CHEERS TO BOSTON
there was still a blitz going on in London. The drinks menu features 101 martinis. In honour of crime novelists everywhere, I pass on the Boot Legger Martini (Bombay gin and Southern Comfort) for the Long Kiss Goodnight (Stolichniya vanilla and ordinary vodka and white creme de cacao) because it’s the best thriller title on the list.
I eat in the Langham at the adjacent Cafe Fleuri which, like my room here, is elegant, airy and distinctly European. Because Boston is always on lobsterpalooza alert, as the locals say, I have boiled Maine lobster with sweet corn flan, asparagus and drawn butter. While I appreciate any correct investigation of the best of contemporary New England seafood should begin with the sandy nitty-gritty — the oyster house, lobster shack and fried clam emporium — there’s no way I am heading back out in the wet New England misery.
By morning, the damp weather has broken and I set off to do the famous Freedom Trail, a walking tour of American revolutionary landmarks. Sunlight filters through a thin, grey haze, a slight glare coming from every direction, and nothing in the monolithic legal and financial district stands out in sharp relief.
It looks like TV land. It’s easy to imagine somewhere around here are the swank offices of Crane, Poole & Schmidt, the setting for Boston Legal , the outrageous David E. Kelley satire starring William Shatner as the inimitable Denny Crane.
While not shot here, locally born Kelley’s brilliant series reveals a perfect Machiavellian universe shining in perpetual sunlight, where results trump process, procedural rights are ridiculed and conscience is a woeful liability.
While wonderfully satirical, Boston Legal is a caustic reminder Boston historically stands out as one of the US’s most tangled, corrupt metropolises, one filled with shady lawyers, politicos and business leaders. A city, as Kelley suggests, built on phoniness and fake smiles.
The elegiac nostalgia of the 4km Freedom Trail, a red, mostly brick, path through downtown, pushes pulp thoughts of shady women, snitches, junkies, bagmen and psychopathic city councillors out of my mind. The trail leads to 16 significant revolutionary sites, including the house of Paul Revere, made famous in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ballad for his daring midnight dash to warn of the impending British invasion.
I pick up the marked trail a few minutes’ stroll away at genial Quincy Market (local pronunciation ‘‘ Quinzy Mahket’’), a large group of recycled warehouses devoted to boutiques, fast food and fashionable booze. There are acrobats on bicycles, magicians trying to tie down huge balloons in the wind and costumed actors reading Shakespeare aloud in the sunshine. And as many gyros, empanadas, pizzas, knishes and lobster sandwiches as a detective novelist could eat.
From the items on display, it’s pretty obvious lobster is Boston’s most important product, more so than Cheers T-shirts and even Red Sox caps. The Major League baseball franchise famously ended its fabled 86-year championship curse in 2004, but fans are grumbling on the street after another loss last night in a season of injuries and health scares to players.
A few steps away, the knick-knacks and ephemera of the present are forgotten as I wander into Faneuil Hall, where fiery orators such as Samuel Adams once stirred the fires of insurrection, appealed for the end of slavery and now lay chill hands on the heedless present. Originally a marketplace for food on one level and a marketplace for ideas on the second, Faneuil Hall remains a landmark of American free speech, once called the cradle of liberty, a term later applied to Boston.
The weather-beaten hall smells of varnish and dust, with a faint odour of honky-tonk and barrelhouse. It’s pleasing there are no interactive screens to be seen, no overhyped postmodernish displays of text, just fading wall paintings of revolutionary heroes and tired old wooden chairs. A man in a pale blue uniform sees my note-taking. He is an attendant named Ron Grow and looks like an ancient Henry Fonda, observant and patient.
‘‘ Just soak up a little energy, son,’’ he says. ‘‘ These days new citizens are sworn in here, in the very place such great people have spoken.’’
I take in the Old State House, now a museum, where the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud to the town of Boston in 1776, and the Puritan King’s Chapel Burying Ground, where Nathaniel Hawthorne liked to wander among the graves and read the epitaphs on the moss-grown slabs.
Meandering about these landmark buildings and monuments, the visitor encounters a chain of stored cultural memory, especially when considering the way they represent different ages.
Nineteenth-century Boston was the cultural, intellectual and literary centre of the US, with Longfellow, Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson figuring among the household names. The great arc linking Boston and nearby Cambridge and Concord was also a spawning ground for giants of the modern era, such as Kahlil Gibran, Willa Cather, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, O’Neill and T. S. Eliot.
Boston’s dead — including John F. Kennedy, whose presidential library and museum at Columbia Point simply cannot be missed — are a perverse and unmanageable lot. They refuse to remain safely buried and resist all efforts to obliterate their traces, glorified and memorialised in monuments, images and ceremonies.
Wherever you look there’s a sense of history: of bricks and mortar, colonial weatherboard and cobblestone, prerevolutionary taverns, antiquated bookshops and post-Treaty of Versailles sailors’ quarters.
On the way back to the Langham, I finally get a seat in the crowded Cheers bar at Quincy Markets. The barman, his head the size of a circus balloon, tells me the town is very politically correct and once even banned Hillary Clinton jokes.
‘‘ She reminds everyone of their fourth-grade English teacher,’’ he says, laughing. And he tells this other joke: Hillary and Bill are killed in a plane crash. At the Pearly Gates, God is sitting on his throne and asks Bill who he is and why he deserves to be let in. Bill tells him and is let in. God then asks Hillary. ‘‘ My name is Hillary Rodham Clinton,’’ she says, quickly. ‘‘ And I believe, sir, that you are sitting in my chair.’’ Graeme Blundell was a guest of Leading Hotels of the World, Amtrak and Air Tahiti Nui.
Colonial accent: Like all great cities, Boston has many well-established parks