A Very Belated Apology to America!

This is a terrible confession: after writing a nice piece about America in my newsletter, I completely forgot to put this version up on the web. So, with profuse apologies to all my American friends – here it is at last!

 

America

There are times when certain friends of mine make me wince and want to walk away. Ideally to locate a suitable baseball bat and clobber the damn fool about the head.

One friend springs to mind. His mind was uncluttered with doubts and uncertainties. I can remember clearly an occasion when I discussed firearms with him. His decided conviction? All people who wanted guns were basically mad, and all such guns should be confiscated immediately. No discussion about the relative merits of small-calibre target shooting versus large calibre guns for defence struck any chord with him. They were bad.

In fact, I think he had swallowed so much nonsense about the inherent danger of guns (you know, like a Viking’s sword, they would call to their feeble human slave, and turn even relatively sensible chaps like me into lunatic, blood-crazed homicidal maniacs). He wouldn’t even touch any of my firearms – one assumes because he feared pollution.

Another of his pet hates was America.

What is it about the British public that causes this reaction? I know that there is a belief amongst some that all those who live in North America are insane in one way or another, which often comes down to the belief in American ignorance. Which is a bit rich, coming from people like my friend, who once told me with earnest certainty that all American states had the same laws.

No point discussing with people like that. His mind was so ring-fenced with inaccurate confusion that there was truly no point trying to put a more realistic alternative.

Why do I start this blog with such meanderings?

Well, last week I was forced, utterly against my will, you understand, to visit America.

 

I have been to the States before. My first visit was, I think, in 1987. In those days I was a salesman at Wang Laboratories, and was sent on an Achiever’s Trip to Hawaii. And was it ever fun! I had a marvellous time, swimming, eating and drinking. Not necessarily in that order. And afterwards I had the chance to see how Canada worked.

It was fun. In those far-off days, the passport office in Britain was on strike. But the USA allowed British to travel on visitor’s passports, so long as there was a stamp in there from the US Embassy. My chitty was so marked, so all was well.

Until I landed in Toronto.

‘This passport is not valid,’ the grim-faced immigration Hitler informed me.

‘It must be OK.’

‘No.’

I was anxious. No one likes to argue with immigration.

‘It must be OK. Our passport office is on strike.’

‘This doesn’t work. We need a proper passport.’

‘Look, it worked in America,’ I said. Foolishly.

‘We are not the 51st state,’ he informed me and that cost me two hours of my life.

I am now unfailingly polite to all immigration staff. Especially when my (ex-)agent has enjoyed rather more than her fair share of the free drinks and the immigration fellow concerned starts to have a sense of humour failure…

But this time, I had no such problems. I was allowed in with almost indecent disinterest.

I left home at 5.00 am on a cold, wet Wednesday, and arrived at Heathrow to learn that America, and Atlanta in particular, was suffering the ‘Storm of the Century’!

Nothing we ever have now is plain bad or a bit rough. It’s always apocalyptic.

It was a rough flight. Nine hours on a plane that bucked and jerked was – well, uncomfortable. We had some food, but the snack to keep us going didn’t materialise because the turbulence was too severe. And it wasn’t really helpful to hear the captain inform us that we’d land a little late because he was discussing with ground control which was the safest runway, what braking was needed etc. In the end we were over forty minutes late, but we did land safely.

And then I was in America. A blast through the gates and into the terminal with a rumbling stomach, desperate for a coffee and perhaps a bagel.

No. Nothing. The ice was so severe, that no staff for the concessions could get to the airport. And there wasn’t even a coffee bar open, let alone a food shop. Well, I tell a lie: there was an asian noodle bar. But when I tried to take a bottle of water from their display, I was fooled by the handle on the perspex cover. I lifted it and – the whole damn thing fell apart. Apparently it’s not the job of customers to take drinks. The staff will fetch it and present it at the till. Or would do, were it not so ruddy late by that time that they’d closed their till. So I had to wave goodbye to the bottle (and try to hurriedly repair the damage to their display before I got arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Not that I was – no booze on the plane either).

Has Atlanta Airport ever been this empty? My bed: the chair on the left over there ...

Has Atlanta Airport ever been this empty? My bed: the chair on the left over there …

Next morning, after a thoroughly refreshing sleep on two benches pulled together (I was actually very comfortable there), I waited at the Bagel bar for a first bite of real American bagel. No. They hadn’t had a delivery because of the weather.

Instead I wandered to the departure gate and sat back to wait and hope I could get on a flight. All the planes to New Orleans were cancelled bar one, and I was sitting in the hope that the flight might have a spare seat. I got chatting to a guy who was on his way home, and told me that he hadn’t given up the day before, but had pestered the staff until he was guaranteed a seat. He chuckled about the likelihood of getting a seat on the plane at this late stage.

