The arc of history
Hot dogs, watermelon and hope
Carla Carlisle celebrates the Fourth of July
ONE hot summer’s day in early July, we opened the doors to our vineyard restaurant. The vineyard was three years old—the time it takes for vines to produce the grapes that make the wine— and the restaurant was 400 years old. That is to say, it was in a barn that was born in oak some four centuries earlier. We added a hardwood floor and a new roof, put in thoughtful windows, installed a nearly new stainlesssteel kitchen and opened for business.
Talk in this neck of Suffolk was that the American woman was nuts. Bets were taken on how long it would last. The bank manager spoke for many when he said: ‘But you are nothing, nothing in the middle of nowhere.’ Neighbouring farmers gazed into the distance and said they felt sorry for my husband.
That was 25 years ago; we now have 50 people on the payroll and, most days, that husband eats lunch in the cafe, a recipe for marital longevity if ever there was.
From the beginning, the menu had a subtle American accent. On the fourth Thursday in November, we celebrate Thanksgiving Southern style, with cornbread dressing, sweet-potato casserole and Norfolk black turkeys pan-smoked over grapevine prunings. Big letters on the menu advise the thankful to ‘Save room for pie’: pumpkin pie, pecan pie and apple pie with cinnamon ice cream.
Then there’s the Fourth of July. I hang my old American-flag quilt over the balcony that once housed the seed dresser, but, otherwise, I’m sensitive to the fact that this day celebrates American independence from British rule. We serve Gloucester Old Spot hot dogs, Scottish lobster rolls, potato salad, ice-cold watermelon and strawberry shortcake. The menu sings ‘freedom’ more than ‘independence’, starting with Charlotte’s Web: ‘An hour of freedom is worth a barrel of slops’ (said the goose to Wilbur the pig).
Then, in 2003, I left the flag quilt in the attic. No hot dogs, no roman candles like bombs bursting in air. No quotes from E. B. White or Thomas Paine, born 10 miles from this farm, whose revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense sparked the Declaration of Independence.
My enthusiasm for patriotic hoo-haw hit a lull because I believed the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, that Britain (Tony Blair) had provided gravitas and legitimacy to President Bush and that the so-called coalition was a tragedy in the making. Soon after the fireworks of Shock and Awe, it was obvious that we could no more win the war in Iraq (ditto Afghanistan) than we could win an earthquake, but even then few could foresee the earthquake that would follow that war: Isis, Syria, Libya, Yemen…
This year, the flags are out again, although the news from America is crazier, more heartbreaking and more infuriating than I can ever remember. For the return of the flags, I can thank James Comey, the FBI director who Donald Trump sacked after not getting the response he expected when he asked for his loyalty.
I went to hear the former director ‘in conversation’ with Emily Maitlis at the Barbican last week. Mr Comey, all 6ft 8in of him, divides opinion. The Hillary people blame him for their candidate losing; the Trump people blame him for turning the President down, getting himself fired and singlehandedly triggering the Mueller investigation. How a man can have so many people mad at him and remain good-natured, articulate, graceful and believable is beyond me.
Mr Comey sees the history of America as an arc that moves ever upward, with plenty of troughs and ravines along the way. He has the clarity of a lawyer, but the confidence of a historian who has watched America go through dark times before. He reminded his audience of the Mccarthy period, when the country was divided between those who accepted the device of loyalty oaths, witch hunts and the right to call anybody you didn’t like a Communist and those who trembled at the thought. He asked us to remember the bomb in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls attending Sunday School.
Just when it looks as if humanity and civilisation are gone for good, he maintains that something happens: the ground shifts, the people stand up and the graph of history moves.
Did that happen last month when Americans learned that more than 2,000 children were taken from their mothers at the Mexican border? When the President cancelled ‘due process’ to asylum seekers? There is no guarantee. As long as people from south of the border seek to flee poverty and the violence of sectarian/drug/gang wars, there will be haunting scenes of desperate people. The struggle for survival is as old as humanity and it’s never been an easy journey.
On the Fourth of July, we serve Scottish lobster rolls and strawberry shortcake
The flags are out again, although the news from America is crazier and more heartbreaking than I can ever remember
I never thought I would hear an FBI director (albeit former) quote Martin Luther King, but it’s Mr Comey’s theme: ‘The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.’ It doesn’t bend on its own, of course. It takes human action and reaction, exactly as it did nearly 250 years ago in a fallout over tea in Boston harbour.
It may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but, today, I’m hanging two ancient flags, one with only 48 stars, the other an old woollen Union Flag patched through the years by unknown hands. I’m celebrating the common language and values that unite these two countries, boosted by Mr Comey’s belief that nothing terrible lasts forever.
The prize is a cloudless day, blueberry pie, babies napping on quilts in the shade. To paraphrase that goose: an hour of hope is worth heaps more than a barrel of slops.