Tuesday, December 13, 2005

miriam in america

Does Virginia always look this autumnal? It's as if the entire passage is filmed through a sepia lens, a startling panoply of yellows, where every colour is somehow treading the path from green to yellow to beige.

I am in Sheffield on a work trip, having shirked out of the cold Yorkshire night and a meal out at my employer's expense, and have bought cold food and wine from Marks and Spencer. So I sit in front of my TV in my hotel room, which smells slightly of sour milk, and watch Miriam Margoyles, the host of BBC2s Dickens In America, opening a truck which is loaded with withering tobacco leaves. She wrinkles her nose in moral horror, because she loathes smoking, and then gives in and sinks her face into a bale of leaves and inhales the smell of dry tobacco - her face hints at a state of bliss. Elsewhere she buys a pouch of chewing tobacco named 'Oliver Twist' and expectorates, disgusted, a brown patch of spit onto the beige pavement.

I've never seen Dickens In America before and within five minutes it has leapfrogged Life In The Undergrowth and Question Time and become my favourite programme. Maddeningly, this is the penultimate episode and I have missed the rest. More maddeningly, I only think to post this to my blog a week later, when I realise that I missed the subsequent episode. Miriam is following Charles Dickens' path through America, in case that wasn't clear.

Moving into Maryland, we visit state penitentiaries in Philadelphia; the palatte alters from brown to grey, although the maroon prison uniforms are unpleasantly vivid. Words such as 'therapeutic' and 'rehabilitation' are bandied around, which must be an advance upon Dickens' time, if nothing else. In what genuinely looks like a fairly progressive womens prison, the host is measured for glasses by convicts who, in Miriam's terms, "glowed with humanity". It's intriguing to see this presentation of the American penal system. Dickens was horrified by the state of prisons in his day. Make no mistake, the fashion for ludicrously overpopulating prisons remains appalling, but I expected the host to peddle the same line. To see a prison experience which knew redemption not just revenge was welcome, especially in the week that Schwarzenegger bolstered his fading reputation with the Republican right by choosing not to revoke the death sentence hanging over the reformed Crip Stanley 'Lookie' Williams.

It's impossible to discuss the South without reference to religion. Religion is sincere but a mass of contradictions; Miriam finds personification of this in Kenneth, a black preacher who teaches not only to love one's brother, but to make sure one is capable of shooting him, also. Miriam picks up a gun with a beguiling combination of reluctance and excitement. She is an excellent shot.

She is horrified by Kenneth's ideas yet attracted by his tenderness; just as in Virginia she gets on like a house on fire with the tobacco farmer, here again she comes face to face with her enemy and discovers to her horror that she likes him.

She moves inland towards Pittsburgh, that ugly confusion of buildings, and beyond. The journey West. Of the heartlands Miriam admits that she knows no more than Dickens. He said that Pitsburgh, drenched in smoke, was like Birmingham. I don’t think he intended it as a compliment. By the time Dickens reached Pittsburgh he and his family were dreadfully homesick. He eased the pain by playing maudlin songs on his accordian.

"Children frighten me", Miriam admits. So she heads, like Dickens before her, to the Pitssburgh free school and decides to take on those kids – they are seated at the back - who declare that Great Expectations is boring. She seeks to alter that perception. "Sometimes if you love someone and they do not love you back it is the worst thing in the world", Miriam tells them. "Do you know what I mean? The rejection?"

She reads from Mrs Haversham:

"I'll tell you," said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper, "what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter–as I did!"

Her passion is remarkable. She inhabits the role. The children look terrified, and they look rapt. Her enthusiasm is utterly infectious. By now she is my favourite person on TV. Miriam looks back on her success with the children. She describes herself as being 'Martian'. That’s good, she reckons. I think so too.

Moving further south along the Ohio river Miriam notices the grisly skeletons of trees on the river bank: their bleached arms. The trees which bend to the water, washing their hair in it. Dickens is an extraordinary writer, so those phrases are his, and not mine. She travels to Cincinnati, where she purs over a first edition of Domby and Son. "Look", she says, "it carries an advertisment for an 'improved elastic chest expander'". She looks down at her chest. "Something for which I have no need".

To right any misinformation, she is a small, eager, slightly batty woman built along the lines of a barrel.

When Dickens read his books, she tells us, he would laugh at the funny scenes and cry at the sad ones. The same sense of untramelled emotion vibrates through her enthusiam.

Dickens loved Cincinnati, although he was shocked by his fellow man's eating habits. It doesn't seem to have rankled quite as much as his habit of spitting tobacco, but he wasn't happy. Miriam couldn’t care less. But she attends an 'etiquette dinner', snorting derisively at the concept of 'rules'. She starts to argue. Go Miriam! The whole pointof meal-times, she states, is to get as much food into the mouth as possible. She is charmed by the notion of these young Americans trying to better themselves, but is severely reprimanded for trying to steal someone else's soup.

To Louisville next, which we're told is the home of baseball, bourbon and the Kentucky derby. No one can agree how to say Louisville. The city is the crossroads linguistically between the north and the south. Fix, for example, is a word Dickens noted. A man fixes himself, and is dressing. If you are ill, you will be fixed. Miriam notes that some Louisville residents are fixing to go shopping. And fixing to go get my hair fixed, in one heaven-sent example.

