Thursday, 5 August 2010

#27 Pilgrims' progress.

The Mayflower, bearer of New England's first permanent settlers.

America has come a long way. Really, it isn't said enough. She is the country we love to loathe, with her isolationist sensibilities and nutritional eccentricities, her paradoxical mix of I'm-free-so-fuck-you liberalism and prudish conservatism. A country more advanced than any, determined to revert to the Stone Age.

But in 400 years, the European settlers of what we now call America have thrashed out a nation that (let's face it) leads the world. And, on a good day, she leads the world based on laudable principles of egalitarianism and freedom. She is rich. She is pretty. She is spacious, technologically-advanced, and possessing of Froot Loops. Hasn't she done well?

Over the last few days, then, I have explored the genesis of this sometimes dumb, usually arrogant and occasionally marvellous nation. I have been through her underwear drawer and her baby photos. And all to present to you a potted history of a girl named America.

Massachusetts numberplates proudly boast of 'The Spirit of America'. It is, to many, the state that epitomizes everything that America should be. Here the colonists finally learned how to get on with the native Indians, and broke bread with them in a universal Thanksgiving. Here the British tyranny was first routed, and a nation more democratic than any the world had seen was born. Here natural resources are exploited way past breaking point, and sports teams are the best on earth. Here science is shoved violently forward beyond its furthest frontiers, clams are stuffed with deliciousness, and cities are all but unnavigable.

In 1620, the Wampanoag Indians experienced a shock. The shock was probably smaller than your history teacher led you to believe - after all, Basque and Scandinavian fishermen had regularly been visiting Cape Cod, the Wampanoag's homeland, for hundreds of years. The white man came again, but this time he intended to stay. (Actually, they'd already come to stay, in 1607, to Virginia; but the story of the Plymouth Brethren is so much more romantic.)

The white man arrived in winter, poorly provisioned, unfamiliar with the terrain, and largely clueless on the topic of subsistence farming. The Wampanoag helped the colonists through their first winter, fed them turkey, and forever cursed their decision. Waves and waves of further colonists came - 20,000 by 1630, all along the Eastern seaboard - and America was born.

These first New Englanders landed on Cape Cod at Provincetown, on the far northern tip. 102 of them - Protestants, seeking the freedom to follow their devout faith awa from the meddling of Catholic King James - set out, and by the end of their first winter - despite the Wampanoag's intervention - half of them had perished.

By 1627, these survivors had settled in the already-charted town of Plimouth, on the Massachusetts mainland. If you visit Plimouth (and I hazard you should), you can see the rock marking their landing point. It is very dull, in a typically rock-like way. It is brown-gray. It is large. Someone has thoughtfully carved '1620' into it. It is surrounded by a gaudy Neo-Classical pavilion, altogether out of kilter with the uninteresting object it shelters.

Plimouth's far superior Colony-related attraction is the Plimouth Plantation, a village compromising both a mock up of the Colonists' village, and of a Wampanoag one. There are players in dress (well, in the Wampanoag village, there are Native Americans from various Nations), dubious West Country accents, and a lot of fun to be had.

Most of my time in Massachusetts was spent on Cape Cod. It is a huge promontory into the Atlantic - actually, it's been a huge island in the Atlantic since the Cape Cod Canal cut it from the rest of Massachusetts in 1914. Anyway, historically it was full of sea captains, windmills and teeming fish. Now its full of windmills and tourists. There are lots of dead fish on dinner plates, but the fish stocks offshore are severely depleted. There may still be sea captains, in fairness. I don't really know what a sea captain looks like. I have a vague pastiche of Captain Birdseye and Adam Ant in my head; I didn't see anyone quite like that. The tourists came to see the sea captains, fish and windmills, so are generally two-thirds disappointed.

I liked it, a lot. I've always liked places with a jaunty nautical air, and this nautical air was pretty much vertical. They served decent tea (New England is clearly more than just a name), the Indian place names were frankly unmatched (case in point: Mashpee), and everything smelled deliciously salty. I ate lots of taffy and quahogs (somewhere between toffee and boiled sweets; stuffed clams). The art in the galleries was shit ('Oh, you decided to paint a fishing boat in an orange-and-blue palette; truly you are an artist of unprecedented vision and depth!'), but you can't have everything.

I mentioned the Cape was full of tourists, but really, I hadn't seen anything yet. Off the coast of the Cape (that's off the coast of off the coast of Massachusetts, for those who are counting), lies the real tourist trap: Martha's Vineyard.

Martha's Vineyard is a place so romanticized that you sound like a dick whatever you say about it. Have you ever heard people talk about Paris? They either say how beautiful it is, and you think they're pretentious or generic, or they say how much they dislike it, and you think they're an idiot. Or, again, pretentious. You can't win.

Martha's Vineyard is sort of the same. It's clearly very pretty - beautiful, even - but sullied. That's not just in a everyone-and-his-dog-has-been-there-so-I-can't-like-it sense. They've actually ruined it. the shore, at least for several miles either side of the major towns, has been entirely sold off to private buyers at vast expense. You can't walk along it, or even see the sea, most of the time. The towns are of the sinister, soulless sort you find in major malls - a faux-village, painstakingly rendered quaint and quirky and - dare I say it again - jaunty. Except it doesn't work, because everything is twice the price it would be if the quaintness were genuine, and which real sleepy seaside town has a coffee shop and sells fuchsia capri pants? You can't put your finger on what's wrong; it's just slightly sinister. Like John Redwood.

Provincetown (which, as I mentioned before, was the Pilgrims' first landing place - gold star at the back!) has a secret. It's not really a secret, it was just unknown to me. It is New England's Brighton: a lovely seaside place with lots of nice oyster bars and sunburnt pensioners and a massive, incongruous gay community. Realising you're in a gay town slowly is wonderful. It felt very similar to the night in Casablanca during which I realised the 'restaurant' I was in was in fact a brothel: a mingling of discomfort, blushing aren't-I-foolish-ness, joy at all the bright colours and exposed skin, and from there on out an insatiable desire to stare at absolutely everybody. I'm sorry; I led a sheltered childhood. But it was fabulous. The Plymouth Colonists must be turning in their graves.

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