Some stories don't date
Flying down to Florida this week – huh! I realise that nobody will listen to the rest of the sentence or even the talk unless I disabuse you of the picture that will have come instantly to mind in, I should guess, 90 listeners in a hundred.
Ahhh, Florida! The very name. Land of flowers. Calls up blazing memories of sun-drenched beaches, streaming beside an ocean that is sometimes green and sometimes blue and is, at all time, bright and sparkling. Florida, land of carefree tourists and miles of white sand littered with sleek, tanned bodies and, also, with fat or shrinking older bodies, all lying limp, sprawling, immobile – all determined to pick up a dose of skin cancer before senility overtakes them.
Land of James Bond outfoxing crooked millionaires with a handmade German car that ejects missiles or poison gas and still leaving Bond time to order the very driest Martini in the most glittering bar, alongside some nubile, gorgeous item who might be, or might not be – you'll never know which till the final fade-out –on his side.
Well, before I go on to say what I want to say, I'd better make clear the Florida I saw and what I was doing there. I was going for an overnight trip to talk to the trustees of a young and exciting university with the appropriate name of Nova University. It's in a town about equidistant from Palm Beach to the north and Miami to the south. When I first knew it, was in 1942 – well, let's look it up in the federal guide to Florida and see what it says. The guide was published, after all, quite recently in 1939.
Here it is: 'Fort Lauderdale, population 8,666, seat of Broward county, popular winter headquarters of yachtsmen and anglers. Built on the site, hence the name, of a fort constructed to fight the Seminole Indians in the war of 1838. It was named after its commander, Major William Lauderdale. More than a hundred miles of natural and artificial waterways wind through Fort Lauderdale and when the roads are dry in winter, Seminole Indians come into the town to sell hides and game and shop for food and bright clothes. Along the street, the men, aloof and stolid, stride ahead of the women. Every woman coils her shining black hair and wears strands of red, yellow and blue beads around her neck. Jingling silver coins decorate her blouse.'
This sounds very stimulating, just the sort of small settlement that, before you go racing on to the pleasure domes of Miami, would give you a sharp taste of the true Florida flavour, its history, what makes Florida so different from other places, other states. Well, to be truthful, when I first went through there in 1942, I should have guessed that 8, 9,000 was about right for the population count. I remember boats, quite small yachts bobbing about on this heaving, twinkling sea. The town itself, a row of bungalows here, then a bridge, a canal, another row, straggling, interlaced, quiet and attractive, with men and boys leaning over bridges with poles. Lots of simple fishermen. Very different indeed from the great, expensive, cleaving fishing yachts off Palm Beach to the north where, as one cynical, old American newspaperman wrote, 'Fishermen use little fish the size of billy goats as bait for fish the size of cows'.
No, Fort Lauderdale was attractive in a bright, clean, tropical seaside sort of way, rows of little vegetable palms running by the seashore and waving over the canals, the feathery, nodding Australian pines, what they call in the Far East the casuarina tree. So I stopped and had lunch at a little restaurant on a pier overlooking the ocean and lapped up the local specialty, the butter fish or, as they call it down there, as the Spanish called it, the pompano. A very pleasant interlude.
So this week I found myself landing at the Fort Lauderdale airport. Needless to say, there was no such convenience there in 1942. Even 10, 12 years ago, it was a low-slung, rambling airport, your luggage dumped under a long shed outside, you came out and the soft blanket of the hot air slapped gently at you. You were, no doubt about it, in Florida.
Today, the airport is a vast, cement gymnasium of several levels, highways and bypasses weaving over each other like frozen spaghetti. The din of the wheeling planes is terrific. There must be at least 8,000 people in the airport itself. You come out on to a sidewalk running under one or other highway, almost as in a tunnel. There's no foliage in sight. You could be, except for the heat, in Michigan, in Atlanta, in Chicago.
