of the ‘driving season’ holiday period. We figured that patriotism would be more on show that year, 2006, than when we had last witnessed the goings-on for Memorial Day in the year 2000. Back then, wandering around Downtown Chicago, we had been amazed to see a pathetic parade of ol’ sojers strung out along State Street, I think it was.

We set off for the New Haven Vietnam Vet’s memorial service down at Long Wharf. The sight of dozens of Harley-Davidsons with grizzled outcasts in the saddle was a good sign but that celebration of fallen war heroes was over before we figured out how to cross the freeway on foot. So we toured a relatively recent reconstruction of the Amisted, the slave ship whose African cargo broke free of its chains and sailed into New Haven Harbor, Connecticut, around the time New Bedford’s Double Bank was being built.

From there we walked Downtown, to The Green, where the Mayor and various dignitaries delivered orations prior to a wreath laying ceremony. Most of the thirty-two people in attendance were family and friends of the fourteen officiating personnel, and so went through the motions. Half a dozen, though, were down-at-heel Vietnam vets in wheelchairs or on crutches, each wearing patriotism on his sleeve but abandoned nonetheless. 

Two military men took up positions on the war-memorial fountain situated in the centre of The Greenthe old colonial Common where, upon hearing Israel Bissell’s news that the minutemen and British had clashed in Lexington, Benedict Arnold had drilled his revolutionaries on April 21st 1775and much saluting and straight-backed seriousness followed. The Mayor’s blue blazer and fawn trousers stood out against the battle fatigues and the bugler stayed at his post throughout ‘God Bless America.’ The soprano didn’t cup a hand to her ear and it came out all wrong. But that didn’t faze the dignitaries and they continued to sing along.

The Green filled to capacity when Dave Brubeck performed there a few weeks later so the poor turnout in honour of those who have died fighting for the nation was a good indication of the American’s priorities. But you’d have gained an altogether different impression had you stayed at home and watched it all on TV: Memorial Day patriotism, there, was packaged and presented as something of great substance.

The make-believe world of television commentary in which America’s soldiers were reportedly the bravest and best in the world—each and every one of them a hero who loved his country—ignored the fact that untold numbers of men and women who had served their nation in the theatre of war suffered appalling treatment at the hands of their government. Military personnel who displayed symptoms of mental illness caused by the trauma of seeing a four-year-old Iraqi’s legs blown off by modern artillery, or an Afghani street vendor decapitated, were dishonourably discharged by the Army. Seeing double.[13]

On our first visit to the USA, in April 2000—the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon—the dominant TV commentary had been to the effect that America’s Armed Forces would never again become trapped in a foreign land fighting an enemy who had nothing to lose in driving the invader from his home. Within a year, George W Bush had entered the White House with a mind to invade Iraq and no idea of what to do if the enemy fought back. His father had subdued Iraq’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, and then been ignominiously defeated in the 1992 Presidential race. George W was determined to right the wrong that had thereby been done to the family name and appointed war hawks to key positions in his administration. Using al Qaeda’s September 11th 2001 attack on the USA as a pretext, he instructed Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, to update the USA’s war plan for Iraq. America made ready to repeat the mistake of Vietnam.

A couple of hours after leaving New Bedford, Massachusetts, Meryn and I made ready to cross the swing bridge in Mystic, Connecticut. We were back in New Haven by nightfall and dined at the pizza bar on the corner of Bradley and State. A nurse we met there picked up on the funny accent and said “You guys hate us, don’t you?” The friendly, open American mourned the loss of international goodwill squandered by the Bush Administration. We didn’t get around to the more problematic conundrum of how such warm-hearted individuals have engendered a republic which so readily meddles in the affairs of far flung sovereign nations.

Next morning, we went west along the coast from New Haven past Bridgeport and stopped on the road to Fairfield when Meryn saw a brightly coloured parrot. A little further along, dozens of them flitted in and out of massive stick nests atop timber telegraph poles. A woman came out of her house and explained that it was an invasion of Monk Parakeets. We hadn’t asked, but, as is typical of the American, she put herself in our place and concluded that we would like to know about Myiopsitta monachus. She had guessed correctly.

The great eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, Adam Smith, regarded the capacity to reflect upon one’s own emotional state to the point of seeing a given situation from the other person’s point of view to be the hallmark of commercial society. In seeking to strike a bargain with someone it helps to have an appreciation of what the proposed trade looks like from his side of the fence. The French referred to this tendency of trade to enhance human relations as sweet commerce whereas in England they used Lord Shaftesbury’s term for it—politeness. Just as coins were polished (had their rough edges worn off) through passage from one pocket to the next, so did individuals acquire polish and self-confidence through commerce.

They go hand in hand, then, the hail-fellow-well-met American and his quintessentially commercial civilisation. The woman in the pizza bar, the local resident who came out of her house just in case we might be wondering about the parakeet phenomenon, or any of the various individuals on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with whom we talked in April 2000 about a gruesome crime committed a couple of hours earlier in the stairwell of the building across the street—they’re all born of that remarkable Enlightenment experiment in civilised commercial society, the United States of America. And those Enlightenment intellects like Adam Smith and David Hume, et al, regarded the person who is able to put himself in the other’s place as having two thoughts at once—as being able to see things from the other point of view—seeing double.

There’s another side to the coin of sweet commerce, of course, whereby Trickster takes the mark into his confidence in order to deceive. This is Herman Melville’s American—the confidence man—a character who’s seeing double because he’s being double. Deeply spiritual and addicted to consumerism, a patriot who distrusts government, the American is a paradox of opposites. He founded a republic on the rule of law yet has the greatest admiration for the outlaw.

He hasn’t become double, the American, but was ever thus. In asserting his independence and breaking free from the chains that had tied him to the British Crown, the American declared that all men are created equal and then signed a Constitution which guaranteed his right to conduct commerce in the slave trade. And the new government he made was structured so as to ensure that one arm pulled against the other. This has ever since enabled the American to rail against his government as ineffective when all the while he relishes the fact that it is deliberately hamstrung. Herein lies his sense of humour and love of the paradoxical tall tale—such as the story of the man who was so lofty he had to climb a ladder to shave.

In Fairfield, where we stopped for morning tea, a bronze Mark Twain read from Huckleberry Finn. Twain was at home with paradox. Asked what he thought of the Vienna Opera, for instance, he said that “Wagner’s music is not as bad as it sounds.” We entered a coffee shop that had a sign on the window reflecting the mood of the moment: “There was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air.” Connecticut’s long serving Democratic Party senator, Joe Lieberman, was under challenge from anti-war candidate, Ned Lamont, in the upcoming August Primary.

North-west of Fairfield, in Bethel, Connecticut, we photographed a mural of Jumbo, the famous elephant purchased from London Zoo in 1881 for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Phineas T. Barnum, America’s foremost nineteenth-century trickster, was born in Bethel on July 5th 1810. Tree-filled Barnum Square provided welcome shade and a pleasant perspective on Main Street. North-east of there, in Hartford, we visited the Harriet Beecher Stowe residence—she the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin published the same year as Moby Dick, in 1851. Mark Twain’s mansion—Meryn called it an ‘architectural folly’—is right next door.

On the road back to New Haven we chanced upon a trompe l’oeil (‘fool-the-eye’) sculpture, a pair of panels whose wooden slats were arranged to give the impression of a flight of stairs. A marvellous outdoor composition, this fool-the-eye artwork, alludes to Charles Willson Peale’s ‘The Staircase Group’ (1795), the trompe l’oeil painting which famously fooled George Washington.

Starting out with impeccable credentials—he was the son of an embezzler—Peale might have become America’s foremost nineteenth-century trickster figure. He hadn’t the heart for the art of deception, however, and let his head get filled with the Enlightenment ideal of fostering the development of evidence-based knowledge subject to scrutiny. To that end, Peale filled his Philadelphia Museum with scientific exhibits designed to dispel myth and increase the public’s understanding of the natural world. No-one gets rich doing that in America.

After dropping Meryn off at the apartment and the Chevy at the rental yard, I crossed Whalley Avenue and asked a young black woman standing there whether or not that was the place to catch a Downtown bus.

“If it ever comes,” she said. “I’ve been here since 8.45 for the 8.48 and the bus should have been here. I’m supposed to start work at nine an’ I’m gonna get it.”

“Won’t your boss understand that the bus was late?”

“Oh yeah! She’s got additoode. And I had yesterday off so she’s gonna be pissed.”

“So she’s not very understanding of what it’s like for you to get to work if the bus doesn’t come, huh?”

“She’ll say I should have walked down the hill and caught the 4B but I didn’t know the 8.48 wouldn’t come. What time do you have?”

“It’s 9.15. Does the bus often come late of a morning?”

“You know I can’t say that it does. But I normally work nights so I don’t know. My friend had to work for me yesterday and I’m doin’ his 9 ’til 3 today but I gotta leave by 2 to pick up the kids from the school bus. Oh man, she’s gonna be so pissed.”

“Is she difficult with everyone or does she single you out?”

“Hah. She’s got so much additoode you wouldn’t believe. Customers say to me she’s got too much additoode and I have to tell ’em she’s the boss.”

“How old are your kids?”

“Five and eight.”

“How long have you worked at this place?”

“At the Dollar Store. I’ve been there five months.”

“What’s the work like? Do you get sick of it?”

“Yeah, sure. It sucks. What time is it now?”

“Nine-twenty. If you are sick do they pay you for the day off?”

She looks at me with incredulity. “Oh yeah, sure, I’d be sick every day if they’d pay me.”

“Would it help if you had a witness that the bus was late?”


“Where’s the dollar store?”

“A little ways down Whalley. It’s not far from Downtown.”

“Well I’m here on holiday and don’t have to go to work so if you think it would make a difference I’ll come in and tell your boss that we were both at the bus stop for a bus that didn’t show.”

“I’d like that. Thanks.”

A slim oriental woman who had appeared near us a few minutes earlier now began pacing and took out her mobile phone.

“Is it easy to get jobs here?”

“Look at her. And she’s only been here five minutes. Yeah, sometimes it is and sometimes not. You’re always too scared to quit a job in case you can’t find another.”

“Would you like to get a different kind of job?”

“Well my father works at Yale and me and my brother keep applying but we never get an interview. Even though my Dad works there—and my cousin. Even my Mom used to work there but we can’t even get an interview.”

“What sort of work would you do at Yale if you could work there?”

 “An SCR.”

“What’s an SCR?”

“In the hospital. I used to do it in a private clinic but I was drawan’ blood and you don’ know what’s in that blood. You might accidentally stick yourself, you know, so I quit.”

“Can you do a course to get into a job you’d like?”

“Yeah, I’m thinkin’ of becoming an EN or a SN. But I don’t know. It’s hard with the kids. What time do you have?”

“Nine-forty-five. You’ve been here an hour.”

“Oh man. I knew I shoulda walked down the hill. She’s gonna say I shoulda walked down the hill. What would she know about catchin’ the bus? She thinks everyone should have a car to get to work.”

A young woman on ridiculously high pale blue-and-white stilletto boots with matching slacks and top emerged from nowhere to cross the road.

“She’s gonna die in them shoes,” said my bus-stop companion as the woman strolled across the pedestrian crossing, flagged down a car driven by a young man, and sped away.

“Hmm. Where’s that bus. If she says ‘You’re fired’ I’m gonna have such additoode. I’m gonna have additoode today, I can tell ya. Oh! And here’s the bus at last.”

We boarded and I sat beside my companion. Opposite us, an imperial looking black woman in a gopher commanded attention as she held forth on the subject of a recent visit from a neighbour.

“He came with a bunch of roses. ‘What you doin’ bringin’ them roses for?’ I says and he says ‘Long stem roses for your birthday.’ I was so surprised. ‘Them long stem roses for my birthday?’ and he says ‘Yes, Ma’am. Fifty long stem roses for your birthday.’ I’m fifty years old and he gives me fifty long stem roses for my birthday! Fifty long stem roses.”

The bus stopped and about ten people got on. One of them was my height, half my age, and sported a baseball cap atop shifty eyes. He looked at the rest of us as if we’d all conspired to make the bus late. Someone said that there had been an accident and the news rippled through the passengers and brought a measure of calm in its wake. After another stop I realised that there were few seats vacant—the imperial woman having taken out four with her mobility scooter. I stood up to let a young woman with a babe in arms sit down.

The imperial woman’s voice rose to the occasion as she cried “That’s why the sun is shining this morning. Because there’s another gentleman on the bus. That makes three. There are three gentlemen on the bus this morning.”  

A couple of stops further on it became clear that the bus is for the poor, the sick, and the crippled. There were three men my height, two of whom wore baseball hats. Was it my hatlessness they looked upon with suspicion or the fact that I had been singled out for taking a stand by the fifty-year-old who gave the running commentary?

The bus sailed past a stop and the gopher called out for the driver to halt.

“There’s no room,” somebody explained.

“Move to the back and make room, now,” the gopher demanded. “The sun is shinin’ this mornin’ ’cos there are three gentlemen on the bus.” 

The poor, the sick, and the lame moved toward the centre doors. The bus stopped and my black girl got off through the front door, lookin’ at me as she went. I got off and she approached me. “Thanks for helpin’ me out. My boss is gonna be so pissed.”

We walked into the Dollar Store where I expected to see a big black sheila ten foot tall and scary as hell but the boss was a dried up white woman about my own age. She accepted my witness statement on behalf of the black girl who was now at her till but directed a definite air of ‘tskness’ toward my bus stop companion. I left the store by the wrong door and set off Downtown. A tiny man came out from behind a tree and we recognized one another as having been fellow travellers on the bus. His baseball cap was crooked. At the intersection with Broadway I recognised the three pronged street formation which Bob had mentioned: Whalley Avenue, Goffe Street and Dixwell Avenue all came to a point at Broadway.

Summer rolled on. We walked a wide radius of streets around New Haven—past houses with Ionian columns, and others with Doric or Corinthian, to Fair Haven with its Grand Avenue swing bridge across the Quinnipiac River and west, past the black Leave it to Beaver neighbourhood near Scantlebury Park and out onto Whalley where we shopped in the supermarket and lugged the groceries home under a deceptively hot sun. Meryn studied the flora—collected samples of tree leaves and subsequently identified them as Sycamore, Maple, White Oak, Red Oak, Elm, Chestnut, Horse Chestnuts (for conkers), and so on—while I speculated about selection pressure on the fauna.

The American housefly seemed to have adapted to an environment where there were almost no fly swatters. Australian flies have eyes in the back of their heads and are fiendishly difficult to kill with a rolled up newspaper. The American fly, though, was quite unprepared for the old fashioned method of dispatch and succumbed in droves—a consequence, presumably, of American television advertisements having drowned out Rachel Carson’s warning about a Silent Spring with the message that householders should wage chemical warfare on the nation’s insect fauna?

The American has his heart in the right place and we can rest assured that Ms Carson’s intellectual heirs will win back her constituents—people like Leo and Betty from North Carolina—in the coming decade. Leo, an academic with a special interest in Florence Nightingale’s influence on George McClellan and his organization of the Army of the Potomac, had sought out and read Meryn’s doctoral thesis during the dark ages of post-modern flim flam.[14]

Like Meryn, Leo had not been persuaded by the turn from rigorous evidence-based research toward methodology so he was relieved and delighted to find a kindred spirit. They met face to face on our 2005 US visit and became firm friends. Betty and Leo would be attending a family reunion in Connecticut, and had taken a shore cottage—a demountable—near Old Saybrook for the summer break; they’d invited Meryn and me to join them for a few days. The American is generous; it’s in his being. Betty and Leo are generous to a fault.

Leo collected us from the Orange Street sidewalk and took us on a tour of the New Haven he’d known during his years at Yale. Double-parked on the corner of Whitney and Trumbull, he strode into a Yale administration office and introduced Meryn as the ‘world authority’ on one aspect of that institution’s raison d’être. The personnel were polite but protective, as one might expect, and poor Meryn didn’t know where to look.

Leo pressed on, working his way through this door and that in search of someone worthy of being introduced to this world authority who’d turned up unannounced. Which is not to diminish Meryn’s accomplishment in becoming, indeed, the foremost scholar in her field. But we’re not used to this full frontal approach. It’s not just that we’re too tiny to bear down upon those we stand before, bear down upon them as Leo does with his wide grin and barrel chest. We’re Australians. We carry a convict past and shrink from authority. We assume that the doors to an institution are there to keep us in our place.

The American sees things from the opposite side: it’s a free world, and he has as much right as the next man to enter a given space. It took us a while to realise that we had misinterpreted the intention behind the ubiquitous barrier, everywhere apparent in the USA, took time to appreciate that it’s not there to prevent your passage but to stop a bomb from being carried across the threshold. You do in fact have as much right as the next man to be there according to the American; he puts a premium on freedom.

Most Americans, it’s true, would not have barged into the office with a cowering world authority in tow. He might live down South in Carolina, but Leo is still a Connecticut Yankee, the epitome of confidence. And we had no sooner returned to the car when he ducked back and badgered the hapless staff to give up their sole copy of a commemorative booklet of pictures we’d seen, to hand it over to Leo on behalf of the world authority; it sits on her bookshelf, a fond reminder of the summer of 2006.

We now went east to Fair Haven, the backdrop to Leo’s childhood. He took us to what had been his grandfather’s house, distinguished by the fact that it had had the New Haven to New London railroad running through its backyard, and from there across the Quinnipiac, which we then followed. Overlooking the river next to the mothballed Ferry Street Bridge he pulled into a business premises and stopped the car. The office staff, there, too, were nonplussed at this stranger’s sudden arrival. Meryn and I were anxious lest they take umbrage but Leo merely smiled, reminding us that since the business probably employed illegal immigrants it was they who’d be nervous.

This was where his great-grandfather’s body had been taken in 1892, after it had been recovered from the swirling waters of Long Island Sound, here where the Irish American community brought their oyster catch and traded in the nineteenth century, he informed us, as we watched a fellow leave the office to approach the car. Leo timed his reverse manoeuvre to perfection and pulled up alongside the business representative. “I’m showing these Australians around,” he said, smiling broadly before driving across onto Fairmont Avenue and continuing on down the road to East Shore Park where he gained free entry simply by singing the “showing Australians around” refrain.

Once inside, we walked to Lighthouse Point, at the mouth of the Quinnipiac, where Patrick King had drowned on that awful day. Working aboard his yacht—42 feet long and 18 feet wide with two masts but small draught—a sudden gust of wind saw the boom swing round and knock the 56-year-old-oyster fisherman senseless into New Haven Harbor. King’s daughters, Annie and Minnie, witnessed the tragedy.

That night, Meryn and I feared we’d be present at Leo’s death. A neighbour had rigged up what to all intents and purposes was a searchlight and Leo walked over to ask that it be toned down. It seemed to me to be a reasonable request but as far as the neighbour was concerned Leo had stepped over the line; which is to say, he’d set foot on the neighbour’s property.

Leo, a bear of a man, smiled down benignly on the master of the adjoining patch of land, the fellow who figured our man had done him wrong. But the more Leo tried to explain the innocent nature of his trespass the more agitated the neighbour became, his good lady getting in on the act with a suggestion that the heinous intrusion in question had carried with it an implicit threat to ravage their daughter.

Betty, judging the neighbour to be possessed of a frontier fuse—and probably a gun to boot—took the situation in hand, cutting Leo down with a crisp rebuke in order to buy off the madman and his deranged spouse. Brilliantly done, Betty! The Wild West woman could call her man a brave hero whose adversary had been forced to back down while Leo, safely out of the way, now, in the living room of the demountable, recalled the debt civilisation owes to the blue stocking.

One might imagine that, given the paranoid behaviour exhibited by the searchlight neighbour, the American barricades himself behind high security fences. But he doesn’t, by and large. The residents of New Haven left their windows open wide all summer and members of Leo and Betty’s shore cottage community roamed far and wide up and down the coast with nothing but a flywire screen to keep out the would-be intruder from their respective demountables.

Whether or not it was one of those overnight conversions to which Americans are prone I can’t be sure but next morning, over breakfast, Leo expressed the view that maybe America was ready to embrace the Al Gore thesis concerning the energy-climate equation and take the ‘addicted to oil’ argument seriously. This was the same Leo who had driven a god-knows-how-many-ton pickup truck to Old Saybrook from North Carolina while his wife drove alongside in the family sedan. That, to an American, was normal, standard energy consumption.

To be sure, Meryn and I clocked up over 25,000 rental car miles while in the USA for a year, so I’m not claiming sainthood. Nevertheless, at that moment Australians had a far greater appreciation than the American of how foolish and profligate we westerners are. I say “at that moment” because the worm was turning while we were there—and Meryn said as much on national television a few weeks later.

Budget conscious, and of the view that private enterprise fails to deliver on promised goods, Meryn and I get by on what America’s Federal National Park Service provides by way of sites of historical significance. Leo, though, ever generous with time and money, took us to every museum within cooee of the Connecticut River so we learned of the early farmers’ bitter harvest of rocks, stones and pebbles and experienced at first hand the New Englander’s unaverted countenance in sundry maritime portraits.

Evening came, and with it a dense blue darkness, sirens sounding off in the distance. We swapped stories and Betty was taken with the Dollar Store saga and those long stem roses but underwhelmed by my observation that America is governed by a pagan trickster deity, the Roman god of trade, profit, and commerce. The sirens had gained ground. Was the Sheriff closing in at last on the backwoods neighbour? Would he be strapped down and separated from the wife?

No time to think—there was suddenly such a din that even the fingers in our ears could not silence as fire engines and fire-fighters swarmed outside the flyscreen. We joined the instant crowd of onlookers while Leo went in search of something to come back and say.

The sirens stopped screaming but all was still eerie as flashing yellow warning lights searched through the thick night. “Carbon monoxide,” said Leo. The crowd slunk back, satisfied. That would explain it. Meryn and I looked at one another. Carbon monoxide? Leo told us, later, that American houses have carbon monoxide monitors. Bugger me. The firefighters had broken in because the tenants had gone out.

Twenty minutes later the warning lights went out and the neighbourhood would have been in darkness but for the lighthouse on the frontier. Leo closed the door on it and we went to bed. We could see through the window that the sky was heavy with lead.

Sometime after midnight a brilliant flash rent the firmament, the bolt so close that it crackled and clapped above our heads. Nature’s violent streak caused us to question our safety under swaying trees in a howling wind. The power was cut and dimmed the light of the frontier.

It was all over when I walked along the coast at dawn. A middle aged woman came out into the street in her nightie to tell me that a great oak had fallen in the next street over, or maybe a couple of streets down, and firefighters had had to come and cut it up to clear the road. Picking up on the bizarre accent, she spoke in glowing terms about the Crocodile Hunter.

It’s not uncommon for a tree to fall across the road in Connecticut. There are, after-all, staggering numbers of them from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. We were held up for an hour and a half while driving somewhere one Saturday morning and news came down the line that a tree had fallen on a couple in a car. In Australia, such a tragic event would result in every tree judged capable of falling being felled for our safety. Americans, despite being profligate with fossil fuels and energy in general, are still attuned to nature and are at ease with it calling in unannounced.

Drained of energy and not sleeping well, I struggled to keep up my end of the ‘let’s spend a year together in the USA’ agreement I had entered into with Meryn. She was at her wits end with me at times but spent much of her day in one or other of the Yale archives dotted around town so I was able to wrestle with my demon alone for the most part.

I liked to sit in the kitchen—it must have been there that I read the label on the jam jar where, under SERVING SUGGESTIONS, the householder was reminded that “Marmalade is a sweet addition to cocktail sausages”—and might have whiled away whole mornings at the breakfast table had it not been for the smell of gas.

Why do these Americans put up with this sort of treatment from the landlord, I wondered. Mordecai’s a lawyer, for Christ’s sake, and Declan a medical practitioner. Providence, as the American would have it, came to our aid, though, when Bob pushed Declan to speak to her downstairs about getting the stove fixed so that one did not require a taper to light it. When, the following morning, I opened the door expecting to find yet another would-be tenant come to inspect the premises I was pleased to be told he was the gas man. He fixed the stove.

I mentioned the gas leak. “That’ll be the oven,” he said, and promptly relit the pilot light at the back of the fixture. Bugger me, I thought. I told Honey Pear of this miraculous event and she looked me straight in the eye and said “Oh I knew that’s what it was all along but I didn’t think you’d understand if I tried to explain it to you.” Thanks, Honey.

Chapter   4    Show Business


New Haven’s cafés and coffee shops do a roaring trade by comparison with those in comparable locations in Australia because no-one, there, takes to the sidewalk except insofar as he has a large throwaway coffee or soda in his hand. The American trades; it’s in his blood. The colonial farmer did not weave his own cloth, nor did his wife sew their buckskins. They bartered or sold what they had in exchange for pots, pans, clothes, etc. “Trade,” said a colonial American, “animates the farmer, keeps him to his plough, brightens and enlivens all his rural themes, reconciles him to all his hard labour, and makes him look fat and cheerful.”[15]

It was time for us to negotiate a trade of our own. By September we would need to be in different quarters. The mid-term Congressional elections were to be held in early November and we wanted to be in Washington, D.C., to see it all happen so we returned to that trading exchange par excellence,, and settled on a room in Vera Sarkin’s house 26 mile west of the Capitol, in Centreville, Virginia. We’d have preferred to have had an apartment to ourselves but couldn’t afford one.

Vera was strange from the start but since we judged her to be strange-eccentric—she works from home but could not afford the time to meet with us prior to our moving in with her—as against strange-crazy, we took the plunge. Big mistake. To begin with, as I say, we had difficulty in getting her to set aside a spare half-hour when we could meet in order to be sure about one another. I managed to pin her down, this thirty-nine year-old who had advertised a room for rent, and we hired a car to drive to Washington, D.C., for the appointment.

It would have been possible to make the round trip in a couple of days but we opted for the more economical weekly rental on offer from the hire company’s website. The downside of taking up these internet offers is that you’re stuck with whatever vehicle happens to be available on the day. We collected the car—another Chevrolet Cobalt, the world’s most uncomfortable motor sedan—on a Saturday morning in August and set off for upstate New York. I wanted to be in Saratoga that evening but Meryn had no particular place to be, no particular time to arrive. Smoke on the Connecticut-New York border signalled, soon enough, that my restless drive to get to where I was going would come up against the brick wall of her determination to stay put.

Curling up into an otherwise clear blue sky from an industrial barbeque, the curtain of cloud called Meryn to a fundraising fair below. The clock ticked while we wandered through the grounds of a church, up this path and down that, stopping every now and then to rummage around in piles of junk—antiques, she called them—looking for the lid of a broken down old coffee pot, or the saucer belonging to an orphan cup. A known curmudgeon with respect to belief in the potential for transformation via the ineffable bric-a-brac mysteries, I gritted my teeth and walked the walk, following the footsteps of those before me on the path ahead and aware as never before that there’d be no prospect of my ever seeing the light.

Deliverance came when a dozen Vietnam War vets fired a volley of cranked Harleys into the crowd and broke the community up into separate units. I grabbed hold of Meryn and away we ran. Stopped at an intersection in another small town, we noticed fresh yellow ribbons around the stately old trees on The Green. The lights changed and I made to cross but a speeding hearse flashed through the red trailing a funeral procession in its wake. Two green lights later, the cortege was still passing. ‘When in Rome … ’ I knew, but at that rate we would not reach Saratoga in Upstate New York.

We finally ran the green light and barged into the endless procession, racing along, now, with the mourners up to the cemetery turn-off three or four mile down the road where we dodged past startled military traffic wardens and parted company. One’s heart goes out to the family of that soldier killed serving an irresponsible, power-mad president who had given no thought as to what might happen after his army had decapitated the Iraqi state.

Going forward, the Chevrolet Cobalt crossed the magnificent Hudson River and lost its way in torrential rain. It was obvious that Ticonderoga—if thou canst say ‘Ticonderoga’—was out of reach so we settled on Saratoga. The Connecticut merchant trader and ship-owner who had drilled his company of revolutionaries on the New Haven Green, Benedict Arnold, was en route to fight the British in Boston when he learned of the need for cannons. Accordingly, on May 10, 1775, he launched a surprise attack on Fort Ticonderoga, captured the British heavy artillery there, and transported it to George Washington at Bunker Hill, Boston.

As luck would have it, Meryn and I fell 40 mile short of Saratoga and spent the night in Albany, capital of New York State. Channel flicking turned up C-Span’s Book TV and that rare bird—an American author who spoke (as against read) to the assembled multitudes. James Nelson held his audience, entertained the listener, while holding forth. He was as good as Meryn is when she stands and delivers on the subject about which she is expert. In 1776 the British were set to sail their armada from Montreal, Canada, through New York State’s northern lakes and down the Hudson River where they would cut New England off from the rest of the American colonies. Benedict Arnold knew the revolutionaries could not defeat the British navy but believed they might slow its advance and so went to meet the enemy before its fleet entered the Hudson River.

Nelson explained how Benedict Arnold’s ragtag navy had lost the ensuing October 10th battle of Lake Champlain and won the American Revolution. The British subsequently whiled away the winter in Montreal and were only 100 mile south of Lake Champlain when Benedict Arnold outfoxed British General John Burgoyne to win two decisive battles at Saratoga. Burgoyne’s surrender in October 1777, was the turning point in the American War of Independence: the French took it as their cue to side with the Americans and declare war on Britain.

My disappointment at being so near to yet so far from Saratoga was nothing compared to the gall which Benedict Arnold must have felt when Horatio Gates took the credit for what was after-all his victory. And I at least had enjoyed the happy coincidence of being in the vicinity of Saratoga while James Nelson chronicled the events leading up to the critical American victory. 

General Gates was a player in the bid by the New England cabal in the Continental Congress to depose General Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Benedict Arnold wasn’t alone in being done over by Washington’s adversaries: Granny Gates took over command of the Continental Army’s Northern Department from Albany’s Major General Schuyler.

