Swinging moods country-style: Driving Home: Part Three
Sunday 08 August 1993
IN IDAHO now, the road began to tumble through the forest like the river whose course it followed, swerving away at the last moment from vertical chimneys or grey rock, eddying out and doubling back. My ears popped as the car lost height. The river grew - like everything else here - prodigiously. One minute, it was a crack of light in the rocks beside the road; the next, its white-water rapids were louder than the Dodge's engine; the next, it swirled darkly from deep pool to deep pool, dimpling over sunken boulders, its surface scored with lines of current, like pen-knife doodles in the wax polish of a tabletop.
The road levelled as it entered Nez Perce Indian country. The river grew broad and placid enough to float a ship on. Fir gave way to stands of ash and maple in soggy, unkempt meadows by the water's edge. The most prominent building in many miles was a sky-blue shack, padlocked for the winter, with WiLD BiLLS FireworKS painted on it in careful 4ft- high letters, each i dotted with a circle like a halo. Standing alone in the deep sticks of Idaho, the blue shack looked like a gesture of crazy hopefulness on Wild Bill's part. The grass and thistles surrounding it were untrodden: no one had yet beaten a path to its door.
All over the Northwest, Indians exploited their separate-nation status by dealing on reservations in goods and services that were prohibited to their white neighbours. Where the reservations were near big towns or abutted on major highways, there were Indian casinos and bingo halls and pungent open-air firework markets, each called Boom City. You could buy only the most puny rockets and Catherine wheels from the state-licensed white dealers, but at a Boom City you could got 50ft strings of firecrackers and 3in mortar skyrockets that would climb 2,000ft before going off like something out of the Gulf War.
This reservation, though, was 70 miles from the nearest city. US 12 was hardly a major highway, and bingo and the firework trade, both good moneymaking stunts for suburban Indians, would be of little avail here. At a bend in the road past Wild Bill's, I ran into Kooskia, a muddy, one-storey brick village with a rail siding and a lumber mill. Its fringe of Indian homes - peeling prefabs, old trailers, huts knocked together from sheet rock and pieces of two-by-four - was grim even by the unexacting standards set by the reservations on the outskirts of Seattle. It looked like a TV picture of one of the poorer quarters of Soweto, without the mollifying sunshine.
IN ALL your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner . . . allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of it's innocence, make them acquainted with . . . our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them (Jefferson to Lewis).
As Lewis and Clark passed from one national territory to the next, they changed guides at each frontier. Even on the roughest passages, they were led, or directed, along paths which they referred to in their journals as roads.
I found great difficulty in finding the road in the evening as the Snow had fallen, wrote Clark, on his way down the budding track of US 12; road bad as usual. There is a big difference between a country with poor roads and a country with no roads at all; in Lewis and Clark's Northwest, the roads were bad but they were definitely there.
At Lolo Pass, the explorers crossed from Flathead to Nez Perce territory and met a band of Nez Perce men who were looking for stolen horses. Clark gave the Indians fish-hooks and tied a coloured ribbon in each man's hair, which appeared to please them verry much. Lewis gave them a Steel & a little Powder to make fire. In dumbshow, the Indians explained that they lived in a village in a valley to the west, 'five sleeps' away; a six-day hike. (This was the original of the shanty- and trailer-town at Kooskia). From there, the men said, they had convenient access to the Columbia, which was safely navigable to the Pacific.
Lewis blew his nose, and the Indians were excited by the sight of his handkerchief. It was, they said, almost exactly like the handkerchiefs given to some relatives of theirs by an old white man who was camping on an ocean beach near the mouth of the Columbia.
This talk of handkerchiefs took place 480 miles as the crow flies - more than 600 miles by crooked trails and looping river courses - from the Pacific, and it takes some thinking about. Who in, say, Oxfordshire, in 1805, would have been able to gossip knowledgeably about someone seen in Genoa or Turin? Yet Lewis in his journal doesn't seem to be overly impressed by his conversation with the Indians; he records it without comment before going on to describe the man as being of large stature and comely form.
Lewis and Clark had arrived in a country that was already well mapped and travelled. Goods and news were transmitted across an immense geographical space and over a large number of heavily-policed tribal boundaries. When the caravan of trinket-bearing white men came stumbling down the main road from the mountains, no one seems to have been much surprised: since 1792, at least, the Indians had been getting increasingly used to the
presence of eccentric tourists with designs on their homelands.
I PUT my foot down.
The Dodge Daytona was a measure of my shaky grasp of the basic grammar of American life. Leaving London, I'd sold my two-year-old VW on my way to Heathrow, and bought the Dodge in Seattle the next day. It was black; it started smoothly; the stereo worked; I liked its bucket seats and the flip-up eyelids on its headlights. I didn't think about it from a semiotic point of view until too late. That evening, I was talking on the phone to a Seattle woman whom I'd met on my first visit.
'You bought a car already? What make?'
'A Dodge Daytona.'
She laughed, and not kindly.
'What does it say?'
