I left the Holiday Inn with a slight pang of regret, as I had liked it more than I expected. A visit to a nearby pub had been nice – the experience of a 700-year old oak beamed, low-ceilinged inn (which according to CAMRA ‘rests on wooden piles, some of which date from the year 827’) contrasted nicely with the aggressively perfect comfort of the Holiday Inn. And they had Harveys beer, too.
But it was time to move on. Outside the Inn and at the airport signs of Christmas were in evidence, greenery bringing some kind of winter life into the steely-angled spaces.
The flight itself, over 4000 miles in 8 hours, passed in a sort of half-life of agreeable tedium. Three films of varying merit (The Fall, Mrs Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and The Incredible Hulk) all seemed to be about stories and identities, as did the novel I finished (Felix Gilman’s Thunderer, in which a vast city full of gods reconfigures itself accordng to divine actions, and cartography is considered blasphemy.)
In Orlando Airport I met up with most of the group I will be with for the week, on the conference and study tour I have come for. A bus took us to Sarasota, on the Gulf of Mexico – an affluent town with a strong focus on arts and culture, influenced in this regard by John Ringling, the circus entrepreneur. Arriving in darkness with palm trees savaged by a bitter wind, this didn’t feel much like running away to join the circus. However the morning brought sunshine, warmth and a hotel view with glimpses of sea…
We had a free morning to acclimatise so I decided to walk around a bit. The Sunday morning streets were virtually deserted, with the strangeness of like-but-unlike, vastly complex forces making these streets and districts (finance, arts, retail) feel slightly different from UK equivalents.
It was blissful to be in the sun after what seems like ages of wet greyness in England, where the bad weather comes with an undertow of guilt and alarm: the large puddle in the park that never quite goes away seems like a symptom of global warming, becomes a landscape feature, needs to be walked around; in the wintry gloom it sometimes seems as if we are splashing through the outwash of the many concurrent crises in the bio- geo- and economic spheres, various partial disasters merging in a muddy emulsion. But here in the sun those stories don’t seem as necessary. I feel light, like an illusion made of pointillist colours rather than a heavy separate being.
I walked across the Causeway towards Lido Key. A bareheaded stroll across this long bridge was somewhat foolhardy – I began to feel woozy and decided that buying a hat was preferable to sunstroke. In practice this pretty much had to be a baseball cap (there were straw hats but they looked like plastic replicas of Tom Sawyer’s discards) and, after much searching in a shopping place called St Armand’s Circle, I found one with a relatively inoffensive motif of a turtle. I thought this was preferable to a ‘humorous’ slogan of the ‘I like drinking’ variety, or the name of the place where the hat was bought, which would imply an unfeasible level of devotion on my part to somewhere I only wandered into five minutes earlier.
Refreshed by some time in the shade and protected by my new hat I pressed on to the beach. Perhaps the turtle motif bestowed shamanic powers, as I channeled some mystic insight about all beaches looking the same; the sea connecting us all; the same waves massaging the shores of Dorset (where Jennie is right now) and Brighton (where I hope to reach someday on this walk if I can stop making sidetrips.) The sand was white and talc-like, seeming to be made more of shell-stuff than stone: perhaps in some future age to be compacted into chalk to make new Downland: the American Sussex.
I returned to St Armand Square and window-shopped for a while. I don’t know who arranges the music that plays from tannoys here, but it’s great – mainly motown interspersed with light classical. At one point, in a moment of supreme oddity (unless the sun was actually making me hallucinate and it didn’t really happen) a brief reading from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was intoned over some violin noodling, the well-known passage about being prepared for a road trip:
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
…text which has inspired many a strange escapade but which seems an odd counterpoint to boutique shopping and informal dining experiences. Unless I was missing something.