From hot tub to hot water

Duncan Campbell waxes lyrical about Marin county, the Californian enclave of liberalism where he, and John Walker Lindh, used to live

The decision by the "American Taliban", John Walker Lindh, to plead guilty on two charges closes a chapter on one of the strangest stories of the last nine months and makes it timely to look again at his background.

When Lindh was first arrested in Afghanistan, much was made of the fact that he came from Marin county, the famously liberal and libertarian part of California just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Earlier this year, George Bush senior described Lindh as "some misguided Marin county hot-tubber", which fed into the popular notion of Marin as a home for superannuated hippies, lying around in hot tubs listening to Grateful Dead tapes with a joint in one hand and a glass of Chardonnay in the other.

Many Marin residents took exception to this and lambasted Bush senior so severely through the pages of the Marin Independent Journal that he came out with his hands above his head.

"Call off the dogs, please. I surrender," Bush wrote in a letter to the paper at the time. "I apologise. I am chastened and will never use 'hot tub' and 'Marin county' in the same sentence again."

As it happens, I lived in Marin county, a beautiful stretch of land with a population of 250,000, in the 70s in the same two small towns, Fairfax and San Anselmo, in which Lindh grew up. It was then the kind of place where you could stick out a thumb and hitch a lift home at any time of the day or night, where Van Morrison's mum ran the local record store, and where the anti-war, gay rights and women's movement all flourished. So when I was up there recently it was interesting to hear what people felt about the post-Lindh fuss.

One friend said that he was thinking of producing a T-shirt with the words "Fairfax - Home of the Taliban Fighter" which would be illustrated with a picture of Lindh in a hot tub, Kalashnikov in one hand and joint in the other. Other friends said that the attitude towards Lindh had not been vindictive and they had not been surprised that Marin took a bit of going over from the likes of Bush senior; after all, only 23% of the Marin electorate voted for him when he ran unsuccessfully against Bill Clinton in 1992.

Since the "hot tub" was the cultural artefact with which the county was linked, it was nice to be able to talk to a former neighbour, Barbara Garvey, who with her husband, Al, a wood sculptor, has been credited with bringing the first hot tub to Marin more than 40 years ago.

"We knew a couple who had a Japanese bath but they were a little puritanical and didn't want anyone going into it unless they were married," said Barbara Garvey, who now teaches tango and works part-time in the local library. "We decided to make the hot tub a social enterprise and started throwing parties." The Garveys' hot tub events, sometimes accompanied by the saxophonist John Handy, were part of the cultural life of Fairfax. The historic tub itself is no longer in service, said Barbara.

Of Lindh, she said: "Al and I think he's one of these kids looking for something who went in the wrong direction - it's a weird direction, especially for someone from Marin, but I don't see him as a great threat to the nation."

Steve Macnamara, the editor of Pacific Sun in Mill Valley, traces Marin's current reputation to a famous column run in his paper in the 70s called The Serial, which chronicled the fictitious happenings of the county in a gently satiric way. It became a book by Cyra McFadden and a 1980 film, starring Martin Mull and Tuesday Weld and with a terrific performance from Sally Kellerman.

"We satirised the excesses of the county," said Macnamara. But a subsequent NBC documentary on Marin took much of the satire at face value. "Ever since then, people have come to the county with their stories already written," he said. Not that he is too concerned: "I am sure nasty things are said about Paris and London, too."

Marin has changed, of course, in the last 30 years. But it still embodies much of what has made it so attractive to people who grew up there or migrated there: a spirit of free-thinking and independence and a refusal to become isolationist, fearful and vindictive. It must be down to all those hot tubs.

Contributor

Duncan Campbell

The GuardianTramp

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