Greencastle blue

About this time a while ago I drove across America in a $200 Chevrolet. I’d haggled the price down and bought it after I found it in Wisconsin where I was working in my first, most memorable job, teaching kids to shoot on s summer camp.

We’d put up the flag in the morning, do breakfast, clean the cabin in those not-so-dear dead days when safeguarding hadn’t been invented, which meant you had to sleep in the same pre-teen room as twelve ten-year-olds, or ten twelve-year-olds. I could never remember which. Most days I’d be on my shooting range, teaching, but some nights we’d get a pass off-camp. I’d get in my car and drive to Eagle River, or because the only thing interesting there was a gunsNgifts shop where I stupidly didn’t buy the 1840s percussion Aston pistols they were practically giving away. Nobody seemed to know what they were, hanging from a nail in the ceiling; take ’em away for $50 apiece. Take ’em both for $75. They must have been there practically from the end of the Civil War.

Gene Fleck’s Meadow Inn Bar was a much more interesting place. It had a bar, for a start. Gene was a Hungarian refugee from the 1956 Russian invasion. He was into guns too, but to be fair, most people had a gun around the house somewhere. Gene’s was a useful Remington 742, a semi-auto with a scope. Gene, like most people around there, used it to take down deer in winter. With the old US wartime 30-06 rounds he could have taken down walls with it. Before that I’d never been in a bar where I was passed a rifle with my drink and told to have a look at it.

But the Meadow Inn Bar had other good things going. Like girl camp counsellors from other nearby camps. One of them ended-up inviting me to her parent’s house after summer camp ended. I’d been meaning to take a drive anyway. The house was in a place called Greencastle, which was as close to Bedford Falls as you could probably hope to get. Railroad tracks split the town in two; Nancy-Jean’s (no, really) folks lived in one of the bigger 1960s houses up on the hill bordering the golf course. Naturally enough. Dad worked for IBM, Mom was a book-keeper at the sawmill across the tracks, there were two cars in every garage, a V1 rocket on a plinth brought home by Our Boys after they done saved Yerp with Patton. Dillinger robbed the bank there in 1932, there was a town square, a courthouse, a diner, a McDonalds, pre-Civil War houses, a university and a rodeo. Apart from the total lack of a bookshop or anything remotely similar to one it sure looked like heaven to me, coming from 1980s Wiltshire.

I worked for about a week in the sawmill there. Like a refugee from a Springsteen song I worked construction on what had been an orphanage. The stone pillars around the Gone With The Wind front door were fake. I found out when I tapped one. They were cast iron and hollow, made in Birmingham, Englandshire, according to the casting on the bottom of them. The names of some of the teachers there were carved into the cellar steps, dating from 20 years before and there was a room upstairs I wouldn’t have cared to sleep in, despite it being broad daylight every time I went there in my workboots and bandana.

I drove out on I-70 and got to Aspen, hunting Hunter Thompson (note to self for next life a) do not hunt down teenage idols b) if you have a goal, have another one handy for when you achieve the first one). I came back to London, left London, moved to Suffolk, went back to New York, San Diego, Cupertino and D.C. but somehow never quite made it back to the middle of the Mid-West in a $200 Chevrolet. Early on in lockdown though, I walked past a car restoration place and there she was, in about the same state, the same old Kingswood Classic, even the same colour.

Snarkness on the edge of town.

Sometimes I Googled Greencastle to see what was going on. Tornados that pulled houses apart, Bike rides to see all the covered bridges on gravel roads. Not much. Not much ever did. The nice houses up by the golf course were a lot cheaper than I’d expect if they were in England, but that’s true of pretty much anywhere. A restaurant opened up in the courthouse square that looked like the kind of place the Dukes of Hazard would stop by to see Daisy working the lunch counter. Nancy-Jean’s mom died and I found-out why the house prices never rose that much. A year or two after I was there IBM shut the plant. When you do that in a town of 8,000 people you’re lucky if the whole place doesn’t curl up and die. I thought, back in London, that Springsteen songs were just about places that banged bits of steel together, populated by people too dumb to wear ear-protection. I didn’t even guess that IBM could do the same to a town with white-collar four-car families telling each other those jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back.

It was long ago and far away, as Meatloaf used to sing before he got Covid. It wasn’t so much better than it is today, for lots of reasons. But I’m older, and when you’re older you remember the places you can’t go to anymore, not least because they aren’t there, or if they are then you can’t possibly be the same person you were when you were there.

