The strange obscurity of Eugene Burdick

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Mark Pack explains why the work of a now almost forgotten political novelist is worth seeking out…

A best-selling author shifting millions of books in the post-war decades, a renowned public intellectual, a friend of celebrities such as Marlon Brando, a highly respected political scientist and famous enough to feature in an advert for Ballantine Ale, Eugene Burdick’s career was tragically cut short when he died of a heart attack in 1965, aged just 46.

He’s now an almost completely forgotten figure, so obscure that the majority of his books do not even merit their own Wikipedia pages and the only people I encounter who know of him are those I’ve already shared the mystery of his obscurity with.

The unpopularity of his views on Vietnam – he combined liberalism with fierce anti-communism, making him a public supporter of the US government’s military intervention – don’t really explain this obscurity, especially as they trigged his novel turned successful Marlon Brando movie The Ugly American. Nor does his choice of topics, for three of his novels have themes which should make them frequent contemporary reference points.

The Ninth Wave, published in 1956, follows a political campaign complete with then cutting-edge innovations of opinion polling, computers and the use of campaign consultants. Though we now know – even in a world of Facebook and Obama – that data and numbers can’t quite predict and control political outcomes in the way the book lays out, the world has turned out close enough to Burdick’s picture of the future to make The Ninth Wave a prescient and still relevant story, and one that should be loved by people who are into the mechanics of politics, despite the rather uneven quality of the writing (caused in part by it being ‘written’ via dictation without subsequent editing.)

Loved too should be Burdick’s 1965 novel, The 480. The title is a reference to the 480 different groups the electorate has been divided into by that novel’s political campaign stars – a set of slicing and dicing closely based on the real work done by John F Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential election campaign.

As with The Ninth Wave, we know political campaigning has turned out to have a greater role for art than the pure-science envisaged in the novel, but once again it’s easier to see how the book could have remained a favourite of political geeks rather than one that faded into obscurity, especially given the JFK-approved veneer it gives to modern targeting techniques.

Then there is his 1962 Cold War nuclear drama Fail-Safe, co-written with Harvey Wheeler about a series of mistakes which result in a US nuclear bomber force heading off to obliterate Moscow. Made into a successful film directed by Sidney Lumet and staring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau, its subsequent obscurity (save for a televised play in 2000) is at least more understandable in that the year of the film’s release, 1964, also saw Dr. Strangelove hit the cinema.

Fail-Safe may have been a good movie (and you can enjoy its trailer here) but Dr. Stranglove, with a similar subject matter, was an all-time classic movie.

Indeed, Fail-Safe was so similar to Red Alert, the book on which Dr. Strangelove was based, that legal action was taken for copyright infringement, with a view to delaying the Fail-Safe movie until after Dr. Strangelove has been released. The result was both an out-of-court settlement and Dr Strangelove indeed getting released first. (Somewhat confusingly, this Burdick work was originally was published in Britain with a different title – Red Alert – and with the author using a different name, Peter Bryant.)

Yet none of that really explains why Eugene Burdick has so firmly disappeared from view. So if you like political thrillers, Cold War dramas or both – take a look at his work and enjoy.

The Boll Weevil Monument

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‘Fear no weevil’ is the motto of this Alabama town, a place that likes weevils so much they’ve even built a monument to them. Another strange Wikipedia article discovered by the Wikiworm…

The Boll Weevil Monument in downtown Enterprise, Alabama, United States is a prominent landmark and tribute erected by the citizens of Enterprise in 1919 to show their appreciation to an insect, the boll weevil, for its profound influence on the area’s agriculture and economy. Hailing the beetle as a “herald of prosperity,” it stands as the world’s only monument built to honor an agricultural pest.

The boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis) was indigenous to Mexico, but appeared in Alabama in 1915. By 1918 farmers were losing whole cotton crops to the beetle. H. M. Sessions saw this as an opportunity to convert the area to peanut farming. In 1916 he convinced C. W. Baston, an indebted farmer, to back his venture. The first crop paid off their debts and was bought by farmers seeking to change to peanut farming. Cotton was grown again, but farmers learned to diversify their crops, a practice which brought new money to Coffee County.

Bon Fleming, a local businessman, came up with the idea to build the monument, and helped to finance the cost. As a tribute to how something disastrous can be a catalyst for change, and a reminder of how the people of Enterprise adjusted in the face of adversity, the monument was dedicated on December 11, 1919 at the intersection of College and Main Street, the heart of the town’s business district.

The monument depicts a female figure in a flowing gown with arms stretched above her head. She raises high a trophy which is topped with a larger than life-size boll weevil. The statue stands atop an ornately detailed base which supports two round streetlamps. The base stands in the center of a fountain, which is surrounded by a wrought-iron railing. The monument stands more than 13 feet (4.0 m) tall.

At the base of the monument appears the following inscription:

“In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”

The original statue of the woman, excluding the fountain and boll weevil, was built in Italy. The boll weevil was not added until thirty years later, when Luther Baker thought the Boll Weevil Monument should have a boll weevil on it. He made the boll weevil and mounted it atop the statue.