A slow start on the road south to New York City next morning, Sunday, was made slower still when I took a wrong turn at the spaghetti, Downtown along the Hudson, in the poor part of town where roads run out of room and double back on themselves. Seeking to rejoin the freeway, I took what looked like it’d be a short cut but wasn’t and I became so hopelessly disorientated that we had to pull over and take a walk. Just around the corner we came upon a substantial old house set on a large block.

In stark contrast to the hovels and crash pads surrounding it, this property was clearly being maintained as some sort of national monument. A stroll through the grounds revealed that this diamond on the dung heap of dire poverty was the Schuyler mansion, designed and built in 1762 by Philip Schuyler, a prominent member of New York’s Dutch community. Serene in the Sunday morning mist, it charmed Meryn, this colonial anachronism, calmed me, and recalled the coincidence of the night before. Philip Schuyler had been George Washington’s commander of the Northern Department whom the Continental Congress deposed in favour of Horatio Gates.

Back on the road, we skirted the eastern edge of the Catskill Mountains, down main street, Saugerties, through the boutiques of Woodstock and then east, in search of a scenic route above the Hudson. A few wrong turns saw us at a sentry box and the soldier, there, told us we were at West Point and should go back to nearly from where we came, then be sure to “take the turn there,” he pointed, “and head on up past those trees.” I heard him but wasn’t listening and we were soon stuck on the wrong road without an exit, just like his Commander-in-Chief.

Highly strung by the time we found a way out for a late lunch in a heat-hazed Haverstraw, we cruised across the Hudson on the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, just for the hell of it, and drove down New Jersey through Princeton to Trenton—where Washington had crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Day 1776. The Continental Army’s successful attack on the German garrison put the American patriot in a better frame of mind. And though it was 230 years later, being there did Meryn and me a world of good, too.

We arrived in Centreville, Virginia, 26 miles west of Washington, D.C., on the Monday afternoon, booked into a Manassas motel, and drove to Vera Sarkin’s house. As I say, she had been extraordinarily reticent to commit on a time to meet but had finally agreed to see us at 8 pm and suggested we stay the night and breakfast the following morning with her and her boyfriend, Ajax, at some local doughnut chain. We declined the overnight invitation, nervous lest she fail to show and leave us in the lurch. I had taken measures to ensure that people knew where we were in the event that this was a set up to rob us, or worse. Why else would the meeting time have been at 8 pm and then 9 pm as she refined her precious schedule?

Meryn, too, had her doubts. She’d googled our prospective landlady and read the harrowing account of a man whose daughter had died and who’d been given short shrift by Ms Sarkin when he sought to obtain copies of photographs she’d taken of the child. We put it down to his anxiety, since no-one could be as heartless as the woman he described.

The meeting was alright, though it was clear that Vera was one of America’s tougher nuts, and seemed to have Ajax firmly by his. Ajax sought to meet us half way by introducing the topic of the Crocodile Hunter but our ignorance showed, even if the disinterest didn’t. We signed the lease—$650 per month plus $209.87 per month for utilities and another full $860 odd as surety—for the tiny bedroom in her doll’s house.

That’s a lot of energy we’re paying for, we thought, but the overall amount was competitive, given that there was a bus and train to the Capitol. It was settled: we’d move in during early September, and stay until late December, with a ‘one month notice to quit’ clause to protect both parties. Businesslike but amicable. It suited us; wishy-washy nice is oftentimes more difficult.

Tuesday was the hottest day of the summer. We drove from Manassas to Gettysburg intending to walk around the battlefield where on July 4th 1863 the previous three days’ carnage was tallied at losses of 23,000 Union soldiers and 24,000 Confederates. Gettysburg in high summer is hot! Too hot for we Australians, trained for this sort of thing. We’d inadvertently pulled up at the private enterprise tourist hub and, unimpressed by how tacky it was, jumped back in the air-conditioned car and set off north-east for New Brunswick, New Jersey, where an old friend of Meryn—a New York architect—lived with his wife (an academic scientist) and their two children. We stayed for dinner, contrived captions for cartoons in The New Yorker, and headed home in the morning.

En route to New Haven we spent an afternoon in Phineas Taylor Barnum’s Bridgeport, Connecticut, museum. It’s a fitting monument to the memory of the quintessential American—the man who invented ‘the show business.’ P. T. Barnum had recognized the entertainment value inherent in the businessman’s confidence tricks, found fame and fortune selling the experience of ‘being had.’

It’s America itself that entertains Meryn and me. The first of the Democratic Party’s Primaries for the upcoming Congressional elections was to occur on August 8th—in Connecticut. The long-term incumbent, Joe Lieberman, was under challenge from gormless but popular millionaire, Ned Lamont—popular because of his uncompromising anti-Iraq-war stance. Ned’s campaign workers had been tirelessly drumming up support around New Haven and we were out and about, taking it all in.

A weeks or so earlier, a black man with protruding white teeth had appeared on the streets of New Haven. Our British heritage bade us to take no notice but Americans are quite openly curious so we made ourselves at home and delighted in having come across this odd fellow. He was strikingly arrayed in bright yellow, green, and red loose fitting garments that billowed in the breeze to reveal the secret within. He wasn’t selling Rollexes. He wasn’t selling anything—which, this being Connecticut, made him doubly strange.  So there were no watches suspended there, in the hidden recesses of his dress, but coffee coloured dolls. Cheap plastic voodoo.

I went to the Greyhound office at Union Station to ensure that our bus tickets were still valid and to check the departure times and routine. The man behind the desk was having a bad day. He told a woman to take her children out of the booking office because they were disturbing him while he worked. She looked at me and shrugged. I continued to stand before this gentleman awaiting my turn to put my well prepared questions but he was having difficulty with someone on the other end of the phone. He assured the ‘phonee’ that since Indianapolis was not in Minnesota he could not be of any assistance concerning fares to and from the non-existent location.

Those of us on the customer side of the counter equation smiled at each other as the agent struggled to be rid of the nuisance caller who seemed hell bent on getting that ticket. The impasse was resolved when a big mama who had just joined the queue bellowed “Git him on the bus to Minneapolis!” We all laughed but the man behind the desk seemed to regard it a quaint suggestion. “Hurry up!” she scolded. The clerk eventually settled on Minneapolis as a workable hypothesis and processed the call.

Next in line, I rehearsed my sequence of questions but the office man went about putting money in envelopes and muttering to himself. He addressed the older of the two children, telling the young boy to go away and stop making noise. Finally, he finished shuffling the envelopes and put them on the desk. Then he looked up and did a double take. I assume it was because I was the only white boy in the room. But perhaps it was because I was also the only other male in the room, and a foot shorter than the smallest woman.

I placed two tickets on the counter and pointed at them. “Good afternoon, Sir. We have these return tickets to New York and want to use them on Friday August 18 on the 6.20 am bus. Do we need to book or just turn up?”

“You must arrive on May 26 for the bus.”

“No Sir. You misunderstand me. We were told these tickets are valid for a year from the date of purchase. The May 26 return date was printed on them at the time of purchase but we were assured that we can use them anytime within twelve months of purchase.”

“The tickets are for May 26, Sir. You may only use them on that date.”

“Not so. I phoned in May and it was made clear to me that we can use the return tickets on any day within a year from the date of purchase.”

The ticket seller pointed at the date on the ticket and re-iterated that it was folly not to have used them on May 26, four days after we had arrived. I protested that this was absurd, that I’d been told otherwise in New York City. Tough Mama approached the counter and stood head and shoulders above me glaring at him. He looked closely at the tickets and said “You can use these tickets any time within the year of purchase.”

On the day of the Primary—the first Tuesday following the first Monday of the month—Meryn and I went out to see Americans vote while millions of our fellow countrymen filled out their census forms at home.  New Haven was awash with promotional flags and badges for the various contestants in numerous categories but mainly for the Lieberman-Lamont bout. Downtown, nothing much was happening. We followed a Lieberman supporter but he got away in a Fed Ex office. We returned to the Green.

Meryn took a picture of the Voodoo Man harassing two women. They needed no help. We found neither voting booths nor serious indication of an election. It was only a Primary, but we expected some action to back up all of the promotional material. There was a TV crew outside NBC so I asked a Glen Robbins look-alike where people voted, what time the polls opened and closed, and so on. “I’m not from round here,” he told me, “but usually at schools or community centres. They close at 8 pm.”

We walked on round the block and immediately came to a polling booth at the rear of City Hall (the Council Chambers). A woman handing out election material for the gubernatorial race filled us in on some aspects of voting in the Primaries—how fraud is meant to be prevented through the registration of voters as Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarian, etc.—but she wanted to know more about Australia than she had a mind to tell about America.

Around 7 pm, we went back Downtown. Someone asked if we’d voted yet. It is assumed that everyone here is a registered Democrat. We were entertained by two women who clearly wanted Lieberman out. Nothing much was happening and what action there was took place on the pavement outside the NBC TV station from where there was a live telecast. It was all over pretty quickly but we were invited to go back for the 1 am telecast. We did.

It was a TV programme for MSNBC called Hardball. Glen Robbins was doing the countdown to go ‘live.’ We were welcomed like lost sailors returning from the deep and given ‘munchkins’—the ball of dough that’s missing from the middle of the doughnut. 

Mouths full and with sugar moustaches, we were manhandled onto the makeshift set on the pavement. It had been very hot for a week so we had flimsy clothes on. After all, if it turned cold we could walk back home and watch the show on TV. Not so lucky. We made up a foursome with two blokes as the total audience.

We didn’t know what the political line for this show was—it might have been shock-Jock-fascist. As things turned out, it wasn’t. The presenter, Chris Matthews, was personable, very good at his job, and not partisan. We could hear him as well as read the auto cue—he ad libbed most of the time—but we’d no idea what his guests were saying.

By 1.15 am it was getting very chilly. We warmed up by jumping around when they stopped for regular three-minute ad breaks but felt obliged to stay and make up the audience numbers. One of the two blokes slipped away, though, so it was up to an Italian who thought proportional representation was one solution to America’s electoral problems and Meryn and me to hold the fort. And I was beginning to shiver from cold. We had decided to stick it out, though.

In the middle of one of the interviews the Voodoo Man appeared from the Green opposite and walked into the whole scene saying “Conspiracies, conspiracies, conspiracies.” Then he asked Meryn if he could have a munchkin. What could she say but “Of course”? The TV people were concerned but calm and let Meryn be both a third of the audience and in charge of preventing mayhem. The Voodoo Man said the munchkins were very nice and thought he would take some over to his friends—the homeless—in the park.

A woman pulled up in a car and started yelling for someone to tell her how to get to Union Station. Meryn left her post and went over to help but then came back and said that she’d told them I would be much better at giving them directions. So I left the set and went to tell them how the one-way system worked—where not and where to turn. The producer was looking at me with some concern so I resumed my place.

Then the Voodoo Man came back with the munchkins. The homeless were hungry but not desperate, it seemed. We stayed the course, did not cut and run, and when it was all but over the presenter said “And now for some audience reaction to the result of the Lieberman-Lamont Primary … ” and turned directly to us. This was national TV. I had my usual T-shirt on and Meryn had her version of a ‘no-one’s looking’ top on and Chris Matthews wanted our respective opinons.

It was obvious from the accent that we were both Australians. Meryn reckoned that she thought perhaps “The USA’s on the point of change” and I said “It’s a wonderful example of American burlesque.” I have no idea what the Italian-American said because I was now a celebrity of the stature of a Lionel Williams or Ernie Sigley. America happens on TV. We watched ourselves on the Hardball website for a few minutes next morning, figuring we’d view the whole thing that evening. But they’d edited it by then.

So, we had our Andy Warhol moment and had witnessed first footfall on America’s changing of the guard. Intrigued at our uncharacteristic night moves, Bob wanted to know where we’d been and, having heard, was determined to track down the identity of the voodoo man. He did. And was deflated. “Oh, that’s Terry, he told us. He’s a nice guy, a poet like me,” he told us a couple of days later.

Nearing the end of our New Haven sojourn, we visited the gun-factory where Eli Whitney—best known for his invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s—had pioneered the technique of mass production in American industry and set Connecticut on the road to becoming ‘the arsenal of America’ at the beginning of the nineteenth century. We also spent a day at the New Haven Museum and Historical Society on Whitney Avenue, between Bradley and Trumbull, where another crew of New England mariners stared back at me, their blank expressions safeguarding them from the unnerving world of emotion.

The Puritan America of Massachusetts’ Governor Bradford had been long gone by the time those salty sea dogs sat for the artists who had rendered their likeness on canvas but they were still Yankees, still hid behind the mask. Herman Melville’s American creates a web of deception from behind the mask of confidence. His progenitor, the Yankee trader, had started on the road to what became the urban marketplace by peddling his wares to unsuspecting rural folk, luring them with drawn out conversation before swapping his worthless items for their valuables.[16]

The nineteenth century’s most celebrated Yankee, P. T. Barnum, bottled the experience of the game of urban marketplace deception and sold it at 25 cents a pop. His American Museum in New York shone the spotlight on the mask, drew attention to the deceit.

The American is whatever you want him to be. He uses his whole mouth to speak—Constance Rourke detects Yankee rhythms of speech as if coming from old voices in the works of Robert Frost[17]—and can talk at length without ever revealing himself because the language itself is a masquerade, metaphor its mainstay.

The alarm went off at 4.30 am—about 40 minutes after Bob finally stopped fucking around in the kitchen—on the Friday we were leaving New Haven in mid August 2006 and an hour later we set off in the darkness with a suitcase, two laptops and three bags (Mommy, Woolworths, and see-through Ann Taylor, this latter housing our cheese-and-tomato cut lunch) to walk a little over a mile to Union Station. The sun was up by the time we had arrived.

A woman from Memphis, Tennessee, was seeking answers from the passengers who trickled in and another, in African attire, shrugged histrionically when the bus driver announced the expected time of arrival in New York City as being 8.55 am. “Eight-fifty-five?” she said rhetorically, over and over.

“Everything has a purpose in God’s universe,” said the driver, apropos of nothing, as the Greyhound Coach pulled onto the road and headed for I-95 South. Fortunate enough to have seats, we had a comfortable ride to the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan. We collected our tickets for the Washington, D.C., leg on the upcoming Tuesday, purchased a couple of $24.00 weekly New York City transit passes, took the subway to Columbus Circle, lugged the bags up the stairs, and walked to the hotel we usually stay at in the Big Apple—the 63rd Street West YMCA.

Chapter   5    Buncombe


Trouble’t mill. The Colonial American merchant dammed a stream, employed a mason to lay the stone foundation and a carpenter to construct a water wheel, and put raw nature through the mill. He then ferried the processed goods (lumber, flour, and, in due course, textiles) to market at some seaport town.[18] Wealth accumulated to the point where production was carried out on an industrial scale with capital and labour locked together, at odds with and yet dependent upon one another—like Meryn and me.

We were in it together, committed for a year in the USA. Were one to pull the plug the other would sink. We had to learn to live together—and did—but were no sooner settled in at the apartment on Orange when I had the bizarre dream from which I awoke, terrified, about the constable in the doorway of the medieval building. I was beginning to hear voices.

We had taken out travel insurance with ample medical cover but the standard ‘no liability accepted for a pre-existing condition’ clause precluded my consulting a psychiatrist. So I had to make it on my own, passing off my mental instability as moodiness. Meryn could not afford to have it dawn on her that I was all at sea and in danger of drowning. A sceptic with respect to the unfalsifiable claims of Freud, Jung and all the other depth psychologists, they were all I had to lean on in seeking to cure myself.

The idea of how I might navigate safe passage through this dark night of the soul popped into my head while staring down the canyons of New York City from high up on a ledge above the Hudson, in Weehawken, New Jersey. Its genesis, though, lay in the lie I had told Meryn to protect her from finding out that her co-dependent had gone crackers and was hearing voices. And yet she could not help but notice my irascible outbursts. I had told her they were caused by headaches from constipation.

Give Meryn a mission and she will accomplish it: a few days after my ‘admission’ the UPS man—his route programmed such that he only ever turned right (soft)—had delivered a huge bag of psyllium to our New Haven apartment. Meryn hoped for a regular all over improvement. Medicine must not simply be taken but be seen to be. So I went through the motions, making much of swallowing the stuff. The odd thing was that by the time we took the Greyhound for New York I had begun to manage; the voices were somehow muffled by increasingly large doses of fibre.

The room for our three-night stay at the YMCA wasn’t ready so we stored our luggage and walked to the American Museum of Natural History. Taken for a ride by peddlers of medieval religion, the American remains unconvinced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution via the mechanism of natural selection so we felt duty bound to tour what the Museum had promised would be an extravaganza celebrating the great man’s work. Entry was by appointment with the confidence man: a fixed-price donation of $14.00 each to get into the museum and a further fee to stroll through what turned out to be a pedestrian exhibition.

In the evening we dined at the Y—invariably good value—walked in Central Park, took a bus (the ideal way to see New York) south along 7th Avenue, then walked some distance West along 39th Street until we reached the Hudson River at the Ferry Terminal. The sun on the horizon behind us sent shafts of light down dark streets to a white flecked blue sky in the distance. New York, New York.

We took a bus to the Lincoln Center, a stone’s throw from the YMCA, paid through the nose for a beer, joined the audience for a blues and country music performance that would not past muster in an Australian pub, lost our shirt in an orange juice deal on Broadway, then went back to the room and slept soundly into the Saturday.

‘Take the subway D,Q,N or F to the last stop, Stillwell Avenue, 45 minutes from midtown Manhattan’ were the instructions for our Coney Island visit. There was some suggestion that there might be a problem with the D train so we doubled our chances by catching the A to 42nd Street and boarded the Q more or less immediately.

An Indian woman asked me how far it was to somewhere or other so we worked through her map. She was on the right track; I went back to reading the New York Times. Big layoffs were in the offing at Ford and General Motors’ Detroit plants—the USA hoisted on its own petard—because the two manufacturing giants had been tooled up to produce dinosaurs, SUVs and Pickup Trucks. While they retool, restructure, re everything, fuel efficient Asian cars flood the market.

The American doesn’t think of himself as part of the world and so hasn’t bothered to benchmark. The nation’s founding fathers had planned to recreate the Roman Republic; New York architects set that noble aim in stone. It’s a moot point as to whether the inexorable drift to Empire will be followed by a fall but the American won’t be able to close his eyes to the rising star in the Far East.

The woman from the subcontinent looked perplexed so I pinpointed her position on the schematic diagram. She was pleased to see that it was working out and soon thereafter made sense of the map. She was from Canada, she said, and members of her extended family had been killed in a car crash the day before; she’d flown in that morning in order to help out around the house. Some injured relatives were in the Brooklyn Hospital. We had emerged into the daylight from underground by the time she got off and now Meryn and I looked out the window to the wide world of lower Brooklyn.

The train turned west at Brighton Beach and the famous fairground loomed up on the southern seashore. Coney Island was America’s quintessential Amusement Park in the first half of the twentieth century. Rome wasn’t built in a day but those temples wherein the American is entertained are banged up overnight—as they must be if entrepreneurs are to cash in on the latest fashion. Impermanence is an American idol.

In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution there was a fashion for imitating the ancient Romans but the Yankee preference for masquerading as an uncouth but witty practical joker, a wise fool who revealed nothing of himself, superseded it. Theatre goers paid good money to see stage performers dish up nonsense and buncombe but were not easily persuaded to part with their pennies for a night of serious drama. And so it goes: looking out on the world from behind the mask, the American distorts reality, recreates it as burlesque, puts a premium on entertainment. 

Coney Island Amusement Park was a caricature of its old glory self. Numerous sideshows off the boardwalk which runs along the beach about 300 metres from the shoreline (give or take high tide) still attracted a crowd, though. A sad preacher shot himself in the foot with a sandwich board that proclaimed Jesus loves those who don’t know about Him. Apart from people like us seeking to commit yet another instance of the American past-time of religious nutterdom to digital memory, most were content to do without whatever information this fellow had to pass on concerning the Lord and His blessings.

Out on the pier we read the signs—no commercial touting, no amplified music, no this, no that—denoting rules to be honoured in the breach. The American places freedom above everything else. Regulation is a necessary evil which must know its place. In seeking to differentiate for Leo and Betty between the behaviour of the American and Australians, I pointed out that the Great Southern Land had started out as a convict colony.

This meant nothing to them so Meryn noted, for example, that drivers Down Under don’t cross double yellow lines. “Don’t cross double yellow lines?” Betty said, incredulous. “No, they don’t,” I persisted, “It’s against the law.” She looked at me, dumbfounded. “Well, yeah. It’s against the law,” she said. In America the outlaw—John Wesley Hardin, Jesse James, and those other sons of preachers—is a hero. The drifter on the other hand is despised.

We rode the bus back to Brighton Beach, to the Russian émigré stronghold, there, under the elevated train track. Unable to find a café to make up the coffee deficit, we took another bus. On board, a boy told his friend that an aunty from Russia who had been staying with the family over the summer was weird. The bus moved north through a Russian Jewish into an Arab community and terminated at Prospect Park.

A drunkard with a handicapped dog harassed the clientele at Connecticut Muffins corner café and we whiled away an hour sitting on coffee and buns listening to the proprietor discuss the intractable problem with his regulars. The bus from Prospect Park dropped us in the middle of earthworks on the south side of the Manhattan Bridge and it took some time to find a way up to the pedestrian and bike path on the massive structure’s eastern side. Once up there, we looked upon the metropolis from amid its fiery wheels and cogs, deafened by the subway trains and downsized by tons of steel.

Cyclists swept past—one on a bike which, dedicated to the crossing, afforded the rider a privileged perspective by elevating him way above the side rail—and Orthodox Jews cut fine figures as they walked back to Brooklyn in dark suits, white shirts and black hats. The Twin Towers gone, New York City’s Empire State Building penetrated the aerial sphere, streets ahead of the Chrysler yet still no match.

A barge beneath the bridge worked its way up the East River as we came to the water’s edge and walked down into Chinatown to stumble on the site of the New England Hotel at the corner of the Bowery and Bayard. It was in a room, there, that America’s nineteenth-century songwriting genius, Stephen Foster, sick and weak after having fallen on hard times, was found, face gashed, in a pool of blood, in January, 1864. The composer of ‘Campdown Races’, ‘Oh Susannah’, ‘Old Folks at Home’, and numerous other classics, he was taken to Bellevue Hospital and died soon thereafter. The thirty-seven-year-old’s casket was taken by train to the town where he was born: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We walked back to the YMCA through the streets of Little Italy.

The following day, ferried across the water to Weehawken, New Jersey, under a blazing sun, we climbed the cliffs above the Hudson River. A bride and groom bent and stretched for a professional photographer in a Memorial Garden while the ogre’s assistant arranged the wedding gown to suit the master’s artistic reach for the sky. A halfwit stared at the couple through binoculars and called out that the bride would look good naked. His mother, sitting next to us, told him to stop being silly. She commanded respect, treating her overgrown child with dignity while calmly conveying convention concerning time and place. We were pleased to meet her.

Meryn walked on toward the inevitable Stars and Stripes fluttering from a pole. Left alone, I mused upon the human propensity for assigning place, of social rank, and so on, and reflected upon the dangers of being cast adrift in a sea of anonymous faces like any number of lost souls over the water, there, on the upper West side of Manhattan. I was going to have to be to the rowdy voices inside my head what that woman was to her son. ‘They’ would have to be ‘him’, would have to become one. So I singled out a sole individual from the multitude—the constable who stood in the doorway of the medieval building in the dream that had heralded the arrival of my mental illness—and associated him with Detective Sergeant Hamilton of Boyd murder fame.

Hamilton had been a constable to begin with. Carl Jung claims to have avoided a full blown psychosis by engaging in just such a form of active imagination with the New Testament’s Philemon. I had no reason to expect the feeble sounding technique to work but it was worth a try, and Hamilton, not some Pauline Saint, was my type of guy. 

Boyd was killed in December 1997 by a knife in the back and Hamilton had had Rosemary DeBlatt brought in for questioning within days. He’d suspected her of grooming Boyd with a view to becoming a financial beneficiary in the event of the Sydney businessman’s death—just as she had benefited from the untimely deaths of her father, brother, and fiancé (like Emily Perry in the celebrated 1982 murder trial).

DeBlatt was subsequently convicted of the murder of Mark Boyd in August 2000. It had been an open and shut case, and Hamilton had retired from the New South Wales Police Force on an illustrious note. And here he was, on a ledge above the Hudson River across from 42nd Street, assuring me in August 2006 that DeBlatt was probably innocent, that he, Hamilton, was honour bound to right the wrong. Meryn returned, unaware that her prospects for the next nine months had taken a great leap forward.

Ghosts of the great—the gifted and the godawful, literary giants and social gadflies—haunt Greenwich Village as much as anywhere else in Gotham so after having spent Monday morning following the High Line we took a self-guided walking tour of Bleeker Street. Meryn’s interest in The High Line project took off during our August 2003 Amtrak trek across the USA. Instead of tearing down the disused elevated railroad which runs from 34th Street to warehouses in the meatpacking district on Manhattan’s west side, concerned citizens convinced the City Council to convert the three-story-high structure into a public space. It’s this type of vision which has made New York City such an extraordinary urban environment.

Cheap rent once attracted artists to the road that ran through Bleeker Farm and we saw The Bitter End music club, just across from where Lenny Bruce had been arrested for obscenity at the Café Au Go Go in 1964. The church where the subject of Meryn’s research had preached to a missionary society congregation in the 1830s was nearby and further along she recognised Louis “form follows function” Sullivan’s style in the Bayard-Condict skyscraper just past the intersection with Broadway. Sullivan, America’s pre-eminent late nineteenth-century architect, was the father of modernism and the skyscraper.

Bleeker’s other, more tenuous, association with modernism—the site of Herman Melville’s childhood home—took us closer to the T-junction with The Bowery and the subway to Wall Street where, in the Spring of 2000 I lined up to get inside the New York Stock Exchange to see the dotcom boom go bust. No-one, it seemed, was taking financial fright that August day in 2006 but hundreds of white collar workers flew out of the offices and onto the street like a flock of gulls. Rats with wings. At the end of the road, in the grounds of Trinity Church, Hamilton, agitated, said that someone had just walked over his grave.

Our Greyhound was scheduled to depart for Washington, D.C., from Manhattan Port Authority Terminal at 1.30 am on the Tuesday morning and we were there in plenty of time to get a seat. Quentin Crisp’s observation that in Britain the system is benign and the people hostile, whereas in the USA the people are benign and the system hostile is truth bearing. Research suggests that thirty million Americans go hungry each day. Regular Greyhound bus rides will tell you all you need to know about how the nation treats its many millions more who’re merely poor. Administrative staff, bus drivers, patrons—all get a shabby deal.

We stood in line like hundreds of others keeping our eye on this or that fellow traveller’s bags while they went to the ‘bathroom’. The fear campaign made possible by the September 11th attack is exposed as just that down on the ground. There’s no provision whatsoever for patrons to adhere to the oft repeated ‘Do not leave bags unattended’ message. We finally boarded our 1.30 am bus at 3.15 am and listened to the official explanation for the delay. The usual lies. There’s a shortage of bus drivers; those in the pool work dangerously long hours and there’s precious little backup. So when a driver refuses to work around the clock management explains it away as recalcitrance, the bad seed who’ll be disciplined. The system is hostile.

Chapter   6    Twin Cities


The longer than expected walk from Washington D.C.’s Greyhound station to the Downtown car rental franchise made driving the Dodge Caliber up out of the basement and south to Constitution Avenue that much more pleasant and we took great pleasure in motoring through modern Rome, across the Potomac, and West on I-66 to Centreville, Virginia, where we collected a house key from Vera Sarkin, since she would not be there on the moving-in day, a fortnight hence.

The paucity of sleep would normally have seen me taking a nap early on but on that particular Tuesday I had one of those rare lasting bursts of consciousness where I could drive safely for hour after hour. I was never able to call up this wondrous state at will but became more and more adept at falling into a deep, brain de-fragmenting sleep for 5, 10 or 20 minutes during a roadside stop.

We tried a motel on Route-50 at Grafton, West Virginia, but it was for gamblers and smokers and not the likes of us, as the desk clerk subtly indicated, and we eventually bedded down in the Morgantown Super 8. Run by whites—unusual in America—it was very good, the young man working the desk being especially helpful. We would have driven on in search of a less expensive option than the business class room on offer but fatigue and the fact that some car race or football game was on had put us on the wrong side of the intersection between the local accommodation demand and supply curves. Too tired to drive and knowing from experience that America’s car culture dearth of sidewalks makes the pedestrian a sitting duck, we took our chances at the (predictably awful) Wendys.

My polaroids made a window full of coloured rings from Wednesday morning sun as the Dodge left town and threaded through scenic West Virginia to Pleasant Valley where it stopped for petrol. I told what the people there took to be tall tales of being able to travel around the USA on long-service leave at half pay. An IT worker from a mining company who came to admire the Caliber reckoned we Australians’d better hang on to what we had. I didn’t confuse the issue by mentioning the Howard ‘Work Choices’ legislation, assuming it was already dead in the water.

Working conditions back home were one thing; holidaying with Hamilton was another. In deference to Buddy Holly and the Coen Brothers, Meryn and I had earmarked Fargo, North Dakota, as the outbound destination, the idea being to make our way there along the short sides of a right-angled triangle, travelling west to Kansas then due north. Late starts forced us to approach the problem from another angle and take the hypotenuse through the endless fields of grain that make up a large part of the American bread basket.

Geoffrey Hamilton, on the trail of a killer, demanded that we drive straight for the Black Hills of Dakota. I would accommodate him as far as possible but they were out of reach, way out west near the border with Wyoming. So there was wailing and gnashing of teeth because I had to deny him his wish.