Somehow along the way I found A.E. Housman, whose poetry my school never even touched upon although it really ought to have done. I’d say this was pretty good advice to any Sixth Former, or anyone aged around 21 and gone.

When I was one-and-twenty I heard a wise man say, ‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas; But not your heart away; Give pearls away and rubies; But keep your fancy free.’ But I was one-and-twenty, no use to talk to me.

A.E. Housman

That’s not the stanza from A Shropshire Lad that come to mind when I think about Greencastle though. It wasn’t the girl, the gunshop, the rodeo, the golf-club, my old car, not even the sawmill and the railroad tracks. It wasn’t John Dillinger, Hunter Thompson, cooking crepes in Aspen nor really, any of it.

It’s just that certain knowledge that time passes and like those jobs and house prices in Greencastle, it ain’t coming back. Those are the Greencastle blues. They’ll go, as all things do, but this summer night they’re back for a while.

Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows. What are those blue remembered hills? What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain. The happy highways where I went and cannot come again.

Housman, A Shropshire Lad Stanza XL

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On the road

Snarkness on the edge of town.

There’s a new movie out. In fact, like my revisited reaction to On The Road, the novel, when I saw the 2012 film for the first time the other night, there isn’t. It’s on Channel 4, if you’re interested. And maybe, as I was, you ought to be. It’s about an America that just after the war a group of young-ish people went looking for. Except they weren’t that young, having been you can find out online well out of their teens and for better or worse, having grown-up first in the Great Depression, which affected almost absolutely everybody, and then in the Second World War, which laughably or otherwise after Pearl Harbor charged many Americans with the belief that they had almost a spiritual need, call and duty to save the world, first and foremost by being American and secondly, almost incidentally, by killing Krauts and Japs, much as them pesky Redskins had been in the way of their grandparents’ manifest destiny.

Mommy’s Boy with ishoos has a mahoosive crush on this glamorous waste of space who gives him a free go on his girlfriend and travels across the country with him several times, by car, pickup truck, freight train and hitchhiking. The people they inevitably meet, history being inevitable, as Malcolm Bradbury’s Howard Kirk reminds us all, turn out equally inevitably to be either a) wild crazy hipster cats and proto-Beatniks who know no boundaries; or b) racked with wild and indescribable sadnesses the narrator thinks are the soul of proto-America ( so long as they ain’t Injuns who don’t get a look-in, obviously); or c) both.

The more I watched the movie the more I remembered things from the past, mine and Jack Kerouac’s. I loved this book and the way it changed my life when I was walking the mean streets of Trowbridge on my paper round. It made me go on my own road trip, one I planned for years and finally did, ten years later. It also reminded me how yes, I’d met people like that. And I also remembered I’d learned to avoid total self-absorbed blagging ego-centric arses, but only too slowly. As shop signs about asking for credit used to say, a punch in the mouth often offends, but equally often looking back it would have probably been the right thing to do.

But at thirteen, posting copies of the Bath Evening Chronicle through letterboxes in the gathering dusk on Pitman Avenue, (yes, the shorthand Pitman, he lived in Trowbridge, there’s a plaque about it where that policeman got stabbed) On The Road was a hymn to freedom. Not many years after that I read something written on a barn wall.

“Freedom? Are the sparrows free from the chains of the sky?”

Which for graffiti on a barn full of bits of ancient motorcycles that today would be somebody’s entire and very generous pension fund and then at best was some greasy hippy with a stupid name’s falling-down shed full of rubbish, was a pretty acute observation, then or now. Dean Moriarty’s 1949 Hudson didn’t buy itself. On the truck farm where Sal Paradise met his Mexican – ooops, sorry, Latino – stoop labour girlfriend, if you didn’t work you didn’t get paid and that meant you didn’t eat. Working for a pittance isn’t freedom, as he found out. It was no more real than paying your mortgage off, or getting your book about it published. And it was no more “America” than say, Sergeant York was a typical conscientious objector. The America of Mad Men and Wall Street, let alone Breaking Bad and 24 didn’t even exist in America back when Kerouac rode the range. They didn’t have Interstate highways back then. There wasn’t even a proper road when the US Army drove coast to coast in 1919. Aspen – yes, THAT Aspen, Dallas-opening-credits Aspen – didn’t have tarmac on its Main street until 1960.

