Charleston, South Carolina… a topsy-turvy town


Next stop for me after Quito was Charleston, in South Carolina, home of North America’s most prestigious conference for academic librarians.  You often hear that places are ‘steeped in history’ – a cliché that must apply to at least 80% of UK towns and cities – but I’ve seldom visited anywhere as overtly gripped by the past as Charleston is.  Named for Charles II (it was originally called ‘Charles Town’ until contracted to its present form after the American War of Independence), it has a colourful past, reminders of which include a cross-vaulted underground prison for smugglers



and numerous old colonial and pre- and immediate post-Civil War buildings.  In the classical style and painted white, often with pillars or cupolas, they seem to epitomise old-world grace and the elegance of a more leisurely age.






When I was there, many of the houses were decorated for Hallowe’en, some in very imaginative ways:


my favourite was the giant witch’s hat set atop a cupola.


Charleston stands for a great many things that are hard to swallow.  That gracious leisure – for the few – cost thousands their freedom.  South Carolina was one of the first states to secede from the Union because it supported slavery.  It still has a considerable black population, many of whom, if not part of an underclass, are clearly not rich; there’s a stark contrast between them and the owners of the sparkling white yachts and cabin cruisers that loll in the harbour


or go for little spins offshore.


As a British visitor, this blatant juxtaposition of wealth and modest means made me uneasy; yet, at the same time, it’s hard not to be beguiled by Charleston, where the sun shines warmly in November and the inhabitants treat strangers with impeccable courtesy and charm.


I asked a lady watering the plants in her garden the way back to my hotel and with alacrity she got out her car and drove me there; the staff in the hotel were unfailingly polite and solicitous, especially during my first forty-eight hours as their guest, after I’d turned up plagued with a Latin-American stomach bug.

Nowhere was the tension between old-fashioned courtesy and dyed-in-the-wool conservatism more apparent than during my visit to the Confederate Museum, which is situated right in the heart of Charleston, at one end of the historic covered market.

ch-2It’s run by a group that calls itself ‘The United Daughters of the Confederacy’.  When I entered, two of these rather ancient ‘daughters’ were sitting at a table near the main door, collecting the modest entrance fee and looking as if they might indeed have stepped out of the 1840s (the building that houses the Museum was constructed, as the leaflet shows, in 1841).  The ladies were gently polite and directed me to some of the things they (correctly) thought might interest me most, including children’s clothes made of old Confederate flags and letters home written by achingly young Confederate soldiers.  They had one male companion, an elderly man whose sole task it was to tell visitors the story of the large cannon that occupied the centre of the room.  Apparently, it was the first cannon ever to be used in America, and – of especial interest to me – manufactured from the particularly robust iron ore quarried at Low Moor, near Bradford.  I told the old man that I lived in Yorkshire, not twenty miles from Low Moor; he said, to his knowledge, he’d had only one other visitor from Yorkshire and that I was very welcome.  I told him I was a writer and begged for permission to photograph the cannon for my blog.  Immediately, his attitude changed.  He frowned and stabbed his finger at a large notice erected on an easel next to the cannon.  “No photographs in here, Ma’am.”


I’ve mentioned the market, which is one of Charleston’s many crown jewels and the place that Americans always recommend to sightseers if they ask.  It’s a fascinating place: a craft market with a few farmers’ market-style stalls thrown in.  The stallholders sell many beautiful things, so I was spoilt for choice: eventually I settled on a South Carolina Beadwork necklace for my friend, a Charleston collapsible fruit bowl for my husband and a topsy-turvy rag doll for my granddaughter.


There’s some disagreement about the origin and purpose of these dolls – I was told that they were made for black children who were forbidden to own a white doll and one of these could be quickly turned upside down if an overseer came by, but perhaps the alternative view of their play purpose is more compelling, that African-American women were preparing their own children for the life they themselves experienced, as carers of white children during the day and their own children at night. I’m sure that other theories exist, but during this Black History Month I’ll take the opportunity to say that, for me, the doll is a fine emblem of an ideal of racial equality and mutual respect that sadly isn’t much evident in the world today.

Top of the tree among the stallholders are the black families (usually but not always headed up by a woman) who make the traditional sweetgrass baskets.




My charming sweetgrass lady, with a couple of Christmas decorations

My charming sweetgrass lady, with a couple of Christmas decorations

These are intricate and very beautiful – they’re expensive but take a long time to make – and crafted from a design that originated in Africa.  The method for making them crossed the Atlantic with those captured for slavery.  Apparently only about fifty people understand the technique today – it’s been passed down from mother to daughter over the decades and centuries.  Another kind of Charleston elegance – and an enduring heritage.


Hallowe’en? Not in my memory of the Spalding of the 1950s…

Fireworks 1

The prospect of tonight’s steady stream of youthful ‘trick or treaters’ (for readers around the globe, children in the UK visit houses at Hallowe’en to offer a choice: a trick played upon the household or a treat given by the household to the visitors to ward off any tricks) has stirred in me memories of the Bonfire Nights (or Guy Fawkes Nights) of my childhood.

I’m talking about a time when we didn’t ‘do’ Hallowe’en – at least, not in South Lincolnshire. Although I think it’s mainly an import from the USA (I anticipate contradiction!) , some parts of the UK did celebrate Hallowe’en, even then: when I went to university, my flat-mate, who came from Lancashire, told me how her two brothers at Hallowe’en, which they called ‘Mischief Night’, had removed the gates from their school and put them on the roof.  But in Spalding, where I grew up, there was only Bonfire Night, celebrated on November 5th, the anniversary of the date on which Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament.  In retrospect, I realise that our Bonfire Nights incorporated some elements of Hallowe’en as well.