The boll weevil, and sometimes even the entire monument, has been stolen many times throughout the years. Each time it was found and repaired by the city of Enterprise until July 11, 1998. On that day vandals ripped the boll weevil out of the statue’s hands and permanently damaged the statue. City leaders were going to repair the original statue and put it back, but it proved too difficult and costly. A polymer-resin replica was erected in its place in downtown Enterprise in 1998, and the original is on display at Enterprise’s Depot Museum, a few hundred feet away.

More extensive information can be found at Weevil Wonderland.

 

Invasion of the Leaf Peepers

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Our ex-pat American correspondent Rita is lucky enough to live in Maryland, home of one of the most beautiful Falls in the world. But can you ever escape modern life, even when Leaf Peeping?…

September is over, and as the days dwindle down to a precious few, an annual American ritual reaches its peak: the Invasion of the Leaf Peepers, autumn foliage enthusiasts who clog highways and byways from Vermont to Virginia. In their thousands they descend upon the most scenic areas of the countryside to view and photograph the glorious fall colors. Locals brace themselves for the invasion, eager for a share of the extra dollars peepers bring to the small town economy, yet dreading the traffic jams on usually empty country roads. The peepers are rewarded with a glimpse of a picture-postcard-perfect America, a landscape existing in a rare confluence of the real and the ideal.

But no national treasure is safe from the grip of the “tourism industrial complex.” Leaf Peeping, once a casual individual sport, is now a full-fledged, relentlessly marketed business. Chambers of Commerce promote their B&Bs, their scenic drives, their fall festivals, and their gift shops. Bus tours and even cruises up the New England coastline boast a leafy theme. Online the Foliage Network collates data from an army of foliage spotters onto maps color-coded for up to the minute peak peeping areas. Strategically placed webcams allow virtual peeping from the comfort of one’s own home. Travellers are warned of hazards from “moose crossings” in Maine to mesmerized drivers stopping their vehicles on the winding Blue Ridge Parkway. Arguments break out on peeper blogs over rival claimants to the Best Foliage crown. Yet heedless of human activity, the trees paint their annual palette of brilliant colors from maroon and flaming red to burnt orange and gold. The timing is a secret between them and the gods of weather. Humans can just look on and marvel.

I’ve driven the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia with its stunning views over the Roanoke Valley. It is surely a worthy contender for the claim to be “America’s favorite drive.” But my most memorable leaf peeping adventure was a fall driving tour of Maine. We stayed in charming B&Bs from Portland to Camden to Bar Harbor. We hiked in Acadia National Park and climbed mountains offering bird’s eye views over autumn glory. It was a welcome escape from the cares of the world for this was in October 2001. Planes had just begun flying again after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

We flew into Portland, Maine, via Boston, the two airports the hijackers used that morning. For the next seven days we were free from the high anxiety of the times, escaping into the healing beauty of nature. The return journey was a jolting landing into the new reality of the post 9/11 world. Boston’s Logan airport was patrolled by machine gun toting National Guard. It felt like being in a war zone, which perhaps it was. Waiting in the crowd at our gate was a young man of Middle Eastern appearance. Soon he was surrounded by National Guard and police officers who led him away. After some time they escorted him back to the gate. He shook hands with one of the officers and I heard him say, “I understand.” Presumably the interrogation had turned up no reason to suspect him of terrorism. But the suspicion of the onlookers was palpable; they cast covert glances and seemed to leave a space around him. I was not immune to the reaction. After all, the hijackers of 9/11 looked like ordinary young men. Well groomed and conservatively dressed they were nothing like the robed, heavily bearded terrorists of the prevailing stereotype.

So yes, I was nervous about getting on a plane with this man and even more so when I found I was seated next to him. He was in the window seat so my husband and I were the first line of defense should he have nefarious intentions. Much had been made of the brave actions of the passengers on the hijacked plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field. I found myself strategizing what I would do if he tried to leave his seat after the plane took off. The only thing I had that could be used as a weapon was a pen. I thought I could use it to stab him in the eye, gaining a precious few seconds for some big strong man among the passengers to subdue him. I got out the pen and pretended to be using it to mark passages in my magazine. My suspicious thoughts and planning felt so loud I was sure he could hear them. And I could hear his thoughts, an awareness that everyone on the plane was afraid of him. Out of the corner of my eye I saw he was reading a medical textbook. The plane was bound for Baltimore, so I deduced he was probably a medical student at Johns Hopkins. I relaxed my vigilance just a bit. When we landed I lost my balance and stumbled when I stood up. He reached out and steadied me. “Careful,” he said with a polite smile. I mumbled a thank you and felt myself blushing with shame for my suspicion. The complications of this new world were obliterating the serene mood of my leaf peeping vacation.

Who wouldn’t want to escape today’s reality, relentlessly assaulting us from TV screens and panicked alerts on our mobile devices? The reality of Ebola, wildfires, endless wars, beheadings, shootings, missing girls, and children paralyzed by a mystery illness. Even our President isn’t safe. I want to run away and join the Leaf Peepers.

Lemon Icebox Pie

A tasty, trashy treat for you today as American expat Misti Traya goes back to her country roots to show us how to make a lemon ice box pie. Misti’s post recently won the 2014 Young British Foodies award for food writing

It’s no secret some of my family can be described as country. Some have owned trailers; others homes in Appalachia with dirt floors. Many own guns. Many love 4 wheelers and most have driven at least 60 miles for the nearest good mall. All have grown up on or near a farm. And in case you didn’t know, yes, my mama was 15 years old when she had me.

