Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Letter from Baltimore

Last week, escaping the latest blizzard, I went to Miami Beach for some sun. But it was cold and rainy, and they were noisily replacing the carpet in my hotel. I was reduced to checking my email in an internet café and getting an expensive facial – truly a case of closing the stable door.

South Beach, as it is known, is widely celebrated for its seemingly orchestrated Art Deco street and beach-scape. This is one of the most colossally successful con jobs of all time. Take an unpretentious tropical beach community, popularized in the 1940s by canny Jewish holiday-makers from the northeast. Throw up a couple of thousand tawdry two- or three-storey shoe-boxes with basic amenities – a couple of ceiling fans, and no windows. Roll out some chrome cladding and neon. Toss in a bit of rote-learned applied detail, a few top knots and some frosted glass. Then paint it an improbable pale pink or green or yellow, or some other combination of pastel colors that manage to be both insipid and stubbornly vulgar.

Unleash a million 12 year-old chain-smoking fashion models; drug-dependent muscle boys of volcanic stupidity (usually active, but at times gigglingly dormant). Mobilize an army of shrunken retirees and sullen midgets, who would also be sleepwalking were they not in partial control of powerful motorized wheelchairs. Bring on the smelly Eurotrash photographers, and every cheap hustler within a radius of three thousand miles. Sprinkle vomit on the sidewalk, tread in some dog poo, and scatter to the wind your empty soft drink cans and unwanted potato chips, and
voila! You have created an Art Deco Shangri-La.

This gives you the esthetic and heritage credentials you need to get away with putting up vast blocks of flats, and fuck up what little remains on the sandy, traffic-choked isthmus. The damage stretches all the way from South Beach to Fort Lauderdale and well beyond, and, unlike Los Angeles, no amount of tropical planting can conceal the monstrousness of this cumulative act of vandalism, which makes such an obscene mockery of the beautiful name of Florida.

Thank God I am now in the splendid city of Baltimore, Maryland, to give a lecture about George Stubbs’s paintings of exotic animals. These include the kangaroo and dingo he painted for Sir Joseph Banks, and our portrait at Yale of Queen Charlotte’s African ‘she-ass’ or zebra, which became an instant celebrity and inspired this rude song:
Ye Bucks and ye Jemmies who amble the Park,
Whose Hearts and whose Heads are as lightsome as Cork,
Through Buckingham Gate, as to Chelsea you pass,
Without Fee or Reward, you may see the Q——’s A—.
See the Q——’s A—. See the Q——’s A—.
Without Fee or Reward, &c.
The zebra lived in the garden of Buckingham Palace, and I see the Oxford English Dictionary defines bucks and jemmies as ‘gay, dashing fellows; dandies, fops, or “fast” men.’ Mid-century synonyms include Greenhorns, Jessamies, Brights, Flashes, Puzzes, Pizzes and ‘Smarts of the Town.’ Anyway, it goes on for twelve verses. Stubbs was taller and fatter and stronger than Sir Joshua Reynolds, and his love affair with the thoroughbred racehorse is the subject of the current exhibition at the Walters Art Gallery.

Stubbs was teetotal for the last forty years of his life, which leaves the first forty – those of his first marriage, among other mysteries – intriguingly unaccounted for. He probably did not see a Barbary lion attack and devour a horse in Morocco, although the story is perfect for cinema. Stubbs’s common law second wife Mary Spencer masqueraded in London as his ‘niece’ – she who in 1755 stood on a step-ladder pouring hot tallow into the arteries of rotting, half-flayed horses that were suspended from the ceiling of their damp and isolated Lincolnshire farmhouse so he could draw them, in spite of the stench.

Baltimore is charming, despite its strong associations with Edgar Allen Poe, Gertrude Stein, H. L. Mencken, the Duchess of Windsor, and John Waters. It was America’s second largest sea port, and they are proud of their delicious Chesapeake Bay soft shell crabs, which are about to come into season. Magnificent old houses and public buildings, including the spectacular steeple of the First and Franklin Presybterian Church (on Park and Madison), survived last century’s grim years of decline. Thankfully no-one could afford to pull anything down, and wicked developers (no doubt Miami-based) greedily obliterated big chunks of Philadelphia instead.

At the newsstand in Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station, with that curious mixture of excitement, guilt and effortless superiority that comes with the discovery of a book so dazzlingly awful that you can hardly believe your eyes, I bought
The Official Southern Ladies’ Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral, and devoured it on the train. ‘Death is the time [sic] for the best stationery you [sic] can [sic] afford [sic]’, write Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays, of Greenville, Mississippi, where the local undertaker is called Bubba Boone. Episcopal services at St. James’s, Greenville, are generally at eight and ten thirty ‘so we can get to the country club before the Baptists.’ Mourners then shovel into their grieving mouths tenderloin; frozen-pea casserole (‘nothing whispers sympathy like it’); something called tomato aspic (‘think of it as a solid bloody Mary without the vodka’); cherry salad with Coca-Cola; Aunt Hebe’s caramel cake, made from a box of Duncan Hines butter cake mix (‘we’re already thinking about this before the last “amen”’), mayonnaise, whipped butter, sugar, salt, fat.

Later, dozing restlesslessly between Stamford and New Haven, I experience feverish, staccato dreams about obesity, table decoration, southern winding sheets, Art Deco, and Stubbs’s
A Sight such as this surely never was seen.
Who the Deuce would not gaze at the A— of a Q——n?
What Prospect so charming — What Scene can surpass
The delicate Sight of her M——’s A—?