DC’s living dead, costume dramas and love-starved Charlie Brown | Rachel Cooke

Continuing a new series, our writer reflects on how America’s impeachment-crazed capital is in reality a deserted city

Washington turns into a zombie town

In Washington to do an interview, I was struck by the strange disjunction between what I could see on television – as the impeachment hearings began, the cable news anchors seemed to be suffering, at moments, from a terrible delirium – and the atmosphere in the city itself.

Stepping outside my hotel, I expected to be met by wild crowds of journalists, lawyers and politicians, all desperately fanning themselves with copies of The Hill and Politico (the verbiage that pours out of DC on a daily basis must be seen to be believed). But, no. The streets were preternaturally quiet.

In a branch of Whole Foods, a customer poked, as if in slow motion, at a bowl of kale. In the National Gallery of Art shop, an assistant with no customers assiduously rearranged merchandise. Wandering around, minutes could go by without my passing another soul; I might have been in a zombie movie.

Washington, I thought, is a city that seems almost to be performing itself: a stage set crying out for actors. Perhaps this is why I looked so uncharacteristically acceptable in the selfie I took, the Capitol gleaming white beneath the cerulean sky.

Opanke peasant shoes belonging to textile collector Edith Durham, who ‘tramped many miles in them’.
Opanke peasant shoes belonging to textile collector Edith Durham, who ‘tramped many miles in them’. Photograph: Paul Tucker/© Calderdale Museums Collection, Halifax.

Sewing, more than a domestic science

Two Temple Place is a glorious Thames-side mansion, built in 1895 for William Waldorf Astor. Unfortunately, it’s not open to the public – except at this time of year, when it hosts an annual exhibition inspired by work in Britain’s public collections.

The latest one, Unbound, tells the story of seven pioneering textile collectors: women like Edith Durham, who between 1900 and 1914 amassed such an array of traditional Balkan costumes that she became a national heroine in Albania; and Olive Matthews, who began collecting textiles as a child, the 18th century her particular interest.

Much as I enjoyed it, I was mildly amazed to find myself at this show. When I was young, there was nothing I despised more than the so-called domestic arts. At school, I railed at the unfairness of having to learn to sew. Why couldn’t I do woodwork like the boys? But the feminism of these women – even if they wouldn’t have used the word – is not in doubt.

I stared for a long time at a pair of opanke that once belonged to Durham (opanke is a traditional peasant shoe made of hide and twine), wondering slightly satirically if their like would ever appear in the Toast catalogue. Beside them was a quote from their owner in which she described how their soles were soaked in oil, the better to make them pliable.

“This pair are worn through, as I tramped many miles in them,” she then noted, at which point I pictured a bright-eyed young woman in a long dress, scampering across rocks, mountain goat-like, eagerly acquisitive and utterly free.

Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Photograph: Allstar/CBS

We love you, Charles M Schulz

In The Peanuts Papers, smart writers – Ann Patchett, George Saunders, Umberto Eco – apply their minds to the genius of Charles M Schulz. Because I love and revere Peanuts, this is purest catnip for me. I’m totally down with their high-altitude assessments, their loose talk of existentialism.

But my favourite essay is by the cartoonist, Chris Ware. As a boy, he read a strip in which Charlie Brown received, as usual, no Valentine’s Day cards. This he found so painful that he made one himself, insisting that his mother post it to the newspaper.

“What kind of artist could break the heart of a child like that?” Ware asks. The only answer to this is: a great one. A Chekhov, a Beckett, a Schulz.


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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