But I didn’t know all that on Elmdale, Blair and Eastview, bringing the evening news about Chilean refugees to the good folk of West Wiltshire, first on my rubbish scrap bike then when I was 14, on my lime green metal flake Carlton Continental, £40 on installments to my mother, when £40 was a pretty big deal. What I thought was a pretty big deal by then was Hunter S. Thompson.

For our younger readers, HST was a man who wrote stuff. What he wanted to write was The Great American Novel, so after he was kicked out of the US Airforce, for many of the reasons Kerouac was kicked out of the US Navy, he went off to Big Sur and wrote in the place where Kerouac visited while Thompson was doing odd jobs, where Hemingway shot himself and Richard Brautigan did the same. Maybe it was something in the water. Or maybe it was because all of them were regularly off their face. Either way, Thompson learned that however much he got off his own face absolutely nobody wanted to publish his fiction, although ultimately that’s exactly what happened in a way he didn’t predict.

In San Francisco at the dawn of the 1960s he bought a Triumph motorcycle and rode around with the Hell’s Angels, always something of a high-risk hobby and one that ended the way a six year-old might predict. He wrote what I’ve always thought the best sociological study of a marginalised group I’ve ever read, the not-very-originally-titled Hells Angels: the Strange And Terrible Saga Of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, which absolutely no Sociology lecturer I ever met at the University of Bath ever felt necessary to discuss or even acknowledge it existed.

The paralysing straightjacket of the legend Thompson became holds that he was way out there on the edge, feeling no fear. If you watch his post-being-beaten-up-by-them televised encounter with one of the Angels he used to hang around with, you’ll see for yourself what a crock that was.

But I didn’t know that either, back then. All I wanted to do was go to America and meet Hunter Thompson, then make a living writing like him. I did half of that.

I got the opportunity in the early 1980s to go to teach kids to shoot on a summer camp in Wisconsin. I found several things there; guns, cheerleaders called Nancy-Jean, a lake we parked by in the best Meatloaf tradition. I also found a Chevrolet Kingswood, a laughably massive estate car that did nine to the gallon around any town and a thrifty fifteen on the open road. Apart from the time I drove up over the Rockies, stopped for a break and when I tested the new puddle on the road below the exhaust pipe, when it seemed to be blowing petrol stright through, unburned. That was a Kerouac day, getting clean in a creek next to the road, seeing my big toenail turn the same colour as my jeans and only discovering later the water was so cold because it was glacier run-off; blowing a cooling hose on the plateau southeast of Buena Vista and getting a lift from a truckload of Latino migrant workers to a garage open on a Sunday that sold me a top hose for 82 cents. Like the dog named Boo, a screwdriver, a Jubilee clip and another tank of gas and we were back on the road again.

Was it worth watching? Yes. For me, anyway. Was it worth doing it, any of it? Kerouac’s road trip, Thompson’s desert run to Vegas, my own, more pedestrian meandering from Eagle River to Greencastle to Terre Haute, through tiny river towns of Missouri to St Louis guided by the Rand-McNally and stopping at gunshops – the easiest place to talk to strangers if you spoke the language, and thanks to shooting at Bisley and a summer of teaching it, I did, back then. After an abortive Saturday spent first driving through an electric storm, then in definitively the worst bar I’ve ever been in in my entire life, a barn of a place in Colby, KS, where everyone was carded on the door and bar staff wore Mace canisters on their belts I headed southwest towards Colorado Springs and then up over the first ridge of the Rockies.

On the last day of August I drove down Independence Pass into Aspen and my life changed. I don’t think it ever went back to how it had been before, but anyone can say that about pretty much any day they care to name, if they can remember it at all. There were some serious things wrong with the place, like oh, I don’t know, Goldie Hawn not looking like Private Benjamin when she went to the thrift store (no she didn’t and yes she did, respectively), Andy Williams reportedly buying-off the police investigation when someone got themselves shot dead in very odd circumstances, someone else deciding to sort-out who was going to bed with who with an AR-15 one dark night on a quiet backwoods track, or the dealer guy who got into his Jeep one fine day, turned the key and didn’t have time to even sing man, that’s all she wrote when it exploded. But hey, nobody ever said Aspen was perfect. It just pretty much was, a place of sun and snow and good-looking people and what looked like open-ness, a place where the dustman’s dollar was as good as John Denver’s in any restaurant. Cash, obviously.