Dickens was a bit superior about all this stuff, but then he had good reason to be. Miriam inherits his superiority. "I can’t help feeling", she tells one surprised interviewee, "that my language is better than yours". But Louisville can claim its share of linguistic innovation. At one point Dickens is accused of writing a "sockdollinger" of a novel.

Excessive playfulness abounds, I can’t make head nor tail of it. Nor can Miriam. "I don't know what to say about Louisville", Miriam admits. She seems more a fish out of water here than anywhere else. "These people are not my folk", she says, bewildered. I decide to go to Louisville one day.

She climbs aboard The Delta Queen and travels from the Ohio river to the Missisippi, which Dickens described as 'the great father of rivers, who has no children like him'. Words fail me to describe these visions, and they do her too, so the film fixes on the view and resorts to a couple of minutes of stately blues dubbed over the scenery.

Dickens however, had no such descriptive difficulties:

"The decline of day here was very gorgeous; tingeing the firmament deeply with red and gold, up to the very keystone of the arch above us. As the sun went down behind the bank, the slightest blades of grass upon it seemed to become as distinctly visible as the arteries in the skeleton of a leaf; and when, as it slowly sank, the red and golden bars upon the water grew dimmer, and dimmer yet, as if they were sinking too; and all the glowing colours of departing day paled, inch by inch, before the sombre night; the scene became a thousand times more lonesome and more dreary than before, and all its influences darkened with the sky."

The sight of The Delta Queen by night is quite unlike anything else, like a swimming fairground, lit from below with demonic light, its huge paddle wheel churning the river. Miriam regales her fellow passengers with stories, but takes the opportunity to laud not Dickens but his wife. Dickens ultimately left "his darling wife" for a young actress, she gossips, shaking her head and puffing out her cheeks. So she raises a toast to Catherine instead. Marvellous.

The series is not only uttery fascinating, it's beautiful edited too. At the point where Miriam disembarks at Cairo the delta blues ring out, piercingly tragic. This town, Cairo, destroyed Dickens' hopes for America. It was too much to bear. It's Eden in his David Copperfield, a "hideous swamp". Some in Cairo feel that Dickens cursed the town, for his grim vision was prophetic.

Cairo has had very ill luck. A population of 15,000 is down to 3,000 now. To see it, it's a ghost town, utterly derelict. Shops can be rented for a dollar a year. Back then white kids learned to swim in the public baths; the blacks in the Ohio river. The Civil Rights movement missed out on Cairo and didn’t hit 'til 1967. It turns out that Cairo de-segregated in 1976, which is astonishingly recent, only a year before I was born. But the consequence was that the white community just upped and left, leaving the city's economy to rot. Miriam spoke to a resident, Preston, who was utterly dedicated to saving the community. Like Dickens, Miriam can't bear the lack of promise, and is desperate to escape, so like him she hits the “corduroy roads” West.

So next Dickens - and Miriam - pitched up at St.Louis, a port drenched in sun, looking in the ancient pictures which Miriam unearths like a beautiful American Venice. It was here that Dickens, rapidly tiring of the US, encountered Native Americans for the first time. They were being evacuated from their reservations, thrust West so that the European settlers could expand into their land. The experience moved him terribly. He described the chief whom he befriended as "as stately and complete a gentleman of Nature's making, as ever I beheld".

Dickens knew what it was to be an outsider, Miriam reflects, so he understood terribly the horror of what was being done to these people.

Before he left America, Dickens was determined to see the West, so a trip was arranged. For Miriam too. The episode ended with a picnic on the prairie. Dickens was exhausted by that stage, and disappointed with what he saw. Miriam looks as happy as larry. What a genial host she is. She promised Canada for the next week, although I missed that - damn. The best series I’ve seen in bloody ages.

The credits rolled with Miriam considering Canada. What would she find there, she wondered? Trees?

“I know nothing about trees”, she admits, on shaky ground for once. “I mean, I like them, but…”


Anonymous said...

It's funny how the American perception of the British, or should that be the other way around is shaped by these big famous tours of one place or the other. It seems that Dickens was the only Brit to go to the USA in the 19th Century, the next to go being Winston Churchill in the early 1940's. Then it was the Beatles, then more recently Tony Blair. That’s it in terms of important visit's we've made. Coming the other way we've had Elvis (for about 2 seconds at an airport somewhere in Scotland, but everyone talks about it still) and then JFK who went to Newcastle and spoke a bit of Geordie thrilling the locals. That’s it. Oh and the slight and whimsy travel writer Bill Bryson who came and wrote a very charming account of how quaint and polite we all are reinforcing all stereotypes.


jonathan said...

I suppose that we Brits will never feel the same way about epic journeys as the Americans will; if you think about it the tour - especially West - is totally central to American history and the American psyche; whether you're talking about the French navigating the rivers down from Canada to Louisiana, the first settlers, Tom Joad or Jack Kerouac.

I noticed on Amazon the other day that Bill Bryson made a TV series of Notes From A Small Island a while back, which featured Stephen Fry amongst others. Have you seen it? Not sure how I missed that one.

Bloggers4Labour said...

Such a fine post, J.