Right to cut the bullshit. Or rather explain it, and the role it plays in our lives. And why a lunatic called Trump might well become the most important man in the world next week. And blow us all to smithereens.
But first I had better confess about the Viagra.
Last year I was sent to the Mississippi State University to become one of their first ever writers in residence. This astonished several of my friends in Scotland, though not as much as it astonished me.
Firstly because I have never written a book in my life, nor indeed have I ever really been a journalist though I have written a bit in the press, secondly because I hardly knew where Mississippi was and thirdly because I had just had just had a heart attack and my friends were more expecting the news that I had dropped dead in the street than that I was suddenly, can you believe it, off in America being a writer in residence. I mean the thing was ridiculous.
So I had gone to the Doctor to ask his blessing. He had sighed, given me a load of pills and without even being asked had added six blue Viagra to the prescription, in much the same way as you give a man a cigarette when he is just about to be shot. To cheer him up. They worked. I left the chemist laughing so much at his joke I nearly forgot my stick. Good medicine, laughter. I still have those pills. Well four of them anyway.
Now not only did I not really know where Mississippi was I also had no idea what a writer in residence actually does. Although to be fair I did have a slight inkling as to why I had been sought.
It was all down to how thirty odd years ago a former lodger of man, a lovely man called Chris Snyder had arrived in my house as a Phd student of mythology who was interested in how mythology related to religion, politics, art, science or advertising influenced our lives. We were not he explained, rational beings but human beings, thirled quite possibly as much to atavistic influences as we were to any kind of obligation to follow logical paths. I had of course no option other than to take him to the Hebrides and introduce him to some of the great story tellers who were at that time coughing out their last.
And he had loved it, and they had loved him. A sweeter man has seldom swung a leg off a bed and I was to visit him, and indeed lecture at, one of his early appointments at a University in Washington. So he knew I wasn’t entirely a loose cannon.
And now I was a fat old man in a kilt with six Viagra in his sporran was on my way in a plane to a place called Mississippi where one of the world’s leading experts in the study of mythology, a fellow called Professor Dean Dr (I could scarcely believe it) Christopher Snyder was empowered to invite people to stay in a posh flat and wonder around amongst his students blethering away silly hebridean myths and kidding on to them, and indeed himself, that he was a writer in residence.
Chris has done very well, and deserved it. If you are interested in King Arthur you should read his books. After a week as the writer in residence I started to eat in Larry’s Catfish and More, which is a hut in the area.
If you don’t believe that a restaurant with such a ludicrous name exists you can google its website. I have just done so and notice they are still offering three fillets for six ninety-five. Which, trust me, is a steal.
Here in Scotland those of us who are interested in independence often write, quite rightly about the plight of the poor, but trust me you ain’t seen nothing until you go to the deep south and witness the dis-empowerment of the black communities there who have so little access to decent health care, education, housing or transport. If you want to get to know those good folk and their tales just spend a few evenings at Larry’s. You get catfish there. And more.
There is a bit of a myth over here that segregation is a thing of the past in America. Aye well try hearing the stories in Larry’s where you can still meet old men whose Grandparents were the children of slaves and whose lives are not all that much better than theirs. This may sound absurd but I visited homes with no proper sanitation, no health insurance and no access to public transport.
The contrast between the Hebrides and the deep south are fascinating. When in the 1930s Compton Mackenzie wrote that he had never been more convinced in his life of injustice than when he reviewed the way that the locals in those islands had been denied access to their own resources he might well have been speaking of the deep south of America.
Anybody who is vaguely interested in Andy Wightman’s current proposals on land reform who is needing a bit of a motivational lift need only read up about how the black communities in the Delta were robbed of their lands to get just that. The parallels are electrifying.
But here’s my point. Even although when I was there Donald Trump’s extraordinary elevation to being the possible, some might say probable, leader of the west was still in it’s infancy , he was already becoming something of a legend in those queues at Larry’s. And had many supporters.
And as Chris Snyder would confirm over a dram in the evening it had nothing to do with rational thought it was all about the power of legend, and myth and desperation. They had been standing in those queues for long enough. Nobody wants to eat catfish and slush puppies for ever and if you are living in a single skinned un-insulated wooden shack with snow on the roof, no public transport to the Mall, your wife has cancer and you have diabetes two and you can’t get proper treatment and somebody offers radical change you put your x in that box no matter what. You just want off that queue. You just want out of Larry’s. You just want more. And are you are prepared to take the risk of Trump being a lunatic.Desperation makes monsters of us all. And it also makes us vote for monsters.
And then there was the matter of the guns. As a story-teller with an interest in the hebrides it was inevitable that I quickly decided to try and live alongside the people of colour in the area, not least because it gave me some raw contemporary stories to tell my often irritatingly complacent white students during my lectures. And it was the guns that caused so many of the problems.
Let me describe one such incident. It was the time of the Mardi Gras festival and so I decided to go. Slight problem. No local buses out of the small town of Starkville where I was staying to the nearest place to get a greyhound to the Mardi Gras.
“In one café I saw a notice. “ Hand guns welcome, but please only use with discretion. “ and it was only half a joke. I visited that café at least a dozen times and never once saw a black face.”
I’m serious. Imagine a small town of 23,000 people, many very poor and no public transportation. It is sobering to spend time in a small community of poor people who have no inter-city transportation and witness the crippling effect it can have on so much.
Of course I could have easily bummed a lift off a colleague, but that wasn’t what I was there for, so off I went to the freeway and stuck out a thumb to see what happened. It wasn’t exactly a new experience. Forty three years earlier when I myself had been a student I had hitch hiked down most of north America so I knew of the dangers. But this was a new America to the one I had hitch through in 1973. Now there were guns and suspicion. Everywhere. Guns in the glove compartments of every lorry, every second car and not only did this make things more interesting once you were in those vehicles it virtually made hitch hiking impossible.
