Our daughter Ella and her partner Sam have become engaged to be married, after over ten years together. They met at university in Loughborough (where their friends referred to them as the ‘golden couple’) and have hardly ever been apart since. Incredibly, their announcement managed to stun us all, with Sam also surprising Ella by the timing and precise siting of his proposal in New York’s Central Park. Ella then gave us the news a few days later in the UK, wrong-footing even super-sleuth Alli, who had given up predicting that the announcement would likely come on the occasions of numerous past Christmases, birthdays, holiday weekends, and other significant days. Now, with both installed in great new jobs, Ella and Sam can surmount the future together even more confidently and successfully.
Late in the month we all celebrated the 84th birthday of my wonderful mother-in-law, Kay, in a well-attended family gathering over drinks and dinner, featuring a good attendance in Broad Oaks of her children and grandchildren and their partners. This was shortly after I had attended the memorial service in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, of Henry Plumb, for whom I worked in the 1980s, during which he became the first and last British President of the European Parliament. A reception afterwards yielded a rich array of old friends and acquaintances from the heady days when the UK was leading and inspiring the EU institutions despite a Thatcherite government that now seems almost benign. I also had lunch in the Carlton Club the following day with colleagues and friends in his office at that time. This featured a heroic level of high-level historical gossip around the table about close encounters with characters as diverse as the Pope, Yasser Arafat, Margaret Thatcher, Ian Paisley, and politicians of global, European, and national dimensions, and especially their political advisers.
I spent most of the month on a spectacular and selective tour of the USA, attending a wedding, visiting old friends, taking planes, trains, taxis, buses, cars, and generally refreshing my perspectives. I was appreciating once again the tremendous benefits and freedoms of travel, curiosity, enquiry, and discovery, eased by the re-affirmation of long-distance and long-held friendships and a heady sense of fulfilment. At times I even felt I was back in the glorious early 1970s, joyously free-wheeling around New England, loving life, America, boundless freedom of movement, and wondrous teenage discoveries, long before the yawling nightmares of Trump, Putin, and Brexit.
But I diverge. My laboured mind had been flickering red that it was way past high time for some American rest and repair. It started with a heavy overnight in the Surrey Hills, a sparrow-fart taxi to Heathrow, then an exhausting twelve hours of air travel to North West Arkansas via Dallas. I arrived in Bentonville to attend the wedding of Jessie’s close friend Bailey, for whom Jessie was maid of honour, and whose parents, Jasper and LeAnn, have been special friends of Alli and me for nearly twenty years. The wedding was a forthright celebration of friendship, family, and love, and Jessie gave a brilliant maid-of-honour speech. I also visited (three times) the extraordinary Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and walked over the nearby Civil War site of Pea Ridge with Jasper and other long-term friends Neil and Jill. Pea Ridge saved Missouri for the Union and featured the death of General Ben McCulloch, recently demonised by the brilliant Steve Earle in song. We also delighted in a boat trip on Beaver Lake with several of Bailey’s and Jessie’s friends from school. Jessie took the opportunity, for the first time, to try water-skiing and was soon successfully up and skiing to prolonged applause from us all in Jasper’s hauling speedboat (called ‘ship-faced’) on the lake, just before a lunar eclipse launched a blood-red moon – sailing through wispy clouds like a discoverer in the darkening sky.
I flew to Washington and rented a car to drive south to visit friends Sarah and John in Virginia. With them I followed the reeling Civil War route of General Lee’s retreat west from Petersburg to Appomattox in six tragic days of pursuit, skittle, and skirmish before the mannered bathos of Lee’s formal surrender to General Grant’s Union Army in 1865. We also visited James Madison’s House, Montpelier; walked around Charlottesville’s independent art galleries, spaces, and crannies; sampled the micro-brewery in Scottsville and the produce of a local vineyard, and inspected Theodore and Edith Roosevelt’s happy-place shack, Pine Knot, in the woods nearby. I was generously and lavishly entertained, and enjoyed a civilised and erudite dinner party with neighbours.
Along the while, my rented car suffered a flat tyre which could not be mended. This caused some hitches, which were magnanimously mitigated by several spontaneous and generous acts of assistance from random locals before I drove a replacement car 450 miles north to Brooklyn, New York. Here I had been invited to dinner and a fascinating series of conversations with another friend from the early 1970s, Catie, and her photographer husband, Nelson. The failure of the ‘red wave’ in the US midterm elections had provided a major tonic for them and almost all the other Americans I met during my visits. I took the subway train to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and stayed with long-term friend Donna for a couple of days, catching up with similarly long-term friend and scriptwriter Mike in the theatre district, then enjoying breakfast waffles expertly made the next day by philosopher Carl in Harlem. In the evening Donna and I had dinner with Ella and Sam, newly arrived for a New York holiday separately organised some time ago. We nearly didn’t connect at all, as the data on my mobile phone gave out, ensuring that Ella and I lost track of each other at a crucial moment, before I found an accommodating wifi network. I am feeling ever stronger bonds of solidarity with confused old people wandering around car parks with coins aloft in their hands. I was then not to know about Ella and Sam’s engagement three days following our meeting, at a picturesque spot by the lake in Central Park (once the Chinese tourist had departed).
The next morning I took a Amtrak regional train towards Boston, thoroughly enjoying the scenic trip north with its several stops through Connecticut and Rhode Island. I was met at Route 128 by Mark – our last meeting was 49 years ago when we were tennis-playing teenagers at Milton Academy. The collective weight of the past is indeed light as a nymph when such meetings occur. I was welcomed, humoured, and entertained by Mark, his wife SaSa, and family in their beautiful house in Milton. I dined at the Brookline Country Club (host site of this year’s US Golf Open), attended a ‘friendversary’ evening, reacquainted myself with Boston and especially its Museum of Fine Art, walked a leafy trail in the Blue Hills with SaSa and Doug the dog, and finally departed for the grumpy old rainy UK after a magnificent, uplifting, and inspiring three weeks in a USA rising anew from the ashes of an evil, thwarted design.
Many thousands of grateful thanks to all whose paths I crossed during this most fertile month of rediscovery,