So while the way of life I just described wasn’t exactly mine when I was growing up in Los Angeles, I still saw and lived it at least once a year. Generally in the summertime when the lightning bug lit fields of Iowa provided my cousins and I with a playground until well after dark. My point is a person cannot escape her past. No matter how hard she tries, the highfalutin schools she attends, or the manners she acquires, some things are inescapable. Like a hankering for icebox pies.

Despite growing up in Hollywood where there are people as unctuous as Texas gold, I could never hide my country roots. I considered multitasking doing anything with curlers in my hair. And even now in London, much to my Scottish mother-in-law’s chagrin, I use Mason jars as opposed to proper drinking glasses. Why? I prefer them. Also, they remind me of running around barefoot in cut summer grass eating icebox pies during the dog days of a prairie summer. You know those days that are so hot and humid walking down the street feels more like wading in lukewarm buttermilk and every living creature stands still waiting for a breeze, even the flowers? That’s American Midwest summer. During this time only icebox pies will do.

A friend of mine’s grandmother, a Kentuckienne named Miss Hampton, used to say the icebox pie was her favourite. When asked why, she replied. “It requires no cookin’. Just an icebox and a vodka and Coke plus a pack of Kools to pass the time.”

While I love icebox pies, be cautioned. ‘Tis a slippery slope. Just one slice has been known to lead people to droppin’ Gs and addin’ As to thangs. They also lead to a simple kind of happiness. The kind that can only be found in Bobbie Gentry songs, Kodachrome prints from years past, and Great-Grandma’s icebox of course.

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Right. Enough of nostalgia. It’s time to tie your hair back with your favorite kerchief and get bakin’. In the history of never has an icebox pie made itself.

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Graham Cracker Crust

Ingredients:
14 graham crackers or 1 packet of Hobnobs
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons melted butter

Method:
In a food processor, pulse all the dry ingredients until they become a fine meal. Slowly add the melted butter and pulse some more. Pour the mixture into a 9″ tart tin and press it evenly against the bottom of the dish as well as up the sides. I use the bottom of a measuring cup to help. Place the tart tin on a tray and bake for 5-8 minutes at 350°F/170°C/Gas 3 or just until slightly crisp.

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Graham Cracker Trash Lemon Icebox Pie

Ingredients:
1 graham cracker crust (if you don’t have graham crackers use HobNobs)
2 (14 oz.) cans of sweetened condensed milk
1 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
the zest of 4 lemons
8 large egg yolks

Method:
Heat the oven to 325°F/170°C/Gas 3.

Put the crust into a 9″ tart tin. I like to use a measuring cup to help me do this. I use the bottom of the cup to spread the crust evenly and to tamp it down as well as to help shape the sides.

Whisk the milk with lemon juice and set aside.

 

Whisk the zest into the yolks until the mixture goes pale. This takes no more than a minute.

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Now whisk the milk mixture into egg mixture.

Pour into the tart shell and bake for 30 minutes or until the center is set like a soft custard.

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Cool completely then freeze overnight or at least 6 hours.

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Remove the pie from the freezer 15 minutes before serving. Top with chantilly cream and enjoy.

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Chantilly Cream

Ingredients:
2 cups cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (I like to use vanilla bean paste)
1/4 cup powdered sugar

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Method:
Mix ingredients on medium high until desired consistency is achieved. Be sure not to over-mix or you’ll end up with butter.

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Result:

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Misti Traya is an actress and writer living in London. Her recipes and ramblings can be found at Chagrinnamon Toast.

Two Churches and a Baptism

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In which the determinedly lapsed Rita fails to shake off her Catholic roots…

When we crossed the Mason-Dixon line and I saw the Maryland countryside for the first time, I was reminded of England. After five years in California the green, gently rolling Maryland hills dotted with sheep and cattle were like a familiar homecoming. Then the differences asserted themselves. No hedgerows or stiles. And instead of squat stone Norman churches, the view was punctuated by the slender bell towers of tiny white churches that looked as if they had been placed in a toy landscape by a child’s hand.

I’ve always been drawn to church buildings, even participating in a “church crawl” in my youth (that’s like a pub crawl but without the alcohol). The object was to find the best country church for brass rubbing. I still have two brass rubbings from that experience framed on my living room wall above the bookcase where John Betjeman’s Guide to Parish Churches of England and Wales rests among my history books. I think my interest was sparked by school field trips to nearby Greensted Church in Essex, the oldest wooden church in the world. The timbers of the nave, built in Saxon style, date to the eleventh century. We used to get a thrill out of peering through the so-called Leper’s Hole that reputedly allowed lepers to follow the service from outside. The churchyard features the tomb of a magnificent looking Crusader who inspired us to schoolgirl romantic fantasies. Did he really appear out of nowhere, collapsing and dying of his wounds in the church as legend has it? Inside, the hushed simplicity of the ancient space felt like stepping back in time. Though raised a Catholic, I grew to prefer the spare aesthetic of Anglican churches, despite it being the result of the regrettable Reformation “stripping of the altars.” The Catholic churches in Belgium, where I spent time as a child, were an unstripped riot of bleeding statues and gilded extravagance. Maryland’s plain little white churches, even the Catholic ones, are more English in spirit than continental.