Prior to beat generation writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, poets Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg had explored the rhythms of American speech.[19] And while his literary contribution might look like Robert Frost’s in that regard, the fact that Sandburg’s attention and focus was on what it was to be an American makes it feel like Herman Melville’s.

The Caliber pulled up outside the house where Sandburg first drew breath. A man came to greet us and said that he was just closing the visitors’ centre but Meryn and I were welcome to walk through the memorial garden. We did, reading the selections from his verse that had been laid out. It was quaint, pleasant, and retained something of the old republic. Harmony gained a foothold and Hamilton took over entirely from the harsh voices. He told me that there, in the Sandburg garden, he sensed the presence of the American whom he sought. Suffice to say that Meryn, too, was calmed by this curious walk around the garden.

That night, Thursday of the first week, we stayed at Rock Island, Illinois, on the Mississippi River. Had the cards lined up with the stars we’d have been there on May 6th for the sesquicentenary of the Effie Afton incident but they hadn’t. The Effie Afton was one of the hundreds of steamboats that since 1811 had been slowly pushing back the barrier of the American frontier by affording pioneers passage up and down the Mississippi, its tributaries and the man-made canals connecting these vast watercourses.

King Cotton’s official carrier, the steamboat reigned for 40 years until the first steam locomotive arrived at the banks of the Mississippi River on February 22nd 1854. George Washington had been born on February 22nd. The railroad company had decided upon Rock Island as the departure point for its penetration of the frontier because it lay due west of and relatively close to the Lake Michigan trading port of Chicago. Cashing in on celebrations for the Washington birthday commemoration celebrations, the railroad men coupled their “nuptial feast of the great Atlantic Ocean to the mighty Father of Waters”[20] with the anniversary of the birth of the father of the nation.

If European immigrants and native Americans could board a train in New York and alight in San Francisco or Portland who would step onto the gangplank of a paddle-steamer or freight his produce to market on treacherous rivers? Such a railroad would surely shift the axis east-west from north-south and the focal point of trade from New Orleans—antebellum America’s wealthiest city—to New York. Cotton planters and steamboat owners regarded any such east-west railroad corridor as an axis of evil.

Southern honour was as much at stake, here, as the profits from cargo. Meryn and I had not yet come to understand Southern honour—that was months off—but it lay at the heart of the North-South conflict which exploded in 1861.

The Chicago and Rock Island Railway Company contracted Henry Farnam’s Railroad Bridge Company to build them a road over the Mississippi at Rock Island. Rock Island, a Federal Government military site, was conveniently situated in the River so Farnam’s engineers were able to span the Mississippi by building three discrete sections—Illinois shore, Rock Island, Iowa shore—then join them together.

This was to be no run of the mill crossing, of course, but the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River. Moreover, since Rock Island was north of the Mason-Dixon line, not only would the wealthy gentlemen of New Orleans and St Louis lose out to the railroad men but Northern capital and the employers of wage-labour, not cotton and the owners of slave-labour, would dictate the terms of colonisation of the West beyond the Mississippi. The Southern aristocracy knew they must nip this canker in the bud.

St Louis steamboat interests lobbied President Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, to ban the building of the bridge on the grounds that Rock Island was the site of a federal arsenal. When Davis obliged they followed up by obtaining an injunction against the bridge builders for having obstructed river navigation. This merely delayed construction of the Rock Island Bridge because the court was bound to find in the railroad’s favour, as it did in July 1855. Less than a year after that, in April 1856, a ‘railroad car’ first crossed the Mississippi.

A fortnight later, on May 6th 1856, the Effie Afton collided with the bridge and knocked out one of its sections. The boat’s owners then brought a damages suit against the Railroad Bridge Company on the grounds that the bridge had caused the collision because it had changed the river’s current. Henry Farnam went looking for 47-year-old Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln to defend the Farnam Railroad Bridge Company in court.

Abraham Lincoln had read those same Enlightenment tracts which the founding fathers had deemed a necessary grounding for public life. Self-taught, he studied law and subsequently practised it with success in Illinois. As a youth on the Indiana frontier, he had put his experience and knowledge of Ohio River currents to good use in rowing passengers out midstream to board passing steamboats. It was via this employment that the future president first entered what was for him “the wider and fairer” economy of monetary exchange. Not for Abe the barter economy; he sought to smooth the way for capital.

As counsel for the defence in the Effie Afton case, Lincoln put his frontiersman’s knowledge of river currents to work in designing experiments that showed the plaintiff’s claim to be false, demonstrating his argument with a courtroom model of the bridge and boat. In addition to the damning evidence about the circumstances of the crash, Lincoln repeatedly drove home the point that the nation could not prosper were there to be an arbitrary injunction against east-west transport. Rivers were to be crossed, he argued, and it was the manifest destiny of the people to move westward and enjoy the benefits of modern civilisation.

Hamilton would not rest, he said, until he had found his man. Having reviewed the evidence which had resulted in the successful prosecution of Rosemary DeBlatt for the murder of Mark Boyd, the retired New South Wales Police Force Detective Sergeant concluded that the circumstantial case against Rosemary had been flawed and that Dempster—Mark Boyd’s brother’s dubious American ‘friend’—was the killer. That is why, late on Friday afternoon of the first week of our tour of the upper Mid-West, we had deviated from our course and stopped in Mason City, Iowa.[21]

We walked through a shopping mall to the town square and Meryn immediately warmed to the place. Attuned to her surroundings, she has always appreciated fine architecture but the Frank Lloyd Wright creation took her by surprise. As it turned out, the great man had left his mark elsewhere in town so Meryn and I spent a delightful few hours walking the streets while Hamilton (who had taken us there) sniffed about in search of the American.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century the celebrated Chicago architect, Louis Sullivan, had taught the young Frank Lloyd Wright to look upon a proposed building as a functional structure which should be approached somewhat as an artistic creation that belonged in its environment. Wright’s early twentieth century prairie style architecture embodied this modernist principle and in 2005 we’d seen it in concrete form while touring houses he’d designed in Oak Park, Chicago, the suburb where he had had his studio, and where Ernest Hemingway had grown up. An expert on his architecture had guided us through the Robie house on the south side so we know a Wright house when we see it, and a Griffin too.

Wright employed Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney in his Oak Park studio. Griffin married Mahoney in 1911 and won the prize to design Australia’s Federal capital, Canberra, in 1912. So it struck me as serendipitous that Hamilton should direct me to Mason City, Iowa, because we discovered, there, a series of Griffin designed houses that are forerunners to the famous Castlecrag development in Sydney. There was a more prosaic explanation, however, in that Walter Burley Griffin’s Mason City houses are mentioned in the Boyd murder literature.

Mark Boyd and his wife, Lily, had inherited Mark’s grandfather’s Griffin designed Castlecrag house and were living there at the time of his death in 1997. So my Hamilton did not know something that I didn’t know, after-all. I was disappointed yet relieved because it would have been unnerving to find that he did. Nevertheless, there was the pleasing new development that he knew things I had long ago forgotten and it augured well, especially given the convergence at the same location of Hamilton’s man hunt and Meryn’s abiding interest. Wright’s houses ‘flow’ whereas Griffin’s stand like statues in settings of craggy rock.

We stayed in Owatonna, Minnesota, and headed for the Twin Cities in the morning. Brunch in a small town introduced us to rural America’s community diner—a socialist oasis in a desert of cash nexus. Rejoining the highway, I instinctively followed the sun while Meryn studied the map. The sun was in the south but I was meant to be heading north. Meryn woke up seven mile into my mistake so we went east toward Red Wing and stopped at Northfield. Thank Providence for wrong turns; Northfield has history.

J. L. Heywood, a Union veteran of the siege of Vicksburg in 1863, was at his job as a bookkeeper in a Division Street bank on September 7th 1876 when Jesse James shot him dead.[22] Cole Younger and two of his brothers had come north from Missouri with Jesse and Frank James in order to rob the Northfield bank. They were there because Jesse James wanted to make a pointed political statement.

Still fighting for the lost Confederate cause a decade after the Civil War had ended, Jesse was at the height of his infamy. Vehemently opposed to Reconstruction—the Federal government’s series of measures designed to re-integrate the states that had seceded from the Union and to protect the rights of freed slaves in those states—he had picked out Adelbert Ames as a target for his wrath because Ames was a Radical Republican and had been elected a Mississippi senator on the strength of the black vote.[23]

The son of Jesse Ames, a Massachusetts sea captain, Adelbert spent much of his youth aboard ocean going vessels. He first stepped on a gangplank about the time that Herman Melville abandoned the sailor’s life to become a Massachusetts farmer. Gifted, cultured, intellectual, and imbued with New England ideals, Adelbert Ames graduated from West Point military academy on the Hudson River in 1861 and went straight into battle at Bull Run. He fought many such battles on the side of the Union throughout the Civil War, including Gettysburg, Petersburg and Fort Fisher. During the period of Reconstruction he was a military administrator at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and shortly thereafter, the provisional military governor of that state.[24]

General Ames, Yankee son-in-law of General Benjamin Butler—the man who had accepted fugitive slaves as contraband—wanted to do something about the fact that African Americans in much of the post-war South “had no rights whatever” and were subject to paramilitary rule by former slaveholders. He was therefore a thorn in the side of Southern Democrats. They had long wanted to be rid of this Mississippi senator who championed black’s civil rights and in 1876 they succeeded.

Following that electoral defeat, Adelbert Ames went to work with his father and brother in their Northfield flourmill. The Ames family had a thriving business and stored much of their wealth in the local First National Bank. It’s not surprising, then, that Jesse James set his sights on that bank as an ideal target of his rearguard actions in defence of Southern honour. The daring robbery was foiled, the James-Younger gang having been thwarted inside the bank by the bookkeeper and teller and outside by members of the local community, Adelbert and Jesse Ames among them.

Bandit Cole Younger, one of the many nineteenth-century songs collected for posterity by Carl Sandburg, tells the tale of the Northfield bank robbery and how Cole’s brother had warned him that Jesse James would be their undoing and that they should not have allowed him to badger them into that particular hold-up.[25] The Younger brothers were captured and, despite the fact that they had escaped, the Northfield bank robbery marked the beginning of the end for the James brothers too.

Unaware that he had been personally targeted as the archetypal Northern Yankee Unionist who stood for everything Confederate terrorist James stood against, Ames nevertheless confided to his wife that the cutthroats from Missouri who attacked the Northfield bank were eerily reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klansmen who had murdered Republicans in Mississippi when he had been there.[26]

Hamilton reckoned Dempster was close at hand. Meryn determined from its tell tale stonework and location which riverside building must have been the nineteenth-century Ames flour mill. When we walked from the Division Street bank building across the bridge to take a closer look at her candidate mill there was a sign indicating that that’s what it was. So, having walked the dividing line where Jesse James’ and Jesse Ames’ paths had crossed, we felt satisfied and struck out for Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin Cities—the two North Country towns where, 130 years earlier in August 1876, members of the James-Younger outlaw gang had masked their true identities and booked into various hotel rooms in preparation for the Northfield attack.

A few weeks before that Jesse James and Cole Younger had argued concerning the latter’s misgivings about the Minnesota raid. Their dispute took place against the backdrop of nationwide preparations for the July 4th celebration of the first centenary of the American Declaration of Independence. All across the country, bandmasters held dress rehearsals for local renditions of Hail, Columbia and The Star Spangled Banner, the latter a Frances Scott Key patriotic poem sung to the tune of an early nineteenth-century drinking song.

Born in Minnesota’s Twin Cities in September 1896, Frances Scott Fitzgerald had been christened in honour of his distant relative, Frances Scott Key. [27] He grew up to be “extraordinarily aware” of his place on the social ladder. The young man had wanted to marry Zelda Sayre, daughter of a Supreme Court Judge from Montgomery, Alabama, but not been wealthy enough for her. So he headed for New York to become a stockbroker but ended up having to take a lowly advertising job.  

Determined to realise the American Dream and ‘get the girl’, he returned to the Twin Cities, pulled an early attempt at a novel out from the bottom drawer, reworked it, and became famous when it was published in 1920 as This Side Of Paradise. He married Zelda and they had a daughter, Frances, in 1921. The central character of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘jazz-age novel,’ The Great Gatsby (1925), is sacrificed on the altar of paradox—torn apart by striving for and then realising the American Dream.

On account of it being the time of year for the Minnesota State Fair, we weren’t the only people in the Twin Cities on the last Saturday of August 2006. We followed the crowd through the turnstiles and were drawn by the time-honoured antics of a man up on the podium who made his knives miraculous. Meryn was sold on him; I was reticent. Not as resistant to the message of carefree cutting, though, as a man who remonstrated with his wife and tried (unsuccessfully) to drag her away. Refusing to be drawn into the knife man’s confidence, he turned his back and hunched his shoulders, hoping, no doubt, to block out the effects of sales magic. Only $20—and if you buy now you’ll get another knife thrown in and a free lemon juicer. We paid our money and took our chances.

Departing early on Sunday morning from a Rest Area on I-35, we set out for Brainerd, Minnesota, en route to Fargo, North Dakota. Meryn, ill at ease about being awake so early—we had slept in the car—stared straight ahead and didn’t bother with the road atlas. Hamilton carped about just missing Dempster in St Paul and insisted that I press on after him. The upshot was that we went nowhere near Coen’s Blue Ox motel, missed Brainerd altogether in fact, and turned up instead at America’s biggest open-cut iron mine on the outskirts of Hibbing.

John D. Rockefeller had invested in Hibbing’s Mesabi Range and when he sold his holdings to J. P. Morgan in 1901 the U. S. Steel Corporation gained a toehold and secured a steady supply of iron ore for its steel manufacture. Mesabi Iron Range ore was transported 60 miles to the Lake Superior port of Duluth and shipped from there to steel mills on other Great Lakes’ shores.

Hibbing businessmen grew fat on the profits from the labour of Hibbing’s European immigrants in the first half of the twentieth century. Greyhound Lines bus company had its origins in that northern Minnesota mining town. Hibbing might have remained a mere dot on the map to Meryn and me had we not gone there. We had, though, and discovered a thriving community in what had obviously once been a well-heeled town. The diner we went to for breakfast was up there with all the other rural diners.

While we waited on bar stools at the counter for the bacon and eggs with hash-browns—done right it’s an exquisite meal—Meryn commented on an article in the local rag to the effect that Hibbing folk would soon be shooting bears. Our waitress was in earshot and when she came to top up the bottomless coffee cups she put us in the picture about hunting bear: one bear per hunter per season, from September 1st; these creatures are so wily that only dedicated hunters stand a chance of bagging one; bear-baiting is a painstaking art and succeeds only after much grooming of the sought-after beast.

Bear meat was not to our waitress’s husband’s taste but she cans it anyway. We enjoyed listening to her, the hash browns going down a treat until the cook took a break and lit up a Marlborough on the next stool. We moved away and it became obvious that Hibbing smokers are from Mars and regard those of us who don’t mix tobacco with breakfast as girls from Venus.

North Dakota was beyond us, we realised, and turned tail for home, calling in at Duluth later that day. A massive ship tied up in port proved a stark reminder of how vital a cog this town on the western shore of Lake Superior had been in facilitating trade on a grand scale.

Ore carriers weren’t the only ships to dock there, though: a hundred years ago James Gatz, an insignificant young fellow from the Midwest, was walking along a Superior beach when he noticed a boat out on the lake. The boy had always known that he was meant to be somebody and had simply to seize the moment when it came. It did, and like Abraham Lincoln rowing out into the Ohio River to his epiphany James Gatz became Jay Gatsby when he rowed out to warn Dan Cody that the ship would be split to splinters were the wind to lift. Staring up at Cody’s yacht, the youth yearned to belong in that glamorous world. Cody bought him a blue coat, white duck trousers and a yachting cap in Duluth and they left for the Barbary Coast—where scores of 18th century white American sailors had been sold into slavery.

Fitzgerald reveals the genesis of the Great Gatsby in Chapter Six of his classic novel. Gatsby, wandering along the shore of the Great Lakes while dreaming of the fame and fortune which would come of creating a new identity, is the American. As such, Fitzgerald’s hero adheres to that peculiarly American tradition of regarding time as cyclical. Should he doubt it, one need only read on to the end of the chapter where Gatsby says “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” The American is born of a nation whose vitality comes from being at odds with itself, whose people celebrate excellence, and whose artists create magic from behind the mask.

Hamilton had come so much to life since picking up the scent of his American that I believed I’d made it through the mirror and could count on the Detective Sergeant to keep the voices at bay. A week to the day since he’d come to stay, they were still silent but Hamilton himself had started yelling demands. Why had I whisked him away when he’d practically had Dempster in his sights? Why hadn’t we turned back? What would be done about it?

The Dodge skirted the southern edge of Lake Superior, Wisconsin, the Apostle Islands in view. The detective carried on all along scenic Route 13 until a very cheap yet comfortable, clean, independently run Ashland motel set against the backdrop of a superb sunset over the shimmering lake calmed the waters. It helped, too, that the night supervisor (yet another fan of the Crocodile Hunter) was a woman in her early thirties who took trouble in her stride. 

The next day we travelled 450 miles along the northern coast of Lake Michigan on Route 2 across the magnificent toll bridge spanning the fresh water of Lakes Michigan and Huron and ate at a café in Indian River, Michigan. Good fare, a far cry from what’s served up at chain stores like Arbys and the like. The waitresses played cards while waiting to serve customers; they were easy-going and steered clear of the usual mechanical niceness. We asked them to give our compliments to the cook or chef and then drove to a Rest Area and slept in the car after listening to an excellent public radio documentary about Michigan’s famous motor vehicle manufacturer, Henry Ford.

Ford was born in the month of the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, July 1863. In his mid-forties, he organised production of the Model T automobile in Detroit along the same lines as Ely Whitney had his New Haven gun factory. During the Great Depression, the Ford assembly line symbolised the dehumanising aspect of industrial capitalism in the Chaplin film Modern Times (1936).

We set out before sunrise and cruised around Downtown Detroit in the late morning of August 29th. Entranced by first impressions and unable to ignore the conspicuous wealth in the architecture, we discovered the usual degradation and black poverty five or ten minutes walk from the city centre. A visit to the Ford Museum was quashed by a major traffic jam. After crawling less than a mile in an hour, we pulled across to a motel opposite and enquired about a room.

The desk clerk was cagey, checking us out. It was mid afternoon and the suite he had would not be ready for another half hour. We didn’t catch on at first but when he escorted us to a room which would be much like the one put aside for us we realised that it was a trucker’s brothel so we thanked him and moved on, accommodated, eventually in an establishment boasting the world’s longest corridor and housing the world’s rustiest automobile, courtesy of the couple in the adjoining room. Spike Lee’s film, When the Levees Broke, about Hurricane Katrina—the footage of the Dick Cheney press conference in Gulfport, Mississippi, is priceless— kept us up until late, tired as we were.

Michigan peninsular separates Lakes Huron and Eerie in the east from its namesake lake in the west. Come Wednesday, the Caliber had the sun at its back and Ann Arbor in its sights. Meryn had located a Whole Foods Store at which we stocked up with good quality produce before taking coffee in the university precinct along with hundreds of other people our age who were there from all over the country to see sons and daughters settle in to a new life.

Australia has nothing like it, the phenomenon of sending young men and women away to College. The American—ever conscious of the need to properly pass on the culture to succeeding generations—places a high value on tertiary education. Ann Arbor is another of that nation’s high calibre university towns.

South of there, we joined Route 20 and drove east along Lake Eerie, reaching Cleveland, Ohio, late in the afternoon. We’d been there before, during an aborted railroad attempt on Niagara Falls in 2003. Assuming that we could travel east along Lake Eerie to Buffalo, New York, Meryn and I had ‘detrained’ on the Cleveland train station platform at 3 am. But there was no service to Buffalo and so slept on a newspaper bed in the waiting room.

The station master explained that the railroad had become a laughing stock since Detroit had got the ear of government, that if we wanted to see what might have been we should go Downtown to the grand old Cleveland Union Terminal which had been the train terminus from the day it opened in 1930 until the railroad companies passed it by for the more economical track along the lake in the 1970s. We did, and went to other places he suggested, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Having not properly understood our guide, we strolled around the shopping mall in Union Terminal, renamed the Tower City Center, unaware that the railway concourse was beneath our feet. The hundreds of Cleveland young folk who hung out in the Tower were so obese that Meryn and I saw little else apart from the tragedy. There must be at least ten freight for every passenger train on the US rail network, and a relatively high percentage of those is transporting corn syrup—the main cause of the American obesity scandal.

When I told an Australian academic who was about to spend six months in Cleveland what we saw—the extraordinarily overweight youths by day and the trainloads of syrup by night—she said I was ‘fattist.’ Post-modernism has done nothing if not name things.

It was our good luck to be in the Terminal for the arrival of a wedding party in which the photographer was servant, not master. He had to manage a dozen or more gigantic dramatis personae who took their positions standing on steps leading down from a running water feature. From the flower girl at the base up through the maids to the bride at the top and all down the other side of best men to a pageboy stationed at the same elevation as the flower girl, the proud and happy African Americans, all wearing white, were massively overweight. The fantastic spectacle could never have escaped our attention, even without the groom, but with him it was U. S. burlesque at its best: there, next to the gargantuan Queen, his new wife, was a tiny man so thin that he could have been blown through a flute.

Railroads crisscrossed the nation and carried the American to his manifest destiny from the 1850s. In the first half of the nineteenth century, though, the economy had been carried by water transport across the Great Lakes along man made canals to the mighty rivers. The Ohio Canal joined Cleveland to the Mississippi system via the Ohio River in the late 1820s, at the beginning of the era of Jacksonian Democracy. Then, when the railroad took over and the Civil War created the need for sudden industrial expansion, Cleveland came into its own, transforming vast supplies of iron and coal into ships and steel and making billionaires of John D. Rockefeller, et al.

White weddings peppered the surrounds of the Cleveland Museum of Art on what had continued to be a bright blue day. We’d caught the bus there and, impressed, toured the art galleries. Meryn normally gains more than me from meandering through miles of canvas but when I chanced upon a trompe l’oeil—Jack of Hearts, painted by John F Peto in 1895—the day was complete. The American, a confidence man, is really and truly himself when at work practising the art of deception. And he frequently makes his mark by fooling us into perceiving the two dimensional copy as the three dimensional real thing.[28] Peto’s specialty was the ‘rack picture’ masquerade and his depiction of the letter rack which I stood staring at in Cleveland that day is a fine example of American counterfeit.

Anticipating a second look at Peto’s Jack of Hearts as Cleveland’s Tower came nearer the Caliber, I recalled that day we’d spent at the Museum. Meryn made us both laugh when she came out with the name of the street—Euclid—down which we’d caught the bus three years earlier. Hamilton dropped the demand to turn back and heralded our arrival as a new dawn because, he said, Dempster was in Downtown Cleveland, had gone there from Duluth.

Running parallel with Euclid, we located the Museum and I reverse parked with geometric precision. Renovations were being carried out there so we could not view the canvases but on the way back to the car we chanced upon Frank Gehry’s Peter B. Lewis Building, a work of art with extraordinary metallic curves climbing all over bricks laid to confound the commonsense notion that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Chapter   7    The Private Eye


A promise to call on friends of Meryn’s parents necessitated our pressing on to Pittsburgh so we sped north-east to the only available Rest Area out on I-90 while the sun went down in the west. I braced myself for more of Hamilton’s shenanigans but Dempster had taken the same route out of town and the Detective Sergeant was onto him. Ours was one of many cars that stayed in the Rest Area that night and left at sunup on the last day of August, a Thursday.

Meryn said to turn south at Route-528 but Hamilton wanted to head on up to the Ashtabula turnoff. I guess he knew, since I did, that President-elect Abraham Lincoln (en route from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C.) sought to tame the crowd that had gathered on the train platform, there, in February 1861, with a few remarks about his wife’s headstrong nature.

We went south to Route-322 then east, and stopped at Windsor, Ohio, for breakfast. The café turned out to be a pub. A man at the bar had set up a smoke screen and sat inside it with his beer and a bourbon chaser. I wasn’t sure I could stomach someone else’s cigarette for breakfast but we gave it a shot and ordered the special. It came with coffee that alone was worth the $US2.50 we paid for the meal. Eggs with biscuit and gravy, which is to say, eggs with bread soaked in white sauce and a piece of toast on the side.[29] It was edible but not my cup of tea.

Two men drank coffee on either side of the beer and bourbon man as he whinged about his wife. He talked of a local teenager who had allowed some fellow for whom there was a warrant to drive her car while she sat in the passenger seat. The police pulled them over, searched the car, and found four loaded guns. So both were arrested and arraigned on various charges including intent to commit a crime. The young woman couldn’t understand, he said, why she’d been charged.

A stocky black man in a stylish white hat with the brim turned down all round appeared in the doorway. He shaded his eyes, sizing up the situation before sidling over and speaking softly to one of the beer man’s coffee drinking companions. The fellow offered the excuse that his truck was overloaded and he couldn’t drive at 80 miles per hour like those others who leave late and arrive early at 8 am. Then he gathered up his belongings and made a move for the door through which the overseer, if that’s what the black man was, had entered. The other fellow who’d had coffee went with him, as did another who had turned up shortly beforehand and sat at the bar. 

The barmaid filled the beer man’s whisky glass and topped up his ale. Continuing to chain-smoke, he tried to tell the overseer about the woeful wife but the black man, disinterested, was merely polite. We were almost ready to leave when the beer man finished off another couple of cigarettes, downed a full beer and then the whisky, bade goodbye to the barmaid and left. Moments later, a semi trailer pulled up at the crossroads outside the pub and Meryn and I looked at one another with one thought in mind: who was driving that rig?

We paid the check and continued east along R-322 through Orwell and across the border into Pennsylvania. Soon thereafter, we saw a couple of other-worldly children playing in their front yard near the road. I slowed and asked Meryn to grab the camera—the type of request guaranteed to cause anxiety because we’re completely at odds in this regard. She’s inclined to shoot a roll of film containing a limited number of well composed high quality photographs whereas I hold that we’re in the era of storing energy in digital format and can click at will, constrained only by the capacity of the card and the amount of charge left in the batteries. When we came upon an Amish horse and buggy around the next bend Meryn went in search of the camera and we pulled up a couple of miles ahead in order to prepare for the exotic family—a man, woman, youth, and three small children—to clip clop into the frame.

She phoned Elwood City from Meadville and yes, her parents’ friends would love to see us—what American ever gave a cold shoulder to the friend of a friend?—and no, it would not be for lunch but to stay for a couple of days.

A sulphur-crested-cockatoo swooped down from somewhere and landed on the fridge as we crossed the threshold into Martin and Karin’s kitchen. Two cockatiels (Tricksy and Dixie) conversed in high-pitched parrot and an extraordinary feline (some sort of lynx, perhaps, or was it an ocicat?) sat at the window, weighing the pro’s and con’s of whether or not to heed the call of the wild. Meryn spoke of her cockatiel back home, Magda, and we all laughed out loud when she told us about the friend, Trish, who was caring for the precious pet.

Trish kept budgerigars but had recently been given a male cockatiel, Dobro, and was as devoted to him as Meryn was to Magda. If Magda was going to fit into the family she was going to have to get along with Dobro, of course, and so Meryn regularly took Magda to visit Trish and her cockatiel well in advance of our departure for the USA. Once, when she phoned to say she would take her bird over, Trish told her that she was lying on the bed with Dobro, that they both needed a break and be together, just the two of them. Dobro had been spending too much time with the other birds, she said, “And I don’t want him speaking budgie!”

The humble house was no glass menagerie; redemption came from being there: Meryn settled into the sofa; squawking parrots proved too much for Hamilton, who couldn’t get a word in; the cougar crouched near the cocky’s cage. The world was back on track.

Martin and Karin drove us to an old buckwheat mill where we took comfort in their political point of view. Martin wasn’t the first American to say that he opposed George W. Bush but was unique in describing the president as a ‘moron.’ Perhaps he’s not—Dubya may merely have been speaking budgie—but forty-three was surely the most incompetent White House incumbent since James Buchanan left office, with America on the brink of civil war, in 1861. The next day, Friday, September 1st, our hosts drove us the 40 odd miles to Pittsburgh, where Martin had been Meryn’s stepfather’s student and, subsequently, academic colleague.

When George Washington had surveyed the Ohio valley in 1754 he noted the strategic significance of the Point—the place where the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela forms the beginning of the Ohio River: whomever controlled the Point, he concluded, would gain dominion over the interior. Four years later the British captured the Point’s Fort Duquesne from the French and renamed the area after William Pitt. Four years after that Pittsbourgh—Pittsburgh—had its first coal mine and became part of Pennsylvania when the Mason-Dixon line was extended in 1778.

A transport hub during the steamboat era in the first half of the nineteenth century, Pittsburgh developed as a major trading and manufacturing city, one of relatively few urban centres harbouring the burgeoning proletariat of American capitalism. It was on a Pittsburgh stage, in 1830, that Thomas Dartmouth Rice donned the blackface mask and introduced his fictional character, Jim Crow (the naïve Southern slave who wheeled and turned about in dance while dispensing homespun political commentary), to theatre audiences. It seemed to newspaper editors of the day that a sudden insanity had swept urban America with otherwise sober city dwellers now wheeling and turning about to jump Jim Crow.

White performers in blackface mask took their place in the entertainment industry alongside the circus performers, stage magicians and museum exhibits and by the early 1840s the blackface minstrel show had become an integral part of the Northern phenomenon of artful deception.[30] Stephen Foster, who wrote numerous classic minstrel show songs and campaigned on behalf of James Buchanan in 1856, was born in Pittsburgh on July 4th 1826. He grew up listening to the African Americans who sang at work on the Ohio River—part of the dividing line, the Mason-Dixon, which separates the North from the South—and in the black churches.