Fat City

I tracked HST down to his house outside the city eventually. It took a little while, not least because some people thought I was a cop or someone serving a warrant and some just didn’t like him or the attention he brought to the town. He stood for Sherrif in the early 1970s and at least according to him, came within a spit of getting elected. One of the things he proposed still makes sense, renaming Aspen officially as Fat City. That way the people who just wanted to live somewhere quiet and beautiful, or the people who wanted to play music or listen to it instead of being seen going to listen to it, or the people who just wanted to be left alone to ski could get on and do that. Meanwhile the shopping malls and developers and people selling $200 T-shirts would have a hard time getting start-up funding for the Fat City Apres-Skiwear Boutique or Fat City Jetplane Concierge LLC. You can see the problem.

Thompson got himself arrested for sexual assault around about that time, which took the edge off wanting to be like him, for me at least. Last time I saw him was standing alone on West Hyman, very tall and balding in the sunlight, absorbed in something I’d now say was a mobile phone message, but couldn’t have been back then. I never knew what it was. But by then I didn’t care that much what he did. Nor, to be honest, what Kerouac did. I had my own things to do. I just wish I could have done them in that golden place on the Western slope of the Rockies a lifetime longer. Just like paradise by the dashboard light, it was long ago and it was far away. Still, as Bruce Springsteen told me personally, nothing we can say or do is going to change anything now.

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That is the way it is in the mountains

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.

The best way to find out if you can trust anybody is to trust them.

All you have to do is write a true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.

The first draft of anything is shit.

This isn’t my stuff, you know.

These are Hemingway quotes. And maybe like a lot of people, he’s been one of those writers you sort of know for so long that you can’t decide if he’s any good or not.

Fiesta

I read Fiesta when I was about twenty-four, only a bit younger than the character with the mysterious wound would probably have been, if it was set in the 1920s and he’d got shot wherever he’d got shot (Vimy Ridge, if you’ll pardon the expression?) in the Great War. Just to clarify, it was alternatively titled The Sun Also Rises, about a man who keeps coming across some English posh totty in Paris. Except he can’t seem to actually do that. And she isn’t sure she wants him to either, but she’s also not really sure she doesn’t and they sort of go on holiday with their friends except she’s not really with him you know, you do know that, I mean we had this talk, didn’t we? We said. And all the usual blah that anyone in their early twenties who drinks too much in a city can relate to. I loved that book.

Actually not that Fiesta.
Actually not that Fiesta.

At school I’d found a copy of something Hemingway did about a fish and an old man, and got through something he wrote about the Italian campaign in WWI, parts of which I recycled for O Level History which as nobody else even knew there was any fighting in Italy in WWI except probably Gino Petrillo and he was in a different class made me seem particularly knowledgeable.

I liked that whisky and guns and typewriters things, the more so because I was hugely into Hunter Thompson to the extent that I tracked him to his lair in Woody Creek. Depressingly, that’s actually true, but this isn’t the time for my Hunter Thompson and me party piece. Later.

I didn’t like the fact that like Richard Brautigan who lived in the same place, like Thompson who also once lived up on the California coast, all three of them shot themselves to death coincidentally or by design. In Thompson’s case, I’d suspect by design.

But that huge big gun big life thing, I didn’t really get off on that a lot. Nor did someone I used to know. She had to write about Hemingway at university and what with drinking and shagging and all the other things to do she couldn’t quite bring herself to read about a fat old man who hated himself, or anything he’d written. The day of the exam she skimmed through the covers of a few Hemingway titles and read no more than about twenty pages, at random. And blagged it. She’d got the gist of the plot and did much the same as I did in History O Level – stuck stuff in that was tangential and vaguely relevant. Whenever she got stuck she’d introduce a “Hemingway quote.”

The inverted commas are because she made it up. She couldn’t remember any real Hemingway quotes so she made up a bullshit, sparse, macho one instead. “That is the way it is in the mountains.” Sometimes with a comma, but more often not.

You bleed, writing about a bank manager taking a long time catching a fish on holiday. You write the truest thing you know about someone cadging doughnuts in a MidWest coffeeshop. OK. That’s probably why she got hugely good marks for her paper and something of a reputation of a Hemingway scholar for the rest of the term.

That is the way it is, in the mountains.

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