Once settled into my adopted state I found myself living just up the road from one of the white churches that had so impressed me when I first arrived. St. Rose of Lima on Clopper Road in Gaithersburg is a Catholic church that dates to the early nineteenth century. In a remarkable example of ecumenical spirit, Francis Clopper, a Protestant who owned a plantation on the Seneca River, built it for his Catholic wife (whose maiden name was Byrne). Under an oak tree in the churchyard is the tombstone of a Confederate soldier who died of his wounds outside the church during the Civil War. The original brick church burned down in 1883 and was replaced by the white wooden building that still stands today. Eventually rapid population growth in the Gaithersburg area necessitated the building of a large modern church alongside the old. But the lovely old church is still used for ceremonial occasions such as weddings and baptisms. It was a baptism that eventually brought me to St. Rose.

When our first child was born my husband and I had no intention of having her baptized. We were both lapsed Catholics and considered it hypocritical to have a child baptized just to please the grandparents. But one day when I was cuddling my baby daughter in my arms I looked at her and, with a rush of horror, realized she was a “pagan baby” just like the pagan babies we collected pennies for in my Catholic primary school. It is hard to imagine now in the age of political correctness, but when we donated the number of pennies sufficient to save one soul we got to color in the outline of a baby, yellow for Asian or black for African. We could choose which souls to save. My donation sheet was a neat page of carefully colored in babies, yellow rows alternating with black. When it came to the fate of souls I was scrupulously fair. It never occurred to us that a white baby might be a pagan in need of saving. But now here I was with a genuine white pagan baby in my arms! When it comes to motherhood the heart rules the head. Perhaps it is all a matter of hormones. Rationally I knew it was ridiculous but emotionally I had to have my daughter baptized. “But what if it’s true after all, she’ll go to Limbo” I pleaded with my bemused husband. With wife and newly minted grandparents now on the same side the inevitable happened. St. Rose of Lima made a lovely setting for fulfilling family expectations and assuaging maternal anxiety.

As for my daughter’s soul, she would probably have been saved anyway. My resourceful mother would have found a way. Some years later she confessed to having sneaked my brother’s infant son into a Catholic church when she was babysitting him. There she baptized him herself with holy water from the font, a form of emergency baptism by a layperson that is supposed to count. At least according to the torturous logic of Catholic doctrine.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

Fear Itself

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Fear is always with us, says Rita in her latest dispatch from the States, and sometimes it’s justified…

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words are among the most well known American sound bites of the 20th century. They are often interpreted as reflecting a simpler time when the lines of conflict were clear, the enemy readily identified, and the people eager to rally around the national cause. But it is an oversimplification to assume the past was always simpler than our own time. It just seems that way as the complications and confusions recede in the rear view mirror until only the simple outlines remain. In reality Roosevelt spoke those words precisely because there was a great deal of fear. He needed to dispel it quickly and draw the nation with him into the great enterprise of war.

Times change, but fear of one kind or another is always with us. Fear on the apocalyptic scale: will global warming change life on earth as we know it? Will the Ebola virus spread beyond Africa wiping out vast swathes of humanity like the medieval Black Death? And fear on a personal scale: is that lump in my breast cancer? Will my plane crash? Will my grandson fall off the jungle gym and suffer a brain injury? Our fears may swell to outsize proportions in our imagination, but they are firmly rooted in personal experience, the reality of the world around us, and the flow of information in our media saturated environment.

I don’t remember being afraid of much when I was young. Except for spiders and a particularly venomous nun at my convent school. I was quite daring and did a lot of adventurous, perhaps foolish, things. But now my family considers me a chronic worrier and I suppose it’s true. I do have a vivid imagination and can see awful things happening as though I am watching a movie. It all started when I became a parent and it’s worse now I’m a grandmother. Fear is more intense when you feel helpless to protect your children and grandchildren from life’s vicissitudes. When my family suggests that my fears are groundless or exaggerated my defense is that they spring from things I’ve experienced, or witnessed, or read about. I don’t worry that aliens will capture my grandchildren, but I do worry that they may drown in a swimming pool, a leading cause of death among small children. I am a well-informed worrier.

So, yes, I worry about drowning. I know someone who lost her small son because the person who was supposed to watch him at the pool didn’t watch him.

I worry that my grandsons may suffer a concussion playing sports or falling in the playground or hiking on a rocky trail. The news is full of reports recently about how common these injuries are.

I worry about plane crashes. On my first visit to the U.S. my plane out of New York suffered decompression and we had to make an emergency landing. But only after circling low over the Atlantic for two hours to dump enough fuel to make us light enough to land. It was a very long two hours with the waves beckoning from just a few feet below.

Of course I worry about car crashes too, especially the catastrophic ones that make headlines when whole families are wiped out. When my grandchildren go on a long car trip I can only breath easy again when I hear they arrived safely.

I worry that one of the huge oak trees in my grandsons’ back yard will be struck by lightning and fall onto the house, perhaps making a direct hit on their playroom or bedrooms. Thunderstorms are a common occurrence in Washington summers and the local news often features dramatic film of uprooted trees with crushed roofs beneath them.