I laughed along with him. And returned to the desk to remind them with intense earnestness that I’d been travelling since 5 am the previous day.

Luckily, my hopefulness was justified. I got to New Orleans.

 

I was picked up by a tall, good-looking guy with an SUV. The weather was – how do I put this? It wasn’t English. Sun. Warmth. Clear, bright blue sky. I was in New Orleans and it felt like summer.

Well, I was there to be the Grand Marshal of the Krewe of Little Rascals – I must surely be the very first British author ever to be Grand Marshal of a Krew during Mardi Gras. And our Krewe was the first of the parade, too!

Now, never having been to see the carnival before, this was all new to me, but I could not have been in better hands. The Spittlers and the rest of the Krewe’s organisers and committee were the most delightful, kind and generous people I’ve met in a long time.

Jetlagged and weary, I went along on Thursday night to the grand ball, held a little out of town near the lake, and there I was entertained by a few score children. It was enormous fun, and hugely impressive. The costumes and effects had been designed with medieval England in mind, and my friend, Jack Spittler I gave a speech to introduce each of the children (a very good one, I have to say, since I edited and checked it!), and then the evening ran on with drinks at an exclusive daiquiri bar (only in New Orleans would there be a drive-in daiquiri bar) which we consumed eating supper at the hotel.

On Friday I was taken to see the sights. Jack I & II driving me to see the levees and then the old Destrehen plantation house. Very interesting.

Destrehan Manor

Destrehan Manor

Still, apart from testing the quality of bourbons in Bourbon Street and looking with longing at the military stores and their cutlasses, swords, bayonets and firearms (I could go on), the main thing remaining was the show itself. Sunday morning I got to see what the Carnival was all about.

The Krewe of Little Rascals was set up in the far distant past, and now, for thirty odd years under Jack Spittler I’s careful management, with his wife Maureen’s administrative skills, it is the longest running children’s Krewe ever – and the last surviving one. The dedication of all the committee was astonishing, and truly heart-warming.

Conducted to my float, I stood and stared about me.

I have never before seen so many boxes of beads, of dubloons, of cups and assorted trinkets before in my life. I went along in the parade and, basically, for four miles, I lobbed, threw, hurled and chucked everything I could in every direction. Strings of beads hurtled through the air. Metal dubloons flew like frisbies while handfulls of wooden coins with my name on them soared and spun.

Here I should apologise to the three people who were struck by carelessly aimed cups, but the joy of slinging a necklace of beads and seeing it faultlessly encircle a head to fall to the breast of three people was joyous. And apparently that was a record. Jack II  managed to hit the mouth of a shark en route, which he had been trying (unsuccessfully) to snare for the last 30 years.

Lots of floats

Lots of floats

And then – it was done. By four in the afternoon, we were sitting in a restaurant and drinking some thoroughly needed ales or pops. It had been hard work – boy, had it ever – but now people could rest and relax. I had my first taste of alligator poppers – rather like chicken, very tasty – and my first burger. And then it was up to the hotel again, and we sat up until far too late chatting and telling jokes. Enormous fun.

 

Monday I had to leave, with regrets.

It’s a very odd thing to go to a different country and put yourself entirely at the mercy of some people you’ve never met. To do so twice in a week was – well, alarming. I left the three Jacks (did I mention that Jack II has Jack III already?) with real sadness at the airport. I had such fun with them both, and their families, and leaving them was terribly hard. As I said to them, I felt like I’d found a new brother – and with three already, discovering another wasn’t entirely necessary. Still, planes don’t wait, I’ve learned, so I clambered on board the Atlanta flight and thence to Greenville Airport.

There was no one there to meet me. I stood by the entrance and peered about me into the dusk. No signs, no taxis waiting, no car with waving organiser. I walked to the other end of the pavement. Still no one. I looked at my watch. It was set to New Orleans time – I wasn’t sure whether that was right for South Carolina or not. I returned to the arrivals suite and checked the time. No, it wasn’t. But I was on time. I think.

And then a cheerful call made me aware of my ride. Jim, grinning, called Connie on her mobile to tell her, ‘Look, I’m not standing here any longer. He missed the flight. I’m going home.’

She came at a run to persuade him out of it, saw me, gaped, and took a swing at her husband.

It was as if I’d known Jim and Connie all my life. I immediately liked Jim – tall, laconic, very shrewd, and caustic with some of his humour – and Connie, well, Connie I have known for a long time.

Connie the Powerhouse!

Connie the Powerhouse!

I first wrote to her when she contacted me about a book. She had been reading my first, and wanted to check some details. I was happy to help, and from that we began to communicate via email on a fairly regular basis, until at last she persuaded me to join her at the Magna Cum Murder event at Ball State University, Indiana.