'Uh, uh; midlife crisis.'
'So who drives them?'
'Kids. Black teenagers. Gang members. They like to total them on Alki Beach.'
After a couple of years in my hands, the car developed a malevolent scowl when its offside eyelid got stuck permanently open. Unwashed, with a missing wheel trim and some bad scars on its paintwork, the one-eyed Dodge looked as if it should be doing time in some automobile correctional facility; but it had the knack (vital in a narrative vehicle) of being able to render large tracts of landscape as an undifferentiated green blur.
So, with the pedal on the floor, it shot from the valley of the Lochsa River to the valley of the Clearwater to the valley of the Snake at a steady cruising speed of five miles a word. Slowing as it re-entered the state of Washington, it climbed into the bare and rumpled hills of the Palouse, their sides as smooth as grey suede. Their baldness led one to expect nothing of the summit except sagebrush and snow, but as the Dodge crested the last hill at 3,000ft, it came out on to a steppe of rich farm country. I stopped to stretch my legs and take in the surprise of it. The sky was an empty duck-egg blue, but the soil was damp from recent rain, and the colours of the land had the unreal paintbox freshness of the last few minutes before a fiery sunset. Between an enormous undulating field of buttery corn-stubble and an enormous undulating field of emerald winter wheat, there marched a herd of 20 piebald
cattle in single file. It was so quiet and still
that one could almost hear the cows moving,
half a mile off. In the far distance, steepling aluminium grain elevators did the job of churches, landmarking and subordinating the sprawling patchwork of the plateau.
There were no other cars on the road, and the only tractor in sight, up to its axles in chocolate earth, had a sleepy and forgotten look. The big, lonely geography of the Northwest made it easy to succumb to Lewis and Clarkery - to the sensation of being the first to discover an already well-discovered land. Even here, on territory so obviously occupied and cultivated, the natives of the place seemed to have only a skin-deep tenure of it. In England, all land looks owned. Hundreds of years of continuous possession, of wills and entailments and codicils, are visibly there in the fabric of the place, where most of what you see is the work of dead people and their builders, gardeners, ploughmen and lawyers. In Washington State, the land looks squatted-on, as if tomorrow it might have quite different tenants putting it to an altogether different purpose.
More than in any place I'd ever lived, it felt all right to be a stranger here. I was happy in the Northwest, not because I felt at home but because no one else much seemed to be entirely at home either. When people said that they went 'way back' in Washington, they meant two generations, three at most. Though they liked to affect a proprietorial air towards the landscape, they hadn't yet had time really to make it their own. I liked their gimcrack townships because they looked as if they'd been built inside the reach of my own memory, and built by people whose skills as architects and carpenters were not much better than my own. Driving through Pomeroy ('The Key to Friendly Family Living', pop. 1716), I could recognise it as exactly the sort of town I might construct myself, if I were doing it in the evenings and at weekends and paying for it as I went along.
For as long as whites had been coming here, the Northwest had tended to attract lastchancers in their forties and fifties: it was a region where unsettledness and solitude were part of the normal fabric of things. In their turn, the migrants had written their own morose character on to the face of the country, with lonely, inward-looking houses, hedged, ditched and electric-fenced against unwelcome advances. Set far back from the road in acres of land for land's sake, they looked less like homes than gun emplacements. The Dodge was going too fast for me to read the names on their mailboxes, but I could make some fair guesses: the Angsts; the Weltschmerzes.
IT WAS dark when I reached Walla Walla, a big farming town with a Christian college and a state penitentiary where Westley Allan Dodd, the serial child killer, was waiting to be hanged in six weeks' time. Because Dodd gave regular television interviews from the prison (in a creaky and pedantic voice he argued the case in favour of executing people like himself), the townscape of Walla Walla had recently become picturesquely famous in a small way. From television, I knew its wide dusty streets, its baseball diamond, its old brick grade school, its cinema, its swimming pool. The producers of the Dodd interviews liked to show Walla Walla as the kind of quiet country town to which every parent would like to move; the ultimate safe place to bring up
kids. Then they'd cut to the interior of the penitentiary.
It was quiet. Not even a TV crew stirred. Though it was a Saturday night, there was only one other diner in the restaurant of the Whitman Motor Inn, and I was wary of the look of determined interest that showed on his face when I arrived. He looked like a man from whom several diners might have already fled, and I did my best to bury myself conspicuously in the large grey slab of Volume 5 of the University of Nebraska Press edition of the journals of Lewis and Clark. I had just folded the book back on the right page (it had taken the explorers five weeks and two days to get from Lolo to the Walla Walla River), when the catechism started up. That looks a good book. You like to read? Who's the author? You ever read Stephen King? He's a good author.
