From Pocahontas to
A personal adventure in ten battlegrounds
and several detours
Firstly, to Tom and to Robyn, for allowing him to abscond.
Secondly, to Anna, who allowed me to abscond; but has also typed every word, scanned every photograph, lived every mile.
Thirdly, to John and Monica Grabowska, for their life-saving food and beds, in their beautiful Potomac house.
Fourthly, to Katie, for arranging my surreal KLM flights.
Fifthly, to the US authorities, for finally letting me in … and out.
From Pocahontas to Appomattox
A personal adventure in 10 battlegrounds
and several detours.
Two wise men travel, one from the east, one from the
west, in search of the Civil War..
..and more wisdom.
This whole experience only came about because of Tom. He described us as twins with two different mothers, from two different continents. We were both young at the time of Vietnam. He managed to miss the draft by lot, I missed it by being born in England. We were bound to be on the protest side. The civil rights movement, amongst other things, took him to Africa. 1968 was pivotal for most of us - May riots in Paris, Prague Spring and Apartheid in South Africa, Greek generals and assassinations.
I was twenty and had been in Cold War Berlin. He was 17 and couldn't avoid the KKK and Mississippi burning. We both stood together on the spot marking MLK’s speech. We even started our trip in Dallas. Now we ask each other shocked questions:
How can anyone dream of voting for Brexit? Trump? We are both political, but not so that we know what to do about it. Interested in history, yes, but interested in all things. I read somewhere in all this that we do indeed learn from the mistakes of history: we learn how to make those mistakes bigger and more devastating.
Thank you, Tom, for an incomparable adventure.
Like most young boys of my generation I was a great collector. It seems different now. I collected model soldiers, of course, but I was obsessive about their accuracy. The crusaders lived well apart from the Romans. Cowboys lived separate lives from the Indians. They were called that in those days. Crucially, I had a drawer full of dark blue and another drawer full of grey. I thought of them of light blue -whichever way, my young life was full of historical colour. I had plastic models of Second World War aeroplanes, carefully painted, but my shelf boasted Henry VIII and Richard the Lionheart. Ships sailed along that shelf, the Santa Maria, Victory, Bismarck, The Mayflower. Imagine my excitement when, much later on, I had a Miss Messerschmitt and a Miss Dornier sitting in my English class.
Gradually, Europe was emerging from the darkness and chaos. The Ideal Homes Exhibition each year in London was to inspire us all with new furniture, new fabrics, new gadgets. It inspired me with free miniature bottles of various fascinating coloured liquids. Now you have to buy them! But my collection included cherry brandies and advokaat, apricot and peach colours, ouzo with no colour, probably gins and whiskies and certainly rum. Exotic names from exotic places. I was fascinated with the history of Chartreuse and Benedictine. The pride of my collection was Freezomint. I tested and sampled at the age of ten or eleven, my mum probably stopped me drinking the whole lot and I could never stand the idea of finishing a bottle anyway, because then I would have to throw it away. So, collection number two introduced me to far away places and the enduring and medicinal benefit of alcohol. Collection number one was rapidly giving me history and a certain obsession with accuracy.
At this point I should introduce my home town, on the mouth of the Thames and romantically named Gravesend. It gave me thick black mud to learn to swim in. Well, actually to learn how not to get sucked under. Therefore, I learned how to get really filthy. You couldn't use the river to get clean, because eventually you had to sink back into the mud. So cold water and mud were second nature to me, and my Boon-docking later in life was no shock. I lived in two shacks, so I was better prepared for life than Daniel Boone, who only had one. He got quite a long way. We all believe that the town’s name came from the London Great Plague, which we all knew had been 1665, and twenty-five miles out marked the edge of the gigantic cemetery. I knew the town was older than that so my own explanation was the Black Death. I was certainly learning about death. And actually the town was famous for two, very dead, people. General Gordon, killed at Khartoum by the Mahdi – pretty exotic. But far more exotic, deeply fascinating, Pocahontas. I knew long before Disney that she had come to the English Court, had been introduced in London, but on the way back home had fallen sick on her boat. She was buried in that very insignificant town, and now in the last few years has once again inspired millions of children, as she inspired me.