Bonfire Night was among my favourite events on the calendar. My brother and I started preparations weeks in advance, at first by collecting materials for as big a bonfire as our father would let us build at the bottom of our (quite large) garden. Then we’d beg old clothes from relatives to make a guy.  He was constructed out of a shirt or jacket tacked on to a pair of trousers and stuffed with newspaper.  The sleeves and legs of the trousers were fastened with string. His face would be made from a carved and hollowed-out mangold wurzel (field beet) containing a candle, if we were ambitious, or, more often than not, just covered with a cardboard mask bought from Woolworths.  Each year there was a Woolworths counter overflowing with these masks, which featured the faces of ghosts, witches, pirates and skeletons; I think this was where the Hallowe’en element came in.  The guy also wore a hat, if we could get one: good hats were in short supply.  Guys were usually completed at least a week before Bonfire Night, so they could be showed off.  We were allowed to sit ours outside the gate of our house with a tin bearing a ‘Penny for the Guy’ sign, but my mother wouldn’t let us push him around the streets begging for pennies, as some children did. She thought it was ‘common’!

The suspense leading up to Bonfire Night was huge. Teachers joined in the fun: I vividly remember making bonfires, guys and fireworks out of plasticine in a primary school art class.  And we must have heard the story of the original Guy Fawkes – some of whose accomplices had had strong links with East Anglia – every single year.  Along with 1066, it was certainly the episode in British history with which I was best acquainted.

Fireworks 3

At the end of school, we rushed home to dress up. Girls wore garish make-up and boys’ fathers often blacked their sons’ faces with pieces of cork held in the ashes of the fire or drew moustaches on them (some pictures of Guy Fawkes showed him with a twirling, Salvador Dali-type moustache).  We wore whatever we could get together as fancy dress: it was before the era of the purpose-made (money-spinning) clothes that children’s parents buy for Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night now.  Parents sometimes helped, and the outfits could be ingenious: I remember one child dressed as a skeleton – his mother had made an outfit out of black cartridge paper with the bones drawn on in white chalk.  Girls often became witches for the night – we were taught at school how to make black pointed hats, also from cartridge paper.  Whatever the outfit, we all had one of the cardboard masks from Woolworths (which were made out of the type of card now used for egg-boxes).  We’d turn up at neighbours’ houses heavily disguised with our masks pulled down, then whip them up to reveal the made-up face beneath.  The idea was that no-one could recognise us, with or without the mask.

We were permitted to take the guy with us on Bonfire Night itself. Ours was transported in the old family push-chair, an ancient conveyance made from khaki canvas and which had solid wheels.  Although I suppose it’s unlikely that there were services-issue push-chairs, it looked as if it might have been army surplus, sold by the Army and Navy stores.  I don’t think anyone in the family could remember where it originally came from.  It was wide and cumbersome and difficult to take up and down the houses in the street without running off the paths and into people’s flower borders.  Some children carried mangold wurzels or hollowed-out sugar beets with candles in them.

It was dark when we went Guy Fawkesing, but we were allowed to go round the houses on our own, though always in groups of at least three (my brother and I joined the two girls who lived next door). The boundaries were our street and the next one.  The streets were thronged with children:  it was the height of the baby boom and two or three children lived at almost every house.  I’m sure we were all quite safe out on the streets that night.

There were just two rhymes that we chanted to the householders:

Please to remember

The fifth of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.


Please spare a penny for the poor old guy!

If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do;

If you haven’t got a ha’penny

Then God bless you!

The householder would then give us each a penny – sometimes twopence, if we were lucky – and usually some sweets as well. Sherbet dabs (boiled-sweet lollies in a bag of sherbet) and sherbet fountains (a tube of sherbet with a hollow ‘straw’ of liquorice to suck it up with) were my favourites.  We carried old Ovaltine tins with string handles for the loot.

The trick was to get round as soon after dark as possible, before people ran out of treats, and then go home in time to see some of the children who came knocking at our own door and inspect their outfits. Sometimes when we went the rounds, early fireworks were already being let off and the air smelt excitingly of gunpowder.

After the last Guy Fawkesing stragglers had gone home, it was time to light the bonfire. First of all, the guy was seated on the top of it.  Then my father would light the fire and we were instructed to stand back.  I always felt a bit sad when the guy succumbed to the flames: he’d been a friend for the whole of the previous week… but there would be another one the next year.  When he was well alight, my father began to light the fireworks.  We always had a mixed box of Standard fireworks – I think they cost ten shillings (I’ve been amazed to read that a similar box now costs £45!) –  a few ‘special’ fireworks, usually large golden rain or firework fountains (as we weren’t keen on loud bangs) or rockets, and some sparklers and hand-held fireworks.  Each family had its own bonfire and fireworks:  large firework parties for the whole neighbourhood had yet to be thought of. We baked potatoes in the ashes of the bonfire and ate toffee apples if the toffee apple man had been round that day (which he was usually enterprising enough to have managed).  When we went into the house at the end of the evening, we were given vegetable soup with big hunks of bread to warm us up.

Miraculously, most of the Bonfire Nights of my childhood were bright and clear: I remember seeing rockets sailing into the stars. On the couple of times that it rained, we still went on the Guy Fawkesing rounds, but the bonfire had to be postponed until the next day.  Then we were bitterly disappointed.

Fireworks 2

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