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Open Features: Looking ForTyler

Betty McKay goes to Baltimore, Maryland, to absorb the atmosphere of the home city of one of her favourite novelists, Anne Tayler.

It is a glorious autumn morning. Beyond the hotel window I see the harbour, and a tantalising glimpse of the towering rigging of the Russian tall ship that sailed majestically into dock the first night we arrived.

This is our last morning in the hotel room, and the first time I've really looked at it. We have used this hotel as a base and at night have been so exhausted by our wanderings that we gave little attention to the sleeping accommodation.

The room is as big as a barn with a very high ceiling. Like many American hotel rooms we've slept in it has a gigantic bed. Waking in the middle of the night and reaching around in the darkness searching for Hugh, I've been transfixed, shocked by the sheer size of this bed; it's large enough to sleep six enormous people.

On our first morning at breakfast I saw three extremely tall men in short-sleeved check shirts, with great tanned, muscular arms like tree-trunks. Maybe they were members of a lumber-jacks' convention. Perhaps that is why the beds are enormous, because many of the Maryland and Southern gentlemen are of gargantuan proportions.

Why Baltimore? Because it is the home of Anne Tyler and is the city where she sets her novels, the place her quirky characters live out their chequered lives. I read my first Anne Tyler novel in 1986. On a holiday in Malta I picked up a copy of 'The Accidental Tourist' and have been securely hooked onto her work ever since. I find her characters are the nearest to real-life people that you are ever likely to meet. Wonderful characters and all and every one of them beautifully flawed.

I suggested we came here first and Hugh was delighted after he'd looked the city up in his Foders. "Yes, then we can go to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum." He has had a passion for railways since he was a small boy. So the first day we went there. It was enormous!

The Roundhouse is part of it, a spectacular 22-sided building which contains 22 of the oldest totally restored steam and diesel locomotives in America. All to be clambered aboard, inspected, admired and 'oohed' and 'aahed' over.

On the second floor is one of the largest model railway layouts I have ever seen. This would keep any young boy happy for hours. I should know after watching all those middle-aged men behaving like nine-year-olds. Believe me the children didn't stand a chance.

Baltimore is a city well endowed with great restaurants, many of them serving ethnic food. I looked in vain for the Homesick Restaurant but one day there will be one, because I know Anne Tyler is here to stay, just like Dickens and Jane Austen. In a hundred years people will still be reading her novels as classics.

How wonderful it would have been to discover the original Homesick Restaurant, and if fantasy were reality I would take dear, gentle Ezra on one side and have a quiet word in his ear: "Now look here Ezra, my son Dick was just as pesky as your older brother around board games.

Not only Monopoly, but when he played Risk he took on the combined personas of Hitler, Napoleon and Stalin. He made life impossible for us. But he turned out fine. So you tell your mom not to worry."

One of America's national monuments, Fort McHenry, is the birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner, which was composed there. The building dates from before the American Revolution. After watching a short film about its history they played the National Anthem. Everyone, from the smallest toddler, stood ramrod straight like soldiers. Nobody shuffled for the doors or sat mumbling looking embarrassed. I realised how patriotic the Americans are. Now why can't the British be more like that?

Another famous author lived in Baltimore, poor benighted Edgar Allen Poe. He boarded with his aunt and cousin in a small house on Amity Street, which is now his museum. We viewed it on a hot afternoon. His room was a tiny attic at the top of the house. It would have been hell to sleep or work in. He must have tossed and turned in the humid heat or the freezing cold of winter. It was a claustrophobic little room; no wonder he took to the bottle! This was the house where he wrote many of his spine-tingling stories. A sad, tragic man whose death was as mysterious as any depicted in his terrifying tales.

Edgar married Virginia, his 14-year-old first cousin. They left Baltimore for Richmond, and then moved to New York where his wife died at the age of 25. He was traumatised by her death and two years later he left for Richmond but never reached his destination; he was found semi-conscious lying on a Baltimore street, dying within days from alcoholic poisoning. Nobody came forward to explain where he had spent those missing days. The circumstances surrounding his death have left a mystery that has never been unravelled.

It has been delightful to wander through many of the Baltimore streets. Dining and shopping in Little Italy, window gazing on Antique Row and Read Street, and visiting Babe Ruth's Baseball Museum, learning about the gentle giant who played for the Baltimore Orioles. Absorbing facts and fancies concerning this enormous city along the way, but we hadn't seen anyone who resembled an Anne Tyler character.

Yesterday we hired a car and visited the Maritime Museum in Newport News, another of Anne Tyler's locations. As we were talking to the curator he asked, "Which part of the UK do you come from?"

When we replied "Luton, Bedfordshire", we were surprised to hear him say: "Ah, do you know Doctor Kershaw then?"

Hugh laughed: "Yes, I know him very well. He's the Director of the Industrial College, close to the Town centre, not too far from where we live."

Then they spent some considerable time discussing their mutual friend. How small the world has become!

Later, back in Baltimore we decided to eat in one of the many restaurants down on the Harbour. Sitting contentedly beside the window admiring the view of the well-lit harbour walkway and people strolling in the cool of early evening, I noticed an ill-assorted couple standing together outside the restaurant. The man was tall and angular, dressed formally in a beige summer suit. Wearing his fair hair short, he had a thin contemplative face. He appeared very much at ease.

The skinny, ditsy looking woman standing beside him was pale with sharp features and small dark eyes. Black frizzy hair fell in an unrestrained bush about her shoulders. She wore a bright magenta and black peasant blouse with a green dirndl skirt. It was a lively face, happily engaged in animated conversation with the man, who listened with amused interest. They seemed to be waiting for someone or something to happen. I felt I ought to know them, as if I'd seen them somewhere before.

When a small, fragile boy in bluejeans with a dog raced up to them, I realised who they were.

"It's Alexander and Edward," I said.

"What did you say?" Hugh asked.

"Those people there, they look like Macon and Muriel, Alexander and Edward."

"Well, yes. Yes they do. They're straight out of The Accidental Tourist."

"I'm glad I've seen them, whoever they are," I said as they moved away."It's quite made my day."

Today we leave for the meeting of the waters, the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers at Harpers Ferry. Then we will follow the course of the Civil War (1861 -1865) through the battlefields of Virginia and Pennsylvania to the Appomattox Courthouse in South Virginia and the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant. And on the way there perhaps we'll catch a glimpse of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.

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