After an exploratory foray to Boston four years earlier, the tours of 2001 represented the main campaign in the USA. For a start, they were sorted and planned to the last hour – well, that was the idea. The English Speaking Union provided the backbone of this unusual state of affairs. It was, and is, an organisation dedicated to spreading understanding and friendship between the English Speaking Peoples despite, as Oscar put it, ‘being divided by a common language’. Their main office in New York provided the contact information on the many US branches, and left it to the individual societies and the speakers to work out the rest.
NORTH CAROLINA – March, 2001
The one booking that didn’t quite fit into my plans was the first one. Southern Pines was a small town in North Carolina and the promoter, a lady named Elizabeth, was charmingly keen on my presence there. However the only date that was available was about three weeks prior to the main tour. I therefore had to make a special journey to fulfil the gig.
2001 March: Saturday
I arrived at Charlotte Airport, NC, at 5pm to be met by a taxi driver named Bill. He had been hired to transport me the seventy miles to Southern Pines. As we drove east out of Charlotte he pointed to a street sign: ‘The Billy Graham Parkway’.
“He’s a local gennelman.”
Bill’s accent was pure southern drawl – another cultural buzz for me was hearing first-hand his slow articulation of ‘vehicle’ as ’vee-hee-cal’.
We passed through various small towns that had an initial prettiness, (basically, almost anything looks passable if you stick a porch on the front), but otherwise seemed empty and depressed. In the main street of Albemarle, the only sign of life was a pawnshop and the town looked grim in the early evening dusk.
Bill: “There’s no work left for the young people round here so they are leaving and these towns are being abandoned. But the State itself is doing well. A lot of Mexicans and Cubans, folk like that, moving in. There’s retirement homes round. And tourism’s rising.”
He seemed to know something already about my plans and gave me a warning.
“Don’t talk none about politics round where you’re going. The Country Club is a very affluent place. Politics is inflammable.”
He seemed to be nursing a quiet grudge and I think he suspected that I might be a sympathiser. Probably not an admirer of the recently inaugurated President George Dubya Bush.
It grew dark as we passed on through the deep pine forests. Bill said that the ESU organisers had arranged a special treat – for the first night, I would be staying at a mansion in the grounds of the Country Club. At 7pm, he drove up to the lodge of the gated community of the Pinehurst/Southern Pines district, negotiated admission, and collected the keys to my abode for the night. We then drove on for several miles through yet more pine forests and lakes. I could see an occasional house amidst the trees but mostly we seemed to be getting deeper and deeper into nowhere. Finally Bill stopped in front of a shadowy wooden ranch house.
“Weel, suh, there’s yo home fer tonight!”
I thanked him as he unloaded my case, handed me the keys, and drove off with a friendly wave. I unlocked the front door and entered. The place was enormous. I toured the house switching on lights as I went. There were five double bedrooms all en suite, a massive kitchen glistening with every appliance one could imagine, a drawing room that could host a tennis match, another room filled with pool tables – it was total luxury.
It wasn’t until I returned to the kitchen and opened the fridge that I realised something was missing. There was not a scrap of food or drink in the place! In all this gleaming perfection there wasn’t even a tin of beans. I had been travelling from London and apart from picking at an airline meal, I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours. Checking through my case, I found a bag of peanuts.
I walked outside to look for aid. About five miles away across a lake and on a rising hill I spotted some lights – possibly the Country Club, possibly not. Anyway, I didn’t fancy roaming through miles of trackless American pine forest in the dark to find out. I was totally stuck.
The only compensation was the Carolina moon above – presumably because of some kind of optical illusion, it looked abnormally large. So that was what the song was about.
I sat back in one of the reception rooms and turned on the largest of three televisions. It was a Fox TV political interview – some fat thug spewing out vitriol against a hapless punch-bag posing as a ‘liberal’. Welcome to America.
I opened the bag of peanuts and started to ration them out for the night.
2001 March: Sunday
When turning on the radio next morning, it was difficult to escape the fact that it was Sunday. The programmes consisted of adverts or religion, interspersed with adverts about religion.
The first hurdle of the day was how to have a bath – North Carolina seemed to have an entirely different plumbing system to anything I had previously encountered. I tried all five of the en suite baths with no result. Not even the one with a gold-plated statue of the Greek god Hermes perched on the end rim. I was eventually reduced to having a cat-bathe with a towel and the kitchen sink.
I did get a slight apprehension that I might be out of my depth in the States – I mean, this set up was immaculate; the only thing out of place was ME. Also, looking over my personal wardrobe (or lack of it), it did seem a bit downmarket. Wherever one went, there was always the dilemma – do you dress up to fool the snobs, or dress down to fool the muggers? This time, I’d gone for the second option.
I went outside to the porch and sat back in a rocking chair. The sun shone through the treetops and dappled the carpet of pine needles below. Above me, the Stars and Stripes hung from a 30-foot flagpole and rippled slowly in the lazy breeze. The only sounds were the dainty tinkle of wind chimes, the darting rustle of squirrels, and the occasional fall of large pregnant pine cones. And my stomach rumbling with hunger.
It was 11 30am when the US cavalry arrived in the form of a car containing my promoter Elizabeth and her friend Joyce. Elizabeth was elderly and sweet; Joyce was younger and briskly welcoming. They enthused over the undoubted beauty of my surroundings and were so transparently proud of their hospitality that I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I’d have been better off in the county sheriff’s drunk-tank. At least I’d have been fed.
We drove off through the forest, then circled round a lake until we arrived at the Pinehurst Country Club – an extensive four-storied white building with a red slanting roof and fringed by long porches on each side. It turned out that Pinehurst was the Home (or at least one of them) of Golf. As she pointed out President Eisenhower’s golf buggy on a plinth in the lobby, Elizabeth told me: “There are 35 golf courses around the town and the Number Two here is world famous.”
Although the town was built from scratch in 1895 (and too late for Oscar to visit), the belief that respiratory diseases could be cured by ‘pine ozone’ had caused its rapid expansion into a resort populated by the elderly and breathless of America. The Golf Club had opened in 1898, shortly followed by the Gun Club. The famous rifle-woman and star of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, Annie Oakley, became its custodian in 1916 and gave shooting exhibitions at Pinehurst twice a week. So at least there was a peripheral link to Wilde – he had known Buffalo Bill and had invited him to afternoon tea at his London home.
That thought prompted me to hint that food might be a good idea and I was led through to the ‘brunch’ area. Brunch consisted of platters of omelette and Egg Benedictine, smoked salmon, Bay shrimps, Western-style chicken, topped up by apple pie. The famine was over.
The restaurant had been vacant when I started ransacking the platters but filled rapidly as the surrounding churches of Pinehurst emptied. The crowds were elderly and rich, and most of them lived in the luxury houses buried in the surrounding forest. Conversation seemed to be confined almost entirely to either bridge or golf (the Scylla and Charybdis of aging). One major topic concerned the death from a heart attack of a man on the golf course the previous day. This seemed to illicit admiration rather than regret.
Elizabeth: “Everybody here wants to die like Bing Crosby. Just keeling over at the eighteenth hole.” It seemed that the most eagerly awaited section of the local newspaper was the obituaries column.
I was taken to see the main dining room – my forthcoming performance venue. It was very large, adjoined at the far side by a separate section with a lowered ceiling that I knew would swallow sound. I would need a voice mike – damn.
Elizabeth: “Our audience is getting on in years and they tend to fall asleep after dinner. If more than two-thirds of them are awake at the end, that’s a triumph.”
[This was a prophecy doomed to be proven spectacularly wrong. They were destined to be very awake – and not happy bunnies either.]
Politics in North Carolina