Washington, DC, is grey. The majestic buildings are grey, as are the statues. The sky is leaden and the ponds are dark. And right in time, I see the trees and the tulips: a burst of colour in the neatly planted formations in front of various government offices. The trees are a rich green, the severe grey starkness of Grecian pillars the perfect foil to their summery beauty. Washington, DC, will grow on me.
The US Capitol is unimpressive, covered up that the dome is with scaffolding. Tourists linger in small groups, hoping for something to see, and finally fixing on a “March for Marriage” – essentially, a call to preserve male-female unions. Though there are no obvious anti-gay placards, a little later we stumble upon an unsightly stall denouncing homosexuality. It feels like stepping from one conservative country into another. I think of Brighton, the absolute antithesis to Washington, in its embrace of homosexuality, nude beaches, and naked bike rides.
But we will have nothing to do with an anti-gay demonstration. We head back to our primary attraction, the Library of Congress. G. has been here earlier and cannot stop singing its praises. We walk to the reception desk where a kindly old man tells me that I have to be a Member of Congress to borrow books (hopes dashed to dust), but that I can get a reading card instead. We walk through desolate, labyrinthine tunnels, the constant metallic hiss of the pipes overhead echoing eerily. If the lights went out, I assure you my imagination would direct itself to MR James and not leave me in peace.
We visit the Business & Science section, a large, high-ceilinged, well-lit room with Grecian panels high up on the walls. This obsession with all designs Greek is something I am yet to understand. Perhaps it’s a throwback to the days of Aristotle and Socrates, a tribute to the early years of debate and democracy (strictly according to a Western worldview)? There is something cold and unfeeling about the atmosphere of this library that I cannot shrug off: a heavy sense of history, a bit of grand responsibility. This is probably true of the entire capital region (or country?), because everywhere you go, you see the US flag hoisted – in gardens, on top of buildings, in front of hotels.
The train emerges from the tunnel into Arlington Cemetery, passing by low grassy undulations, just like the train to Brighton snaking out of the South Downs into London Road station. I keep thinking back to England when I see the names of places in Virginia: Suffolk, Middlesex, Cumberland, York. Just like the London tube where people barely make eye contact with one another, the trains in Virginia are filled with sombre people, their eyes fixed on a vague distant point, hoping for quick release from the darkness through which they are being jolted.
The silence is brief. Once out in the open, I am back in that famed capitalist America, home to the vast departmental stores that are a far cry from the humble dry goods stores that they must have once started out as. However, even in the midst of this wealth and bustle, does the ennui that Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton described so poignantly ever creep in? Would you ever tire of endless parties or sleepy roads?