One Saturday morning long ago, I found myself deeply impressed with Adam Ant’s watch, which he was mucking about with on Swap Shop. At least, I assume it was Swap Shop, because it was definitely a Saturday morning and, although barely out of infancy, I knew I wasn’t the sort of child to be watching Tiswas*. The thing about Adam Ant’s watch was that it played an actual tune if you pressed a couple of the buttons at the same time, and was the greatest thing I had ever seen. To make things even better, the tune in question – The Yellow Rose of Texas – was also played by our local ice cream van, with Andrew Sayer’s hilarious uncle at the helm. Could it be that Adam was reaching out to us, amid the Zoom lollies and rum and raisin choc ices favoured by Jackie Fulbridge to show how sophisticated she was at seven years of age? If so, it was in vain, as my primary school was staunchly aligned to Madness in the beat combo politics of the day. Nonetheless, his musical wrist watch was such a hot playground topic the following Monday morning that our infinitely patient music teacher, Mr Allison, promised to put The Yellow Rose of Texas into rotation for the coming week’s morning assembly. This never happened. Untroubled, the world turned, and it has taken over thirty years for the reason to reveal itself.
The Yellow Rose of Texas is not an actual rose. Then again, Adam Ant is not an actual ant. The similarities do not end there. Neither are strangers to insurrection: at the height of his career, Adam Ant called for the establishment of an Insect Nation in the hit singles Antmusic, Kings of the Wild Frontier and Stand and Deliver. The Yellow Rose of Texas was popular with Confederate troops seeking to establish a new nation separate from the existing United States, thereby bringing about the American Civil War. However, whereas Adam Ant is merely a militant insect activist, The Yellow Rose of Texas is – to quote the original lyrics – ‘the sweetest girl of colour that this darkie ever knew’, which is a bit much. This, along with claims by the narrator that ‘no other darkies know her, no darkie only me’ is, I suspect, the reason that Mr Allison quietly shelved his morning assembly plans in a bewilderingly multicultural East End school. Also, the Rio Grande and banjos, also referenced among the lyrics, were a Stepney brothel and a popular form of wafer biscuit respectively, and may have caused confusion.
Decades later, and I am become a man. I am become quite a superstitious man too, with no desire to wear a military uniform of any kind, as I feel that being shot at might bring bad luck. The same cannot be said for re-enactors portraying Confederate soldiers, who can’t get enough to if it. We have forty such re-enactors descending upon Runton next month, and their visit has prompted protracted discussions between myself, who arranged it, and Joe, who will have to explain the sudden outbreak of whoopin’, hollerin’, yee-hawing and so forth to the ever-delicate Board of Trustees. My primary reason for turning Runton into a base for dressing up as soldiers is sound enough: I thought it would be a larf. Also, I have a soft spot for people who are really into stuff, and military re-enactors certainly fall into that category. Camping at Runton Hall, like the fat paratroopers and their slobbery dog a few weeks ago, is the sort of thing they enjoy, and with no Forest School kids or glampers till next spring, they bring in useful revenue during otherwise lean months. So far, so fluffy. The rather large iceberg that has hurled itself into the choppy waters just ahead of us is that no one wants Confederate flags all over the place, because the Confederate flag is, to say the least of it, a bit of a talking point. It wouldn’t be as weird has having swastikas everywhere, but still. It’s tricky, because our re-enactors are portraying troops from 1861, when a Confederate flag was perfectly reasonable thing to wave about during a rebellion against the Yankee government. People in the nineteenth century weren’t like people today. When things went wrong, they didn’t just make a flag out of a rainbow, write ‘Hope’ across it, and stand next to it weeping. They were much more focussed.
This may all be somewhat baffling for gentle British readers, for whom the Confederate flag is a positive symbol of either being near a burger van or watching the Dukes of Hazard. Confederate soldiers were fighting for – well, not slavery as such, but a system in which slavery was permissible, whether or not they were willing as individuals to partake in it. Also, they had been invaded by Union troops, which is the sort of thing that galvanises people. The American Civil War thus arose from debates about the legality of opting out of the United States, rather than any weird notions about freeing the oppressed. Indeed, it is best to think of it as a vast court case in which everyone is shooting at each other, instead of a specific crusade against slavery, which was far from everyone’s minds at the outset of hostilities. Militarily, socially and politically it’s a fascinating conflict, although there aren’t many chuckles to be had except when you mistakenly touch-type ‘Civil Ear’ instead of ‘Civil War’, as I have done repeatedly while writing this. Anyway. The Union won, and the United States were preserved. You can tell they were the good guys because they promised to free the slaves when they were losing and felt that thousands of extra soldiers might come in handy, even if they were black and everything. A hundred years later, they got round to making routine racial segregation illegal, with the result that now, fifty years after that, there are no racial problems in America at all.
Despite neither Joe nor I being black or American, and the loss those two fine communities doubtless feel as a result, it wouldn’t do to be flippant with other people’s sensibilities, or contribute further droplets of unhappiness to an already unhappy world. Most of the time at Runton, I am simply a lost Cockney in a big field. Being asked to construct a philosophical argument about the impact of nineteenth century cultural symbolism in contemporary society is beyond my cognitive threshold when all I want to do is find somewhere warm to have a cup of tea and six four bar Kit Kats, because I’ve been low carb for weeks and it gets to you after a while. That said, I am certain that our Confederates are entirely benevolent, and we’ll have a natter with them on Monday to be on the safe side. Also, there is a possibility that Runton could be a location for an upcoming film about the Battle of Shiloh** with which the re-enactors are involved in a consultative capacity, and I’m going to say I can ride horses to get a speaking part as a cavalryman. Ahead of the meeting on Monday, nervous readers may rest assured that I have made them promise to treat the N-word*** with respect and not perform any authentic music of the era. Banjos and sentimentality are simply too much for an Englishman to bear, and they really will have a war on their hands if I have to put up with any of it, let me tell you.
Historical note: Even the Confederacy found the lyrics of The Yellow Rose of Texas questionable, and changed ‘darkie’ to ‘soldier’.
Main: The General Lee, a Dodge Charger with a massive Confederate flag on the roof. General Lee was a famous Confederate during the American Civil War, and this was his car.
Inset top: Norfolk’s main link with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Inset middle: American Civil War in full swing. In reality there were far more people on each side than this.
Inset lower: Never mind civil wars and all that – America was still a colony when my house was built.
*Attention foreigners: Swap Shop and Tiswas were staples of British Saturday morning telly in the early 1980s. Swap Shop was hosted by Noel Edmonds, latterly notable for Deal Or No Deal, upon which I unsuccessfully applied to appear, and for being one of the few celebrities of his generation not serving time for touching up kids. It featured viewers swapping Blue Peter annuals, Star Wars figures and Incredible Hulk merchandise with each other, having often first stolen it from unknowing siblings, and as such was the ideal preparation for life under Marvellous Maggie.
Tiswas comprised a yowling rabble throwing buckets of water about for no reason and pronouncing ‘grand prix’ incorrectly. Every child who watched it dropped out of midlands polytechnics in the nineties, to be employed at minimum wage by those who had watched Swap Shop. Even now, you can tell a Swap Shop viewer from a Tiswas one. You can’t like both. It’s Swap Shop or Tiswas, Beatles or Stones, Rangers or Celtic, mods or rockers – to which I need hardly point out that the correct answers are a) Swap Shop, b) Beatles, c) Rangers, and d) mods.
**A battle fought in Tennesse in 1862. Something of a bloodbath, ending in a narrow Union victory.