Well take me down to Dixie;Letter from Virginia;Back Paige

9th April 1999 at 01:00
GREETINGS FROM Fairfax, Virginia, where the beer is cold, the television hot, attention spans short and memories long. It is difficult to realise that during the Civil War this was the South, though the names of the main thoroughfares, Lee Highway and Pickett Road, are a giveaway.

Pickett Road has nothing to do with workers' solidarity but is named after the general who led the Confederate Army's glorious charge on the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, an event known to historians as the high-water mark of the Confederacy, after which the South lost all hope of a military victory.

I haven't seen any streets named after Grant, Sherman or any other Union military leader. That would be like coming across a De Valera Terrace in the Shankill in Belfast or a Carson Crescent in the Falls Road.

Grudges are borne here almost as long as they are in Ireland. On a trip on the Metro into Washington DC, just 15 miles away, I eavesdropped on the conversation of two men sitting behind me. As we passed through McPherson Square station (pronounced McPheerson) one asked the other if this was the general who had played a leading part in Sherman's scorched-earth march to the sea through Georgia.

The other man, in an accent which showed that he came from many miles south of the Mason-Dixon line, replied quietly, almost menacingly: "Where I come from we don't mention that name." The fact that General McPherson was killed at the Battle of Atlanta was obviously of no consolation.

Adjacent to Lee Highway is Old Lee Highway. The venerable adjective is not a reference to the age of the Confederate general, but a reminder that it was there first. The famous Robert E was known to friend and foe alike as Bobby, a cuddly image his portraits don't dispel.

At the top of the first rise (hill to you) on Old Lee Highway is the main secondary public school for the area, Fairfax High. In the US education system, of course, public school means, well, public school. It is in the City of Fairfax, as opposed to the county of the same name, though Fairfax is as much a city as Brechin.

On a previous visit I contacted Fairfax to see if I could have a look at the physical education facilities. Everyone was very helpful and when I turned up I was surprised to be able to walk in unchallenged and make my own way about the school, something I couldn't do in Scotland in these post-Dunblane security conscious days.

The most striking aspect of the school is the space it occupies. The main building is single storey, with an extensive manicured campus, and the playing fields include a stadium that many Scottish senior football clubs would die for, all surrounded by trees.

The Student Advisory Council in neighbouring Fairfax County has come up with a cracker of a scheme that even Helen Liddell hasn't thought of: it wants high school students to evaluate their teachers at the end of a course. The assessments would be "used privately" by the teachers, who would also have the option of showing them to the school principal.

The local teachers' representative says there is no justification for the scheme, and teachers already have too much to worry about, with the state's new achievement tests coming up. Now where have I heard that before?

In DC itself I had to see the Marine Corps monument at Arlington depicting the raising of the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima, one of the Second World War icons for my generation, hooked as we were on John Wayne movies.

There was something poignant about being in Arlington at a time when the country's armed forces are in action in Yugoslavia. I took the opportunity to hum a respectful chorus of "Wandering Star" over the last resting place of Lee Marvin, himself a former marine.

I've already been to Ford's Theatre where Lincoln was shot, so my next target is the National Theatre. I just missed the chance to see Mickey Rooney in The Wizard of Oz, though according to the drama critic of the Washington Post, I didn't miss much: "This overblown production is a desecration, a travesty, and an insult to all those involved with the film."

Poor Mickey.

I would still have gone, just to have been in the same theatre where Shirley MacLaine was an usherette and Warren Beatty a doorman. Mention of Beatty reminds me of the remark of one of the natives of my next port of call, New York.

"After I die," said Woody Allen, "I want to come back as Warren Beatty's fingertips."

At least I think that's what he said. I'll check it out when I see him in the Big Apple.

Have a nice weekend.

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