I worry that one of my grandsons will get sick and an incompetent doctor will ignore the symptoms. My son died at age 23 because an emergency room doctor sent him home when he actually had a life-threatening condition that could have been easily treated. Yes this can happen in the supposedly most advanced country in the world. (In 2000 the World Health Organization ranked the U.S. number 38 out of 191 nations in overall quality of health care, behind countries like Colombia and Morocco; the U.K. ranked number 18. In 2014 the Commonwealth Fund health report ranked the U.S. last of 11 developed nations with the U.K. in first place).

Then there is that peculiarly American fear, gun violence. In the year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting 100 children were killed in gun accidents. An American child is more likely to die from a gunshot than from cancer. None of our family own guns, but I worry that my grandsons may go to play at a home with unsecured guns. Curious children playing with a gun they find, often thinking it is a toy, is a far more common cause of death than the heavily publicized mass shootings.

My fears are earned, by a lifetime of experience.

So there is another peculiarly American fear, shared by millions of parents and grandparents, which I am spared. I do not worry that a police officer or self-appointed vigilante may shoot my grandsons. You see, my grandsons are white. This is America in 2014. The inequality of fear itself.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

The Attempted Killer Who Came to Tea

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After moving to London, Misti Traya was determined to bring some American neighbourliness with her. She soon learned the error of her ways…

When I first moved to London, my English husband gave me a copy of Kate Fox’s Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. This might seem like an innocuous present to you but I knew my husband’s ulterior motive. Henry was like the 1950s parent who so dreaded a discussion about sex with his adolescent that he handed her a book explaining it instead. That’s what this gift was — my husband hoping to avoid any awkward conversation about our cultural differences. As an American who has now lived here for five years, I cannot think of anything more English than that.

Fox’s chapter about introductions bothered me. The brash American approach: “Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa,” particularly if accompanied by an outstretched hand and a beaming smile makes the English wince and cringe. I had never known friendliness to be cringeworthy. Suddenly, I felt sorry for Bill from Iowa. I pictured him arriving in my neighbourhood and being scorned for enthusiastically introducing himself to strangers at the pub.

While Iowa is not my home, I love it. I have plenty of family and fond memories there. When my grandfather died, people brought cakes, cards, flowers, pies, and roasts to my grandmother. Many of these people were not close friends, just neighbours being neighbourly.

Henry tried to explain. “We don’t do that. We don’t talk to neighbours. Maybe people in the country do, but not Londoners. In fact, I’d say people move to London just so they don’t have to talk to neighbours.”

I could not get to the heart of this misanthropy so eventually I quit seeking answers and accepted Henry’s words as fact. I also decided to keep neighbourliness in my heart. I resolved to knock on strangers’ doors and introduce myself while offering them slices of buttermilk chocolate cake. Because seriously, and especially as an outsider, how else do you meet people?

The house opposite ours boasts the prettiest front garden in the neighbourhood. Passers-by stop and instagram or pick flowers when they think no one is looking. Though I didn’t meet him until months later, the architect of this landscaping masterpiece was Sam. When we moved in last spring, Sam was busy in his garden. His handiwork was visible from most rooms in our flat. I wanted to introduce myself but my cake baking plans were put asunder by our two year-old running riot and me taking forever to put the finishing touches on our new nest.

When summer came, Sam was outside with a wheelbarrow of lilies and lupins and a pack of Mayfairs in his back pocket. By fall, he was digging up dahlias and repotting peonies. He switched to an electronic cigarette and went though a variety of flavours. I could smell them all when the wind blew. Eventually he settled on orange cream.

Once our flat was fully furnished, we introduced ourselves to Sam. I brought him a slice of cake. Henry gave him a bottle of wine. Our toddler stroked his cat’s fur in the wrong direction. Sam seemed pleased though painfully shy. He barely made eye contact. For the next few months, we would wave hello to Sam whenever we passed him on the street. He would return our greetings but never our gaze. That he kept fixed on the flowers around him or the dirty blue Crocs on his feet.

On Christmas Eve my family went for a cheery romp through foul weather to the pub. When we were walking home Sam ran out of his flat waving an envelope. It was a card for our family with a red breasted robin on the front. We thanked him for it and asked about his holiday plans. He said he was going to be on his own as he didn’t want to leave his cat. He sounded so lonely. We couldn’t help but invite him for a drink at ours.

At 5 o’clock when we were expecting Sam, we could see him standing in his window stroking his cat. At 5:30 he was doing the same. Eventually the buzzer rang. We did our best to serve Sam not only stilton and tawny port but holiday cheer. He didn’t say much though he did mention problems with his downstairs neighbour, a 70 year-old man Sam accused of playing the radio too loud. We thought nothing of it and offered him more hazelnut biscuits with cheese.

Our daughter danced to a Top of the Pops special and twirled like a top in her tartan Christmas dress from Scottish granny. She lavished Sam with attention showing him her books and introducing him to her toys. Some of her teddies gave him kisses. Before Sam left, I gave him a sac of dark chocolate almond brittle that I tied with red satin ribbon. He pulled me into a bear hug and smiled. We wished him a merry Christmas and told him that if he ever needed a break from his neighbour’s noise then he should just come around for tea.

In the months that followed, Sam would show up unannounced and invite himself in. He would sulk in our kitchen and complain about his neighbour. I would offer him cups of tea but he didn’t like my darjeeling. Later he would tell me he didn’t like tea at all. So I brewed coffee, baked cookies, and made supportive noises while also entertaining my toddler. The only thing that would snap Sam out of a mood was my Sarah Raven catalogue.

