Saturday, 18 June 2011

Brandon - The Friendliest Place In The World?

Some of the places we've visited (and are still to visit) are absolute must-see locations, e.g. Niagara Falls, New York, Ben & Jerry's. But North America is a big place and, even though we're only covering a tiny part, some of the distances between the "must-sees" have been too big to cover in a day. So to break the journey into manageable chunks we also needed to stop in places we'd never heard of, but we always tried to find something of interest at each destination.

Thanks to the power of the internet we discovered that, on Saturday, Brandon, a small town in Vermont was celebrating its 250th birthday as well as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War (who knew that word even existed). This felt like a great opportunity to really get to the heart of small-town America. It also provided an opportunity to sample another American institution, The Motel. We've stayed in Hotels, Bed and Breakfasts and a log cabin, but having seen so many movies featuring a Motel (perhaps most famously, Hitchcock's Psycho), it felt like we needed to experience one ourselves.

So on (yet another) glorious sunny day, we arrived in Brandon and found a group of men dressed in Civil War uniforms and ladies in big dresses and bonnets.

Various old houses were open to the public and volunteers were showing people around and pointing out interesting features. One of these volunteers showed us a room where, allegedly, Martin Cruz Smith wrote the novel Gorky Park. We got chatting, established that we'd come all the way from England to honour the town's birthday, and he encouraged us to check out some of the other events that were happening today - in particular, the silent film screening that evening. We'd already considered this but he spoke so enthusiastically about it that we were now definitely going to give it a go.

As we left the final house on the tour, we were briefly transported back to Niagara - the sky had darkened, we'd heard distant rumbles of thunder and then a downpour refilled my poor shoes (the ones which had only just dried out after the Maid Of The Mist). We ran to the Town Hall and, despite looking like refugees who had crawled across the Atlantic sea-bed in search of freedom, we were ushered in to a talk being given on Vermont's part in the Civil War. This included incidents from Gettysburg, which we could picture vividly having already visited the famous battlefield. The speaker concluded with the Gettysburg Address which felt quite moving and served to further enhance the feeling of pride and all-round-American-ness, and by the sound of it, had been enough to bring a halt to the rainstorm outside too.

Feeling even more knowledgeable about the Civil War, it's time for something a bit more practical. We've been on the road for a couple of weeks now and two pairs of socks can only take you so far, so we decide to take advantage of the local launderette (laundromat?). We're about to head there when we realise we're being followed. "Is that my English friends?" - It's "the silent movie guy" we met in the earlier house tour. He asks if we're heading over to the square to hear the singing. We weren't, but it seems rude not to now he's mentioned it so we accompany him to swell the small crowd which is standing in front of the church, waiting for a choir of 250 locals (at least that's how many they'd hoped to recruit) to burst into song.

Our new friend introduces himself as Gary, and then introduces us to his wife Nancy who's one of the choir members. We talk a little about the town and as the music starts he explains the background to some of the songs we're hearing. There are evocative songs from the Civil War followed by rousing patriotic standards and even a song about Brandon itself, written by the conductor of this musical extravaganza.

I feel a huge sense of pride as the small brass band begins to play God Save The Queen, but to my dismay, they've changed the words to something else - this has nothing to do with The Queen being saved by God - this is treason! I shall be writing an extremely strong letter to the editor of the Brandon Times about this insult. I sense that Gary realises how upsetting this is for us and tries to smooth the whole incident over - I choose to keep a stiff upper lip and not jeopardise the "Special Relationship".

We end with highly charged and emotional rendition of The Star Spangled Banner and the audience join in with their hands pressed firmly against their chests. Lumps appear in our throats and for a moment, Justine and I feel proud to be American, until we both realise that we don't know any of the words!

Some of the singers taking part in Brandon's 250th birthday.
It's time to return to the laundromat to collect our washing. As she's unloading the contents of the machine into a big basket, Justine is shocked to hear the now-familiar voice of Gary. He's followed us here… is he stalking us?

