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The Old West - 7 May 2002

Does anyone remember a motion picture - a 1936 movie but often replayed here and purchasable from one of the regular catalogues?

It's called The Plainsman and purports to be the life of Wild Bill Hickok, the most famous marshal of the old West, who could keep a tin can dancing in the air with a spurt of bullets from a pistol in each hand.

He knocked off so many crooks - cattle thieves and the like - as marshal of Abilene, Kansas, that his deputy said: "Talk about a rule of iron, we had it in Abilene."

In the movie, since the part was played by the reigning heart-throb, Gary Cooper - who was, by the way, the best shot Ernest Hemingway had ever seen - obviously the role was highly romanticised, but the scene of his death was dramatic and true.

A nervous little comic named Jack McCall shot him in the back while he was holding a hand of aces and eights - ever afterwards, to this day, known as the dead man's hand.

This scene was so poignantly played, so memorable, that once upon a time when I was in the Dakotas I made a point of going to Deadwood and downing a shivering beer in the saloon where it happened.

Imagine my startled emotion the other morning when the first piece I came on in the paper was datelined Deadman Flat and written by a distinguished correspondent who only days before had told a heartbreaking story from a village in Pakistan, 8,000 miles away.

What could they possibly have in common? I couldn't begin to guess because Deadman Flat was a sort of base camp for the 30,000 men who over a hundred years ago invaded the valleys of the Yukon in the sub-Arctic north west territory of Canada.

I was at home with the memory of Deadman Flat because when I was a small boy it was not possible to pass a single pub in Manchester on a Saturday evening when some baritone wouldn't be chanting Robert W Service's immortal tribute to those frozen gold diggers in their petrifying landscape suffering from "hunger not of the belly kind that's banished with bacon and beans but the lonely cry of a hungry man for home and all that it means."

I pause to wring out my handkerchief and wish only that something equally dramatic and heartbreaking had been going on today - that's last week - at Deadman Flat.

But all that came out of it was the famous reporters apology for writing no story at all and who stopped him?

The Mounties, the Canadian Mounties, that's who.

He trekked or soared all those thousands of miles to cover the summit meeting of the great eight - the leaders of the eight economic giants.

Considering the trouble they've had in previous meetings with the Bastille mobs that have desecrated every city they've met in - once, in Seattle, causing the summiteers to abandon their meeting altogether - they chose this time to find a hideout about as difficult or bomb or strut around in as a nest of igloos halfway up Everest.

This hideout is described in the only guidebook I can find as "a remote mountain resort".

And it was a moot question whether or not the demonstrators could get there because they were not allowed. Nor were the media.

That's why our friend was politely told he must stay marooned 30 miles from the mighty economic business that was going on.

One of the issues the eight were due to talk about was how the poorest countries could receive more of the national income and how the globalisation protestors can be made to see that their conviction that free trade leads to a minority of the very rich and a majority of the very poor is nonsense.

Now a glance at Nicolas Kristof's earlier despatch from that Pakistan village will begin to make it clear why he went to the craggy Canadian summit and very likely what lesson he had for the protesters.

His despatch from Pakistan was devoted entirely to the worldwide complaint. Not only of leftists and liberals but of all comfortable people in prosperous countries - the universal bewailing of sweatshops.

Everybody agrees that sweatshops are a vile institution and should be rooted out wherever they can be unmasked.

But Mr Kristof, having spent months if not years padding around poor countries and noting the prevalent forms of labour, had an alarming proposal to make to the great eight and to us, the compassionate pitiers of the victims of sweatshops.

I quote him: "The G8 leaders should start an international campaign to promote imports from sweatshops with big labels depicting an unrecognisable flag bearing the words 'proudly made in a Third World sweatshop'."

Mr Kristof, having assumed his readers will assume that he's drunk or drugged, at once proceeds to define the usual two forms of labour open to the very poor in the Third World.

He takes the case of young - say, 14-year-old - boys who weave rugs for export to middle class Europe or America. They earn $2 a day.

The usual First World solution is to abolish the sweatshop and set up machinery.

The boys say that would lose them their jobs and drive them into the alternative sweatshop that workers dread - working on farms.

The true, dreadful sweating, they say, is done on farms and making bricks under the burning sun.

And for that the wages are half or less of the luxurious pittance of $2 a day.

Mr Kristof ends by asking us "muddle minded bemoaners" of sweatshops to think again and spend our compassion on other solutions.

His epitaph on this grim topic is: "For impoverished workers in the Third World a sweatshop is the first step on life's escalator."

I turn with relief to something a little lighter that's non-political, an issue I believe has nothing to do with right and wrong and justice.

Well then, this past Thursday, it will not be news to you, was a special date in this country: the Fourth of July.

And a friend said: "You know it's been years since you talked about Independence Day."

It's true but then in 50-odd years I've squeezed it drier than an abandoned grapefruit.

Thinking of it now persuades me to tell a personal story which is relevant in a roundabout way or perhaps I'm moved to tell it because it touches that vein of snobbery which we all possess but which none of us likes to admit to.

About 20-odd years I was standing on the lobby of my hotel on the top of Nob Hill in San Francisco.

It is not as grand as the hostelries nearby with their knee-deep, flowered carpeting and the gleaming Cadillac they have or did have on display in their lobbies.

My place is smaller but more elegant and quieter.

I was waiting for one of the two elevators - lifts - to descend, when I was joined by a stranger - a middle aged man with glasses and a light brown moustache, a modest genial character I should guess, probably an insurance man or junior partner in a small law firm.

We shifted, as people will, from one foot to the other and paced a meaningless step or two.

The elevator opened and we motioned each other in. One of us must have yielded or we'd be there still.

Once the door closed the man did an amazing thing: he raised his hand and he said to me, I swear to the exact phrase: "May I shake your distinguished hand?"

Of course I decided he was a splendid chap and invited him in for a drink - a very agreeable interlude.

A couple of days later he had left the hotel.

And an evening or so after that I was dining with a local newspaper editor, a youngish man and an eager beaver for printable news.

Sometime in the middle of the meal he said: "Anyone of importance I ought to interview at the hotel?"

I'd anticipated this moment and sucked on it like a chocolate truffle.

"Well," I said, "it's too late now but if I'd call you, which I must certainly wouldn't have done, you might have had a piece on the absolutely top man in the British aristocracy.

"The only person who tells the Queen where to stand, the Archbishop of Canterbury what to do, who decides the line of precedence of the procession at the coronation of a monarch - where does the French president walk in relation to the King of Thailand or to his beatitude the Abuna of Abyssina."

"My God," the man cried.

"No," I said, "he is the Earl Marshal of England and has had many quaint powers since the 15th Century. His humbler title is the Duke of Norfolk."

The editor swore - and then he swore that next time he was in England he'd try and do a feature of the man even it meant bearding him at his castle in Norfolk.

"You won't find him," I said. "Remember he's British, so being the Duke of Norfolk he lives in Sussex, just as the Earl of Leicester lives in Norfolk and the Queen, having been born on 21 April, celebrates her birthday always in June, and so also to preside over the most sacred ceremony of the Church of England naturally the chosen chief - the Earl Marshal - is the leading Roman Catholic layman of England."

The United States picked up this perversity at once.

Since the Declaration of Independence was signed on 2 July it is always celebrated on the 4th.

That, I expect, is all I shall ever write about the Fourth.

Last week the Duke of Norfolk died, aged 86 - a genial, delightful, modest man to the end.


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