Sarah Raven is the Martha Stewart of English gardening. If you want to buy Genoa zinnias or master floristry in a weekend, she is your woman. Sam would sit cross-legged with this catalogue in his lap, flipping pages, and dog-earing the ones he liked best. Tulip collections, perfect perennials, stunning alliums. He wanted them all. He also wanted to know if I put edible flowers in my salads because he was thinking about planting a bed.

After a while, Henry gave Sam his mobile number hoping this would curb the unannounced visits. It did not. Sam’s surprise visits continued until one night he had a mini meltdown at ours. I was bathing our daughter and Henry was checking work emails when Sam insisted we didn’t like him. We assured him we did. Then he apologized for being insecure. Again we told him it was alright. Neither of us wanted to upset him. Sam became frantic like a bird trapped in a house. Abruptly he left. Henry and I agreed we had to create some distance.

On April 15th Sam woke up the entire street by howling at the full moon around 4 a.m. Henry and I assumed he was drunk. Then Sam started shouting that only he knew the truth and would somebody please help him. This episode went on for twenty minutes until the cops arrived and took him away. Sam has not been home since. The following day, the police and several neighbours paid me a visit. Yes, I had tea and cake ready for them all. With full mouths they told me Sam tried to drop an axe on his neighbour in the dark from the top of the staircase but missed. Locals had already nicknamed him The Axe Man.

After being carted off by the police, Sam called or sent text messages to Henry near daily for almost 2 months. Henry never replied though Sam begged him to call him and expressed a hope that “everything is still cool.” At one point, his messages took the tone of a jilted lover. “You don’t have the heart to call me!” was the last text he sent before Henry changed his number.

Sam’s flowers have died. Grasses have grown tall and weeds have moved in. The garden beds look as if they were sown with malice. Passers-by still stop and instagram just not for the same reason as before.

My poor husband is somewhat scarred by the ordeal. I can’t blame him. He gave me a book outlining the rules of English social protocol and I ignored them. I played by my own rules and look what happened. I invited The Axe Man to tea. Still, for all that’s gone wrong, my husband and I have met four great people on the block. Our world is a little bigger. For that I am thankful. Sure I burnt my hand on the metaphorical stove but I’m going to keep cooking, not just eat cold cereal the rest of my days. Because no matter where I am in the world “Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa.”

*I changed our former neighbour’s name for the sake of this piece

Misti Traya is an actress and writer living in London. Her recipes and ramblings can be found at Chagrinnamon Toast.

American Blood

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Douglas Dalrymple considers American attitudes to genealogy and knowing one’s place…

Uncle Marv numbers his socks with permanent marker, “1” for left and “2” for right. That way he gets each one on the correct foot and his toes are happy. He’s retired now but used to work on computers for NASA, back when a computer was bigger than a house. Uncle Marv is not my uncle. He’s my wife’s father’s uncle, by marriage, and only a few years older than my father-in-law himself. But despite the fact that Marv isn’t my uncle, he wants to know all about my uncles and aunts and parents, grandparents, etc. Marv’s hobby in retirement is genealogical research. He lives to grow and prune and graft the family tree. So he listens greedily, opens his laptop, and his bony, almost transparent hands peck at the keys while I recite names and dates for him.

According to Isaiah Berlin, “only barbarians are not curious about where they come from.” This may be unfair to barbarians. Most of us sooner or later develop an interest in our origins. Of course, no one is defined by genealogy. People are more than ancestry, and blood is only a single factor among many that shape a person’s life and perspective. But understanding something of our ancestry can help provide us with a sense of our place in history, our role in the story of a family, a nation, a culture.

We Americans like to imagine they’re products of spontaneous generation, untethered, free to define themselves however they will. There may be some historical and personal truth to that. Most of us were planted here by ancestors who left (or were taken from) an old world in Europe, or Asia, or Africa, for the sake of a new one. The “discovery” and colonization of the Americas, and the building up of new polities here, is one of vastest, most complex chapters of human history. What’s a single family’s – or a single individual’s – place within it?

Ironically, the less you know about your family history, the easier it may be to answer that question. Lytton Strachey calls ignorance “the first requisite of the historian – ignorance which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits.” A few names and dates will provide a convenient frame for narrative. The more you uncover, the more complicated things become and the harder it is to draw a story that satisfies. You have two parents, and four grandparents. But move backwards ten generations, not counting your own, and you’ll have slots for more than two thousand direct ancestors. At fourteen generations, the total number leaps to thirty-two thousand.

It’s been about fourteen generations since my earliest colonial ancestors came to North America. My favorite is Thomas Minor, a tenth great-grandfather who, I was shocked to discover, has his own Wikipedia page. Thomas was born in Chew Magna, Somerset, in 1608 and came to New England in 1629. He kept a diary the last three decades of his life, and though it was printed only once (in 1899), you can read it online. The seventeenth-century orthography is charming and difficult, but most of the entries are brief. Grandpa Minor does not philosophize. He describes planting crops, receiving visitors, killing wolves, and serving as interpreter between settlers and natives. He also describes marching in the Connecticut militias during King Philip’s War, despite being more than sixty years old at the time.

