In America! | Stephen Fry

Reading notes from Stephen Fry in America:

  • In the lowlands of South Carolina and the islands of Georgia you can find the Gullah, a distinct ethnic group derived from slaves. The name may come from Gola, the same root as Angola, but it's unclear. They speak a Creole mix of English, Native American, and African languages and retain far more language and culture from their African roots than most African-Americans, because of malaria. Slave ships tended to bring malaria mosquitoes with them, but in most places they died out. Not in the swampy South Carolina; instead they bred into huge swarms and create a near plague. The African slaves had a tolerance and resistance, but the whites didn't.
    "'The slaves brought with them – all the slave ships did – the mosquito. Now in the other parts, in the land where cotton grows, Mr Mosquito he couldn't survive, but down here in the Low Country, he loved all them marshes. And Mr Mosquito he flourish and the malaria was bad. The Africans had the resistance and fore you knew it South Carolina had a larger black population than white!' Miss Anita chuckles at this curlicue of history. 'They have a word in the cotton fields - "de-Africanise". The cotten slaves were de-Africanised good, but here in the rice paddies things were different. Not so many whites around so the slaves weren't never so integrated into the white world.'"
    "Her dialogue is full of references to 'the Masser' and 'white folks' and the 'birthin' of babies', the sort of Mammy-talk which is straight out of Butterfly McQueen's famous lines in Gone with the Wind and which I had thought so politically incorrect as to be virtually illegal. It is rather liberating to know that this language has been reclaimed by its originators and to hear it spoken with such gusto and relish." [On a Gullah play Stephen watched, with Miss Anita performing lead.](pg 125-127)
  • The official rock of Mississippi is petrified wood. (pg 161)
  • "Yes, Ohio's State Beverage really is tomato juice. Not a word of a lie. I have not included the other states' choice of beverage because all but five choose milk (mostly because they are states that have cattle in them) and the lists would become repetitive. [Here referring to lists at the start of each chapter on key facts about that state] Only Ohio goes for tomato juice. Maine has Moxie listed, a weird fizzy potion composed of gentian root and other bitter herbs. It claims to be America's first soda pop. Alabama is the only state to elect an ardent spirit, Conecuh Ridge Whiskey. California has wine, predictably enough, while Florida and Massachusetts each opt for their native orange and cranberry juices. Indiana, pathetically, chooses water. Twenty-three states do not have a State Beverage at all. What spoilsports. Boo to them." (pg 182)
  • Detroit, Michigan, is home to the US car industry. It's the centre of production for Ford, GM, and Chrysler, though only GM can be considered in good stead at point of writing. Ford is in decline, Chrysler a steady third place, but GM is still going strong and owns Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, Saab, Opel, and Vauxhall. The Ford Rouge Works was once the largest industrial centre in the world. (pg 189)
  • On the rural, traditional sport of ice fishing in Minnesota: "The equipment is ready to be put into operation. First there is the Icemaster King Power Auger. A pull on the start-rope and the sound of fifty chain saws rends the air. Tim grins widely. An American in heaven. He is a noble pioneer pitting his wits against nature and he has the plaid and power tool to prove it. [...] So now we have a hole. But technology has more to offer. Down the hole is lowered a long tube at the end of which is sonar equipment. Yes. Sonar. The same sonar that was developed by the Royal Navy in the war to defend shipping against the U-Boat wolf packs. At the surface a screen reveals the results of the sonar's soundings in green shapes that represent fish. Now Time lowers a camera. A colour video camera. Finally I am handed a little rod which is weighted, baited and lowered. Ice-fishing is now a question of watching the sonar, which shows fish from some distance, and - as they approach the hook - turning your attention to the television monitor. When a fish swims into view you can twitch your rod a little to interest the fish in it and then - evil cackle - they are yours. Mwah-haha. Poor creatures. They really don't stand much of a chance do they?" (pg 211)
  • North Dakota has record temperature levels at 49'C and -51'C, some of the highest variability in the world... and yet the main occupation in the state is farming! They also have a large Scandinavian population and an even larger German-American population; almost 2.5% of North Dakotans speak German still as the primary home language. In the capital of Bismarck, over 50% of citizens are of German stock. (pg 233)

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