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Marbled Angels Against Spanish Moss

Tuesday, 3rd July, 2001

Of all the myriad cities I've enjoyed, few are as distinctive as Savannah, Georgia. I've had the honour and the privilege to spend time there during two consecutive summers and the trend is one I'd very much like to continue.

The United States is a new country, new enough for there to be no old cities, nowhere that can fairly absorb history. Somehow Savannah manages to capture a timelessness that I've not yet seen anywhere else. Partly it's the squares, the interrupted streets, the trees. Partly it's the silence. Whatever it is, it's nothing easily definable but is instantly felt by one and all.

Tracy and I spent time with Diane and her family outside of Savannah during the summer of 1999, though the visit was sadly only a brief one. Diane is a unique character and a charming host, one who would laugh at my choice of description. She has a laugh that is contagious and when it appears, which is frequently, her eyes squeeze closed as her face laughs with her. She is a pleasure to be around. Unfortunately we could be around only briefly yet again, but we made the time count, and time was very much in mind, as we spent much of the Sunday in company with the dead.

Bonaventure is a riverside property with a desirable view, but one with a difference. No palatial mansion this. It was formerly part of a spacious plantation but it has evolved into a stunningly beautiful cemetery. Its vistas are of row after row of intricately carved memorials: vaulted tombs, decorative archways, marbled angels against Spanish moss. It's most famous for being a major location in John Berendt's fascinating book about Savannah, 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil'.

Somehow neither the cemetery nor Savannah itself have fallen into becoming tourist traps and this adds to the charm of both. Other than a few tourists searching in vain for the sculpted angel from the cover of the book (it's kept safe in the Telfair Museum), it was quiet and peaceful as a cemetery should. Home to both Conrad Aiken, Georgia's poet laureate, and Johnny Mercer, Savannah's songwriter, the very air has gentle poetry in it.

At less than a hundred and fifty years of age, this is a relatively recent cemetery, even to an American. The Colonial Cemetery, which we would visit next is far older, but has none of the timeless charm of Bonaventure. Somehow the world retreats from the walls and lets the cemetery stay apart from everything.

It brought many surprises for an English visitor, some of which should have been expected. Certainly it's a very obvious way in which the American surplus of real estate has been put to wonderful use. In England, such a tiny island with a lack of geography, developers are tearing up older cemeteries in order to utilise the space. Tombstones and memorials are crushed for roadfill and graveyards become housing developments.

The newly deceased are more often than not cremated due to lack of somewhere to bury them; and for those who do have a plot, there are numerous restrictions set by the church on everything from the material used for a tombstone to its size and design. I would guess that almost all the monuments in Bonaventure wouldn't be allowed in England, such a startling loss to the connoisseurs of beauty and history both, and not least to those whose eternal rest has been so rudely blasphemed.

Other than the majesty of the Bonaventure memorials themselves, seemingly unendless up and down wide driveways, what caught our eyes most were the trees and the markers. The trees were mostly sprawling oaks festooned with arrays of Spanish moss that gave the impression that even the trees were bent over weeping over those lost. The markers were small metal Maltese crosses with the rebel flag sedately impressed inside a laurel wreath and the initials CSA around it.

The English CSA is an organisation fraught with controversy ever since its well-meaning inception. It is a strange parallel that the American CSA fits exactly the same bill, but where the English have the Child Support Agency, the Americans have the Confederate States of America. Indeed, it is still making news a hundred and forty years after it lost the War Between the States, what we English call the American Civil War, as if in a politically correct attempt to instil some civility into mankind's least civil act.

The current debate here is over the Stars and Bars, the flag of the Confederacy. It isn't just a fashion accessory festooning the stages of southern rock bands and the trucks of drivers who have never even set foot on Confederate soil. In the south, it has remained as part of the state flags of Georgia and South Carolina.

The influential black activist group, the NAACP, successfully had it removed from the South Carolina county building, though it has to be only a partial victory for them as it was moved to a more prominent location where lights play on it. Now Jesse Jackson's son, a Congressman in his own right, is pushing for history to be rewritten at historic sites of interest, and others are raising the issue of the amount of Confederate-associated public statues and memorials. The influence of a war infamous for pitting brother against brother has not disappeared entirely even over so many years.

After Bonaventure, we toured the Colonial Cemetery in Savannah, only recently reopened to the public after bizarre rituals were found conducted there. Here are the tombs of a few Presidents of Georgia and other men of historical note. Along the back wall are a plethora of broken tombstones whose proper location has been lost over time. It seems that when General Sherman's troops occupied Savannah they took use of the cemetery as a location to keep their horses due to the firm boundary. When they needed more space they would rock on the tombstones until they broke and move them out of the way. Damn yankees.

We returned to the Colonial later in the evening, as one prominent location on a ghost tour of the city, given by an unenthusiastic tour guide whose spiel was fascinating if sometimes inaccurate. If everything he said is to be believed, then there are two entirely separate ghosts who remain independently the most frequently seen in Savannah and 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' is the highest selling book of all time. It does seem strange to find someone in the Bible Belt who hasn't heard of the Bible...

Then again, paradox is alive and well in Savannah, and Diane, our host, is in many ways its epitome. Totally uncompromising, she doesn't believe in deception and always speaks her mind, even if it's likely to be received in a negative manner. Very much a product of the Bible Belt herself, she still describes herself as 'a racist but not a racist'. Driving up Victory Street, a beautiful road overhung for much of its length, she had no hesitation in describing the initial rough area as 'niggerland'. She talked lucidly of the black troublemakers who thrive there, but still leant out of the car window at a stoplight to point out to a black driver that her door was partially open. In fact Diane, while unashamedly using the word 'nigger' as a deprecating comment, would equally apply it to a white idiot as a black.

What seems most surprising of all is that the locals in Ellabell, her small rural hometown not far outside Savannah, see her as a snob. Diane lives in a trailer and can sometimes seem as much a part of the Deliverance stereotype as anyone else. But look closer and you'll see a light in her eyes that signifies both common sense and intelligence, something notably lacking in her neighbours. The cars parked outside her trailer do not sit on blocks, both she and her husband work for a living and none of her family sleep with relatives.

She has a rule in her house that her kids can't go out with Ellabellians, as she sees them all as inbred future guests of Jerry Springer. She's probably right.

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