I have a more northern, Yankee sensibility. It’s harder to feel the kinship with my Virginia Colony ancestors, which include families of some prominence, like the Wyatts, supposedly descended from the poet. The world of antique plantation-dwellers, leisure beneath the magnolias, and slave labor is just too foreign and repellent. My southern ancestors (a long line of daughters and presumably non-inheriting sons) left the South in the generations prior to the Civil War. Through the Wyatt line, however, I’m a very distant cousin to Robert E. Lee – just as, through the Minor line, I’m a very distant cousin to Ulysses Grant. It illustrates, in a prickly way, the investment of blood that my family has made in this continent.

And yet most of these people may as well be – and really are – strangers to me. Blood is quickly diluted. It’s an accident of history and record-keeping that their names and lines of descent are preserved while those of ten thousand others have receded into anonymity. I seem to have inherited the role of family historian, but though I like a good puzzle, my enthusiasm flags. There are some, like Uncle Marv, who trade in genealogical details with the fervor of pre-adolescent boys trading in baseball cards. Knowing your tenth great-grandfather’s name is something, but not very much. In practical value, it’s as paper-thin as a baseball card, and I was never one of those boys.

Douglas Dalrymple lives near San Francisco and blogs about books and life at The New Psalmanazar.

Snob City

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Rita discovers that the town where she used to work has been voted the second snobbiest in America…

The dog days of summer are traditionally silly season for the news media here as soaring temperatures drive political discourse into the stratosphere of the absurd and inspire heat-stressed Americans to act out in ever crazier ways. But this year there hasn’t been much comic relief from the onslaught of dreadful news from around the world, each day bringing ever more tragic headlines. With print and television media so preoccupied with international horrors we’ve had to rely on a hitherto obscure real estate website for a little escapist dose of summer silliness. Movoto.com announced its list of the “Top Ten Snobbiest Small Cities in America” with two cities in Maryland’s Washington D.C. suburbs making the cut. The dubious distinction goes to Bethesda at number 2 and Rockville at number 8.

I can’t claim to live in a snobbish city, but I did have the privilege of working in one for twenty years. The public library where I plied my bookish trade is in Bethesda, close to the outskirts of Rockville. Many locals dispute Rockville’s claim to snobbery, as would anyone who has driven the notorious Rockville Pike, a traffic clogged nightmare of standard American retail and fast food. But tellingly, many of the newer residents in the expensive housing of South Rockville distance themselves from their plebian postal address by claiming to live in North Bethesda. So Rockville really only appears on the snobbish list by dint of its proximity to its genuinely snobbish neighbor.

How, you might wonder, did cities qualify for the list? In the Old Country snobbery is a simple matter of birth. Title, accent, old school tie; all are passed on with the ease of genetic code, along with the crumbling castle (or at least a mansion), the family silver, noblesse oblige, and a long nose the better to look down with. Money really has nothing to do with it, unless it is very old money, never discussed in public and certainly not flaunted. But here in America it is a bit more complicated. In the land of limitless opportunity snobs are not born, but self-made. Any American, born into no matter how humble the circumstances, can aspire to snobbery. And money is a prerequisite because snobbery is a commodity like any other, for sale to anyone who can afford it.

To see how this plays out we need look no further than Movoto’s criteria for developing the list. First, and unsurprisingly, they looked at income and average home price. Wealth equals snobbery, if unfair, is surely as American as tarte aux pommes. But then Movoto’s experts turned to more revealing measures. Bethesda came in at number 2 because 83% of the population has a college degree and the city boasts more performing arts venues and art galleries and fewer fast food eateries than average. So here we have the American definition of snobbery: higher education, culture, and cuisine. If you enjoy a ballet in your leisure time instead of a NASCAR race and frequent restaurants with French menus rather than eat at McDonalds, you are a snob. How easily politicians have mined this rich lode of American prejudice. You can’t even run for Congress now in some parts of the country unless you denounce evolution as the godless invention of those over-educated elitists – scientists. Bethesda has more than its fair share of scientists, another fact that surely helped its elevation to the list. Just a stone’s throw from my library is the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine. They’ve had some bad publicity lately, giving even those inclined to respect science cause for concern. Vials of smallpox dating from the 1950’s were found forgotten and unsecured in a closet in a Bethesda lab. Here’s hoping the CDC in Atlanta keep better control of the Ebola virus they’ve invited into their midst.

Movoto also made note of the sense of entitlement that characterizes the snob. That’s the quality most annoying to those of us who have to deal with them every day, like librarians. Bethesda residents are said to maintain “most rigid standards that must always be met.” I can say with assurance that many of my library patrons exemplified Movoto’s definition of snobbery. So many of them were Anglophiles who sought out books by British writers, a preference for things foreign that is a telltale sign of an American snob. As for entitlement, how can I forget the elegantly dressed woman who refused to pay her library fine of 75 cents because she left the book at her second home?