Indiana was a place I hadn’t visited, but I am always a mug for a new location. I believe travelling is one of the great adventures that anyone can enjoy, and for a writer it’s crucial. We need to see new people, new places, new buildings, new landscapes. How can our brains imagine without experience?

So I turned up and waited to see Connie. I didn’t. Her car had broken down many miles away, and we never did meet. Until last week.

And what a joy that was. Connie is a lovely, lively lady. Although she used to live (and was an English teacher – Jim a Maths teacher) in Indiana, she has migrated for the colder months to South Carolina with her husband. And I can see why.

The place was – well, just wonderful, really. I loved the people, who, without exception, could not possibly have been more hospitable and friendly. I was put up in a marvellous museum, Suzy’s Puppets, a house dedicated to puppets and theatrical models. I could, admittedly, have done without Jim’s reminders to keep an eye out for Chucky – especially since the most visible puppet in my bedroom was one with alarming deep black eyes without any white …

Next day was a day of work. I had to give a radio interview (thanks, Anne Eller). Anne was winner of radio show of the year for her ‘Meet Me At The Diner’ last year, and she was wonderful. It was the first interview I’ve given with a Weimaraner sitting at my side. After that, off to a quick lunch at the Goodness and Mercy, where I met the lovely Pat (an expert in the old mills that were so important to the town) and in no time it was time for my talk at Lander University.

I was impressed, to say the least. I had perhaps a hundred students and some academics and after my talk, I was surprised to have twenty or more come to chat to me. I had queries about money, about time, about writer’s block – pretty much the full range of questions, but they were asked by fresh students who were keenly interested. To my absolute delight, I learned next day that five students had called Connie to say that they were so enthused, they were all sitting and writing. They all wanted to try to see if they could finish their own novels.

I was taken afterwards to the President’s house. Dan Ball and his lovely wife Marjorie entertained me and a number of other guests. I can still taste Dan’s Old Bushmills.

Next day I met with some folks at Wesley Commons, where we talked books over my first bagel of the trip (perfection). And then, after lunch, I was delivered into the safe hands of Butch. The one stipulation I had made for this trip was, I had to get my hands on a pistol again. Butch was my minder. We went to a pistol range in the woods, with rifle and pistol and only one thing missing – ear defenders. Since Butch had been in the Air Force, he knew a simple trick. Hunting around on the ground for a while, he discovered some cigarette butts. These inserted into ears worked perfectly. I blasted through 100 rounds of .38 ammo and a brick or two of .22, before another guy turned up. He had a 9mm and a .45 calibre XD. And those two little toys made my day.

This was a sweetie!

This was a sweetie!

Later, back in Greenwood, there was an international reception and we finished up at Aromas for coffee.

So, all in all, when I climbed onto the plane to return to home via Atlanta I was tired, but very happy indeed. I had made a bunch of new friends, I had been entertained, looked after like royalty, and came away with so many gifts that I had to remove items from my suitcase before it would fit within the weight restrictions. I actually had to give away my copy of The Girl Who Played With Fire (good, but it wasn’t very well edited. I found quite a lot of repetition that irritated). In comparison, I read Anthony Riches’ latest book, ‘The Emperor’s Knives’, which was utterly gripping and compelling. A very different story, but I felt better edited. You can read about it at http://www.writerlywitterings.com, along with an interview with Tony.

And so, here I am. Sitting at my desk once more. I’ve seen 15 students this week, and there are another 16 booked to see me next week. I’ve a talk to give on Thursday at Exeter University, I’ve got to plan for another trip, this time to Canada. To my surprise, I was asked whether I would agree to be the International Guest of Honour at the Bloody Words Festival in Toronto in June. Would I? Try to keep me away – Toronto is one of my favourite cities.

But in truth, my thoughts tend to be with Jack (cubed) and Maureen and Tonya and their family, and with Connie and Jim, Eric and Jamie, with Pat and Suzy, Dan and Marjorie, Ada, Frederick Bassett (look out for his book ‘Honey From a Lion’) and all the other people in America who made this last week so much fun and so joyful for me.

All of which is a long way to say, to short-sighted and foolish people who are rude about Americans – go there. You have no idea what hospitality is until you’ve been to the southern states.

And now: back to work. I have a book to write. I just wish it was about South Carolina and New Orleans …

PS – not many photos worked, and it took me ages to realise. On the day of Mardi Gras, I dropped my camera and – yup, broke the main lens, dammit! Now I’ve a new one. Oh, and on the return flight, there was a little damage to my bag. Thank you Delta. Now I’ve a nice new one.

Where's my wheel?

Where’s my wheel?

 

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