Well apparently, he and Nancy have had an idea - why don't we come back to their house, put our washing in their dryer, they'll get pizza, and then we'll come back in to town for the silent movie. Now if this happened in England, I would immediately assume that they were deranged axe-murderers (or worse) and run screaming to the authorities. To be honest, if someone in a laundrette in England even spoke to me, I'd be highly suspicious. But hey, we're on "vacation", it's been a heart-warming day, and they seem nice enough - what's the worst thing that could happen?

So while Gary heads off to buy pizza, Nancy rides with us in The Black Slug and shows us to the way to their lovely house, tucked away in the woods - you'd sure find it hard to call for help around here if something bad happened, like an axe murder for instance.

The biggest pizza I've ever seen arrives and we all eat, drink and chat about stuff. It turns out that Gary is a world-renowned (I hope he won't mind me saying that) conservation biologist who has had books published on the subject and has travelled the world lecturing. I have an 'O Level' in Biology (grade 'C'), so as you can appreciate, we had a lot in common. (I probably would have got a grade 'B' if our teacher hadn't left to pursue a career as a TV weatherman but hey, that was a long time ago - I'm over it now).

The friendliest people in the world?

After we finish the excellent pizza, Nancy retrieves our dry washing from her laundry room (I'm wondering if it would be rude to ask her if she'll iron it all - that's probably going too far isn't it?) and we all drive back to Brandon Town Hall just in time for the Buster Keaton double-bill.

Apparently this has become a monthly event - the Town Hall is turned into a makeshift cinema, a silent movie is projected onto a screen on the stage and a chap called Jeff Rapsis from New Hampshire comes along with his keyboard and provides a live music score. It's fantastic. The first film is a short slapstick-style affair from Buster Keaton's earlier work, but there are some very clever touches - Keaton manages to appear on screen as multiple characters at the same time - that would be easy using today's CGI techniques, but this was from the earliest days of cinema.

The second film is called The General and is based on an incident from the Civil War, in which a railroad locomotive (The General) was stolen from the Confederates by the Unionists. It's a much more sophisticated feature-length offering with a really engaging story. All the stunts and "special effects" had to be performed live, and you had to keep reminding yourself of that as you watched. One scene included a whole train being driven onto a collapsing bridge and plunging into the river and a second take would have been out of the question. It was a great atmosphere - the hall was full and everyone laughed out loud or cheered in response to the film. I could now understand why Gary had been so keen that we attend - we enjoyed it way more than we'd hoped we would.

But the most impressive part was the soundtrack - as the opening credits rolled the orchestral score burst into life and I had to keep reminding myself that the music was being created live by one man at the front of the hall. And I'd expected it to be a kind of Keystone Cops jangly-piano thing, but it was a much more modern film score that wouldn't have sounded out of place alongside a contemporary thriller, and the guy just kept playing for the duration of the film - I'd have been exhausted after 5 minutes!

At the end, Gary and Nancy took us up to the front to introduce us to the one-man orchestra and we promised to send more people over from England for next month's screening. Then we said our farewells to our new friends from Brandon, satisfied that they had not turned out to be axe murderers - just really nice people.

Or were they? We return to the Brandon Motel, it's dark, and eerily quiet. We tiptoe into our room. The ceiling fan spins slowly, and could do with a drop of oil - it makes a scraping sound, a little reminiscent of a large knife being repeatedly sharpened. I'm sure I hear a noise coming from the bathroom and gingerly push open the door. I sense that there's something behind the shower curtain. Suddenly my mind conjures up an image of Gary and Nancy standing in our shower, armed with an axe, or a machete, or both. I snatch back the curtain… thank goodness… it's just Norman Bates!


  1. Hello there, loved reading about your trip to Brandon! As a "transplanted" Vermonter I appreciated many of your observations and experiences.

    So something was nagging at me while I was reading about your stay and meeting of the two Brandon residents. The names and faces looked kind of familiar, bringing up hazy and disturbing memories from my own past... I think I have a picture somewhere of my own - are these the two you met in Brandon?

  2. Aaaaagh, bad memories. Yes, that looks like the people we met, although I think the lady was only wielding the large knife when we met her. They must have purchased the second axe after our visit - perhaps to discourage other intruders in future.

  3. Ah, well live and learn! Next time you visit Vermont, avoid Brandon and visit Weybridge. We have... cows. Lots of cows. It's very interesting.