But look beyond the snooty face of America’s second most snobbish city and you may see some contrary signs. I once summoned the police to the library for a disruptive patron incident. One officer told me that the library is situated in the middle of an area known to the local cops as Bethesda’s Bermuda Triangle. He explained that while the area is not known for a lot of major crime, it does have an unusual number of “weird” incidents, hence the Bermuda Triangle name. Curious, I asked if he knew why. He told me that many of the current owners inherited their childhood homes when their parents died. They don’t really have the financial means to live in such an expensive area, causing a lot of stress and family issues that erupt into strange behavior involving the police. Apparently it is not easy to live among snobs.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

Brookeville – Capital for a Day

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Rita discovers the story of a little Quaker town that became the capital city of the U.S. for just one day…

The charming little town of Brookeville is nestled in the suburban sprawl of Washington D.C. as it once nestled in the green and pleasant Maryland countryside. But suburban sprawl maintains a discreet distance, the better to sustain the illusion that here time stands still. Just a few minutes drive from my home in Gaithersburg, the epitome of unfettered suburban sprawl, I turn down a narrow country road that winds uphill and down dale through cornfields, woods, and farmhouses. Puffy white clouds float in a summer sky and if I blink it is just possible to ignore the asphalt and the road signs and imagine I am in a horse-drawn wagon instead of a car, traveling back to Brookeville’s one brush with history. Unlikely as it may seem standing amid the tiny cluster of eighteenth century buildings that comprise the old town, Brookeville was once the capital city of the United States of America. For just one day, and entirely due to the British.

The war of 1812 is but a footnote in American history, remembered now mainly for Francis Scott Key’s stirring poem The Star-Spangled Banner which became the National Anthem. So little Brookeville’s moment in the sun on Friday August 26th 1814 is but a footnote to a footnote. Two days earlier the British had overwhelmed American forces at the Battle of Bladensburg and surged unopposed into Washington D.C. burning the White House to the ground. By the time the British entered the capital 90% of the white population had fled, scattering to farms and villages in the Maryland and Virginia countryside. President Madison and his wife Dolley were among the last to leave. They traveled separately, she carrying the famous portrait of George Washington, ripped from its frame in her haste to get out of town. There followed the undignified spectacle of the President of the United States on the run for two days in the Virginia countryside as he tried to catch up with his wife. From the banks of the Potomac he watched Washington burn.

Meanwhile refugees from the burning city and soldiers on their way to Baltimore descended on the little Quaker town of Brookville in Maryland. The townspeople took them into their homes, setting up makeshift beds in parlors, and serving meals at all hours. As Quakers, Brookeville’s residents were opposed to war. Mrs. Bentley, wife of the Postmaster, explained: “it is against our principles to have anything to do with war, but we receive and relieve all who come to us.” Margaret Smith, wife of the president of the Bank of Washington, who brought all the bank’s coinage to Brookeville for safekeeping, wrote after her ten hour walk from the capital: “the appearance of this village is romantic and beautiful. Here all seems security and peace. The town is full of people and wagons. It now affords so hospitable a shelter to our poor citizens. I have never seen more benevolent people.”

Quakers were also abolitionists and the town was home to a number of free blacks at a time when half the population of Washington were slaves. The letters of the Washington refugees are full of euphemistic references to “the enemy at home” as much to be feared as the British. They were afraid the slaves would join the British forces and take up arms against their owners. Some sent their slaves to farms in the countryside to keep them isolated. Rumors of insurrection swirled and, Washington being perhaps as conspiracy minded as it is today, as they watched the city burn many believed the falsehood that slaves were responsible.

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On Friday August 26th Brookeville residents were amazed by the unannounced arrival of President Madison accompanied by Attorney General Rush and a few other members of his cabinet. The President was guarded by a detachment of dragoons his party had met up with on the road. Knowing Dolley was safe with friends in Virginia, Madison was now intent on joining General Winder and his troops who had passed through Brookeville en route to Baltimore. The presidential party first stopped at the home of the town’s founder, Richard Thomas, but not realizing the President was in the group at his door, Thomas informed them he had no more room. So the honor of hosting the President fell to Caleb Bentley, a clockmaker, silversmith, and the town Postmaster. As word spread through the town the curious gathered outside the Bentley house hoping for a glimpse of their President. Madison was said to appear composed despite the national emergency and courteously greeted select visitors who were allowed into the parlor. The Federal Republican later reported: “At supper his excellency was quite talkative and cheerful for some minutes, but occasionally relapsed into silent gloom. He ate ravenously, and remarked that it was his first meal since breakfast, and he had rode 30 miles on horseback.”

So for less than twenty-four hours the Bentley house in Brookeville was the center of executive power in the United States. Madison spent his time issuing dispatches to his generals and writing letters, one to his wife Dolley, as well as getting some much needed sleep. On Saturday morning he received word that the British had left Washington in pursuit of the American troops on their retreat to Baltimore. The President decided to return to the capital city and regroup his scattered government. By noon he and his party were on the road and Brookeville’s brief appearance in the history books was over. Madison returned to a capital that, in the words of one observer, was “the most magnificent and melancholy ruin you ever beheld.” Later in the year, after the successful defense of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, the rather pointless war fizzled to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.

Today the Bentley house, renamed Madison House in honor of its illustrious guest, still stands on a dignified rise above Brookville’s main road. In 2012 the current owners won The Washington Post’s award for the best restoration of a historic home in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. Two of the surveying stones used by Richard Thomas to lay out the town in 1794 remain in the front yard, so despite the fact that he turned his President away at the door, the town’s founder steals a bit of his neighbor Caleb Bentley’s glory. President Madison actually did little more than pass through Brookeville, but traces of his visit can still surprise. While planting tulip bulbs in her garden the current owner of Madison House dug up the bowl of a clay pipe decorated with the Great Seal of the United States.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.