In 1828 a flatboat loaded with tobacco, sugar, grain and meat had carried nineteen-year-old Abraham Lincoln along the Ohio to the Mississippi downstream to tie up alongside seven thousand similar vessels in the port of New Orleans, Louisiana. On a second Mississippi River flatboat voyage Lincoln took in May 1831, this time from St Louis, Missouri, the sight of Negroes being whipped and scourged in the Crescent City left a lasting impression on the twenty-two-year-old.[31]

A decade later, Lincoln the politician employed his backwoods facility with the language when addressing the Springfield Temperance Society at its Washington birthday celebration on February 22nd1842—telling the gathering that

There seems ever to have been a proneness in the brilliant, and the warm-blooded, to fall into this vice. The demon of intemperance ever seems to have delighted in sucking the blood of genius and of generosity.[32]

Huck Finn, the boy from the backwoods created by Samuel Clemens—alias Mark Twain—took a trip down the Mississippi River in antebellum America with the fugitive slave, Jim. Huck had been feeling put upon by women who wanted to clothe and house the unruly boy as well as instruct him in the rudiments of reading, writing and Christian values. Up in his bedroom after a day among those women, he felt tired and lonesome, Huck says, as he sat in a chair and looked out the window.

The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods … and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was. … I hadn’t no confidence.[33]

Feeling hemmed-in, Huckleberry Finn was poised to break free. In creating his boy-hero, Twain drew on the image of the backwoodsman fleeing before encroaching civilisation, the nineteenth-century American who lived on the frontier (another dividing line) and didn’t want to grow up to become a European.

Huck rode to freedom floating down the Mississippi on a raft. He and his fugitive-slave companion, Jim, were desperately trying to recognise Cairo, the town which sits at the junction of Big Muddy and the Ohio River. It was imperative that Huck and Jim head away from the Mississippi, up the Ohio to the other side of the Mason-Dixon line because that way lay the only hope of liberation for escaped slaves. Jim had escaped from slavery in Missouri when he believed that he was about to be sold down the River in New Orleans by a slave trader.

Now, there they were—at the crossroads. Freedom was just around the corner for Jim: insofar as he made the transition from the Mississippi to the Ohio he would be free. Huck, on the other hand, would thenceforth become the fugitive because Jim was the lawful property, so far as Huck knew, of Miss Watson, Huck’s long-suffering moral guardian. Once Jim crossed that river Huck would be throwing his civilised Christian upbringing in the face of the women who had taught him to read and write using the biblical story of Moses.

The atmosphere of the river spoke to Huck’s dark night of the soul, especially when a dense fog obscured the lights of Cairo and caused Jim and him to lose their bearings and be carried south on the current beyond the point of no return. Living by the light of nature (or superstition), each had upset the powers of darkness in his own way, Huck believed, and further retribution came, now, when a steamboat reared up out of that darkness, swamped their raft, and sent them to the bottom of the river.

Scrambling ashore after nearly being drowned, Huck found a house with lights on but was bailed up by fierce dogs. Wary, the wily backwoods boy knew better than to identify himself by his real name and so adopted the pseudonym of ‘George Jackson.’ He obeyed orders, fearful of having his head blown off by being mistaken as a member of the Shepherdson family (with whom his hosts were feuding). He concocted a potted biography to explain his presence: he was originally from Arkansas, he told them, but “my sister … run off and got married and never was heard of no more … ” that his brother went off on the hunt for her and never came back and that after his father died he took deck passage, north, on a steamer.

In the clear morning light Huck could see that fate had tossed him up on a remarkable shore, that the well-furnished dwelling with antiques and finery was no ordinary house in the country. He learned about the pendulum clock on the mantelpiece, that it had attracted the knavery of passing Yankee peddlers who had invariably sought to ‘con them out of it.’ According to Huck, it “was beautiful to hear the clock tick” and see the books and paintings it seemed they—the hosts, Mr Grangerford and his family—had brought with them to Kentucky from Philadelphia, paintings of Washington and Lafayette.[34]

The Grangerfords kept more than a hundred slaves. On the face of it they were the epitome of the wealthy slave-owning aristocracy imbued with the tradition of Southern honour, people who cherished the belief that God had provided them with an inferior servile race to do the dirty-work while they themselves pursued the dream of the founding fathers of the American republic—the quest for intellectual eminence.[35] But things are never so straightforward in America. The Grangerfords read Henry Clay—Kentucky slaveholder and Whig politician who sought to preserve the Union through the introduction of measures to effect the gradual, compensated emancipation of slaves. Twain identified Huck’s hosts, then, as among that group of Southern slave owners who did not support secession but remained loyal to the Union and supported Clay’s younger protégé, Abraham Lincoln. They were from Kentucky, one of the slave States that did not secede.[36]

Lincoln and Huck Finn weren’t the only Americans to follow the Mighty Mississippi downstream from St Louis. At sunrise on April Fools’ Day, Melville’s confidence man boards a steamboat for New Orleans.[37] He carries no baggage. The stranger has recently plied his craft in Missouri but can be found all over the United States. Melville’s America is a place where the counterfeit-detector is operated by a man who is himself counterfeit, where a “purple-faced” slave trader is fooled by the masquerade of a white man in blackface disguise, and where reality invariably takes a back seat to the copy.[38] The Confidence Man was published in 1857; in 1867 the Atlantic Monthly carried an article that recast Melville’s fictional account of the scene on the St Louis wharf as a true account of how T. D. Rice had conceived of the figure of Jim Crow on the Monongahela docks in Pittsburgh.[39]

Martin took us to the top of a hill that afforded a panoramic view of Pittsburgh spread out behind the Point where the Monongahela and Allegheny lose themselves in the Ohio. Thus elevated, Hamilton had visions of grandeur and became convinced that, like the river, Dempster could run but not hide; the Detective Sergeant was confident there’d be blood on the tracks. Having come down from the mountain, we laid eyes on Griffin Chiles’ bronze bust of Stephen Foster then walked past a preserved Bessemer converter—Henry Bessemer patented a process for the relatively inexpensive mass production of steel from pig iron in 1855—at Station Square, the site of Pittsburgh’s first blast furnace which had operated from 1859 to 1927.

Lunch, in a sportsman’s bar, there, afforded the unedifying spectacle of a bouncer unjustly accusing the couple at the adjoining table of not paying for their meal. He’d got it all wrong but official paranoia had been the order of the day for a week short of five years by then. The Station Square bar wasn’t Guantanamo but had adopted the Cheney-Rumsfeld line of reasoning: there’s no evidence but …

The Pittsburgh and Lake Eerie railroad had hauled freight in and out of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, through Station Square, to Ashtabula, Ohio. In 1953 Martin, carrying his kit, had boarded a train at Station Square. Young men like him were boarding trains all over the United States at the time. They served in the nation’s armed forces and were bound for Korea. The American is ignorant of the world at large but the tentacles of the Empire for which his government fights reach around the globe from Latin America through the Philippines to Vietnam and Guam.

After a day in the ‘big smoke’—Pittsburgh is no longer the filthy hell hole that capital created in the century following the Civil War—we settled down to the documentary about the parrots of Telegraph Hill. Karin cried when the old soldier died. Her cockatiels, like Meryn’s Magda, were snug and safe, but for how long? The two women went next door to the Beauty Salon and drowned their tears in mousse.

On the Saturday we went to stay with Meryn’s colleague, Nita, her medical practitioner husband, Harry, and their wonderful three-year-old twins (Ewen and Allison) in an impressive architecturally designed house on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. I had set off on the wrong foot: Hamilton hated me for having failed to follow Dempster down the Ohio and Nita didn’t care for my angle on America. I talked to the kids while she discussed a conference paper with Meryn.

Ewen was shy and kept his distance but Allison spoke at length on what were matters of import to her. Shy, but attentive: we learned, weeks later, that Ewen had taken to describing all things ever after his encounter with my curious accent and idiom as “Brilliant!”

Harry’s parents, sister, brother-in-law and twin nieces came around on the Sunday morning. The adult world revolved around the children, naturally, but they’re tertiary educated professionals in their day jobs. The sister and her husband are civil engineers; she designs highway signs and he the roads themselves. Meryn told them of our admiration for the road system. It’s true, we think it brilliant. Rail was probably the more sustainable option, of course, but that’s another story. They left soon after lunch and took Ewen and Allison with them because Harry and Nita were staging a party that night.

I spent the afternoon at a local museum exhibition about the history of the greater Pittsburgh region steel industry. An audio-visual display prosecuted an argument to the effect that the U S became great because of steel from Pittsburgh, that it would not be the wonderful nation that it now is had the heroic captains of industry not screwed the workers. According to the story, the American’s anti-Trades-Union stance was the upshot of the steelworker’s strike of July 1892 at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead steel works.

Artisans had passed down their knowledge as puddlers, and so on, within a tight-knit community but the Eli Whitney method of mechanisation had begun to encroach on that tradition and pose a threat to skilled workers’ job security. When their existing agreement with the steel company expired, management had seized the opportunity to alter what it considered were the workers’ anachronistic terms and conditions of employment. The steelworkers went on strike. Carnegie, overseas, left his business partner, Henry Frick, to conduct the negotiations.

Frick, anti-Union, locked out the workers and called in Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency to break the strike. On July 6th three-hundred inexperienced Pinkerton paramilitary guards went up the Monongahela River on barges toward the Homestead Mill where they were confronted by a crowd, ten-thousand strong, of jeering workers and their families determined to preserve traditional livelihoods.Pinkerton’s guards, no match for the mob, were forced to yield.

National sentiment was with the workers. But the strikers’ mothers and wives, some with babes in arms, had their gander up and went from jostling the hapless paramilitary innocents to severely beating them. Twelve people were killed in the fracas and more than twenty seriously injured. From that moment, the voice-over claimed, the American turned anti-Trades-Union and has been readily persuaded ever after that labour unionism is evil.

Frick called upon the governor of Pennsylvania to put down ‘mob rule’ and on July 8th the state militia took over from Pinkerton’s private army. It took until the November but Henry Frick finally frustrated the Union’s demands by exploiting the structural division between the skilled and unskilled workforce. Organised labour in America did not find its feet again for another forty years—not until unfettered capital was brought to its knees by its own bootstraps.

Carnegie had previously defended the workers’ right to organise and was thought to be a friend of labour. Frick’s conduct of the Homestead strike, however, changed that perception and Carnegie was lumped in with all the other barons. In 1899 he consolidated his various steel making operations as Carnegie Steel and provided such stiff competition for J. P. Morgan that the latter bought him out in 1901. Morgan created U. S. Steel from the deal and Carnegie became the richest man in the world. 

Twelve-year-old Andrew Carnegie had arrived in the United States from Scotland with his emigrant parents in 1848. His father was an artisan, a handloom weaver, and young Andrew started out as a bobbin boy in a Pittsburgh cotton mill. Literate, he moved into the office as a clerk and then became a telegraph operator and telegrapher to a superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. While there, he initiated more efficient work practices and played a crucial role as a strike breaker.

In 1856 Carnegie took out a loan and invested in the railroad business, building up substantial capital from the profit. He plunged that back into Pennsylvania oil, the telegraph, and a company which would build bridges from iron instead of wood. The construction of the Eads Bridge in St Louis alerted Carnegie to the fact that steel would be in demand so he put a Bessemer converter to work and opened a steel plant in 1875. The Carnegie Steel Company made its owner rich by churning out rails for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Allan Pinkerton was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1819. He emigrated to the USA in 1842 and went into business as a cooper near Chicago, Illinois. An abolitionist, Pinkerton provided sanctuary to escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, but was otherwise a stickler for the rule of law. So when he got wind of the fact that there was a gang of counterfeiters in the county he saw to it that they were arrested.

Appointed deputy sheriff, he went on to become a Chicago Police detective and subsequently founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The Pinkerton Agency specialised in tracking down urban America’s professional thieves—pickpockets, confidence men, safecrackers—by infiltrating their networks. The expansion of the railroad saw the agency branch out into the ‘apprehension of train robbers and members of outlaw gangs’ business. His own network of contacts, mug shots of known criminals, and so on, led Pinkerton to promote his agency as the ‘all-seeing eye’—which is how the generic detective became a ‘private eye.’

Pinkerton was instrumental in the instigation of the United States Secret Service, the organisation charged with “detecting persons perpetrating frauds against the government”—a labour in the domain of Trickster, for an agency engendered by Mercurius. It all began with the drawn out transition between the November 6th 1860 election of President Abraham Lincoln and his March 14th 1861 inauguration.

From the moment the rail-splitter set off for the White House from Springfield, Illinois, on February 11th 1861, Trickster contrived circumstances to present the president-elect as a figure of fun. The hostile twins who constituted the Republic were on the verge of realising their destiny as warring opposites: seven states had seceded, arsenals and mints had been seized by the rebels, the Mighty Mississippi was blockaded, and the Union in turmoil. On the train trip to Washington, D.C., through twenty speeches in five states over twelve days, then, it was incumbent upon Lincoln that he not frighten the horses, that he say nothing of consequence; so he told dignitaries jokes, talked of lifting the weight of injustice, of giving all an equal chance to be free—waxed paradoxical and ambiguous, that is to say.

Among the crowds that gathered, many who heard the president-elect speak thus thought him a fool—an impression subsequently compounded by the fact that the railroad sleuth, Allan Pinkerton, reported that his detectives had infiltrated a Baltimore gang, the ‘Blood Tubs,’ whose members planned to assassinate Honest Abe before he took the oath of office. Given no choice but to slip through Baltimore—a stronghold of slavery—masquerading as an invalid, Lincoln arrived in the capital ridiculed and lampooned as a gangly goose.[40] He subsequently contracted Pinkerton to set up a ‘secret service’ to gather military intelligence in the Confederacy.

As George McClellan’s intelligence chief, Allan Pinkerton fed the Union General’s notorious over-estimation of the size of the Confederate forces arrayed against him. The epitome of the paranoid American, Pinkerton sought to defend the nation, to protect its commerce, trade, and industry from the criminal element, should it take the form of secessionist rebels, the James-Younger gang in Missouri, or organised labour in Pennsylvania. The private army which the Pinkerton Detective Agency flung together to break the Homestead strike in Pittsburgh was no better equipped to tackle the job than had been the agents sent to capture Jesse James at his mother’s farm near Kearney, Missouri, in March 1874 and January 1875.

Late in the afternoon of March 10th 1874, Joseph Whicher (a naïve private eye masquerading as a farm hand) knocked on the front door of Jesse James’ mother’s farmhouse. Whicher was executed within 24 hours. A week later, two of Cole Younger’s brothers saw through the weak disguise of a pair of Pinkerton operatives and ambushed them.

Pinkerton appointed Robert Linden to take charge of a major operation to bring the leaders of the James-Younger gang to book. Linden went to the U. S. Government’s arsenal at Rock Island, Illinois, in January 1875 with a letter of introduction from General Sheridan and came away with an explosive-powered device—the ‘gunpowder candle’—that would illuminate the inside of a building when thrown through a window.

 A private train packed with weapons and equipment waited at a siding on the Hannibal and St Joseph railroad for agents to board and then carried them to rendezvous with an advance party in the woods near Jesse James’ mother’s farm. In the early hours of January 26th the agents moved in on the farmhouse and set it ablaze before throwing the gunpowder candle through the window.

All heat and no light, that no-holds-barred attempt to arrest Jesse James was a spectacular failure. Jesse and Frank James had fled the farmhouse hours before the raid. Their mother, Zerelda Samuel, lost an arm, their half-brother was killed and the Samuel ‘servant’ (slave) was struck on the head by flying fragments when the ‘high-tech’ candle exploded.

Reporters went in search of the special train and exposed the fact that the raid had been carried out by Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. Jesse became more famous than ever. John Edwards of the St Louis Dispatch painted the whole affair as something of a Republican Party conspiracy and set about turning it into a Confederate cause celebre. Edwards continued to fan the fire of resentment in Confederate Democrat bellies and succeeded in transforming Jesse James from the terrorist that he was into the hero that he became.

Pinkerton had come up against the American’s respect for and defence of the outlaw. A mythical hero, the outlaw runs and hides in the knowledge that the common man identifies with his bid for freedom. Moreover, while Pinkerton represented the interests of Northern capital, Jesse James had won the hearts of Southerners who still sympathised with the Confederate cause. Jesse was still picking that same old Confederate sore when, twenty months later, his gang of outlaws followed the Mississippi River to Minnesota and attacked the Northfield Bank.


I left the museum and stepped back into the contemporary world, mingling with the party of academics at Nita and Harry’s house. A senior staffer who went out of her way to be sociable told me all about her Scottish ancestry and lent encouragement on the question of the American and his masquerade. Her husband asked for more detail concerning some story I told about Australian banks. Someone else had lost a bikini on Bondi beach.

The Detective Sergeant from New South Wales might have gone unnoticed but for the shiraz. My inner Pinkerton, he slipped in through a side door some way down the slope of sobriety and guided me to disgrace by hand and mouth. I held court, Meryn reminded me the next day, on Melville, Twain, Foster, Faulkner, and God knows what-all. It wouldn’t have been so bad had the desire to touch that silken Scottish thigh not been given free rein.

The twins were home by the time we left on the Monday morning and Allison, unaware of the type of man I was, held me tight and hugged, sad to see me go. A debilitating hangover promised a long haul ahead to return the Caliber to Downtown D.C. within the allotted fortnight.

Hamilton knew nothing of it but Harry had provided directions to the turn-off which took us on the scenic route to Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright designed cantilever house which juts out over a waterfall on Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Perhaps the chance to go one-up on Detective Pinkerton who made a meal of his magic moment, to come from the woods and seize Dempster in one fell swoop might get Hamilton off my back? No such luck. Extraordinary architecture, wonderful woods, Meryn in fine form—it all looked good. But the Detective Sergeant wanted none of it, he said, for it was his manifest destiny to go west.

Chapter   8    The Buzzard


At the entrance pavilion to another Wright house near Bear Run we were informed that further progress entailed boarding a touring bus with everyone else. It suited me that Meryn wasn’t having any of that—I take after my father who, when he retired, avoided any organised social gathering where a game of ‘throw the ball in the bucket’ was in the offing—so we pressed on south-east through Cumberland, Maryland, the hangover receding, to Winchester, Virginia, where we lost our way on a narrow back-road at dusk and arrived home late for our first night in the Centreville doll’s house.

“We’re sorry to hear of your loss,” said the rental company desk clerk when we returned the car on the Tuesday.  It drew a blank. There had been a radio in the Caliber but we’d turned it off because of the wall to wall advertisements on one band and biblical nonsense on the other. So we had not heard about the death of Steve Irwin, Australia’s Crocodile Hunter.

Centreville, Virginia, not only has British spelling but all of the streets have English names and the layout is as per England’s Midlands. The $350,000.00 house we now shared with Vera and Ajax might have been picked up from Stafford and set down in Virginia; it was tiny, like the other houses in the neighbourhood.

Vera took Meryn and me to dinner, two miles away, on the Lee Highway a couple of days after we moved in. She told us all about her childhood, how she didn’t get along with her mother, her father’s work as an economist, their Jewish roots, her preference to remain childless, and all manner of personal detail. She was making an effort and put us at ease—though it was obvious we had absolutely nothing in common. We should shop at the Food Barn opposite the restaurant, she said, and stared uncomprehendingly when we explained that since we had no car that option would be impractical.

Despite being a gifted photographer (which was clear from the pictures she had framed and hung in the doll’s house) Vera preferred to work “in sales.” She worked from home, selling computer systems to oil producers, and had to all intents and purposes abandoned her professional career. She was suited for sales, that much was clear, and possessed of the heart of stone that the bereaved parent said he’d come up against. When she told us that photographing celebrities had been the main game the dots began to join up: born from the head of Fellini’s Paparazzo, our Vera had thus far failed to fully realise the American Dream, but, not yet forty, she had the trappings—a Mercedes and a Porsche.

He doesn’t know it yet, but what’s good for General Motors is a mixed blessing for the American because Ike’s feted highway system is all road and no sidewalk. Meryn and I had chosen Centreville because we could afford to live there and it was within commuting distance of Washington, D.C.—our real goal. In our craigslist email exchanges Vera had told us that we’d be a hop, step, and jump from the bus stop. That suited us well because we were time-rich, as they say, and would enjoy taking the bus to the subway terminus at Vienna to catch the train into town.

We enjoyed it very much, rubbing shoulders with the American on his way to and from work. In taking us into his confidence, though, Trickster had neglected to say that the bus ran peak hours only: sold a pup, we were stranded in the doll’s house all evenings and weekends, restricted to the crescents, courts and circuits that accommodated pedestrians. Vera never used public transport and had imagined that the local bus stop came with a bus service. The fact that this was a false assumption did not alter the fact that we’d signed a lease.

On the first outing to Downtown D.C. Meryn enquired about a Library of Congress card and we were both accommodated with photo ID access. The cards were a boon and we soon became regulars, settling on the sixth floor cafeteria as our favourite vantage point from which to view the Potomac River, south-west of the Library. The Capitol was just over the road and on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks we sat in the visitors’ gallery of both the House and Senate.

First thing that day, September 11th 2006, we had taken the Metro to the Pentagon and sought entry with all the other dignitaries. An absurd idea, you may think, for the likes of us to turn up at the front door of the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense asking to be let in. And yet for all his paranoia about Muslim extremists and despite the exaggerated security provisions found at the entrance to a public building, the American enjoys a level of access to his country’s institutions far beyond that of Australians and Britons to theirs. The American expects to be able to walk in whenever he wants—and is given every courtesy.

We were invited to make an appointment to return to the Pentagon on a day when it had not been ‘booked out’, so to speak. So we went to the Capitol instead and spent nine-eleven watching Congress at work. On another visit a month or so later, we walked from the House around the corridors of power to the Senate and witnessed a curious snapshot of the future when Hillary Clinton came into the chamber a lone wolf. Ill at ease, she contrived a handshake with the senator closest to hand but her would-be social intercourse was stiff and wooden. Admittedly, Ms Clinton’s fellow females in that chamber faired no better.

One of the chaps—a middle-aged man with a balding head and compensatory ponytail—was the centre of attention on both sides of the political divide. The mid-term Congressional elections were a month away so the Republicans still called the shots. Senator ponytail seemed to be back from sick leave, or perhaps he’d spent time in Afghanistan, or Iraq? Whatever the reason, he was greeted like a long lost comrade who’d turned up unexpectedly, and was warmly received.

Then a door flew open and a lithe and confident Barak Obama burst upon the scene, slapping backs and showing anyone who cared to look just how to make an entrance. The contrast with Hillary couldn’t have been clearer. If ever there was to be another JFK in the White House this was he. I’m writing this a day or so after Edward Kennedy endorsed the black Chicago senator as the man to whom the torch should be passed on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Those of us attuned to American burlesque have never had it so good. Better than 1952, it’s even bigger than 1960 when Chicago played such a pivotal role in the making of a President—Thank you Mayor Daley, for cooking the books—and possibly on a par with Chicago 1860 when dark horse Abraham Lincoln took the Republican Party nomination.

Living under the same roof as Vera was going to be a trial—there was no space set aside for us in the refrigerator, for example—but we’d made our bed and would lie on it, until our first six months in the USA was up in late November, at least. No room in the refrigerator? Well I made space, of course, but began a war of attrition in doing so.

To be fair, Vera said Meryn could feel at home, that should we need to use the washing machine, say, and there were clothes in the way, we should simply move them. Despite this, Meryn kept well away, encountering Vera less often, even, than she had Connecticut’s foremost hip-hop poet. Our tiny room in the house made out of ticky-tacky became Meryn’s prison.

Hamilton and I tried to make ourselves at home but Vera, whether deliberately setting out to stake a claim or simply doing as she’d always done, surrounded us with black garbage bags of house contents. These appeared on the stairs, in doorways, down in the basement, up on the landing—all over.

Then there were the rules: because Vera ran the air-conditioner all-day every-day in order to drown out the noise of the aircraft flying in and out of Dulles Airport, the windows must be kept closed, no matter how perfect the weather; rubbish, mountains of it, mostly cardboard from the packaging in which the previous week’s acquisitions had been delivered, was to be put out on the sidewalk for collection every Friday morning; an emphatic “I don’t do recycling … ” remark was delivered with the implicit admonition that ‘you won’t either’; and no dish washing except in the dishwasher.

Ajax taught me another important rule when up early to drive the 60 miles to his office in Baltimore, Maryland: first person up must pull back the curtains that face the street. Not too much to ask, I thought, well aware that it would invariably be me. Predictably, the curtain rods (sourced from the same consumer catalogue as all the other doll’s house chintz) were engineered in the same fashion as the poorly designed shower curtain rail—telescoped sections linked by a junction that dammed the curtain rings so that they did not slide but bunched up on one side of the divide. A taller man might steady the rod while pulling the curtain. I could only hope that the fabric would not catch in the join—and everyone knows what happened when hope passed wind.

So I soon stepped down from curtain duty. Ajax simply suffered in silence and behaved as if he were still the early bird. But he was only home on weekends and it was left to Vera to do the honours from Monday to Friday. At first she sought to subtly convey her displeasure, breaking her arrival in the kitchen with a histrionic snatch at the offending fabric. When that failed to move me she came straight out and read the riot act.

Reminded of what I’d told the grade five Primary School teacher concerning homework, I said I’d try and remember to do what must be done. The sadistic Mr Georgeson gave me the strap because I never did his homework so a mere tongue lashing from Ms Sarkin was never going to do the trick in the house of tat.

Vera kept her Porsche under a cloth cover in the one-car driveway while her recent model Mercedes sat out in the weather. Meryn was intrigued that the Centreville developers had been permitted to sell acres of housing with little available off-road parking space. The idea of having residents make do without an automobile would be commendable were there an alternative but, as we’d found to our dismay, that dormitory suburb—the American calls such subdivisions characterized by a lack of amenities an ‘exurb’—had no public transport to speak of. Trickster was afoot.

And so were we, carting groceries in a cardboard box strapped to a luggage trolley on a near-enough to three-mile round trip to and from the only shopping centre to which we could safely walk. That took care of the weekend exercise routine and our perambulations all over the District of Columbia did the rest.

Weekends were set aside for chintz installation in Vera’s world. Ajax would get back from Baltimore late on Friday nights and be up early on Saturdays to pull back the blinds. After breakfast he’d go downstairs and move from the basement to the garden whatever new gnome or concrete frog had turned up from the catalogue. He’d have been carrying out his chores for a good hour when Vera would go out and tell him her intentions with respect to this or that aspect of the landscaping. Then she’d come inside and have breakfast before going off in the Mercedes.

Early on, I made the mistake of engaging our mistress in conversation while she rummaged through the fridge. She stopped what she was doing, took her head out of the crisper, and turned to say “I’m very sorry but I have projects.” That was the first weekend and I had been told. When she drove away I started vacuuming the living room but Ajax appeared, rescheduling outdoor jobs in order to attend to the more traditional domestic duties.

Northern Virginia’s climate creates conditions in which the mushroom thrives so Meryn and I collected them from the undergrowth on the side of the road when we walked to the supermarket. On once such expedition, the weather was hot (nearly ninety degrees) and a vulture took off just ahead of us as we neared a clump of trees. A second vulture took to the air, and then another—each with a wing-span like that of an eagle—and then we came upon the object of the birds’ attention: a recently dead squirrel, its carcase surrounded by flies. Freshly killed, it smelt awful. A little further on, four vultures imitating Bernard Wooley stared down at us with horrible drooping shoulders from the roof of the shopping centre.

The groceries loaded in the cupboard box, we left the shopping complex wishing someone in Centreville sold other than sugar-sweet bread. Nature called for us to get a good view of a vulture head down in the body of the dead animal but the bird had flown—like the spirits of the soldiers who died at Bull Run.

Near enough to nine-hundred human carcases had littered the fields and woods adjoining Bull Run in the aftermath of the first main battle of the American Civil War. Bull Run, a Centreville creek, gave its name to that day of carnage. If one dead squirrel could smell so bad in the summer of 2006 what must the atmosphere have been like in Centreville on that longest day of blood and guts, July 21st 1861?

Back at the doll’s house, you could have cut the air with a knife: we were in the way of the projects. The expectation that we would pay the rent and exorbitant energy bills but not be there had been thwarted by the fact that the occupants of the dormitory suburb had no need for public transport except to commute to the office in Washington.

We had no desire to hang out with Ajax and Vera but once the walk with the vultures was done there was no place else to go without the risk of being run down. So we read, conducted research (learning, for instance, that the birds were Turkey Vultures, otherwise known as buzzards), wrote, prepared meals, and watched TV. The American has no equivalent of Australia’s Radio National but the Australian has nothing to compare with American television presentations such as The McLaughlin Report, News Hour, Washington Week, The Chris Matthews Show, Meet the Press, Book TV, and so on.

Weekends, then, were something of a desert but come Monday we could take the bus with the regular commuters to Vienna Metro station, last stop west on the Orange train line, purchase a ticket from the machine, and ride the last 15 of the 26 miles to town. If New York City has the best public transport system, greater Washington (extending to Northern Virginia and Maryland) has the worst. Expensive, unresponsive, unavailable except in peak hour, we made do with the small window—9.30 am to 3.30 pm—available for movement, missing out on the numerous talks and seminars we had expected to be able to attend. There were options to set off earlier from Centreville and leave downtown D.C. later by purchasing higher-priced train tickets but we still had to be back at Vienna by 7 pm to catch the last bus.

Some seminars were within reach: Meryn got wind of the fact that Chicago University Nobel Prize winner and octogenarian, Robert Fogel (author of the book we’d seen in New Haven about America’s four ‘Great Awakenings’ of religious fervour) and Dora Costa from Massachusetts Institute of Technology would be speaking at the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda) in Maryland one weekday afternoon so we made our way over. Security, there, was tighter than that at the entrance to the Capitol. Which is reassuring since research into germ warfare is carried out at Bethesda.

