The climax to the first visit to North Carolina and a slight mishap.
2001 March: Tuesday
That evening, my hostess Elizabeth took me to another drinks party at a nearby retirement complex. These particular homes worked on a special deal. The houses and flats, set around a central square and lake rather like a university campus, could be bought for about $300,000. If you sold it after a year, the house would be worth about $200,000; each successive year, the selling price would drop by $50,000 until after five years the house would be worth nothing and revert to the company. However, you could still occupy it and enjoy the on-site health facilities until your death. It struck me as a reasonable concept – if a morbid one. On one hand, it was a major incentive to live as long as possible just to get your money’s worth. On the other hand, was it wise to trust one’s medical care to an organisation with a strong financial incentive to see you dead as soon as they possibly could?
Amidst the elderly participants at the party, the conversation circulated around politics:
“Clinton was a murderer. He had thirty people killed personally.”
“George W Bush is going to be good for this country.”
“He’s going to sort things out. He’s got Vision.”
One gentleman was interested in my hometown. “You come from London, yeah. I’ve got a London joke for you. One man says to another: ‘Are you a Cockney?’ The other man says: ‘Yes, my name’s Mohammed’. Ha, ha!”
As he registered my lack of response, his face softened and he continued:
“Ah, yeah, we know you English don’t have a sensa yumour. But I kinda liked that guy Benny Hill.”
Later, I lay in bed and listened to the local radio – a rusty-voiced harridan named ‘Doctor Joy’ was pontificating about ‘Lurve’ to a succession of limp ‘lurvers’. Slept at 1am.
2001 March: Wednesday
When I awoke, ‘Doctor Joy’ had given way to two hours of unrelenting rant from two good ol’ boys on the vexing topic of ‘How Do You Live with a Liberal Wife?’
This was followed by a further two hours of ‘The Mike Gallagher Show’ on the iniquities of tax and regulations, both unmitigated evils to be attacked wherever they raised their heads.
It seemed that there had been an attempt to regulate the electricity industry in California, a state that had reduced tax and unleashed the freedoms of the corporations to such a degree that the richest state in the richest country on earth no longer had enough money in its budget to pay to heat and light its citizens.
Faced with this socialist effrontery, President Bush had quashed the suggested regulation. Mike announced:
“He has done the right thing for the American people” and that Hilary Clinton had “a brass gall to criticise someone that I think will be a great President of the United States”.
According to Mike, New York, Hollywood and especially the Clintons were the Devils Incarnate but right would prevail.
Braced by the Vision, I prepared for the evening show.
At 5pm, Elizabeth drove me back to the Country Club. I checked out the dining room again and, as I’d guessed earlier, I found that my voice would not carry into the far alcoves. For the first time ever, I would have to wear a lapel microphone. It was both a dent to professional pride but also something of a relief.
I was introduced to Chris, the large and sternly impressive head waiter – he had the curt dismissive tones of the Carolinian black. He, and some of his waiters, were also the first blacks I’d seen in the Pinehurst region.
Half an hour later, Vince and Peggy arrived. Vince thrust a newspaper towards me and pointed out a headline. I recalled that yesterday we had parked in front of a bank to visit the shopping mall. Twenty minutes after we’d left, an armed raid had taken place on the bank itself. We had just missed a genuine bank robbery by minutes!
“Do you think it was laid on specially by the North Carolina Tourist Board?”
By 7pm, the club began to fill up with the audience. It was a larger crowd than expected – over 200 people, the men in dinner jackets and the women in long dresses and pearls. I was taken around and introduced to dozens of them – a sea of serious faces and Southern politeness. Almost nobody was aged under 55 and a large proportion had been or still were attached to Fort Bragg. I remembered the advice of Bob, my cab driver, to avoid politics.
Finally a group formed around me that included several military, including a colonel. Somehow the topic of Viagra cropped up. In an effort to break the ice, I tried to crack a joke:
“Oh yes, it comes to us all. Death, taxes, and Viagra!”
A stony silence followed.
As Oscar himself once observed: ‘So far from being humorous, the male American is the most abnormally serious creature who ever existed’.
It struck me that Oscar might be right.
Then a woman spoke up:
“OK, now tell us about this Oscar Wilde. He’s so wonderful. But didn’t he go to jail for something? Wasn’t it for killing somebody?”
“Well, no. Actually, it was because he was homosexual.”
A frisson of shock rippled through the group. It seemed that murder was acceptable, but not homosexuality.
It was the colonel who recovered first:
“Yes, I suppose most people these days can forgive those men. But we’ve got people around here – we call them rednecks – they don’t go along with that. But we’re more tolerant here.”
He looked wildly around the room and gestured at a black waiter: “We even have Negroes around here.”
At 7 30, we took our seats for the pre-performance dinner. I was placed at the top table between two aged ladies. The one on my left was a particularly sour old dowager who gave me a stare of disapproval. She did, however, respond to my praise of Pinehurst.
“Yes, it is a fine town. The man who built it, Mr Tufts, was a man of vision. He saw the future of golf. And Mr Tufts kept it all very exclusive. No Catholics. No Judaics. And no Blacks, of course.”
After a minute’s silence, she suddenly reached under the tablecloth and seized my hand. What on earth was going on? Was this Nazi crone actually making a pass at me? I stared at her, open-mouthed.
She returned my stare with a surly one of her own and rasped:
“Round here, we say a prayer before we eat of the Lord’s goodness.”
I then realised that the whole table were holding hands and the President was staring testily in my direction. He started to drone on through an interminable Grace for dinner. I breathed a bit of a prayer myself – wow, I’d almost blown that one!
Half an hour later, I slipped away to the club manager’s office to change into the full Wilde costume. Then I stood outside the dining room and listened to the President reading through my biographical details preparatory to the show. His delivery was so dull that I felt inspired. After such a boring warm-up, almost anything could work.
And it did. The performance was good, the microphone worked well, the laughs came through. Almost nobody was asleep. The only part that didn’t get a warm response was the section about Wilde in prison – sympathy with jailbirds did not seem high on the agenda of Pinehurst. However, there was no doubt that the show had been a palpable hit.
I bowed my way off stage amidst the applause and walked back to the dressing room in a daze of self-congratulation. I’d done it! The first real show in America – and it was a smash. Fantastic!
I sank back in my chair, stared at the mirror, and grinned at myself. Then spoke out loud:
“Jesus H Christ, I need a fucking fag!”
Sweeping up a packet, I walked to the club exit, stepped outside, lit the cigarette, leaned back against the wall, and gazed up happily at the Carolina moon. Success!
Suddenly the door banged open beside me and the Club Secretary emerged.
“Mister Titley, your microphone is still live.”
It slowly dawned on me. Guilty of blasphemy and swearing – in the Bible Belt. And ‘needing a fag’ meant something entirely different in the USA than it did in Britain.
The remainder of the evening and the trip was muted.
Pinehurst Club grounds
NEXT TUESDAY SEPT 26 – Off to Hong Kong.