In one café I saw a notice. “ Hand guns welcome, but please only use with discretion. “ and it was only half a joke. I visited that café at least a dozen times and never once saw a black face.
As my friends in Larry’s quickly explained that evening after I had given up the attempt, nobody hitched any more, everyone was just too scared.
Now amongst those gun totting maniacs (and I met a few) Trump was not only an option he was the only option. You could understand it. They had ratcheted up everything in their lives to such a pitch of tension that a radical response to almost everything was the only thing that seemed reasonable.
“Now amongst those gun totting maniacs (and I met a few) Trump was not only an option he was the only option. You could understand it. They had ratcheted up everything in their lives to such a pitch of tension that a radical response to almost everything was the only thing that seemed reasonable.”
I had a wonderful time in Mississippi and would recommend the University whole-heartedly, but I am a story-teller that needs feeding with stories and accordingly decided to counter my visit to one of the poorest parts of America by a follow-up visit to one of the richest, to New Canaan, a town of twenty thousand people that lies an hours train ride to the west of New York.
Almost exactly the same size New Canaan makes an interesting contrast to Starkville Mississippi, in New Canaan the average income is probably several hundred thousand dollars, and in Starkville I imagine it’s about twenty . And yet the both will have large numbers voting for Trump.
The people there are rich, very rich and I was lucky enough to know a delightful estate agent there who had agreed to give me a bed for a few weeks.
It was in New Canaan that learnt about a new kind of poverty, the kind that is also driving the Trump train. It’s called negative equity poverty and here’s the way it works. The year is 2007 and you are a young stock broker working in New York but needing a safe suburb to bring up your kids. You borrow $2 million dollars to buy a house in New Canaan, marry a beautiful girl, or indeed a handsome man, enroll your kids in a private school, take out health insurance, vet insurance and a car lease. Before you blink you have regular outgoings of $20,000 a month, but its fine, you are on a good wage you can manage the repayments . And then comes the crash.
Suddenly that house is worth $1.5 million, the costs on your car school and health insurance are doubling and your outgoings are now $30,000 dollars a month. The bank will give you two months grace if you miss one of your repayments after which they will foreclose on your house and you will find yourself out on the street with debts of half a million and little chance of re-mortgaging.
Your children will have to leave their schools, your health insurance will lapse and the car will have to be returned.Alright so nobody’s going to be starving, but it’s still a bit tricky.
These are not untypical figures. I addressed the New Canaan Rotary Club and everyone there knew someone who had fallen off the ever wobbling plank as one called it. Extraordinary. You live in a kind of paradise, lovely house in the snow-covered woods, interesting job in Walls street, nice kids but all one slip away from falling off the wobbling plank into the snake pit below.
Yesterday, in anticipation of writing this article, I phoned my estate agent friend and asked him how things were going in New Canaan. He told me there were still people in negative equity from the 2008 crash and that there were over three hundred and fifty properties on the market in a town of twenty thousand . Divorces rates were still high, and understandably so. There were city traders who left their homes at five in the morning and didn’t get back till nine at night. They had to keep the banks at bay and not fall off the plank.
He himself had just had to sell off most of his other assets to prevent the bank taking his house and was now thinking of selling his car to buy a second-hand truck.
The social mayhem this kind of lunatic lifestyle induces is fascinating.
When I was there I met one dealer who had just spent twenty thousand dollars suing his former wife over whether he could take his kids away for a single weekend. He told me that he had been so busy at the time of his kids birth that he had hardly been involved in choosing their names.
There were tales of wives asking their drunken husbands to take their children with them on their drives down to the shops to buy a pint of milk and then calling the police to have them arrested for drunken driving in charge of children to increase their income when the divorce was being argued.
There was a story that I heard in New Canaan that I was never able to confirm but loved.
Back at the time of the crash there was a pub near the railway station that had a special cord that you pushed. When you got off the train from work and should have been driving back home to the family you went into the pub, phoned your partner on your mobile, pulled the cord and the pub was filled with the sound of railway station clatter so that you could pretend that your train had been just been cancelled and you wouldn’t be back till later. Probably apocryphal but a good tale none the less.
Another tale, and in this case I spoke directly to the lady involved in running the business so I can confirm its true, was of the lavatory system of keeping fit. It wasn’t complex. As a stock trader your life is probably so hectic that you have no time to take any exercise other than the few seconds when you go to the lavatory so this particular walls street based practitioner ran a business in which you had to do various exercises whenever you were in the cubical I met her as my estate agent friend was one of her clients.
“Now my friend in New Canaan assured me that everyone he knew was going to be voting for Trump. They had had enough of the lunacy, it was time for a radical change. Yes Trump wasn’t perfect, but at least he was different.”
She explained that she was in her seventies and offered to send me a photograph of her “ tight butt “ from her smart phone and offered me a phone supported service when I was back in Scotland.
I still have her number if any Bella readers are interested.
Now my friend in New Canaan assured me that everyone he knew was going to be voting for Trump. They had had enough of the lunacy, it was time for a radical change. Yes Trump wasn’t perfect, but at least he was different. And I thought of those guys in the queue at Larry’s Cat fish and More and thought of Dean Snyder’s remarks all those years ago that we don’t necessarily make our decisions on rational thought but through stories and legends and mythology and that atavism takes a bigger role in our lives than we like to imagine.
Which is quite possibly partly why next week forty per cent of America will probably do what to most of us over here seems stark staring bonkers and vote for Trump.
If they do then God bless America. And God bless us too.
And if it does happen and anyone wants four-year old viagras to cheer them up, give me a call.