We were interviewed and issued with security passes. Once again, the emphasis was on security and had nothing to do with keeping nosy folk out. When the American says “You’re welcome” he means it. I went directly to the cafeteria (good but not a patch on that at the Library of Congress) while Meryn located the seminar room. After lunch we listened as Fogel and Costa presented their research into a century of change in the aging process of the American, findings made possible because of the Union Army’s having kept good medical records—a legacy of General George McClellan’s thoroughgoing reorganization of the Army of the Potomac at the start of the Civil War.[41] The discussion surrounding Fogel and Costa’s counterintuitive findings about various aspects of received wisdom concerning American history was first rate.

A couple of days later we rented a car, and drove back to Maryland, through pouring rain to Baltimore, and sat in on a seminar at Johns Hopkins University. Meryn enjoyed listening to the various viewpoints but it was all too vague and wishy-washy—postmodern—for me, coming after the clarity at Bethesda.

The Centreville bus regulars were wonderful: courteous drivers; joyful Latino women; a friendly fellow who struck up conversation with whomever he shared a seat, taking them into his confidence before producing a bible and reading from Scripture; the attractive blonde who invariably turned up and climbed aboard as the bus pulled out. En route to Vienna, the blonde applied her makeup; once there, she stood far back in the station as the clock ticked toward the nine-thirty price-barrier then came from the shadows with seconds to go, flashing through the turnstile and racing down the escalator to the carriage before you could say “Jack Robinson.” Most days she dressed well but every now and then it was to kill. I imagined her to be a lawyer without the slightest evidence.

Hamilton had to be humoured, hemmed in as he was and held back from hunting down Dempster. He had me up at cock crow to write the wrong he’d perpetrated in putting the redhead behind bars. The gist of the story was that Rosemary DeBlatt had been found guilty of murder on the evidence Hamilton had gathered. The Detective Sergeant had neither lied nor cooked the books and yet the case he had constructed and convinced the Crown to prosecute was, he now believed, a figment of imagination.

It was all so fabulous and far-fetched but Hamilton had the bit between his teeth and would get his man. Dempster had killed Mark Boyd because the latter had cottoned on to the fact that the American had taken Lily Boyd (the businessman’s wife) into his confidence as a means to the end of defrauding the high society couple. Hamilton had been blind-sided by the conviction that Rosemary had done it, that she had groomed Boyd for a full year in order to get his money and poison him, just as she had all the other men in her life. It had all fallen perfectly into place, apart from the fact that Boyd had been knifed, not poisoned.

Pointing out that it’s the jury’s job to assess whether or not the admissible evidence supported the prosecution case did nothing to assuage Hamilton’s remorse. The same evidence was consistent with the claim that Dempster was the murderer, he said: detective work should be a painstaking process of gathering evidence and then piecing it together as a chain of events that has culminated in the death of the victim; he had erred by drawing the conclusion first and then selecting whatever fell into line with that hypothesis as ‘evidence.’ Hamilton was going to have to get out and about more often, obviously.

While writing up the Hamilton report I came across another reference to Detective Pinkerton. It was a wet Friday morning and Meryn and I had decided not to risk being run over at the standard crossing but to use the lights. That should be where we always crossed, you might think, but just as the fact that it’s illegal to cross double yellows is no guarantee that the car coming toward you will not cross the line neither should a green pedestrian light fool you into thinking that the cars taking a hard (left) will not skittle you.

Rain tipped the balance in favour of crossing the road on the traffic lights—but only just. We walked into the bus terminus from a different entrance and were immediately offered a free taxi ride to Washington. The taxi-driver needed to get to Rosslyn on the border of Virginia and the District of Columbia in a hurry and only vehicles with more than one occupant are permitted to use the fast lane to and any lane at all inside the Beltway (the ring road around Washington) so we were valuable HOV (high-occupancy-vehicle) cargo.

Our carrier told us he had migrated to the USA from Afghanistan in the 1980s—when the American military was training Osama bin Laden and numerous other Muslim fanatics to launch terrorist attacks against the USSR—and dropped us at the river bridge. American rivers are magnificent to behold; I looked into the deep water all the way from Rosslyn to Georgetown and the Potomac took me into its confidence. During the long walk in the rain up M Street to the Library of Congress I resolved to read up on the body of water that snakes its way between Virginia and Maryland past D.C. to the Chesapeake Bay.

Prior to Bull Run, the Army of the Potomac had been of modest size but following the Union’s disastrous showing under General Irvin McDowell at that battle General McClellan transformed it into the main fighting force in the eastern theatre of war. George McClellan, a West Point graduate, was president of the eastern division of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad when civil war broke out on April 12th1861.[42] Ready to defend the Union, on April 23rd he took up a commission in the western theatre of war as a major general in the Ohio volunteers.

Between May and July McClellan lived up to his promise as ‘Young Napoleon’—achieving military success in West Virginia “by manoeuvring rather than by fighting.”[43] Coming as it did a couple of weeks before the debacle at Bull Run, McClellan’s victory over the Confederates was in such stark contrast with McDowell’s defeat at their hands that it could not go unnoticed. On the day after the battle of Bull Run President Lincoln telegrammed the Napoleonic thirty-four-year-old to ‘come hither’ and bend the Army of the Potomac into shape.

A Calvinist, McClellan believed that God had inspired Lincoln’s call, that he, Little Mac, was predestined to save the Union. He called upon his trusted railroad detective, Allan Pinkerton, to meet him in Washington so that while McClellan transfigured the 50,000 lost souls who had been “cowering on the banks of the Potomac” into a fighting force of 168,000 well-trained and properly equipped soldiers between August and November 1861 Pinkerton’s agents sent intelligence from behind Confederate lines. One-hundred-thousand rebels had crowded into Virginia’s rail junction at Manassas, near Centreville, Pinkerton reported in August.

McClellan was quite capable of deluding himself about the strength and size of the enemy force confronting his Army but having the private detective confirm his worst fears helped raise the Union General’s paranoia to fever pitch. The rebels were being regularly reinforced, according to Pinkerton, so that there were at least 150,000 enemy combatants ready and waiting to descend on the U S capital from the Potomac River by early October 1861.

Pushed by Lincoln to act, McClellan finally moved against the Confederates at Manassas in March 1862 only to discover that their massive show of force had been a masquerade: the rebel cannons were nothing but painted tree logs, ‘Quaker guns.’

The last thing anyone needed was a detective pissing in his pocket, especially at Centreville. Being confined to barracks could only make matters worse. Vera was on edge. ‘One more weekend,’ I could hear her thinking, ‘one more weekend with you and there’ll be blood.’ With Meryn melancholy and Hamilton going up the wall, life in the doll’s house was no picnic. So mention of our packing lunch and walking west along the old Warrenton Turnpike to the battlefield at Bull Run brought Vera round and she offered to give us a lift. Meryn made sure I sat up front with the wicked witch but the Mercedes wasn’t built for backseat passengers and she twisted her spine when climbing out.

Starting at the famous stone bridge, we walked in the footsteps of those poor bastards like Adelbert Ames who had fought to put down the rebellion. We spied a sly fox through field glasses. He was camouflaged as grass but we pointed him out to a Scout master who had taken a spell from his cubs. The American’s community spirit takes many forms; passing on the culture to pre-pubescents on The Civil War Trail is one of them. The museums take up where the masters leave off by taking kids into consideration in the design of their exhibits. The American, proud of his nation, reverently hands over its history to succeeding generations.

We sat outside the battlefield bookstore and ate our sandwiches while visitors took photos of the prominent monument to Confederate Brigadier General Thomas Jackson seated on his horse. Jackson, ever a law unto himself, withheld his Virginians from the fury on the field and had them form on the reverse slope of a ridge. When his fellow Brigadier General Barnard Bee saw Jackson and his men up on that ridge above the fray he cried out “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!”

Bee was shot and fell as the Union soldiers came across the stone bridge, up the hill and over the ridge into the teeth of a storm of bullets from Jackson’s Virginians. Jackson’s men slaughtered a subsequent wave of Union soldiers with the bayonet and then advanced to attack the enemy while shrieking like furies.

Barnard Bee had probably been disparaging in the remark made about Thomas Jackson during the heat of battle. But Bee is long forgotten while the Confederate victory at the first battle of Bull Run has ever after been associated with the emergence of Stonewall Jackson and his soldiers’ rebel yell. Not afraid to challenge his superiors—General Robert E. Lee included—Thomas Jackson stonewalled whenever it suited him, not co-operating in man-made plans if they conflicted with his reading of the divine will.

A religious fanatic, Stonewall Jackson saw the hand of God at work in the twists and turns of war. And when Meryn saw the stone house at the intersection of the Warrenton Turnpike and the Manassas-Sudley Road she took more than academic interest in the fact that it had been used as a hospital in both the Bull Run battles—July 1861 and August 1862. A museum nowadays, it displayed a nineteenth-century carpetbag, the artefact so much associated in the Southern mind with those confidence men and scalawags from the industrial North who had crossed the Mason-Dixon at the end of the war. Carpetbaggers all in the eyes of the southerner, those aliens had come from the North to pillage Thomas Jefferson’s feudal agrarian paradise and kill its king—Cotton.

Whereas the North names Civil War battles for the water course that had to be forded, down South they are called after the location for which control had been sought. The Bull Run battle of July 1861, then, is known in Dixie as first Manassas.[44] Manassas, Virginia, was strategically located at the crossroads between railroads which headed east to the Federal capital in Washington, D.C., southwest through the Shenandoah Valley, and south to the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia. If President Jefferson Davis’ Confederate States of America was to survive beyond the summer of 1861 it had to be able to defend Manassas railroad junction.

Union military chief, General Winfield Scott, had devised an ‘Anaconda Plan’ in response to suggestions made by George McClellan in late April 1861 and dismissed General Irvin McDowell’s proposal to seize Manassas. President Lincoln convinced the war cabinet to overrule Scott and McDowell had 30,000 well-equipped soldiers sent their marching orders. Since the U S Army was as poorly organised then as it is now, it took from the Tuesday until the Saturday for the men to get from Washington to battle-ready bivouac in Centreville—after which the yelling rebels sent them packing on the Sunday.

Centreville was at the outer edge of Confederate cannon range from Manassas. On the Friday prior to the battle civilian spectators (including Congressmen and government officials) arrived from Washington by horse and carriage. Under no military restraint, they brought picnic hampers with them, hoping to join in the fun as the rebels were brought to heel. There was a convivial and joyous atmosphere, and an air of confidence. Only War Secretary Cameron was apprehensive.

It was a different matter when the battle was lost late on the Sunday. The more or less orderly retreat of the soldiers turned to a panic-stricken rush of every man for himself when rebel fire reached the spectators at Centreville. A wagonload of sightseers was tipped out on the Warrenton Turnpike bridge over Cub Run and blocked the passage of military vehicles. Picnic carriages became entangled with gun carriages and ammunition wagons. All was mayhem. Army discipline had been weak at best on the march from Washington to Centreville but there was none at all—“most of them were sovereigns in uniforms, not soldiers”[45]from Centreville to Washington once panic had set in.

Late on the last Sunday of September, 2006, we had no choice but to walk the two miles or more from Bull Run to Centreville. The distance would normally pose no difficulty but Meryn was in pain from Mercedes back and there was no sidewalk. But this was America; at that point in the journey where the old Warrenton Turnpike bridged Cub Run an SUV that had passed us came back, and stopped. The stranger at the wheel told her children to move over and bade us “Get in.”

Chapter   9    The Drifter


Bedridden, but inspired by the kindness of strangers, Meryn had emailed a Craigslist woman about the possibility of our renting a place near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in December. We had always intended staying at Centreville until the beginning of the New Year but ‘bus-less-ness’ and eggshells in the doll’s house had made life miserable so we decided to leave Vera and Ajax behind us when we flew out of Dulles Airport for Manchester, England, in mid-November. In the meantime, we’d make do—hire a car to tour Virginia, and see America in the fall over the six or so weeks we had left.

Meryn needed caring for so we were both housebound while the anti-inflammatories went to work. Their side-effects and my Hamilton caused no end of grief but we coped by reading more of the Washington Post than usual.

New York Republican district attorney Jeanine Pirro, who was running for state attorney general and who suspected her spouse of having an affair, had been caught out asking former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik to plant a listening device on the Pirro family yacht. According to the newspaper article, an NBC affiliate had obtained a tape of Ms Pirro saying “What am I supposed to do, Bernie—watch him [vulgar verb for intimate activity] her every night?”

Americans are so squeamish about references to the discharge of the human appetite for sexual pleasure that sub-editors bracket them off whilst placing violence front and centre. It’s understandable: the American dwells inside twin myths—Christianity and the frontier outlook. It explains why CNBC’s Erin Burnett was so coy when she said “Come you know what or high water … ” when talking about the credit crunch on September 24th 2008.

On September 27th 2006 a “drifter”[46] walked into a school 40 miles from Columbine, Colorado, took a girl hostage, and then shot her dead. Two days later a 15 year old shot his School Principal in Wisconsin and on October 2nd a milk tank truck driver walked into a one-room Amish school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—not far from where we were negotiating to rent a converted Post Office—carrying a semiautomatic handgun, a rifle, shotgun, stun gun, two knives, and 600 rounds of ammunition. The 32-year-old then lined up eleven young girls at the blackboard and shot a number of them at close range in the back of the head, killing three before taking his own life.

Meryn had found an exceptional rental car deal and the vehicle had to be collected from the airport. Since we were going to have to figure out how to get to Dulles International for the November flight from Centreville, this was an ideal opportunity to test our scheme: bus to Vienna Metro; Metro to Rosslyn; airport bus from Rosslyn. We didn’t appreciate it at the time but the bus was for airport staff to commute. The experience of riding with these workers—a number of superb storytellers and comics among them—was a highlight of our time in D.C. The American works ridiculously long hours for low pay so those who entertain their fellow employees by shooting off at the mouth about employment conditions do the nation a great service.

Meryn and I had taken a day trip to Richmond, Virginia, from Washington, D.C., on Amtrak rail pass in 2003 but the train was delayed and finally departed from Washington so late that we had to board the returning train immediately upon arrival in Richmond. Now we could drive the 130 miles to the old Confederate capital in a few hours. We didn’t know that it was Columbus Day weekend, when the lucky American gets a day off and takes to the Highways and byways.

We regarded the backroads as our own so Meryn and I were miffed at having to share with those who think nothing of crossing a double yellow line. But we managed, heading down Centreville Road on through the intersection with Yorkshire Lane where Wilmer McLean was living in July 1861 when Trickster entered his world.

Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard had moved in to the McLean family home on the eighteenth and set up his headquarters there just before first Bull Run (Manassas). His house overrun and damaged by enemy fire, McLean moved his family to safer ground at Fauquier, then Lunenburg, and finally much further south to Appomattox Court House.[47]

The rain was increasingly heavy as we drove south that Friday morning. Had we known we were tracking into the teeth of a nor’easter it’s doubtful we’d have pressed on. But we didn’t so we kept going, south-east along the peninsula between the York and James rivers through Yorktown to Hampton Roads and Fort Monroe—where escaped slaves became Union General Butler’s non-returnable ‘contraband’ from May 23rd 1861, six weeks into the Civil War.

Aiming for the backest of roads, we stopped someplace to figure out what strange crop it was we saw. Meryn went into the field and came back with a cotton boll. Brilliant. Like Ulysses Grant in June 1864, we had intended to move on Richmond from Cold Harbor in the north-east. Grant sent thousands to their death in what he afterwards referred to as an inglorious futile assault at that place. And though he won the battle, Cold Harbor ultimately cost Robert E. Lee the war.

Meryn and I didn’t even make it to the battlefield, not until the next day at least. Trees were falling like cannon fodder in the howling wind and driving rain so the authorities had closed the Rest Area at which we’d hoped to spend the night. We had to find a motel and did, on the perimeter of an airfield—but had to go without dinner.

Had British General Charles Cornwallis known (as George Washington did) that the French would sail a fleet of warships into Chesapeake Bay in August 1781 he would not have stationed his force at Yorktown and been trapped.

Meryn and my not knowing about the nor’easter meant we might have had a car accident; Cornwallis’ not knowing had meant he would be forced to surrender to George Washington and the American win his War of Independence.

According to the weather channel, that 2006 nor’easter was mild by comparison with those that had gone before. The success of General Washington’s surprise attack on the German garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, in 1776 is attributed to a nor’easter.[48] The ‘Perfect Storm’ of October 1991 was a nor’easter. [49] Nor’easters over the Atlantic Ocean have sent the American to Davy Jones’ locker a hundred times over.

The storm continued to strengthen overnight and into Saturday. Breakfast in a diner was all I cared about as we drove north to Cold Harbor in absurd rain. Having found neither café nor diner, we walked hungry across the battlefield in the rain but were forced back, umbrellas torn to pieces, and sat in the car. Momentous events had occurred a little way beyond the windscreen, in 1864.

We prepared to take Richmond but it was flooded and so followed Grant across the James River to Petersburg, south of the Confederate capital. Grant went there because the four railroads that supplied Richmond in the 1860s converged at Petersburg. We wanted to go there because Grant did.

Robert E Lee was anxious to avoid being caught in Grant’s trap and so went west with his infantry. Starving hungry, we abandoned the assault on Petersburg and went west with Lee. Surely the storm would blow itself out that far inland? The rain pelted down all the way to Amelia Court House.

Meryn reckoned Amelia was our best chance of a decent breakfast. She was right. The waitress at the diner we discovered there greeted us just as if we’d been expected on Thursday and here it was Saturday so she was worried lest we’d fallen by the wayside. They served breakfast until 11 am. We were a couple of minutes into the lunch menu but in view of our having lost the Crocodile Hunter they squeezed us into bacon and eggs over easy with home fries (as against unpatriotic French) and jelly on toast—no grits; they’re for the birds, we had decided, after trying them at the previous day’s diner—and confirmed Meryn’s belief in Amelia Court House being our best bet. She had arrived at the decision via the homonym, Amelia being the name of a firm friend. There’s nothing like food to allay debilitating hunger pangs so we lingered longer in that diner than any other. The imposing Amelia Court House water tank is now a fond memory.

A couple of hours later we were at Appomatox Court House. The trick is not to assume: Appomatox Court House is no more about Court Houses than is Amelia Court House. It’s a town. Appomatox Court House is no longer where it used to be so once we’d sorted that out and arrived at the nineteenth-century location we were almost home and hosed. A fellow was due to give a talk at 2.20 pm and we must appreciate that he knows of nothing that’s happened since 1865 so please don’t ask other than period questions and don’t take flash photographs or have a mobile phone turned on. Got it?

Got it. It sounded kind of corny but we went along with the idea. When in Rome, you know. It was worth every bit of the suspension of belief because we were treated to a one act play by a consummate performer who was completely in character and superb at doing what he does.

We were quite absorbed, especially when he explained that as one of General Lee’s soldiers he had marched for three days as the Confederates fled west from Petersburg to avoid being hemmed in by Grant. The soldiers were exhausted and very hungry, having not eaten for those three days since leaving Petersburg. However, all would be well, Lee had told them, because a train loaded with supplies had left from deep in the South and would be waiting at Amelia Court House for them. That kept the soldiers going in the Spring of 1865. It had been raining cats and dogs, their boots were sticking in the mud and they were wet through, famished, and ready to desert. They would be replenished at Amelia Court House if they could just hang on.

They made it and, as promised, the train was there at Amelia. A Lieutenant ordered that the doors be flung open and they were. All the guns and ammunition you could want, but no food or clothing. Confederate management had sent the wrong train! The 60,000 desperate soldiers were ordered to march 55 minutes in every hour for another 18 hours to Appomattox. Only 30,000 bivouacked at Appomattox Court House; the rest had deserted or gone raving mad.

Lee realised that Grant had him cornered, that his men were not up to a fight, and so he surrendered on April 9th 1865 in the house just down the lane from where we heard the soldier tell his tale. He was brilliant, that actor, and I would gladly have shot both the fool whose camera flashed during the one act play and the fuckwit who carried on a mobile phone conversation during it.

That house down the lane was the one Trickster had found for the McLean family following the Battle of Manassas in July 1861. According to the Manassas (Va) Journal in 1895, McLean was wont to tell folks that the American Civil War had started with the Army of the Potomac confronting the Army of Northern Virginia on his front lawn and ended with their coming face to face in his front parlour.

While we had been looking at Robert E. Lee’s quarters inside the superb Fort Monroe—he’d been stationed there in the 1830s—as the nor’easter lashed Virginia Peninsula late on the previous Friday afternoon, the Bush Administration released its policy that the United States would “deny access to space to anyone ‘hostile to U S interests’.” Which is to say that just as the patriot act gives absolute power to the U S President to imprison anyone he declares is a bad person, so too will the president choose who can and can’t launch a payload into outer space.

According to U S Counterspace Operations Doctrine, the American should feel free to engage in “deception, disruption, denial, degradation and destruction” in order to protect its spacecraft. “Too right,” our Prime Minister at the time would have said, had he known about it, but a policy released late Friday afternoon of the Columbus Day long weekend is not intended to be read, as the Washington Post reporter explained. If, for argument sake, we suppose that someone in Canberra did read it and our Foreign Affairs people had contacted Washington, it’s doubtful that anyone in the USA would have noticed because ours is an insignificant satrapy.

Australia was never mentioned in the USA except insofar as the Crocodile Hunter was Australian. His September 2006 demise received blanket coverage on American television. Vera Sarkin watched TV in her bedroom so Meryn and I had access to the one in the living room or the other in the basement, depending upon Ajax’ movements.

The mid-term Congressional elections were five weeks off and the Republicans were expected to just hang on in the Senate, and possibly the House. Virginian Republican senator, George Felix Allen, hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that right wing dominance had worn out its welcome with the electorate and so still wore his racism on his sleeve while displaying (so they said) a noose—fond memories of the good old days of nigger lynchings—in his office.

Allen entertained the idea of a tilt at the presidency, apparently, and didn’t realize that his Democrat opponent, Scotch-Irish Jim Webb, had closed in—not, at any rate, until the news got out that a Republican colleague, Florida Congressman Mark Foley, had been sending explicit material to one of the Congressional Pages. Meryn and I had seen these Pages during visits to the Capitol, youths who mooch about in the House and Senate—they’ve been there since 1820—awaiting the summons to run errands or help out in one way or the other. 

In light of the Foley sex scandal, the Saturday evening news carried an investigative reporter’s interview with a former Page. They’re school students from the various Federal electorates, he explained, and in years gone by had been billeted in the homes of their respective Congressmen. That practice had ceased in the 1980s due to the number of Pages who had been sexually harassed by their member. They nowadays live in segregated (male and female, not black and white) dormitories and all was going well, it had been imagined, until the introduction of email.

Congressman Foley fell foul on that account. The Page had little to offer when asked by the reporter to detail the best thing that had happened to him during his tenure. Lots of good things had happened, he said. The interviewer pressed him for some gem. What was the funniest thing that had happened? “Ah, the funniest thing,” the young man said gleefully, “was when the Australian Prime Minister was here a couple of years ago to address both Houses and there were hardly any Congressmen present. They got us to sit in the seats and pretend we were members of Congress.”

Borat turned up in Washington and told Americans that their president was entertaining a pretender at the White House whereas he, Borat, was the rightful representative of Kazakhstan. A day or so later, we noticed strange people riding the Metro, all talking about 1 pm. at the White House. We were going there ourselves, to Lafayette Square, where we wanted to see pew number 54 in St John’s Episcopal Church. Every American president since James Madison has worshipped at St John’s so we went and knelt on the various presidential cushions. One was too soft, another too hard, but Bill Clinton’s was just right.

We also wanted to see a house that had been built on the corner of the square over the road from the White House in 1860. It’s the same as collecting bracelet charms, or spoons, only different. Come one o’clock, we strolled through the square and saw the people who’d been on the Metro walking up and down, carrying placards, agitated. They didn’t appear to be upset about the invasion of Iraq, or anything like that so I asked an angry middle-aged woman what they were protesting about. “The Mexicans have imprisoned the bounty hunter,” she said, “and our president must get him freed.”

The White House Press Secretary specialised in snow jobs, spinning and dressing up whatever ‘information’ a cynical Administration released for public consumption. After savaging a member of the press corp in front of his peers he encountered the fellow in a corridor. The Press Secretary turned on the charm and extended his hand as if the public dressing down hadn’t happened. It was all a show but which was the real Tony Snow? Masquerade is second nature to the American.

When brought before the LDS patriarchs, a Mormon historian was branded an apostate for honest research into her Church’s paSt Having just made her a pariah, the men who’d cut her off from her community talked to her of their admiration for her impressive defence of her work. She summed up the experience of this aspect of corporate culture with the observation that “There’s something vicious about niceness.” Blank expression, poker face, niceness—it’s a masquerade.

Half way through October, black netting began to appear on front porches. Intrigued, we said nothing and waited, having learned from experience that things are never what they seem in the USA. Then, driving somewhere in the car one day we saw a sign on someone’s fence declaring that in view of all the trouble caused by the previous year’s display that householder would not be making an effort for Halloween 2006. The black netting depicted spider web.

My Catholic upbringing had taught me that the last day of October is ‘All Souls Day’ whereas the first of November is ‘All Saints Day.’ The American doesn’t go in for souls and saints, though. Come October, he drops the Christian façade and reverts to his true nature as a child of pagan Mercurius. We didn’t notice until the following April, but Halloween trumps Good Friday. Trickster triumphs over Christ.

On Friday October 13th 2006 we took the Metro south along the Potomac past Ronald Reagan Airport to an eighteenth-century section of Alexandria, Virginia, the town where on July 18th 1774 George Washington chaired the Court House meeting which resulted in Virginia siding with Massachusetts in adopting the rally cry of no taxation without representation. The Virginians who attended proposed that a colonial congress convene for the purpose of preserving the American’s rights.

Prior to that gathering, Virginia had regarded Massachusetts as its main rival, a hostile twin; after it, the twins sought to play up their identity, to view any assault by Mother England on the one as a threat to the other. They hadn’t expected that this would lead to a union of the opposites and the formation of a newly independent nation. Thomas Paine the pamphleteer had, though.

With the help of Benjamin Franklin, Paine had migrated from England to Philadelphia in 1774 and became a leading light in the republican movement. Paine’s powerful, straightforward prose and disarming logic laid out the core issues of independence so cogently in Common Sense that the Continental Congress was inspired to declare the former colonies to be free and independent states. It adopted the name which Thomas Paine had proposed for the New World republic—the ‘United States of America.’

Alexandria was reminiscent of Middleburg but without the hounds and horses. Middleburg, so named for being mid-way between Alexandria and Winchester, was a way station for eighteenth-century travellers and known for its inns. It added the other strings to its bow—foxhunting and steeplechase—from the beginning of the twentieth century.[50] More substantial but just as British, Alexandria grew from being a tobacco export port in the late seventeenth century to a major trading town by the middle of the eighteenth.

Named for the merchant, John Alexander, Alexandria became a hub of shipping for Scottish merchants to move cargo between Glasgow and Virginia, a critical leg in international trade. Today, Alexandria and Middleburg are chintzy tourist towns whose traders tout tat for the likes of Vera Sarkin.

I gave the month’s notice specified in our lease to Vera on the Sunday but she took umbrage and seemed to suggest that we were liable for payment of rent and utilities right up until the end of the year. Eggshells everywhere, I eventually managed to speak with Ajax about the terms of the written agreement. He told me that Vera had realised she didn’t properly word the document and accepted the fact that we were operating under the letter of the law. I explained that we had not imagined we were escaping through any loophole, that were that the case we would have done so immediately upon moving in only to discover that Vera’s claim concerning public transport had been a furphy. I relaxed. I told Ajax we would co-operate and move out just as soon as Vera found another tenant.

Meryn removed a load of washing that our landlady had left in the machine for a day, removed it and put it through the dryer, taking care with fabrics that could be damaged if not properly handled. When she told Vera what had been done the ogre bit her head off, screaming “How dare you!” at Meryn’s audacity, “How would you feel if someone touched your things?” Hysterical.

We packed our bags, arranging to store items not needed for the mid-November United Kingdom trip in Meryn’s New Jersey friend’s basement. We sent a parcel of books to Australia in an M bag from the Post Office at Washington’s Union Station, transacted secure electronic banking at the Library of Congress, purchased two recent books—‘State of Denial’ and ‘The Architect’—about Trickster in American politics, and rented a car for our autumn leaves tour of Connecticut.

The car company came up with a Chrysler PT Cruiser as conforming to the criteria in the rental contract. It was marginally better than the Chevrolet Cobalt. It was dark when we left the doll’s house at 5.30 am and there was a thick fog so instead of our usual backroads I took Interstate 66 west intending to turn right at Route 15 to connect with I-70 and then I-81. We missed the turn and completely squandered any advantage our early start might have afforded when caught up in a major traffic jam near Middleburg on Route 50.

Hamilton had reckoned on catching up with Dempster and was incensed by the two-hour delay. We were, all three, nervous wrecks by the time the Chrysler merged with I-81 at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and crossed the magnificent Susquehanna River. We left I-81 for roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes at a diner on R-443 near Friedensburg. Another two hour traffic jam on R-61 frustrated me to buggery and it was dark by the time we were on I-17 in New York State. Meryn found a Rest Area and we slept in the Cruiser, heavy rain beating down all night. No better stationary than mobile, it’s a very uncomfortable vehicle and I’d steer clear of one if I were you.

Fog and un-sign-posted back roads in the Catskill Mountains made for an eerie start to the day. Backwoods folk who didn’t seem to have a penny to their name, a down at heel trailer park, and deer crossing our path willy nilly put us on guard. It was a wonderful experience, especially by comparison with Vera’s slings and arrows.