My dreams of the wide world were taking shape, as I watched boats ply the Thames. My friends in my cricket team were employed by Customs and Excise, checking on exotic imports and really not exotic exports. Or they were river pilots. I thought that was beyond excitement. The big ships could not navigate the complex channels of the river on the London side of Gravesend, and they took on a pilot to see them safely home. This is the world of Dickens, of marshes and eerie landscapes, of escaped convicts and desperate bids for freedom. Not too far around the coast, and I could imagine I could see the coast of France on a clear day. A Tale of Two Cities, then. Yes I knew about revolution and Napoleon and early attempts to build a tunnel. Early attempts to invade. Caesar landed probably at Pegwell Bay. I didn’t care for the Normans because that was in Sussex. My skies were Kentish, as opposed to the skies of Kent. My grandparents had been married next to Dover Castle. I went on boats that had been to Dunkirk. My skies once had been filled with Spitfires and Hurricanes, and Messerschmitts. There were tales of lost planes, even lost treasure in the woods. Hard though we looked, we didn’t find jewels. We did find hundreds of bullets, even live ones, bits of grenade, all kinds of stuff which we never should have been touching.
So, my dreams were full of exotic trading boats, foreign coasts, remote places. While I was supposed to be learning maths, probably, I was away in remote times. And again, like most of my generation, our fantasies were stoked by reading. At this point I return to my third collection. I had books on cricket, books on all kinds of sport, books of facts, of stories for boys, war stories, history books. Later on I had collections of French books and German books. My shelf of Henry VIII was competing with Walter Scott, Dickens, even Chaucer. Canterbury was after all not far away, the home of my county cricket team, complete with tree on the pitch. I thought nothing of that. I was playing on a village pitch, with a road sign on it and sometimes sheep on it! But I was only about ten, I wasn’t reading Chaucer, I was reading the best collection in the world:
I recently discussed these with a friend in West Virginia, so I know they were well known beyond Gravesend. I collected them, read them avidly, studied the pictures, but above all I kept them. Collectors will understand that having them together on the shelf is even better than reading them. And I was ten, so I could understand witches and magic in Macbeth. I knew A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I knew Hamlet, even what Elsinore looked like. I travelled in my bedroom (in my shed) to Denmark and Scotland. I knew Pocahontas already. Suddenly, I knew about Hiawatha, and learned big chunks of Longfellow. I can see the Shores of Gitchee Gumee, the Big Sea Shining Water, where stands the wigwam of Nokomis, daughter of the moon Nokomis. Her wigwam was quite like my shed, though the Thames was not as cool as the Big Sea Shining Water.
Then on one magical day my mum bought me a new one. The Red Badge of Courage. I read the story from cover to cover. Recently I read the original for about the tenth time and wondered quite why it had such an effect on me. It relates the horror, above all the confusion and dislocation of fighting and how can that be so inspiring? I knew now that Stephen Crane was not in fact speaking from his own experience, either. I had the chance to see the film, a glorious day. A special trip to the “Majestic” in Gravesend. Or was it the “Regal”? Audie Murphy, and I discovered that he had really been a soldier, albeit in a different war. I found that hugely moving. Much later I saw a film which recounted his own real life experiences in Italy, starring himself. I reflected long upon how he must have felt to revisit places and times and to recreate scenes of horror and confusion and dislocation. I don’t think I ever wanted to earn a Purple Heart like him, or a VC in my country. I learned the lesson of pacifism that Stephen Crane intended. It was not really the story, even the pictures, it was the introduction: one page covered the entire Civil War, and I read it over and over again. Fort Sumter, Merrimack and Monitor were engraved on my heart, and Appomattox courthouse, and John Wilkes Booth and Ford theatre, probably more than Gettysburg even. And these names have stayed with me all my life.
I first met Tom in Africa, and this is really a homage to three continents. Then, he was a maths teacher. We had no books, certainly no computers or mobile phones, frequently no power, most times not even water; we didn’t have exercise books, not even much paper, certainly not pens and pencils. He taught with sticks and stones, with patience and understanding. I taught English – by shouting, mostly. Julius Caesar quite a lot – but then I had a Classics Illustrated, obviously. We lived on African Time:
“I’ll meet you – in town – tomorrow”.
“Ok, where – when?”
“I just told you!”
So, we were both laid back, pretty horizontal. I finally discovered things that do worry him, but it has taken me forty years. In his life, he has been an organic farmer, an expert on how to grow tomatoes in the desert. Answer – perhaps ironically, protect them from the sun. He has been a bus driver – the archetypal yellow U.S. school bus, where that driver has the right of way over everything. I think the Presidential Arcade would give way to that bus.
After an African spell in the Peace Corps, he was sent to Central America as the government expert on bee-keeping! Huge Brazilian bees were wiping out the small Belize bees and the small Belize economy. Tom is laid back and he is wise. He could not take on huge Brazilian bees so his advice was to let the invasion take place. Hard on the insects but easy for the bee-keepers, because they only had to adapt to bigger hives, the occasional bigger sting and presumably bigger honey ...