We went to Memphis – a city! As the car purred into town my blood quickened to be surrounded by tall buildings and strangers again, pedestrians and neon – so much neon! Art Deco towers soaring into the blue sky; enormous, gracious Belle Epoch hotels whispering of glories past. Countless windows burning bright long-after the sun had set. I was back in my natural habitat.
The Memphis train station, a wonderfully mammoth edifice. Once the nexus of an intricate web of transportation, now connected to life by one solitary ribbon of steel – the others all filled with concrete and carpark. Across the road, the Arcade Café – a classic American diner that has been serving hungry travellers since 1919. We enjoy our dose of trans-fats, the brightly-coloured vinyl booths filled with large policemen and the tan uniforms of Sherriff’s Deputies. Mini-skirted waitresses keep coffee cups constantly hot and full. Outside, the traffic lights swing wildly in the cold wind.
Walking through Confederate Park, high –up on the bluff, the mighty Mississippi shimmering gold and silver in the sunset, stretching wide enough to reach infinity. Several tramps scattered across the park benches, complete even with broken-topped old hats. A number of plaques record how the citizens of Memphis watched the Union navy steam into town in 1862 – some 80 cannon on ironclad battleships opposed by a mere handful of vessels protected only by cotton bales. Strangely enduring insanity remembered here in this peaceful little garden, the trees rustling in the breeze.
In the evening we stroll along Beale St – a riotous carnival of neon, beer, music and tourists. The roar of motorcycles almost drowns out the manically competing music that pours from every doorway. There is a sort of desperation in the air, a subtle sense of Nero fiddling, of this whole thing being a ghostly echo of itself that would disappear if it ever stopped. A feeling of being caught-up in some fairground chicanery, a hall of mirrors and neon. But it’s fun, too. We divide our time between glittering glasses of martini and plastic gallon-mugs of beer.
We saw a wonderful concert – a trio of Belgian rockabillies, Smooth and the Bully Boys – they played awesome rock-n-roll for hours on-end. They danced on the tables and on their instruments and even played drums on a burning piano.
We took drinks with some friends of my father’s – a bar within the decaying grandeur of a Victorian mansion, complete with Adam’s family tower. The mansion had been built as a wedding gift for themagnate’s daughter – so that he might keep an eye on her new husband. The whole area consists of these amazing palatial homes - the wealth of Cotton distilled into bricks and delicate filagree ironwork.
More cute little bars tucked into the corners of old warehouses - rusty fire escapes glinting dimly in the light of ‘budweiser’ signs. A sandwich board saying ‘Absinthe Bar’ lures us up a steep staircase into a darkened space that seems little changed since the 1940s. We drink whiskeys under the green lamps of a billiard table and marvel at the peaceful solitude, at the absence of all the screaming cacophony of the street below us.
A freshly painted old warehouse nearby catches our eye and we enter the gallery space. A collection of photos documenting New Orleans in the ‘50s and celebrities through until the ‘80s, beautiful images in stark black and white. We read about the artist, Jack Robinson. He grew up in Clarksdale and spent his early adulthood amongst the bohemians of New Orleans before becoming a very successful fashion photographer in New York. Eventually, he retired to Memphis and quietly took-up stained glass making. He never spoke of his past and it was not until his death – and the discovery of thousands of negatives, proofs and scribbled notes - that his fellow Memphians learnt of his photographic career.
We return to Clarksdale. Halloween is upon us! The bars are festooned with spider webs and skulls and the burning eyes of jack-o-lanterns. But the stores have all removed their costumes and replaced them with the next big sellers – so we are reduced to wearing Santa hats to Halloween (of course I did actually bring my own frock coat because, well, no one could stop me). It is a cold night and many of the locals are unrecognizable behind grinning latex skulls. The band plays blues. And nuns in slinky, PVC habits gyrate wildly with harlequins; and plastic-breasted men with paper pigtails share pints with Death himself.