Meryn told me her stepfather’s deer farm story: After one of our visits to the USA she had told him of the bizarre phenomenon of a business enterprise that we’d come across which specialised in breeding lions for wealthy Wall Street financiers to kill. Once the lion was ‘treed’ the customer would get a phone call so he could fly in, shoot it, and fly out. Back then, before the 2008 crash, those guys were time poor and could not afford the luxury of writing a few hundred words of their latest novel in some Kenyan tent while the wife prepared breakfast, could not eat and then hunt big game for the remainder of the day.

The stepfather told Meryn that a New Zealand deer farmer with whom he’s acquainted provides a similar service for the American customer. The customer gets a phone call when a buck is corralled in a suitable setting—one where the fencing’s not visible nor any other markers of civilisation—and flies in to be photographed in the act of shooting the beast. The head and antlers are mounted and he gets to take home the trophy and the picture.

It’s a costly business with little room for error and to more or less guarantee success a crackshot farmhand stands nearby and takes up the slack of any near misses. The beast gets a bullet through the heart every time. Once, the deer was dead before the customer had arrived so the farmhands had to string the animal up with fishing line to the branch of a tree and let go when the big game hunter fired the gun.

Eggs, bacon, and sausage in a Shandanken diner on R-28 left us dissatisfied. Subtle autumn colours seen through mist and drizzle were greyed out by a lead curtain of rain so heavy that the town of Ashoken appeared to be underwater and so loud that it drowned out the Ken Burns’ soundtrack on the music machine. The inner ear must have picked out some tune, though, because I drifted back to Amelia Court House, musing upon the plight of those poor bastards awash with guns when they desperately needed butter.

A number of friends had said the story about our experience of the Columbus Day weekend nor’easter reminded them of Robbie Robertson’s 1969 song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down where a Confederate veteran casts his mind back to those days leading up to Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865. We were near Woodstock, New York, and the house (dubbed ‘Big Pink’) where Robbie Robertson and his fellow members of ‘The Hawks’ rehearsed songs which they subsequently recorded for ‘Music From Big Pink.’ They released that album under their new name, ‘The Band.’

Meryn was happy enough to wander around downtown Saugerties. Hamilton was ecstatic: The Band was not alone in going under a different name; the American adopts an alias at the drop of a hat and, according to Hamilton, Dempster sometimes travelled under the alias ‘Henry Carter.’ The Detective Sergeant believed that Henry Carter hung out near there.

A couple of young shop assistants in a milk bar stared at me, uncomprehending, when I asked if they could tell me where to find Big Pink. Their boss managed to hear beyond the accent and came out and suggested I ask the bookshop proprietor next door “ ... because he knows everything about Saugerties.”

I don’t know how I had missed seeing the bookshop. It was typically American, as was the proprietor. One of his customers and I discussed the music made in the basement of Big Pink while he dug out and marked a map which guided us to Ponderosa Lane. Standing next to that icon was a highlight for me. Meryn was taken with the setting in the woods and Hamilton wanted to stay until Carter came home. He could not be accommodated, I knew, so I was expecting trouble but he acquiesced, calmed by the colours, perhaps, or the texture of the hardback I had purchased from the bookshop?

Hartford’s freeways threatened to crunch the Chrysler but didn’t. Motels were near capacity because of a basketball game so there were no discounts. Still, we found room at the inn and slept well, heading southeast to North Westchester in the morning, down R-149, across the Connecticut River at East Haddam, and southwest through North Branford and other nineteenth-century mill towns to New Haven’s East Rock overlook (lookout) at the end of Orange Street, wondering whether we’d run into Bob. From up there we could confirm that the PT Cruiser would be back in Washington before the Connecticut fall reached the peak.

Downtown, we went through the second hand bookshops, had lunch (black bean and sour cream soup) at Atticus, and took a last look at Harkness Tower. And while we didn’t come across Bob, his guide to New Haven came to mind while we looked down on the town from West Rock. For it was in a cave up there at West Rock that Edward Whalley and William Goffe hid from King Charles II’s men in the 1660s.

Charles II’s father, King Charles I, had been tried and executed in 1649 at the height of the English Civil War between the parliamentary roundheads (republicans) and the royalist cavaliers (monarchists). Edward Whalley, his son-in-law, William Goffe, and John Dixwell had all played a part in that trial and execution. Whalley, moreover, was the lieutenant-general in the roundhead cavalry to whom the royal garrison had surrendered after the battle of Worcester in September 1851. With the defeat of the royalists at Worcester, the parliamentarians had won the war and Charles II fled England. Oliver Cromwell, Whalley’s cousin, became Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland.

 Cromwell died on the anniversary of the battle of Worcester in 1658 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He had left a political vacuum which was not resolved until Charles I’s son was restored to the throne in 1660. Charles II set about avenging his father’s death. Oliver Cromwell’s body was dug up from Westminster Abbey and the Lord Protector was posthumously beheaded. Royal agents were sent to arrest the ‘regicides,’ the republican judges who’d presided at Charless I’s trial. Three of them—Whalley, Goffe, and Dixwell— became fugitives and escaped to Massachusetts.

Colonial Americans from Massachusetts had tended to identify with the roundheads because they were of the same ilk—Puritans who wanted to break free from Anglican royalty. Virginia, more cavalier, had remained loyal to the throne and opposed to Massachusetts right up until that Alexandria Court House meeting in 1774. Massachusetts hid and protected the three regicides, and assisted in getting them get across the Connecticut River to New Haven and the woodlands of West Rock.

The roads which spread out in three directions from Broadway in the town in which Yale University was founded 40 years after the restoration of the English monarchy, then, are named for the men who represented the republican cause in English society.

New York State’s autumn leaves had been impressive so we drove back to the Hudson where, high up on the eastern bank overlooking Bear Mountain Bridge we looked down upon nature’s spectacular mantle. The day was getting dark and, having already discovered that the Cruiser didn’t double as a bed, we took the scenic route above the western bank of that magnificent river past the crowded lookout to end up at a Super 8 on I-84, paying double—$US91.00—for the last remaining room.

Come Sunday morning, October 23rd, we learned that demand for the rooms had exceeded supply because of a hotrod race nearby. The chaplain’s white Chrysler PT Cruiser track car was parked next to our rented PT. Back on the scenic route south, we slotted into a space at the overlook and got out to marvel at the magnificent river. Another parking space at Bear Mountain Bridge afforded us the opportunity to walk out over the water and see the splendid autumn leaves up and down the banks. Meryn stitched her first tapestry from a snap taken on the bridge walkway.

Hamilton told me he couldn’t be too sure how reliable they were but reports indicated that Dempster had drowned while on a picnic. In so far as such stories kept him quiet they were efficacious so I joined the crowd in allowing silly nonsense a seat at the table of what sustains me. And, as if this type of irrational behaviour pleased the Lord, exquisite fall colours raised the experience of the drive along Seven Lakes Parkway to the level of the numinous—after which we rejoined R-17 and relished bacon, eggs, and hash browns with coffee served up at a Tuxedo diner.

Meryn’s old friend lives in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and we went there to unload our excess baggage in his basement. He and his family welcomed us with coffee and cake and his wife told us of a scientific breakthrough she had been part of in a research laboratory:[51] Mammals pass a hormone to their suckling infants from the breast but do not carry that hormone in their blood. Counter-intuitive outcomes associated with this system give rise to the fact that infants suckled in environments where there’s dire scarcity suck nutrition out of anything and everything.

This remains a life long facility—even if the person in question migrates to a region of plenty such as the United States. The American obesity epidemic, then, may have an organic as against a psychological cause. There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge before any such ‘lactocrine’ conclusion can be reached, of course, and I’m still rooting for corn syrup as the likely culprit. It’s food for thought but. 

Pressing on, we made slow progress on R-1 so detoured to I-95 and were caught in an hour-long traffic jam caused by roadworks that closed 2 lanes between Exits 1 and 3. Where we come from the notion of driving bumper to bumper on a freeway after dark on a Sunday doesn’t compute. Once through, we resumed the standard 70 mph and kept up until a very welcome Maryland Rest Area presented itself. All Rest Areas boast clean toilets so that was no surprise but the high quality brewed coffee dispensed by a slot machine was a godsend. A week to the day we pulled in to that Rest Area again.

Chapter 10   A Pair of Knaves


Northern Virginia’s fall was spectacular. We went west, to the Blue Ridge, reading the signs concerning George McClellan’s drawn out dismissal as commander of the Army of the Potomac and his finally boarding the train at Warrenton on November 11th 1862 to go home to his wife in New Jersey.

We were back in Centreville in time to watch Hardball and out of there early on the Tuesday for a final assault on Richmond. Wrong turns, roadworks, and rain resulted in our not reaching Fredericksburg until 10.30 am. It’s another of those well preserved eighteenth-century towns—chock full of shopkeepers like Alexandria and Middleburg but without the gaudy chintz.

We toured the Civil War sites associated with the battles of Chancellorsville and the Wilderness.

 Exquisite autumn leaves paved the way as we followed the 27-mile route which the ambulance bearing an injured Stonewall Jackson took to Guiney Station on May 2nd1863. Jackson had ridden out to scout around under cover of darkness and was shot by friendly fire. He contracted pneumonia after his left arm was amputated and when he died a week later General Robert E. Lee said he’d lost his right arm.

The Confederate victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville paved the way for Lee’s invasion of the north and his subsequent defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Union General Ulysses Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4th 1863, the day after Meade’s less than spectacular success at Gettysburg, turned the tide of the war and put the spotlight on Grant as the military leader for whom Lincoln had prayed.

Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant first encountered one another as field commanders at the battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. An extraordinarily bloody three days of fighting, there—friendly fire wounding Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet a year after it had hit the Stonewall—signalled the beginning of the end for Lee’s rebels: the wily old fox would be slowly but surely hemmed in and hunted down by a relentless foe who had the industrial might of the nation supplying him and an indomitable spirit that would neither retreat nor back down, no matter how many men had to die.

Pre-Grant, the Army of Northern Virginia had been able to rely upon the Union Army  to allow it to go off, lick its wounds, and gird its loins after a fierce battle then come back to fight better and stronger on another day. Those days were gone; Union Major General Philip Sheridan was already nipping at Lee’s heel in Richmond as Ulysses Grant moved south.

Amtrak had let us down on the outskirts of Richmond in 2003 but we had a vivid image of having been hauled down main street past once proud mansions just north of the Confederate capital. With little to go on, we went looking for that place, at our best on such a hunt. Meryn remembered the image I described but doubted it had been en route to Richmond, that it had been near Harper’s Ferry instead. But she worked with the map (the trusty Road Atlas was far away in the New Jersey basement) and suggested that our best bet was where the railroad track crossed Route 1 some 20 miles north of Richmond.

The Cruiser crossed the North Anna River, where Lee had sought to check Grant’s advance by forcing the Union Army to split into three. Lee might have pulled it off but was ill and missed the opportunity to strike Grant the heavy blow so painstakingly contrived. The Union forces moved closer yet to Richmond.

Five miles later we found what we’d been searching for. One’s first visit to Disneyland cannot be as sweet a sensation as finding a mile of railroad that was otherwise a faint memory. We walked along it, over it, took photographs of freight trains on it, shared an excellent ham and something or other bagel and looked askance at the weak coffees served up in a café adjacent to it, and then watched the Amtrak passenger train pass over it. We tour America for that type of experience.

God knows what history has trod that stretch of railroad in Ashland, Virginia. We drove up and down the road along which the train passes then lost our way when my intuitive leap about the main road south landed us in backwoods confusion. Meryn found a way out and we entered Richmond on Route 33 South.

It was difficult to get a handle on Richmond in the early afternoon so we went south across the James River to Petersburg where a car came at me head-on down the ‘wrong’ side of Washington before I realised it was a one-way street. A three-point manoeuvre (not helped by the PT Cruiser’s limited turning circle) got us out of the fix and we found our way to a motel.

Did it have MSNBC? Yes. That was enough for us because Chris Matthews was hosting a day long politics special on the imminent Congressional election. The women at the visitors’ centre helped out with a local map and directions to the battlefield site. We walked around the old city of Petersburg and found it to be cold and deserted despite the obvious signs of an effort to rejuvenate it as a Civil War tourism centre. Poverty seemed to be the order of the day and we felt like sitting ducks for a mugging as we made our way to the various ‘attractions’, such as the trapezoid shaped (for keeping evil spirits out) house.

We returned to the car and toured the excellent battlefield site. Robert E. Lee knew the jig was up but had dug in at Petersburg in a last ditch attempt to save Richmond. Grant laid siege and Lee’s men held out for nine months. The Confederates starved in the trenches while the Union’s Army of the Potomac was amply clothed and fed by its supply trains. The first frames of the Nicole Kidman movie ‘Cold Mountain’ depict the scene, there, on July 30th 1864, when Union Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants’ well laid plans to blow the Confederates from their trenches resulted in an own goal of 4000 Union casualties at the battle of the Crater.

Pleasants, a Pennsylvania mining engineer who had overseen the digging of Allegheny Mountain tunnels for the Pennsylvania Railroad, had his men—experienced coal miners—dig beneath a Confederate trench and pack the tunnel with explosives. The resulting explosion killed or maimed 278 Confederates and breached their defences but Union General Meade, solicitous, ordered a change of plan so that instead of the specially trained Negro division going in to complete the job untrained white troops were sent instead. Ulysses Grant had supported Meade and now they both looked on as Union soldiers charged into the crater made by Pleasants’ explosion.

The American is nothing if not disorganised. His nation’s government is deliberately structured to ensure that the one arm of government is prevented from acting by the other. The American is a pair of hostile twins, his world a conflict of opposites—Jesus-Satan, Adams-Jefferson, liberty versus freedom, white mastering black, outlaw-drifter, state’s rights as against Union, North-South, Baptist-Southern Baptist Convention, and so on—that had its origins in Virginia’s distrust of Massachusetts.

We left the battlefield near dark and went in search of something to eat. Petersburg poverty came to the fore: none of the eating establishments was open, not even a ‘take-out.’ We drove out of town, about a mile, to a Domino’s Pizza joint. We didn’t understand the security system at the entrance but soon learned that in that town doors in general were locked to keep people out. The small, unappetising pizza cost $US17.00; they didn’t do coffee. So while I filled up with gasoline Meryn went for coffee. Yes they had coffee, as a rule, but only cold coffee at the moment. So she went to a food place next door. Same story: a security door, and a security grill, but no coffee.

We ate the pizza in our room, watched MSNBC and went to bed, ready to take Richmond on the morrow. Scarborough Country featured a fellow from Las Vegas who sought to draw attention to the fact that the American needs be properly entertained, that “if the escape isn’t there then [he’s] not free” and the whole money making enterprise will collapse. Out the window, what had appeared to be the very peculiar arc of a jet airliner’s vapour trail revealed itself in time as a thin and wispy sickle moon. I’d never before seen the arc of the new moon leave such a trace; the radius which gave rise to that perimeter was beyond my experience.

All through the night the constant passage of trains—the whole basis of Petersburg’s strategic importance and why Grant had laid siege to it—disturbed Hamilton and set me in a sublunary orbit of half-sleep. Come morning, the room was all round the wrong way and the light on the opposite side of where it should have been.

Breakfast television carried a report that the significant increase in fuel economy of the modern car over that of its 1960s’ precursors had been more than offset by the percentage increase in the weight of the American so average fuel-consumption had risen. Channel flicking revealed that the Bush Administration and Rush Limbaugh strategy for winning elections was to create a straw man, a two-dimensional world of fantasy and spin that copied only that aspect of the real world of substance which inspired confidence. Karl Rove, George Bush’s confidence man, kept a card up his sleeve to trick a gullible electorate with a false picture of reality. Would he fall for it again, the American, or read the signs?

We parked and walked to the Richmond Capitol, first constructed in 1788 as a copy of an ancient Roman temple. A fellow approached us as we tried to identify lesser lights among the founding fathers on a massive stone monument that gave prominence to George Washington.  Hamilton was creating a terrific din, bitching about the masons. The helpful guide wanted to tell the story of Virginia’s Capitol and assumed, reasonably, that we were admiring it and the surrounds from a tourist’s perspective but he warmed to the broader issue of the nation’s presentation of its heroes and listened politely to the suggestion that the American casts Washington in much the same light as the Chinese do Mao Zedong.

Pressed for time, he let that go but confirmed that it was Patrick “give me liberty or give me death” Henry being portrayed on the second level of greatness. Patrick Henry, Virginia’s first governor, is the personification of American liberty operating as freedom’s hostile twin.

Virginia had put aside its opposition to Massachusetts and, fired by the type of republican spirit which Patrick Henry’s call had expressed, took up arms against authority to fight for independence from the Crown. The War of Independence won, the delegates representing the people of the newly independent states set about ratifying the American Constitution. Virginia’s “Yea” or “Nay” vote was critical.

The members of the Virginia convention charged with making the decision debated the pro’s and con’s of the matter for three weeks. At the climax on June 24th 1788, Patrick Henry addressed the convention and called upon the delegates not to ratify the Constitution of the United States of America because to do so would mean handing over to the Federation the God-given right of a Virginian to own slaves. “ … they’ll free your niggers,” he had warned.

The Virginians ratified it anyway—because James Madison was able to convince his fellow Convention delegates that Massachusetts would not free the slaves, had no evil intent with respect to the peculiar institution and wouldn’t dream of depriving white men of their liberty to own black men.

Virginia had exacted its price—the preservation of the institution of slavery—and joined the Union. Massachusetts looked upon that union as having given rise to a New World nation, the United States. Virginia, though, regarded itself as a sovereign member of the United States and pushed for each state’s right to govern as it saw fit, free from federal interference. Instead of throwing its weight behind and helping to consolidate the fledgling republic, Virginia reverted to the colonial habit of differentiating itself from Massachusetts.

 That the Union had paid too high a price for Virginia’s vote was brought home when Richmond fell seventy-seven years later. The architect of Richmond’s Capitol, Thomas Jefferson, became Virginia’s foremost representative in the Federal government. He shared his fellow founding fathers’ Enlightenment ideals but not their vision of the ideal republic. Not that put forward by Northerners like John Adams of Massachusetts at any rate.

The Constitution of the United States which Virginia ratified in 1788 had been born of competing notions as to what would constitute the ideal republic. Massachusetts had found nothing in eighteenth-century Europe to inspire confidence (because monarchy was the norm there) so had turned instead to the Enlightenment version of Greek democracy and the Roman republic as guiding models. Adams believed that mixed government was what had made Rome a great republic.

Virginia disagreed. According to Jefferson, it was the fact that Roman society had been underpinned by the noble agrarian ideal whereby the “cultivators of the earth are [regarded as] the most valuable citizens.”[52] Jefferson’s vision for Virginia, as for the United States of America, was at one with his architecture: a copy of his picture of ancient Rome.

Massachusetts, too keenly aware of the realities of international trade and the stirring giant of manufacture and industry, was not persuaded by Virginia’s notion of an agrarian arcadia. The twins settled upon a typically American compromise: The North succeeded in having the Constitution of the United States of America underwrite a structure in which government becomes a balancing act between one president, few senators, and many representatives[53] while the South secured the right of its citizens to own slaves. So it was that the New World republic developed into a nation at odds with itself.

The history of the USA is the story of Trickster fooling the American time out of mind. Massachusetts gained the upper hand in federal government and held onto it until 1800. Virginia might have folded but for the good fortune of having turned up a pair of jacks: Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin and ’dat old time religion.

The introduction of the cotton gin from 1792 made it possible for the short-staple cotton cultivated in the American South to compete with imported long-staple cotton. Planters suddenly had money growing on trees and would become very wealthy just so long as there was plenty of slave-labour on hand to pick it. With this lifeline thrown to the South’s agrarian economy, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison succeeded in turning the tide of Federation away from an emphasis on Union toward its contrary, states’ rights.

Time and tide wait for no man, though, the planters knew, so they set about nipping the development of progressive ideas in the bud. Well-educated federal politicians were unreliable because they might one day adhere to their professed Enlightenment ideals and emancipate the slaves. Rather than cross that bridge when they came to it, the plantation owners began the process of supplanting such ‘old-school’ types with unsophisticated, self-serving legislators whom they could put in their pocket.

Jeffersonian democracy inadvertently created a steady supply of such self-serving politicians via the attempt to establish an agrarian republic of myriad small landowners. Since these common-folk landowners met the property requirement as electors, all that was needed was to get them to vote for ill-educated bigots willing to take provincial politics into the federal arena.

Mercurius had stacked the deck, of course, so up jumped the other half of the pair, America’s perennial jack-in-the-box—evangelical Christianity. Religious zealots made ‘nigger haters’ of the South’s common folk while opportunist politicians, in their turn, moved heaven and earth to remove the property requirement altogether. That resulted in all the men among the preachers’ congregations being entitled to vote. Our generic Virginia called the political shots in federal government right up until Abraham Lincoln called the South’s bluff in the 1860 presidential election. Massachusetts (the North) paid to look and Virginia raised hell—acting upon the oft-repeated threat to secede. The secessionists left the Union to form the Confederate States of America.

Meryn and I walked from Jefferson’s Capitol to the Confederate White House from which Confederate President Jefferson Davis had fled on April 2nd 1865 when Abraham Lincoln’s fighting General, Ulysses Grant, was at the gate. Grant was about to bring Virginia to heel and end the war of rebellion. It had taken the American nigh on eighty years to put a leader in the Oval Office who was prepared to face up to the fact that the Union was a house of cards incapable of supporting both liberty and freedom. 

Back at Centreville, we watched the state’s incumbent Republican senator, good ’ol boy George Allen, entertain the crowd at what might have been a garden party. The racist slur had always played well in Virginia and the senator was among friends. He dished it up to the WASP audience. But it was all on Youtube, and TV. The Confederate flag, noose, and being ill at ease with questions concerning a Jewish lineage combined with the garden party performance to frame the senator as representative of a bygone era.

The common man had no place in the vast exurb of Washington that Northern Virginia had become. We watched with interest as successive polls showed Allen’s Democrat challenger creeping up on the senator.

Vera Sarkin, meanwhile, instructed us on how we were to greet the children—with a mask of niceness, and candy—who would come to the door and ask whether it would be trick or treat. Nita, Meryn’s academic colleague, took the opposing view. As a child, she more than anything else had preferred the trick, especially a scary one.

Chapter 11   Donning the Mask


Meryn mentioned over lunch that Nita had emailed an invitation for us to join her and Harry at a Halloween Party in Pittsburgh. We booked a car at $US66.00 all up for three days from 4 pm on the Friday of the last weekend in October 2006, took the Orange Line to L’Enfant Metro station, walked to the Library of Congress for internet banking, then returned to catch the commuter bus to Dulles Airport where the rental car awaited us.

The bus exchange ticket did not work because it was more than 2 hours since we’d alighted from the previous bus but we admitted under benign interrogation to possessing Metro rail tickets and the driver found an 80-cent reduction in each of them. We collected a cobalt-blue Suzuki 4-door sedan and left Centreville early on the Saturday morning. Route 40 West’s scenic section’s Appalachian vistas and brilliantly coloured autumnal back roads were awe inspiring.

A none too nutritious pair of toasted sandwiches and much coffee at some diner-cum-bar provided ballast for a reckless plunge into a massive black cloud of who-knew-what’all. Lashed by heavy rain, then hail, we came down out of something labelled “a dangerous mountain” path and ticked off another ‘first’—driving through sleet.

In Pittsburgh, we took up where we’d left off with Nita and Harry, the latter saying he thought Halloween America’s best secular celebration all year. Nita was unimpressed with my description of Halloween as “wonderfully pagan.” It had started out as a Christian festival, she put me straight “so your theory is wrong there.” Nita was not the first person to tell me that my theory about this or that was wrong.

A work colleague once told me that shopping is invigorating. My gene for that is expressed as taking pleasure in the heat of argument. Surely the most significant element of the Roman Catholic ‘All Souls Day’ is the Roman part? The fall, death, decay, Pluto, and so on were integral to pagan religions long before the Christians started worshipping Jesus the carpenter, weren’t they? Nita said that where she comes from and where her mother still teaches, in Oklahoma, there’s a ban against the non-Christian elements—the scary stuff which she had enjoyed most as a child—associated with Halloween. Whatever else might be the case, it’s obvious that Halloween is all about the American’s need to don the mask.

To the untrained eye, Harry and Nita (he ghostly-pale in modified tuxedo and cummerbund and she similarly pale except for a bloodstain running down from the corner of her mouth) might have been a generic Dracula and heroine. In fact, they had transformed themselves into faithful copies of a particular pair—the famous 1930s Hollywood couple, Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler. They were in costume as the American.

Meryn’s solution to our dressing up dilemma was inspired for being both practical and appropriate: we cut slits in black paper bags, put them over our heads, and dressed as the pair of Ned Kellys from Sidney Nolan’s ‘Glenrowan’ (1945). Such primitive disguise unsettled the other guests to the point where Meryn felt compelled to drop it and resume her life as the real thing. I maintained the charade, enthralled by the strange effect that a paper bag mask had on those around me.

A 1930s socialite in long gloves and swirling hat sat next to me but I didn’t realise she was there (the slit limited visual perception) until she stood up to move away and asked “Who or what is that?” Not Hollywood. Harry and Nita’s masquerade was the most sophisticated but they didn’t win the prize. That went to the couple who looked for all the world to be Neptune and Diana. No, no, someone said, John is dressed as Poseidon and Rene as Artemis. Wrong movie.

If allowed back in to the USA upon returning from the United Kingdom at the end of November we’d be living on the other side of Pennsylvania from Pittsburgh, in Lancaster County. Meryn had negotiated the rental arrangement with a pleasant, civilised woman whom we felt relieved to be dealing with.

Old man Hamilton had wanted to go west, to realise his manifest destiny in Hollywood, perhaps, but sped east toward Philadelphia in the comfortable Suzuki with Meryn and me instead. Pressed for time after leaving Harry and Nita’s just before noon, we took the quinella of a terrifying wind-blown ride along the turnpike trying to keep from being run down by tractor-trailers bearing down on us at 80 mph and plastic turkey sandwiched between two lumps of half-frozen counterfeit foccacia served up at the lunch stop half way between Greensburgh and Lancaster. What a mouthful. ‘Interstate yes, turnpike no’ is a good rule of thumb.

Lancaster yes, we agreed when we drove through town with the sun low down. Fifteen or so miles further on we reached the rural outpost that would be home for the last month of 2006. In the half hour of light left in the day we drove around to try and figure out how we’d be able to lay in provisions without a motor vehicle. It would be feasible, we decided, not easy but worth the effort. And if necessary we’d hire a car. Rustic, with Amish horse drawn carriages clip clopping down Main Street, past what would be our window. And no Vera Sarkin.

It had been a week to the day since we’d been caught in the Sunday night gridlock on I-95 so we set out for Route-1 but missed a turn and drove through Amish communities for an hour before finding our way. The oncoming headlights on R-1 convinced us that I-95 South was the safe bet and we were once again in the Sunday night snarl. It only lasted fifteen minutes but we were buggered from the long drive and still 24 miles east of Baltimore, Maryland.

Getting through the spaghetti immediately after emerging from the Baltimore tunnel at night is no mean feat, especially since you’re pushed to drive at break neck speed, but it’s an adrenalin inducing ride and we figured we could make it to the excellent Maryland Rest Area half way to Washington, D.C., for another fine cup of brewed coffee from the superb slot machine. We made it but came upon a bad sign: “Out of Order.” Very bad.

Interstate 495, the Beltway, felt close to home when we finally reached it, and I-66 seemed to be just around the corner. Hamilton had no hope of keeping me awake that night.

Vera had started to signal that she would not return our deposit for rent and utilities. What could possibly stop her from inspecting the room which we had rented on the morning we were leaving and settling the account straight away? “That’s not how it’s done,” she said. So I was keyed up and angry with the ogre and the idea of a month in Amish country took on the aura of light at the end of the funnel web spider’s tunnel.

The flight from Dulles to Manchester, England, was a fortnight off. The Suzuki wasn’t due back until late afternoon so we continued our ‘full circle’ theme: Ashland, Virginia; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Monday’d see an attempt to find the Confederate shop (where we had first heard a recording of the 2nd South Carolina String Band) on the outskirts of Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley. That had been during the Blue Ridge Mountain leg of our 2005 three-week round trip from Chicago in a rented Dodge Neon, one of our favourite models.

Come Monday, we were on the verge of admitting defeat when it became apparent that the farmer’s market wherein the shop was housed stood staring us in the face. Déjà vu lunch and then a test purchase from the Confederate store using a five-dollar bill to buy something with a one-dollar price tag. The employee came through with flying colours. He not only placed Abraham Lincoln’s visage on the $US5 note face down in the till—a member of the String Band had said he would—but gave us two $US2 notes in return.

The Thomas Jefferson $US2 note is quite uncommon. This was not just Jefferson’s Virginia but the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, scene of Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s rapid marching military triumphs in May and June of 1862. The proprietor of that Confederate trading post makes a living selling the Stars and Bars and other anachronistic Southern memorabilia to the Yankee Civil War tourist. Virginia’s inverted copy of the Yankee trader’s masquerade reflects the dual nature of the American.

On another ‘return’ trip Meryn and I rode the Red Line from Metro Central to Adams Morgan and then walked to where we had stayed at a ‘Bed and Breakfast’ in 2003. The inn is still open for business and everything looks much the same but it was much closer to Downtown D.C. than we’d realised when staying there. It’s walking distance from the White House out along Connecticut Avenue.