I took a cab out to my motel and I never saw the ocean. Needless to say, the sight of a Seminole striding ahead of his woman with coiled hair and beads would have caused the seething traffic to come to a screeching halt. I doubt that one resident in a thousand knows who the Seminoles were, let alone ever having seen one, though they are, the small remnants of them, still there. There, being the swampy jungle of the Everglades in the interior where they live in shacks built on stilts and to get in there and spot a Seminole involves an expedition on a flat-bottomed boat through winding, tangled swamps and strange, bright birds, almost as much of an ordeal as a trip to find the headhunters in the jungles of Brazil.
So, I took the cab along one highway north – there are many highways running parallel back west into the interior – for the fishing town is now one of those flat Florida southern California-type metropolises that go on and on. I don't suppose 8, 9 million is the present population, it just feels that way. You drive on and on for ten, fifteen miles through a continuous alternation of petrol stations, second-hand car lots with pennants flying, burger joints, lunch counters, pancake parlours, insurance offices, funeral parlours, motels with wonderful names like the Bideawee, the Anacapri, the Sandy Toes.
And then, as all these one-storey service stations give out, places built to serve your stomach and your automobile engine, and, eventually, your corpse, finally, some trees come in. A palm or two. And, suddenly, huge towering, high-rise so-called 'luxury' blocks of flats with electronic gates that open only when the gatekeeper has cleared your identity by spotting your likeness in the closed-circuit TV monitors installed in his office. The account of the place published in 1939 in the federal guide might have been written in the sixteenth century.
So, now, I can say again casually and without, I think, inducing envious daydreams, flying down to Florida this week, I found that I had nothing to read on the plane and, surprisingly, the airplane had only its airline magazine which I'd read before. And then I remembered I was taking an overnight bag small enough to stick under the seat in front, as the regulations require, and it has a useful floppy compartment on the outside into which you could slip papers. I unzipped it and found the airmail edition of my old paper which, so as not to puzzle overseas' subscribers who knew it by its old, great name, still calls itself the Manchester Guardian Weekly. I opened it and was immediately back in our turbulent world.
'Iraqis Battle for Control of Marshes', as usual. Underneath that, 'Syria's Shadowy Power Struggle', and beneath that, 'Jermial [UNCLEAR WORD] Pins Hope on Assad'. Still hoping for yet another ceasefire, yet another final, decent solution to the upheaval of Beirut. I'm afraid the Middle East is too much with us, with me, anyway, and I turned a page. A cartoon. Good and funny and, what's worse, true. A bunch of bobbing heads as of a shipwrecked crew. Deep in the water ahead of them, their leader clutching Moses' staff and, even though the water is up to his jowls, he is recognisably Ronald Reagan. The bobbing heads are angry. One is saying, 'I'll part the Red Sea, you said. I'll lead you to the Promised Land, you said.' Our leader, ten feet ahead of them, is marching or sloshing on into an ocean labelled 'Deficits'. Ah! How true!
I settle to read an accompanying piece. It was a shocker, almost incomprehensible, like reading Old Moore's Almanac for the wrong year. But, it was a long piece, a thoughtful piece, a persuasive piece. It said there was a rising tide of hope behind one man in America, a man who, fresh from his triumph in New England, was marching into the South, rousing the young, touching the minds and hearts of an increasing multitude of Americans, a man who stressed not the mistakes of the past, but the promises, the challenge of the future.
It says here, 'If he is nominated, Reagan will face a new task. He will have to demonstrate that he can run against the future. No doubt about it, said one Reagan adviser, he is the most dangerous candidate for us.'
What are they writing about? For the first time, I looked at the top of the page. This issue was dated March 18 1984. The great new saviour, the great threat to Reagan, was Gary Hart. I deduce from this perusal of my old paper the profound cliché, some things remain the same and some don't.
I'm urged by a friend to say something about the resolution the United Nations' general assembly got out this week about terrorism. What did it say? Well, I ought to say that it has been 11 years in the making and through all that time, the UN has argued, debated, quarrelled, adjourned, come back. Even to define terrorism was a knotty two-year stint. After all, one country's terrorist is another country's liberator.
Well, after these mountainous labours, they have delivered their approved resolution. After 11 years, the United Nations says, 'Terrorism is a bad thing'.
This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.
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