Familiarity shrinks the scale: an intersection that had required the full sensory repertoire in 2003 was now just another step along the way. After clocking up thousands of miles in rental cars and walking a good many through D.C., NYC, New Haven, etc., the left-hand–right-hand polarity had become second nature, not a puzzle to be thought through. Now we are tall and Christmas trees are small …

Aside from the exquisitely colourful display of the decline and decay of the autumn leaves, the Northern Virginia fall was much like what we were used to back home: beautiful sunny days where the temperature was just right. It was the first week of November; sun poured through the window of the doll’s house past the clocks that had been put back to where they should have been all along; the silk long johns called up by the creeping cold of the previous week had gone back in their box because the weather had reverted to ‘benign’ mode.

The ‘Washington Post’ carried a story about re-training the people whose job it was to see that the polling stations ran smoothly come the following Tuesday, November 7th. The average age of these workers was 67 (because retired folks were the only ones who could afford to take a day off work to perform that civic duty) and they were expected to become au fait with electronic voting machines. One 76-year-old was quite frustrated when he was told the machines were similar to

“Blackberries and other PDA’s.”

“What’s a PDA? He asked.

“Personal Digital Assistant, Sir.”

The fellow was nonplussed.

I turned on MSNBC to hear the presenter question someone from the advisory body set up after the ‘hanging chad’ debacle in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. He wanted to re-assure Americans that the system had been fixed, that more changes had been made in the past six years than in the previous two-hundred. On behalf of any elector still not convinced, she pressed him further and he made the serious point that whilst it was true that there’d be all kinds of electronic voting machines in use on the Tuesday and that many of them would be difficult to use, he felt certain that only the few who did not bother to find out in advance what sort of machine was being used in their electoral precinct and ensure that they practised and learned how to use that machine would have any difficulty on the day.

The woman conducting the interview accepted his remarks at face value and did not question him further. Rather, she took him as having now put any unwarranted concerns to rest on the question of electronic voting. Perhaps President Andrew Jackson’s mythical advisor wasn’t too far off the mark when he said that “In America the people is used for voting”?

I had advised Vera that the shower set aside for our use had been lukewarm at best since she’d had a new boiler installed. She called in a plumber who promised to be there but hadn’t showed as yet. So when the knock came she bolted to the door and escorted the handsome fellow downstairs. I had half expected her to direct him to enter via the back gate but then remembered that for all her nastiness, she’s still a citizen of the republic; the American does not demean himself with a tradesman’s entrance mentality.

When he had finished the job I heard the plumber tell Vera that the old tap had so deteriorated that he’d had to break it to pieces, that there was nothing for it but to install a new one, and that she must be careful to reset the thermostat if we were not to be scalded as a consequence of his having fixed the problem. I waited for an hour before checking whether Vera had adjusted the setting. She hadn’t so I was careful to have a handle on the cold tap as I showered. There was no need. Still lukewarm at best. The thermostat remained on the highest setting right up until our last day in the doll’s house and the water was never more than tepid. The plumber was a confidence man. Vera didn’t want to know. She had paid so by definition the shower had been fixed.

The American’s constant refrain that “this is the greatest country on earth” is true only by definition, too, because he doesn’t bother to compare his living conditions with conditions enjoyed by citizens of other nations: driving to the ‘park and ride’ or ‘kiss and ride’ as the first stage in a ridiculously long ‘commute’; appalling public transport; low hourly rates of pay because of excessive hours of work; as a customer he pays business the going price and must then top up the workers’ low wages with a tip; the gun lobby arms local lunatics in his community to the teeth on the one hand while executive government whips up paranoia against predominantly harmless outsiders on the other.

He buys the story that everyone wants to live in America, that they’ll do anything to get there at the same time as he believes that evil Satanic types hate the American’s freedom, hate the fact that he has fashioned a paradise on earth for himself. It’s all buncombe, as Andrew Jackson’s advisor used to say. The American is the mark in the confidence game.

I’d always thought that the presidential race was run on Melbourne Cup Day but the American votes on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November. So Nixon may not have passed the post the same day as ‘Rain Lover’ afterall. Two main schools of thought had emerged on what would determine the outcome of the Congressional mid term elections to be held on Tuesday, November 7th. The longstanding traditional (macro) view was that the American would use what the founding fathers bequeathed to him in the way of checks and balances and vote Democrat in consequence. Old style conservative Republicans, Independents, and Democrats would vote Democrat in order to restrain an increasingly worrisome executive branch of government.

Conservatives pointed out that the Bush Administration’s excesses were the result of a White House presided over by a man who had lost his grip on reality. The job of Congress was to check the president but since the existing Republican Party dominated Congress had performed a rubber stamp role the overall effect had been that the USA was in danger of becoming another of those one-party states the American finds anathema. So the Republicans deserved to be thrown out of the House and Senate, and would be, according to the ‘old school’ macro analysis.

The alternative view was that Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s long-time puppeteer and jester, had micromanaged the electoral process to the point of consolidating the Republicans as a one-party state, and that, corruption and sex scandals notwithstanding, the jester’s minions having been following their instructions and sticking doggedly to making personal contact with each of the many millions of eligible (and ineligible) voters in the Rove database, would once again turn out the vote in favour of corruption and a Republican Party stranglehold on power.

This micro view rested on the success of the model Republicans had used to oust the unpopular Democrats in the 1994 Congressional election and in every subsequent federal election. That model in turn was a modern version of the strategy Republicans used to get McKinley into the White House in 1897 and to populate the Hill for years afterwards.

There was much greater discontent in 2006 than there had been in 1994 it was generally agreed, and so the traditionalists concluded that the Democrats were a ‘shoo-in’ for the House, if not both the House and Senate. But the micro school held fast to the belief that Rove’s ‘get out the vote’ strategy was far superior to anything the Democrats had ever had, even when compared with the industrial era Democrat method of ensuring everyone stuck to the Party line. Back then, the mechanical voting machines were given a coat of coal dust by the local officials, and anyone who voted other than according to the prescribed formula would be betrayed as having done so by the black stain on his lever-pulling hand.

The American is comfortable with the fact that party officials run elections. Nor was he overly concerned to learn that a significant proportion of the upcoming 2006 vote would be registered and counted by privately supplied and programmed electronic digital black box voting machines that had no paper trail; the voter could never know that what came out as being his vote was what he had put in. Test had shown, however, that inserting ‘Democrat’ resulted in a 60% likelihood that ‘Democrat’ came out the other side—so he could have confidence. Traditionally, it had been Democrats who’d benefited from cooking the election books so they were only being evened up.

Rove was leaving as little to chance as possible. He’d divided the American into absolutist and non-absolutist types. There were many more non-absolutists—Catholics who believed it’s a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion; Protestants who were squeamish about homosexuality but who thought that what goes on (and who is) in the bedroom is a matter for consenting adults. Non-absolutists were not regular church-goers, by and large, and only attended once a week if they were regular.

The absolutist, on the other hand, was likely to go more than once a week to church—especially on Wednesdays and Sundays—and he or she was much less concerned with the war in Iraq, or the madness of the president, or the level of corruption, than about gay men being allowed to marry. Gay marriage really made him see red and he’d turn out to vote in a blizzard, just in order to put a stop to the Gomorrah of gay men tying the knot. He was easy to find, that voter, because he was at church three days before the election. And Karl Rove had been watching him for years.

The absolutist was guaranteed to get a personal visit from a roving Karlite, and a series of follow-up phone calls to remind him that he simply must vote Republican if the president was to have any hope of holding back the tide of homosexuality poised to swamp all good men and force that great nation to its knees. As a matter of fact, the absolutist fundamentalist Christian was so afraid of the legion of homosexuals wandering abroad that he no longer went down on his knees for fear that evil Satan would slip something into his mouth and tempt him to suck it and see.

So that’s the way they lined up on Guy Fawke’s Day, three sleeps out from America’s world famous biennial horse race. Would the American vote to use the Constitution to rein in an increasingly manic Administration or would Karl’s foot soldiers work the absolutist Christians into enough of a lather to vote against having to swallow what comes at Thanksgiving? Gobble, gobble. Would the late-breaking news that the Evangelical adviser to the White House had been using the money from the Wednesday and Sunday collection plates to purchase meth-amphetamine and gay sex from a male prostitute-cum-drug dealer for the past three years be enough to make the fundamentalist choke on his porridge?

We couldn’t vote, of course, but Meryn and I went to the local school to check the lay of the land. A woman told us that Jim Webb was looking like a winner. She was on the money: Northern Virginia put James Webb in the U S Senate.

A Republican who had been President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, James Webb is the antithesis of George Allen. A successful author of novels and screenplays, Webb wants the world to know of the vital role the Scotch-Irish have played in the development of the United States. The Scotch-Irish were Scottish Protestants who went to Ulster in the early seventeenth century and then migrated to America in the eighteenth century, taking a preparedness for hardscrabble with them into the mountains of Virginia. Individualists who put a premium on self-reliance, they were transformed into Thomas Jefferson’s common man who demanded the right to bear arms and to worship God by copying the movements of wild animals—writhing, crawling, and howling—at primitive religious camp meetings conducted by ill-educated circuit-riders.

The common man bought the circuit-rider story that the bible sanctioned slavery and was persuaded to defend states’ rights and identify with the planters’ interests. This was the American whom Jefferson imagined to be the salt of the earth who would build the agrarian republic, and whom self-serving legislators of the early nineteenth century put in their pocket. He went on to be the common man of Jacksonian Democracy and continued to vote Democrat right up until Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Thereafter, the common man became the backbone of the Republican Party’s hold on the South.

Whether or not Senator Webb’s having gone over to the Democrats and toppled George Allen signalled a seismic shift in the Red States remained to be seen but we had that same sensation of ‘being there when the worm turned’ in Virginia as we had had when Senator Joe Lieberman lost the Connecticut Primary. Was it merely a change in the weather or was the American about to change horses? We wouldn’t know until the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November 2008 but a black JFK elected on the strength of the youth vote would surely tell the world that the American can do change better than anyone. Some things change and some stay the same: would it all come down to Chicago’s role again?

Australia’s Remembrance Day is America’s Veteran’s Day; we visited Arlington cemetery on Friday November 10th and were caught up in the sombre ceremonies taking place. Up until the Civil War in the 1860s, Arlington had been Robert E. Lee’s Virginia estate, the inheritance of his wife (who was a descendant of George Washington). It overlooks the Potomac River across from the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King told the nation about his version of the American dream.

That was the day—August 28th 1963—that a quarter of a million Americans marched on Washington in the name of racial equality. President John F. Kennedy had stared out from a window of the White House, apprehensive about what the demand for African American civil rights might portend. Three months later JFK was assassinated and his body interred at an exquisitely understated burial site below Robert E. Lee’s house on the hill.

Robert Kennedy’s minimalist grave with its lone white cross is nearby. The burying ground of the famous Irish Catholic brothers is worlds away from the changing of the guard ceremony at the tomb of the unknown soldier. There, the American, patriotism on his sleeve, crowded round to witness a precision display of what blind obedience can achieve: highly disciplined Marines saluted empty stands upon which they were about to place a bouquet of flowers, clicked toes and heels of very shiny shoes and moved like marionettes to their allotted place. And one staff officer jumped right over the other staff officer’s back.

We walked across the Arlington Bridge to the District of Columbia, the river spread out majestically below and beyond, and approached George Washington University from the West rather than from the Vietnam War Memorial. Maya Lin’s black granite memorial is a continuum of the Kennedy gravesites drawing our attention, as it does, to the fact of the matter as against the sweet lie of mythical heroism. We’d paid homage to that sublime work of art on many occasions so there was no sacrifice involved in our taking the alternative route through a part of town with which we were unfamiliar.

Trickster rewarded us for the decision: we stumbled upon the Watergate Hotel just in time for lunch. I wondered as I munched away on the excellent Greek chicken wrap and sipped the quality coffee what might have happened had Chicago’s Mayor Daley not been there for JFK in 1960. Would Richard Nixon have been a better president, then, than he became a decade later? Might as well ask the man on the moon, I guess? A few steps on from Watergate we walked through the university to K Street—home of lobbyists paid to advance the agenda of wealthy special interests ahead of the national interest—and down M through the eighteenth-century charm of Georgetown.

During our final week in Centreville, Virginia, we made the most of fine weather, walking along the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, zooming up for a privileged view of the District of Columbia from the summit of the Washington Monument. And as we walked away I recalled that night on the New Haven sidewalk and the Voodoo Man’s refrain: “Conspiracies, conspiracies, conspiracies.” For internet cranks, the Monument (an Egyptian obelisk) is a blatant sign that the freemasons run the world, their power and influence filling every nook and cranny of Downtown D.C. Hamilton had already been initiated in the science of signs, he told me, and insisted on my leaving one in Washington before we flew away.

We didn’t know until we turned up on the doorstep that the Portrait Gallery doesn’t open to the public until about the time exurb commuters need to be heading home. Faced with such petty frustrations, the American is apt to cash a cheque from his bank of clichés and be reminded, say, that defeat is merely opportunity in disguise. He doesn’t cry over spilt milk, I figured, and neither should I, so, despite the fact that the situation had nothing to do with self-reliance, we went in search of bootstraps.

My shoe laces would not stay tied. According to Meryn, it’s common knowledge that shoes must always and everywhere be tied twice whereas I’m of the flat-lace-single-knot school. I believed that my shoes had kept coming undone because they had round laces. A department store assistant suggested a CVS Pharmacy opposite a building that had a bizarre façade so we went in and were told there might be shoelaces in aisle eleven. Alas, the staff packing shelves at aisle eleven were in no mind to let us muscle in on their territory and take something off the shelf so we returned to the gallery and saw an exhibition by an American artist who documented experiences of being black in the South during the Kennedy-Johnson era. We’d heard him on Radio National earlier in the year and his work encouraged us to be sure to go to the Deep South for more than a cursory glance. Upstairs, the striking nineteenth-century portrait of John C. Calhoun stared me straight in the eye.

South Carolina’s favourite son, Scotch-Irish Calhoun had started out as a Union man but came around to be the foremost states’ rights advocate. Vice-president in the first Andrew Jackson Administration (1829-1833), the South Carolina statesman injected his state’s rights doctrine into proceedings at a dinner to honour the memory of Thomas Jefferson. Proposing a toast, President Jackson had remarked “Our federal Union, it must be preserved” and Calhoun immediately contradicted him by saying “The Union—next to our liberty—the most dear.”

The liberty to which Calhoun referred was that which Jefferson and Madison had spoken of—a state’s right to remain free from federal government interference. Like Jefferson and Madison, Calhoun and South Carolina insisted on a state’s right to nullify federal laws. Moreover, a given state might even go so far as to secede from the Union in order to nullify a piece of federal legislation. South Carolina was on the brink of secession in 1832 and President Jackson had threatened to keep Carolinians in the Union by military force if necessary when Henry Clay proposed another of his compromises to save the marriage between North and South. Clay’s famous compromises could never heal the rift between the spouses but merely postpone the inevitable.

When the separation came, nearly thirty years later, President Abraham Lincoln made good on President Andrew Jackson’s promise to return the wife to the marital bed; secession was tantamount to rebellion, he argued, and it was incumbent upon the president to put it down with military force if needs be. Lincoln’s second inauguration ball took place in the government patent office, nowadays part of the Portrait Gallery, and just down the hall from Lincoln’s so-called ‘death’ mask.

A comparison of the before (Volk, April 1860) and after (Mills, February 1865) facial masks suggests that being the President who had had to wage war on his own people made an old man of the boy from Kentucky; an alternative explanation—that 56 year-old Lincoln suffered from a rare genetic cancer syndrome—was put forward by John Sotos in a Washington Post article in November 2007.

Our next port of call was the Barnes & Noble E Street café for coffee to wash down our homemade sandwiches. What we didn’t spend on services such as having someone else cut our lunch made it feasible to be in the USA for a year. Accommodation costs were about to significantly increase, of course, because ‘twice bitten four times shy’ had taught us to steer clear of share households or we, too, would age beyond recognition.

Déjà vu stalked us. We had been to the café before and had sat at the only available table; it was our only option this time, as well. Meryn went to the bathroom. I noticed that no-one in the café—they were all black guys—was eating or drinking, and most were on the nod. I remembered that on a previous visit I had gone to the men’s bathroom in that bookshop and encountered a fellow who had made only a cursory attempt to disguise the fact that he was shooting up.

Sitting there waiting for Meryn on this final Barnes & Noble E Street foray, I realised I’d stumbled into a scene where bookshop patrons were moving about and selling dope. It wasn’t just a case of the homeless seeking shelter; there was a definite undercurrent of surreptitious but none-too-subtle drug-deals. Meryn returned and agreed with my assessment of the situation.

Next to where we sat, a big black man with a stack of books on one café table and the book he was reading on another was counselling one of the fellows who seemed to be part of the trading ring. There was much talk about religion and having respect for another’s personal religious belief. The counsellor, if that’s what he was, advised the other man that he had rights and could not be thrown out on the street during the day. He asked where else this fellow went for succour and Meryn heard him answer “the Library of Congress.”

The penny dropped for us, then, because we, too, frequented the Library as a social refuge. On the way home we added up and subtracted the evidence of our senses and came to the conclusion that we had indeed wandered into the parallel universe of the dispossessed. While we’d be sitting in the library doing electronic banking or securing a rental car deal on the internet there’d be men like those in Barnes & Noble, and women, too, huddled, sometimes talking so loudly that the librarian would ask them to keep their voices down. It would make sense that they’re people with psychiatric illnesses who’ve been “returned to the community”—which is to say, abandoned to their fate—on the street. America deals a cruel hand to the poor.

A couple of days prior to our departure for Britain, we caught the bus from Centreville Park & Ride at the usual time and went to the bank to change the account address from Virginia to Pennsylvania. The two most regular commuters weren’t on board the bus that arrives in Vienna for the first of the reduced fare departures at 9.30 am.

Plenty of regulars passed through the turnstiles as the clock struck the half hour but there would invariably be someone to attract attention for one reason or another—passing ‘Go’ prior to the cut-off time for the cheaper fare, for instance, or coming to grief with the ticket dispensing machine—someone more innocent and ignorant than us. That morning it was a fellow in the early stages of Parkinson’s; I wondered about him, where he fitted into the great commuter scheme of things.

Changing trains at Metro Central, we happened to be in the same carriage as one of those missing bus regulars. Meryn needed to snail mail a couple of disks so we went downstairs to the North Farrugut Post Office on the corner of Connecticut and L. While she transacted business with the postal clerk, the man who suffered from Parkinson’s disease in Vienna walked in. Later, at lunch in the Library of Congress cafeteria, a man with Parkinson’s sat next to us. A couple of months earlier, in New Haven, it had been women with huge breasts; they came at us from every which way, never to appear in quantum packets ever again; on a previous visit to that bank branch we saw blind men everywhere. Your number’s up if it’s a man with guns, I guess?

On the Tuesday prior to our Friday morning departure Vera conducted her “I’m the powerful landlady holding your deposit” tour of inspection of the tenant’s shower recess. We had kept it clean throughout our stay but gave it extra sparkle to guarantee Ms Sarkin had no claim on our deposit. Once she was satisfied she announced that our rent ran out at midnight on the transition from Thursday to Friday. What?! I was furious. Where could we go at that hour in this godforsaken exurb, and when did one’s rent on a room ever expire at midnight except in a brothel?

So she wanted an extra night’s rent, did she? Bloody hell. We didn’t argue because she held our deposit. We might as well have, though, because she was not seeking a bonus unearned rental payment. That wasn’t it, no: we would not be permitted to stay beyond midnight under any circumstances. The American is not given to gratuitous nastiness as a rule but Vera was unique. We’ve never come across anyone as unspeakably awful, though we’d both worked with office bitches.

We just made the last bus to get Downtown to find accommodation for the next night, our last in the USA until we returned to Dulles International in a fortnight. America was on the verge of Thanksgiving weekend. Rental car rates were up by two and three hundred percent and hotel rates were similarly inflated. Double effort in the Library of Congress yielded a motel out near the Greyhound Bus station at $US100.00 for the night.

Chapter 12   Sweet Commerce


Dulles Airport is nothing to write home about to begin with but add in a large dose of paranoia concerning the perceived terrorist threat and you have American lunacy. Prior to the attacks on the toppling of New York’s Twin Towers by religious maniacs, terrorism had been a form of criminal behaviour. After them it was recast as a Satan signifier. Once Satan had crossed the Nine-eleven line, neo-conservative opportunists immediately sent up a smoke screen of post-modernist flim flam and religious rhetoric behind which to advance a ready-made rightwing agenda. Waving flags, re-badging the staple fast food, and suspending disbelief, the American walked headlong into the hell of sacrificing cherished freedom.

We Australians have no stars to guide us when trying to appreciate what freedom means to a citizen of the United States. It is all—after God and country. Airport security personnel (some of whom probably supported the IRA in the 1980s) took Meryn’s computer case apart before she could enter the departure lounge. It was theirs to Humpty Dumpy and ours to put back together again. The American has no star to guide him when trying to understand what it is to be buggered.

A change of planes meant hanging about Chicago’s O’Hare. Miles ahead of Dulles in design, and superb to fly in and out of, one could do worse. The woman opposite was a study in distractedness so when she dropped her bottle of Pepsi we waited, then watched with interest as the contents went everywhere when she unscrewed the top. If there had been a cockroach in it we would have told her but.

The flight to Manchester (pleasant and enjoyable, in a near new Airbus) was not up and over Iceland as had been the London to Chicago flight we took in 2000 but in a beeline due North-east. Manchester Airport is a better bet than London’s Heathrow. Meryn’s cousin collected us and had a couple over for dinner. The husband was a successful scriptwriter who had worked on Coronation Street and was credited with having rescued a more recent television soap opera. I asked what his greatest achievement as a writer had been and whether he thought his best work was yet to come. Writing was merely a nine-to-five job so far as he was concerned. Meryn’s heel pressing down on my toe prevented my going on to say “Well, as satisfying as it must be to be to have saved a TV series from oblivion do you have any ambition to write something of the calibre of a Dennis Potter drama series?”

She sat up with her cousin and watched a reality TV show set in the Daintree and on the Monday we walked around St Peter’s Square then went to the superb Science Museum to see a  ‘boll to woven cloth’ demonstration of cotton textile manufacture. Primed to deliver the lesson to school children, the instructor adapted the presentation for a class made up of middle-aged couples and deserved the effort we took to sing his praises on the feedback form. Manchester was full of civilised folk going about their business amid glorious Autumn leaves.

Come Tuesday, Meryn took the train south to Stafford, Oxford and London, and I boarded a bus in search of Hamilton’s Scottish forebears. It departed at 9 am and arrived at an awful road-stop two hours later. The uninviting smell of greasy food accompanied by the high cost of a small filtered coffee and scone did not augur well. ‘No Smoking’ signs, prominent and plentiful, meant nothing to a large group of men who were milling around in a menacing manner.

 They had been bovver boys not so long ago, surely, and the lead lad lit up ostentatiously, as if daring the authorities to confront him. No-one did. No intelligent being would, either, because he was that type of thuggish oaf not to be reasoned with. So many smokers; busloads of geezers, gits and skinheads. Too few Americans. The Detective Sergeant in me wanted to wallop the lumpen proles.

Back on the road, apprehensive about having to find affordable accommodation upon arrival in Glasgow, I was acutely aware of being alone. Meryn and I were going in opposite directions, Hamilton all I had. No man is an island. Refusal to sacrifice autonomy for the sake of the union might see me stranded like a shag on a rock.

Love thy psychosis. Hamilton had become the other half, my mind a mirror of America with its twin colonies.

Sir Walter Raleigh had named Virginia in honour of his Virgin Queen, Elizabeth 1 of England, and when she died that remote trading post came under the dominion of James I. Already King James VI of Scotland, from 1603 he wore two crowns. In 1607 Virginia became England’s first North American colony when a settlement was established at Jamestown. The second, Massachusetts, had its origins in the arrival of the Mayflower at Cape Cod. Economic and social rivals, Massachusetts in the north and Virginia in the south kept their distance from one another for a hundred years or more, the former accumulating vast riches in seaport towns from shipping, whaling, forestry, and the cod fishery while the latter exported home-grown tobacco across the Atlantic.

Massachusetts and Virginia never got on but when the time came for the one to leave home and strike out on his own the other saw it as in her interest to do likewise so they joined forces to declare their independence from the Crown in the late eighteenth century. The King sought to bring each of the siblings to heel by separating them but they stuck by one another (after a fashion) and finally succeeded in pushing the ogre away when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington not far from Jamestown in 1781.

The union of Massachusetts and Virginia as a single sovereign nation had pedigree. England and Scotland, too, were siblings that had grown up together on the outskirts of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Soon after James VI of Scotland became James I of England, two Scottish aristocrats—Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton—obtained substantial property in Northern Ireland and settled tenant farmers from Scotland there. The arrival of those fundamentalist Presbyterians in Ulster suited King James down to the ground because they pushed out the Gaelic Catholics who’d led the Irish resistance to the Crown.

The success of the Montgomery-Hamilton settlement inclined James to look favourably upon the Virginia Company’s proposal for settlement of North America. That new colony held out the prospect of being a land of opportunity for the Ulster settlers and they migrated to Virginia in large numbers. Here was the origin of the Scotch-Irish in America, the people of Appalachia who gave birth to the common man of Jeffersonian democracy.

Though they shared the same monarch from 1603, England and Scotland remained separate states until 1707. Trade drew them together while politics and religion pushed them apart. Mercurius, Roman god of trade, commerce, and profit, saw to it that Lord Shaftesbury’s politeness prevailed, that the self-confidence Scottish merchants had acquired through sweet commerce rubbed off on their countrymen.[54]

The Scottish Parliament enacted the necessary legislation which put into effect the Treaty of Union to join the two kingdoms as onethe United Kingdomin 1707. Passage of the Act of Union through the Scottish parliament, though, was not as smooth an operation as passing coins from hand to hand. For that, it took the skill and finesse of polished politicians like the Earl of Stair and statesmen of the calibre of William Carstares.

The Earl of Stair, John Dalrymple, was right-hand man to the London power brokers’ Scottish agent, the Marquis of Queensbury. Stair scared the hell out of his countrymen. They thought him the son of a witch who had cursed his sister, Janet, for marrying the wrong man, that Janet had paid with her life for crossing the wicked witch when the groom went insane and murdered his bride on their wedding night. The ‘Dalrymple curse’ made its way into a Sir Walter Scott novel and turned up in the Mad Scene of Lucia di Lammermoor, the Donizetti opera which Joan Sutherland made her own.

As a matter of historical fact, Janet Dalrymple died of natural causes; neither is there any truth to the rumour that Stair’s other sister, Sarah, could levitate. But that’s not what early eighteenth-century Scots had heard; Stair struck fear into their hearts. And not just because of the curse. He had cynically engineered the infamous Glen Coe massacre of the MacDonalds by the Campbells in a treacherous Trojan horse campaign at the end of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which deposed Catholic James II (James VII of Scotland) and put Protestant William of Orange on the English throne.

The MacDonalds had been Jacobites—loyal to James—whereas the Campbells (Meryn’s maternal ancestors) were Orange. Stair’s underhand tactics marked him out as exceedingly dangerous.

London paid Stair’s boss, Queensbury, a king’s ransom to ensure that Scotland’s Parliament voted for the proposed Act of Union even in the face of the popular resistance led by the Duke of Hamilton. Hamilton had reminded his fellow Scots that they were being asked to give up their autonomy straight away in return for the promise of economic prosperity later, to sell their precious independence.

The procession for the opening of the Scottish Parliament which would be asked to vote itself out of existence in favour of sending a handful of vastly outnumbered representatives to the British House of Commons did not augur well for union: the crowd cheered for Hamilton and jeered Queensbury.

The Earl of Stair reminded Queensbury that Edinburgh had long since forfeited its political power to London. Besides, the Scottish Parliament had never been more than a royal plaything, had never represented the Scottish people nor championed their freedom. Hamilton’s clarion call, therefore, was mere rhetoric, Stair pointed out. He counselled his boss to put trade in the spotlight, to emphasise that that was where real change would take place. The strategy worked.

Hamilton had another card up his sleeve: the Kirk. The Presbyterian Church had never ceded power to the Anglicans—not even when Charles II went out of his way to force Anglicanism down Scottish throats during the Restoration[55]—and remained an independent Scottish institution.

The Moderator of the Kirk’s General Assembly, William Carstares, had been imprisoned for his Presbyterian faith by Charles II and tortured during the reign of Charles’ Catholic brother and successor, James II. So the Duke of Hamilton had good reason to believe the Presbyterian clergy would regard the proposed union as yet another threat to the Kirk and rally the religious leaders to his nationalist cause.

He had miscalculated. Rather than taking away a desire for revenge from the painful experience of religious intolerance, Carstares had learned the value of real politik—to keep what’s most important by sacrificing something of lesser importance. The Kirk Moderator persuaded the Presbyterian clergy to give their blessing to the union in expectation of maintaining control over Scottish religious expression.

Queensbury ruled. The Scottish Parliament ratified the Treaty of Union and Scotland became part of the United Kingdom on May 1st 1707. British taxes bought Scots a stake in a society that boasted a highly organised navy which protected international trading lanes, effective transport and communications, an efficient bureaucracy, and political stability. Being part of the United Kingdom transformed Scotland over the next twenty years from a backwater to a modern nation.

Not everyone benefited. Among those left behind were Scots who had been pro-union. Discontent bred rebellion. Jacobite rebellion bubbled up and gave rise to a formidable army of Scots prepared to die for the Stuart cause. James the Pretender (son of James II) arrived at Peterhead in 1715 anticipating that he’d soon be James VIII of Scotland. He returned to France a month later with his tail between his legs.

Aside from having to keep a weather eye out for the pesky Jacobites, London largely ignored its new northern province and the result was that the Scots made the most of their integration into a well-ordered state—reaping the benefits of free trade on the one hand and free thought on the other.

And so it was that the eighteenth century brought forth the Scottish Enlightenment. Sacrifice of something held dear now in exchange for greater reward later was the code of the road for Frances Hutcheson, Archibald Campbell, Lord Kames, Adam Smith, David Hume, James Watt and other Scottish intellects; they transformed the world.  

Old habits die hard, though, and in 1745 disgruntled Scots who preferred the quick political fix made another attempt to turn back the clock when they fell in with the latest quest to reinstate the Stuarts to the throne. Charles Edward Stuart, son of James the Pretender, sailed from Belle Isle for Scotland in July 1745 and went ashore to solicit the support of Highland Clans in crowning a Stuart king.

The only thing the romantic plan had going for it was that Charles would be made a fool of by the French if he returned to the continent empty handed, as had his father after the failed Jacobite revolt of 1715. 

The Camerons, Gordons, MacDonalds, Mackinnnons, MacPhersons, McDonnells, and Murrays were honour bound to rally behind Charles, son of James—Bonnie Prince Charlie—on the crazy quest. No-one had expected it, especially not London, with its military defences deployed elsewhere. So Bonnie Prince Charlie’s forces faced little resistance as they marched south into England and captured Carlisle.

Charles felt poised to make England Stuart again but the Highland chiefs had nothing to gain from an English king, wanting only to make the Stuarts monarchs of Scotland. So the Prince was forced to retreat. He and his ragtag band of rebels would have been annihilated by the British army had they pressed on. As it was, they were slaughtered at Culloden field in April 1746, the Jacobite MacDonalds once again cut down by the loyalist Campbells.

Just south of Carlisle, a man in Middle Eastern garb and about 25 years old boarded the bus carrying an infant. The child had a heavy cold and whimpered throughout the journey but the patient father remained calm. I looked out the window of the bus as if at a movie about Thatcher’s England. Every third or fourth house in Carlisle’s High Street was for sale. A man pushed a pram through the rain. The pervasive smell of burning coal outside of  took me back to my first visit to England in the seventies, and I reminisced about working in London in the eighties.

The woman I lived with back then had used a cassette tape of Lucia di Lammermoor to help me appreciate opera and we sometimes attended performances at Convent Garden and the English National Opera. On one occasion the diva in the Donizetti drama Maria Stuarda was ill and no-one seemed to notice that while Queen Elizabeth I of England assailed her adversary in English the Queen of Scots (Mary Stuart) replied in Italian.[56]

Queen Mary had entered England in mid-May 1568 and Elizabeth had ordered that she be incarcerated at Carlisle Castle. Meryn and I had spent a couple of hours there when changing trains in 2000.[57]

The bus crossed the border into Scotland and took on more passengers at Hamilton, the town southeast of Glasgow that had been the original home of the Hamilton clan and where  James Hamilton had provided sanctuary to Mary Queen of Scots in early-May 1568, a fortnight before was imprisoned in Carlisle.[58] The Detective Sergeant wanted me to alight then and there but I stayed put until mid-afternoon when the bus arrived at Buchanan Street station. From there, I lugged my heavy bag up the hill to the Tourist Info office in Glasgow’s main square and cursed my lack of foresight in leaving the trolley wheels in Manchester.

Ill at ease because the sun was low in the sky and the temperature falling, I joined a line of travellers making enquiries. High season had long since passed so what could they all be doing here, I wondered. A man approached me and said, “You were on the bus, weren’t you?” I had been. “There’s no hotel rooms in town. Everything’s booked out for the football. We’ve finally found a place 20 miles out for £50.00 per night. Good luck.”

Ten minutes later, the woman behind the desk confirmed that there was no room at the inn and showed me the crossed out accommodation guide, crosses indicating places already full. My heart sank. The aggressive bunch of unsavoury characters at the service centre stop on the M6 earlier in the day loomed into consciousness, one and the same as with the pre-Hamilton voices of the New Haven nightmare.[59]  Their visage drowned out the helpful tourist office employee but her sympathetic expression spoke volumes as I thanked her and turned toward the door.

“Of course, if you were prepared to take a room in a hostel,” I heard her change tack out of the corner of my ear, “there’s one at the Youth Hostel.”

Meryn and I prefer hostels—when the choice is between that and a big city hotel.

“I would greatly appreciate a bunk in a hostel,” I beamed so she phoned for me and booked the bed.

“I won’t charge you the £3.00 booking fee.”

I have no idea why the charge was waived but if ever you’re in the United Kingdom be sure to stay in Glasgow. The walk to the Youth Hostel, made easier by the knowledge that it would not be in vain, was a relief and a pleasure.

Some of the drunks spilling out onto Sauchiehall Street from the pubs and bars gave the cold twilight an air of menace but I stayed calm, in control, confident the wild beasts would not get the scent of fear, and passed by unobtrusively.

I went out star gazing on the Indian subcontinent at 4 am one morning and was confronted by a pack of snarling dogs, the top dog baring his teeth. ‘Rabies,’ I thought, ‘I’m in serious trouble.’ I recalled a remark made to me by a friend who was a mine of tidbits. Dogs are a pack animal, he had said, and can be managed through control of their leader. So I started up a terrific din, yelling and screaming right in the face of the leader of the pack and sure enough the dogs skedaddled, like James the Pretender.

Next morning, Wednesday, November 22nd, the 43rd anniversary of the JFK assassination, I mused on the fact that the Massachusetts senator had been 43 years old when elected President of the USA. Forty-three-ness has not been kind to the American.

I took the Glasgow underground to town. Platform, train, and length of track are of toylike proportions. The Detective Sergeant wanted to pay his respects to the ancestors so I took a bus to North Ayrshire, the district where James Hamilton was born in 1559. Prior to becoming a founding father of the Scotch-Irish in Ulster he had been in charge of a Dublin school at which James Ussher was a student.  

The pupil had gone on to make a name for himself as the clergyman who, working backwards through the begettings of the biblical ‘record,’ arrived at the conclusion that God had made the world on Sunday, October 23rd 4004 BC. Staggering numbers of twenty-first century Scotch-Irish Americans still believe Archbishop Ussher to have spoken the gospel truth.

The X36 to Ardrossan was my best bet according to a helpful local so I climbed aboard and went in search of Hamiltons, some twenty-five miles south-west of Glasgow, and just across the bay from the Island of Arran. A return ticket cost £6.20 whereas the one-way fare was £3.00 but I wasn’t looking after the pennies and so lashed out for the sake of convenience.

Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers wear Arran knit pullovers on 1960s American folk music films; I’d purchased one while hitchhiking around Ireland in the seventies and so hoped to get a peek at the place from where that prized hairshirt had come. James Hamilton’s Ulster is a hop, step and jump across the bay from Ardrossan so I had high hopes of coming across someone who’d heard of him.

Three-quarters-of-an-hour into the trip, numerous retired folk boarded the bus at a series of stops and greeted one another with pleasure at seeing the laddie or lassie again after not having seen him or her in a wee while. I enjoyed hearing various garbled breakneck deliveries followed, invariably, by a short interval and the word “Aye” coming from the passive interlocutors. The men near me spoke about Celtic having beaten Manchester United one-nil in a most unexpected victory the night before. It was music to my ears.

The further we went the more it rained. One hamlet was as good as another so I asked the driver to drop me off at the next town. Bugger me if he didn’t ask where, precisely, in Stevenston, I wanted to go! No other town along the way, all of them signposted, was more than a High Street with the occasional intersection, but the driver said I should not get off for another couple of stops if I wanted Stevenston’s High Street. I took his advice and alighted when he gave me the nod at the next stop, the other having presumably been skipped due to lack of passenger interest.

The Public Library would be a good place to start, obviously. It was raining steadily as I walked into the vestibule. The sign on the window said ‘Closed on Wednesdays.’ I went into the local supermarket opposite the Pharmacy and asked about an umbrella. “You’ll get one at the Shoe Shop, love,” the helpful woman informed me. “You’ll need the one in the next street, about half way down.”

“Ooh, noo. We do not stock gentleman’s umbrellas. You’ll need to go to the Pharmacy.”

“On the High Street?”

“Ooh, noo. Two doors along.”

I went there and an attractive young woman sold me an umbrella for £1.50. Super. Not the umbrella, so much as the fact that I had something to get through the rain with and which, when torn apart by the howling winds of Glasgow, would not have been such a waste. I asked if she’d any idea where I might find a trace or relic of James Hamilton’s family. Stupid, yes, but there was nothing to lose in humouring my Hamilton while wandering about in a quaint seaside town.

The Pharmacy assistant—or Pharmacist, perhaps?—was surprised that I should ask her of all people. Few people in town would know about it, she said, but she used to live near Kerelaw ruins up over the Kirk on the hill and along the burn. Kerelaw Castle had belonged to the Hamiltons centuries ago, she said, and came out into the wind and rain to point the way.

It would be a long and winding road, by the sound of it, but I set off through the Kirk gate and over the bridge to a muddy track along the burn where I surprised a couple taking their dogs for a walk. They were unused to encountering anyone else on that path, they informed me. The rain had eased off to a slight drizzle but the burn was a fast running creek which veered off to the left as the path emerged onto a road with a nearby intersection. There were no signposts, though there had been one pointing the way to the Cambuskieth Castle on the road bridge.

I followed the road that ran nearest where I’d seen the creek’s upstream course and soon came to a sign—Campbell Road—high up on a house. The Pharmacy guide had mentioned Campbell Road. Further along, I approached a postman as he delivered mail on a narrow footpath between two rows of houses and just as I put my question a castle peeked out from some scrub so I asked if it be the Kerelaw or Cambuskieth or some other ruins. Kerelaw Castle, home of the Cambuskieth Hamiltons, he told me.

The Detective Sergeant and I stayed up there surveying the ruins and the stone bridge for an hour or more, and then went back to the Kirk and its adjoining graveyard to look out on the Firth of Clyde in the distance. The Isle of Arran was lost in the mist. Then the rain returned in torrents so I went back down town to the Pharmacy and thanked the umbrella guide who’d been so helpful. She posed for a photo and I told her that she’d be a celebrity soon enough. The Detective Sergeant wanted me to leave a sign but the bus came. He acquiesced, strangely quiet.

The Buchanan Street Bus Station schedule indicated a more or less regular service between Glasgow and Edinburgh, twin cities of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment.

I made some calls concerning accommodation, wanting to wander around David Hume’s Edinburgh. The great philosopher put us straight about the folly of conceiving of ourselves as made in the image of God. Much flows from the fact that we’re not. Modern America would be an altogether different nation had the descendants of James Hamilton’s Scotch-Irish cottoned on to Hume’s Enquiry rather than Smith’s.

Adam Smith’s famous work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was published in 1776—the year that Smith’s friend David Hume died and the great champion of his economic theory, the United States of America, was born. Unable to book a room, I decided to cut my losses and stay in Adam Smith’s Glasgow.

Glasgow had resisted Union in 1707 but was no friend to Bonnie Prince Charles in the Forty-five Jacobite rebellion. Things had changed: being inside the British tent had brought economic progress. Union had freed Scottish merchants from the chains of England’s Navigation Acts and Glasgow had reaped a harvest of international trade.

Perched on the River Clyde, it’s ocean-going vessels sailed downstream to the firth, out into the Atlantic, and over the sea. Scottish ships supplied Virginia’s planters with sought after goods and brought back the products of slave labour, sheltering from the Atlantic in the Firth of Clyde before delivering their cargo to the Tobacco Lords’ Glasgow warehouses. Glasgow dominated its American trading partner by the time Virginia joined hands with Massachusetts at the 1774 Alexandria Court House meeting.[60]

There being no Friday night room available at the Hostel, I booked into a Guest House and went out in the rain after dark to locate it and get my bearings. Leaving the toy train at Cowcaddens, I walked some distance— up this hill, down that, and all around Robin Hood’s barn—to the correct address. Lugging my stuff there would require an effort but it passed muster since there’d be no need for a cab.

I was the only person in the four-bed room at the Hostel when I went to sleep that Wednesday night but a youth who entered later turned the light on and stared at me with utter contempt, perhaps because I was so old, maybe because he thought it was an old woman in the bed—my ballooning grey hair giving that impression, unfortunately. He made me nervous.

Thursday was Tobacco Lords day, a walking tour around the old warehouses and baroque buildings to which the fabulous wealth accumulated by those merchant traders gave rise. Once across the M8, I gave in to the impulse to continue on up whatever street it was instead of making for Sauchiehall with its shops and pedestrians. Wet and pinched I walked with other such Glaswegians east along this featureless nondescript thoroughfare. It was strangely familiar. I’d been in Glasgow in the seventies but that didn’t seem to account for the sensation I was experiencing. It was so familiar, now, that the penny dropped: this was Renfrew Street and I was very near the Guest House I’d come to see—from the opposite direction—the night before. Recognition, in the strangest places.

The chance discovery set off a great wave of satisfaction, just as if I had been guided there by the Detective Sergeant’s ancestors so that I might be initiated into the Hamilton clan. As if. It would take ten minutes at most for me to walk, fully laden, to my new abode the following day.

 Down in the town, I came upon a statue of Mercurius inscribed in Latin—Mercvrivs, like I Clavdivs. The Roman god of trade, commerce, and profit had moved back and forth between the firth and Alexandria. Strong and persistent rain drove me into a café where I flicked through a magazine that was lying around. An enthralling essay about how presidential primaries in New Hampshire and Iowa distorted and undermined the whole political process in the USA bade me pay closer attention to the modern glossy and it turned out to be the Virginia Quarterly Review. 

Virginia had played host to the sons of eighteenth-century Glasgow merchants who served apprenticeships and learned the trade in tobacco warehouses up and down the Chesapeake Bay. Adam Smith learned all about the snake and ladder reality of the tobacco business—its peaks and troughs, and so on—from the horse’s mouth, the Lords themselves, while an academic at Glasgow University in the mid-eighteenth century. His Wealth of Nations crystallised the importance of the Scottish Enlightenment ideal of the individual’s pursuit of excellence being the basis of a refined civil society and became the capitalists’ bible, setting out, as it does, the intellectual argument for free trade.

The British Government had erred, according to Smith, in seeking to command the economies of Massachusetts and Virginia from London. Far better, he said, to allow the merchants to pursue their business interests unfettered by short-sighted dictates from on high.

 The role of government was to maintain infrastructure, make just laws, guard individual rights, protect the nation and look after its interests, educate the citizenry, and so on. Government lacked the wherewithal to run the economy effectively and invariably favoured the interests of a powerful minority of producers at the expense of the majority of consumers. Only the market could impartially negotiate between the competing interests of buyers and sellers.

The more London succeeded in dominating the American colonies the greater the likelihood of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs traded back and forth across the Atlantic. Moreover, said Adam Smith, America’s Continental Congress of shopkeepers, millers, merchants and other small business proprietors resulting from the Massachusetts-Virginia pact was most likely to fashion a form of government best suited to the development of that type of economic empire which London had imagined it alone could create. These shopkeepers and millers had once been English, Irish, Scots, and Ulster-Scots (Scotch-Irish).

Someone turned on the light and woke me that final night at the Youth Hostel. It was an older man and he pointed to where my wallet had fallen on the floor from off my bunk. Thanks, I croaked, and went straight back to sleep. I found out next morning that the old man was from Bilbao, Spain, and a couple of years my senior.

I took to him straight away. He’d lived and worked in Madrid. We agreed with one another that the immigrants from South America soften the USA, make it more pleasant. He said they’d had the same effect on Spain. Adam Smith would have agreed, noting that most of us would rather live on the bottom rung of a sophisticated society than struggle to make ends meet as a well respected member of a backward one.

The Spaniard told me that he had resigned from his job in order to move about while still able to. “I’m not a tourist so much as a traveller,” he said, and had recently visited Australia. We discussed the nastiness of John Howard and the narrow, small-minded outlook his government had bred. The immigration authorities had treated the Spaniard’s non-English speaking arrival in Sydney with contempt, apparently.

The EEC has seen to it that people from all over Europe now live and work in Glasgow, including a Polish couple who ran a café on Great Western Road where I had a coffee and lemon cake.

I checked in at the Renfrew Street Guest House and was soon absorbed in an Australian movie with which I was unfamiliar. There was every chance that I would be unfamiliar, of course, since I rarely get around to seeing contemporary films. After a while I realised that it must be The Dish. I enjoyed it so much that I settled in.

The Polonium 210 poisoning of a Putin critic in London was big news and during a break from that non-stop story I saw Simon Schama’s documentary about how we put the cart before the horse in viewing Vincent Van Gogh as an artist who went insane; rather, said Schama, the famous Dutch painter kept insanity at bay by giving expression to his creative muse. Too true, I say; just ask the Detective Sergeant.

Howling winds and heavy rain gave way to a beautiful, mild Saturday morning. On the way back from a long walk along the Clyde embankment I came across a group of people gathering for a political demonstration. It was the annual Scottish Trades Union Congress’ St Andrews Day march and was being supported by the Glasgow Anti-Racist Alliance around the theme of racial tolerance in the twin cities: recently, a Sikh youth in Edinburgh had been kicked and punched and had his hair hacked off by a group who taunted him with racial jibes; and three Asian gang members had been gaoled for the 2004 murder of a white teenager.

Glasgow had become a thriving centre of international trade by the 1770s. Benjamin Franklin supervised the erection of the first lightning conductor in High Street in 1772, strolling Tobacco Lords in their finery among the onlookers. High Street meets Gallowgate and Saltmarket at the Tollbooth Steeple in the centre of the Cross. South down Saltmarket from the Cross is the Green.

Musing upon the problem of Englishman Thomas Newcommen’s steam engine while walking on the Green in 1765, James Watt conceived of the revolutionary breakthrough that created the workhorse of the Industrial Age. The 500 horse-power Newcommen engine had been in use since 1712 but had limited application because of high fuel consumption. Glasgow University’s Watt realised that the machine could be made much more efficient with the addition of a separate condenser. His steam engine, developed in partnership with Mathew Boulton in Birmingham, England, used a quarter of the fuel required by the Newcommen engine and paved the way for large scale industrial manufacture.

Hamilton was more interested in Gallowgate (the way to the gallows) where harsh justice had been dispensed to petty criminals and murderers alike in pre-Enlightenment Scotland. Those who were not hanged might be chained to the wall, or have an ear nailed to the Tollbooth door—their suffering and humiliation a source of entertainment.

A crowd of 100,000 had turned out to witness Glasgow’s last public hanging in 1865, the execution of a man found guilty of murdering his wife and mother-in-law; but it had been another of those underdetermined instances where the evidence is as consistent with a “Not Guilty” verdict as “Guilty.”

Many an accused who had died on the scaffold hadn’t done the crime; wrongly convicted moderns might only do the time but their life is taken from them nonetheless. Hamilton was disturbed by the conviction that he was responsible for an innocent life being lost doing time. Pawing over the entrails of Boyd’s dead body, he had divined that DeBlatt never did the crime.

On the face of it, the Boyd murder trial had been an open and shut case: untimely deaths; unusually high levels of lead and mercury detected at autopsy; life insurance policy payouts. No-one had noticed anything untoward until a policeman stuck his beak into a coroner’s report and followed up the paper trail to the financial beneficiary, Rosemary DeBlatt.

The men in DeBlatt’s life were all dead, and she had their money. So when the Detective Sergeant saw her liaising with wealthy Sydney businessman, Mark Boyd, he had no doubt that DeBlatt planned to top up her cash pool with yet another heavy metal corpse. He had decided she must be stopped, and left little to chance: she was tailed; Boyd blood tests were screened for lead and mercury; documents implicating DeBlatt in contriving the transfer of Boyd funds to her account were seized. Chance doesn’t need much: Hamilton had been poised to have DeBlatt brought in for questioning when they found the body on the stairs.

The judge had told the jury that the defence case rested on coincidence but it hadn’t, according to Hamilton. The men in Rosemary’s life, her brother, fiancé, father and Boyd had all sought to foster the development of an Hermetic Lodge and worked closely with lead and mercury to that end. Rosemary had thought it all hocus pocus but been nominated as administrator of the Lodge funds. Only in that capacity had she gained financially from the deaths.

DeBlatt was falsely tried and convicted on the assumption that she murdered men for their money. A closer examination of the evidence would have revealed that three of the four deaths were accidental poisonings due to practices associated with a foolish pre-scientific belief system; the fourth, Mark Boyd, had been murdered—but not by DeBlatt, Hamilton contended. Dempster had killed Mark Boyd because the wealthy Sydney businessman had tumbled the American’s purpose in visiting Australia: fraud.

 Dempster was a confidence trickster, Hamilton now believed, and had used Mrs Boyd (Lily) to defraud the Boyd business of a few million dollars. The Detective Sergeant ignored my suggestion that the evidence was equally consistent with Lily’s having killed her husband.

Sunday morning sun made the walk to Buchanan Street for the return to Manchester a joy. The Coronation Street scriptwriter and his wife would be putting on a party for friends and colleagues in the late afternoon. Once back in Manchester, I was to meet Meryn’s cousin there and ride home with her.

Anxious moments locating the departure point in the dark and keeping watch to be sure to get off at the correct bus stop were soon behind me and I mingled with the party people. Their friendships were long established and Meryn’s cousin lit up in the warm and affectionate company. Back home, she invited me to watch the show about celebrities in the Daintree. Reality TV. I wondered if the scriptwriters worked nine-to-five.




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[1] Why the American embraced Adam Smith yet rejected David Hume is beyond the scope of this book but appreciating that he did so puts us in the box seat when trying to make head and tail of what he’s on about and it’s what Taken in by America is all about.

[2] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 8

[3] See below, Chapter 22, ‘Alias the Outlaw’

[4] See below, Chapter 6, ‘Twin Cities’

[5] John M Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 59

[6] See below, Chapter 7, ‘The Private Eye’

[7] See below, Chapter 7, ‘The Private Eye’

[8] U.S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001), 146

[9] Ibid., 163

[10] Simon Buckner went on to become Governor of Kentucky, in which capacity he played a role in the celebrated Hatfield-McCoy feud

[11] The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

[12] H. Melville, Moby-Dick (Penguin Books, 1851), Chapter 36: “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But tis enough.”

[13] In the week before Memorial Day, May 24th, the White House received yet another assessment from the intelligence division of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff which confirmed what the numbers had been telling the president throughout 2006: the Iraqi insurgency was gaining strength. Two days before receiving this latest piece of bad news, President Bush had told a Chicago audience that “… we have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror … [Iraqis] have demonstrated that democracy is the hope of the Middle East and the destiny of all mankind. … Years from now, people will look back on the formation of a unity government in Iraq as a decisive moment in the story of liberty, a moment when freedom gained a firm foothold in the Middle East and the forces of terror began their long retreat.” Two days after receiving the Pentagon’s classified intelligence report, on May 26th 2006, Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon provided a report to Congress which was at odds with what Pentagon experts had concluded concerning the resilience of the Iraqi insurgents.

[14] George Brinton McClellan, The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865 (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989). Michael Oren points out that when McClellan travelled in the Middle East in the 1870s he made the prescient observation that the USA would continually come up with the wrong response to foreign policy with respect to the Middle East just so long as its policy makers insist on seeing the Middle East as just like the USA; it’s not, he said, and must be taken as it is.

[15] D.F. Hawke, Everyday Life in Early America (New York, NY: Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins, 1988), 1533.

[16] C. Rourke, American Humor, A Study of the National Character (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, 1931)

[17] Ibid., 31.

[18] America’s greatness is less a function of the people’s superior organizational ability than a product of a land of abundance. In the colonial era trees and major rivers afforded navigation on the one hand and mills (for sawing, milling, etc.) on the other. Trade was immediately set up with the export of lumber to England where wood was so scarce that noblemen in England had more difficulty obtaining it than the lowliest American.

[19] Edmund Wilson said of Sandburg’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Lincoln that it was the cruellest thing that had been done to Honest Abe since John Wilkes Booth shot him. Sandburg collected cowboy songs.

[20] D. Brown, Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow (Pan Books, 1979), 11

[21] I’m writing the account of that tour in early January 2008, a couple of days after the Iowa Caucus in which Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee triumphed. State caucuses and primaries are the first of two stages leading to the election of a new President of the United States. During this first stage delegates are elected to the National Conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties. The delegates to the Convention then vote to nominate their party’s presidential candidate. The Iowa Caucus is always the first step on the long road to the White House so the Iowa elector has a disproportionate influence on the final outcome of the Presidential race. He or she is indebted to the nation for the privilege and gives back by being among the most serious minded of voters. The Iowa Caucus, that is to say, is the ‘qualitative’ core of the whole process; it harks back to the origins of American democracy. Which is not to deny the fact that staggering sums of money swill around. But Mike Huckabee’s victory, like that of the unknown Jimmy Carter in 1976, demonstrates that Iowa’s electors can’t be bought.  If Iowa has a disproportionate influence in the nation, Mason City has had a correspondingly disproportionate influence on Iowa with fewer eligible voters turning out, there, than in other centres in the State.

[22] T.J. Stiles, Jesse James. Last Rebel of the Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2002), 334-335

[23] Radical Republicans were especially concerned to look after the interests of the former slaves.

[24] Ibid., 308

[25] Bandit Cole Younger was recorded in 1930 and is available, nowadays, on the reissued ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ collection.

[26] Ibid., 335

[27] Ibid., 312

[28] The great nineteenth-century essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson ((1803-1882), believed that there’s not an original thought out there, that the real thing is invariably a copy.

[29] 'Biscuit', down South, is equivalent to our scone.

[30] J.W. Cook, The Arts of Deception. Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), 144

[31] T. Keneally, Lincoln (London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2003), 14

[32] The Temperance Society’s greatest achievement in American culture was to inadvertently promote the development of jazz and blues music in Chicago during the prohibition era of the Roaring Twenties.

[33] M. Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mitcham, Victoria, Australia: Penguin, 1885), 13

[34] Ibid., 98-103

[35] The fact that few intellectual works ever came out of the antebellum South was ignored or embellished. Stephen Foster songs such as My Old Kentucky Home, Old Black Joe and Hard Times were cited as evidence of the “beauty and pathos of the Old South” but he, like Mr Grangerford, was a native of Pennsylvania. S.E. Morison, The Oxford History Of The American People, vol. 2 (New York: Mentor, Oxford University Press, 1965), 263-7

[36] When the Civil War broke out, Lincoln is supposed to have quipped that whilst it would be a bonus to have God on side, he must have Kentucky.

[37] H. Melville, The Confidence Man (New York: Prometheus Books, 1857)

[38] According to Eric Lott, Melville regards the blackface mask as just another confidence trick. Stiles, Jesse James. Last Rebel of the Civil War, 61-62; E. Lott, Love And Theft (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 61-62

[39] Lott, Love And Theft, 18. Ironically, in seeking to unmask nineteenth century minstrelsy Lott himself was taken in by the confidence trick of psychoanalytic flim flam.

[40] Shelby Foote, The Civil War, a Narrative, 1st ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 34-38

[41] Leo had already put us in the picture about how McClellan, the son of a Philadelphia surgeon, had been influenced by Florence Nightingale. See above, page 18.

[42] On April 11th 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama, the president of the Confederate States of America sent a telegram to Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard in South Carolina giving the rebel General authority to shell Fort Sumter.

[43] McClellan, The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, 69

[44] Had Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills & Nash fame been born in New York instead of Texas, for instance, he might have called his 1972 album Bull Run instead of Manassas.

[45] “McDowell's Advance To Bull Run,”

[46] The drifter is an altogether different kettle of fish from the outlaw, the latter being an anti-government hero.

[47] “The Manassas (Va) Journal, November 30th, 1895.”

[48] David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing, Pivotal moments in American history (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004), 236

[49] The Wolfgang Petersen movie The Perfect Storm (2000) starring George Clooney was spawned by the Sebastian Junger book of the same name published in 1997.

[50] In differentiating the real Virginia Gentleman from the ubiquitous copy, Richard Crouch notes that “If he is a riding gentleman and gets invited to the hunts, he enjoys in his slightly embarrassed way the attention he gets as an authentic in a gathering that includes so many of the nouveau-this and the pseudo-that. But the very presence of so many parvenus as dominate many hunts these days is enough to make at least the native gentleman wonder uncomfortably if he is in the wrong place. He probably doesn’t mind suiting up, for the appeal of anachronistic costume is strong enough to make time-transvestism one of his most notorious secret vices. But the unnecessary overlay of recently-imported English tradition, and the unavoidable hint of snobbery and strangeness among the newcomers, are enough to make him wonder seriously if he really wants to get his neck broken withg a bunch of people like this.” Richard E Crouch, The Virginia Gentleman: A Field Guide, an Owner's Manual, a History, and a Way of Life (Arlington, Va: Elden Editions, 1999), 18-19

[51] The American pronounces ‘laboratory’ from the original meaning of ‘to elaborate.’

[52] Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to John Jay,” August 23, 1785

[53] The founding fathers who championed this model operated on the belief that the Roman republic had incarnated Plato’s 4th century BC theory of mixed government.

[54] See above Chapter 3.

[55] i.e., at the same time as he was hunting down Whalley, Goffe, and Dixwell in Massachusetts. See above, p 79.

[56] One night we sat next to a dying man in Convent Garden for a performance of Bizet’s Carmen. His friend had taken him on the final outing—for that was surely what it was—and though he must have known that the overpowering odour of death kept at bay by powerful chemicals would draw attention from all those around them, the friend braved the slings and arrows to do so. An heroic act of kindness, and excruciating for those of us who happened to buy tickets in adjoining seats.

[57] The dismantling of British Rail had resulted in it being cheaper to purchase a series of isolated tickets rather than one return trip for a journey. One need look no further for the counter-argument to the privatisation mantra.

[58] This James Hamilton was the 2nd Earl of Arran, an altogether different Hamilton from the James Hamilton who was a founding father of the Ulster Scots.

[59] See above, Chapter Two, ‘Seeing Double.’

[60] See above, Chapter 9, ‘The Drifter’