He was fortyish, with a narrow, sallow face and a limp moustache like a drowned vole. He held out his loneliness in the manner of a
derelict exhibiting an open sore; and, having
made me meet his eye once, he was a relentless
anecdotalist. Through the slowly changing
seasons of bread rolls, green salad and rib-eye steak, I nodded, abjectly, while the man recalled his past in the timber industry, his conversion to environmentalism and his recent, successful attempt to get in touch with his
inner self. It was the search for this lost self
that had brought him to Walla Walla, which was a fine town, a college town, an educational town. He had taken some wrong turnings in his early life, the man said; but now he was on the right track. In Walla Walla, he was going to take some courses.
I pushed the remains of my steak to the side of the plate. 'What courses?' He evidently thought my interruption rude. 'It's like they say: it's never too late . . .'
'Hey?' His eyes were wary now. I was pestering him.
'What courses are you going to register for? I'm interested. What courses are you going to take?'
Irritably, he said: 'Courses in . . . machinery. And flagging.'
. . . The water was agitated in a most Shocking manner boils Swell & whorl pools, we passed with great risque.
Buffeted by a strong headwind, the car sped west along the bare, ribbed valley of the Columbia. Lewis and Clark's river, with its Indian fishing lodges and canoe-swallowing rapids, lay many feet underwater now. Locked and dammed since the 1930s, the Columbia had been turned into a staircase of epic lakes. The surface of the water was chipped and furrowed, streaked with windrows of scud. By the side of the road (another deserted blacktop, Route 14, on the Washington shore), stalks of dry sagebrush stood quivering on the stony ground. This miserable, gale-tormented plant had been new to the explorers, who referred to it, doubtfully, as 'whins' and 'wild Isoop'.
The feelings of the early settlers here, as they tried to find words to express the extraordinary barrenness of the valley, were plain from the names on the map. To the north lay Sand Ridge; to the south, Poverty Ridge. There was a hamlet called, with a grimly literal eye for the landscape's salient feature, Sage. Beyond Sage was Dead Canyon. Beyond Dead Canyon was Golgotha Butte.
The West was named, in English, at a time when almost every frontier sod-house and log cabin contained a copy of Pilgrim's Progress, housed next to the Bible. Huckleberry Finn notices the book in the Grangerford house:
'There was some books too, piled up perfectly exact, on each corner of the table. One was a big family Bible, full of pictures. One was Pilgrim's Progress about a man that left his family it didn't say why. I read considerable in it now and then. The statements was interesting, but tough.'
The fur-trappers, farmers, fishermen and loggers were comfortable with Bunyan's landscape of allegory. The settlers were used to a topography in which places had names like the Slough of Despond, the Hill Difficulty, the Delectable Mountains, Lucre Hill, the River of the Water of Life and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Western names] Migrants to the West found themselves living in a dramatic and exaggerated landscape that must have seemed more like the country described in Pilgrim's Progress (or the Book of Revelations) than anywhere in the conventional realistic world. It looked allegorical, and allegorical names came to attach themselves to it: Damnation Peak, Mount Despair, Lucky Canyon, Starvation Point. When Lewis called the Jefferson River's twin forks Philanthropy and Wisdom, he was beginning to create a world in which the pilgrim Christian might wander as he does through Bunyan's book.
When Lewis and Clark reached the Columbia it was already named (after the ship in which Captain Robert Gray sailed into the river in May 1792), which was a pity since it meant so much to them. The river, surging west through these biscuit-coloured hills, was a joy and a deliverance. From here, the explorers could almost smell the ocean. Every day now, they came across tangible signs of the end of the road; an Indian wearing a sailor's peajacket over his short hide skirt; more handkerchiefs; an English copper tea kettle in a lodge house; a musket. They saw what were probably harbour seals (which live happily in fresh water) and called them 'sea otters' to bring the Pacific closer. With each overnight variation in the level of the river, they fancied they could see the influence of the tide.
It was a measure of their raised spirits that they now began to lay on regular musical entertainments for the Indians, with Private Pierre Cruzatte on the fiddle.
Pete Crusat played on the violin which pleased the Savage, the men danced.
PAST GOLGOTHA Butte, the boardsailers began. The Columbia Gorge gathers in the westerly winds of the Pacific and focuses them like a nozzle. It is one of the great wind-funnels of the world, and its effect is exaggerated by the way the sun-dried desert land east of the Cascades forms a pressure-vacuum that sucks in the cool wet oceanic air. So an almost continuous westerly gale blows through the lower Columbia Valley, burnishing the rock bluffs and keeping the sagebrush down to a thin and close-cropped fur. It made the going rough for the explorers. Wind hard from the west all the last night and this morning . . . a verry windy night . . . a windey morning . . . a Violent wind . . . Their canoes lurched and pounded through the lop on the river, often taking on water.
But the boardsailers loved the windiness of it. They came from all over. I first heard about this roaring chasm in the bar of the Isle of Man Yacht Club, where a windsurfing bank clerk told me it was his ambition to spend a long season criss-crossing one short patch of water on the Columbia River. He showed me a picture of the place in a magazine: I barely glanced at it, but nodded politely, thinking him an amiable madman who required humouring.
Now I saw his point. Each wet-suited boardsailer had the rigid crouch of a top gladiator as he skipped hard across the wind on his psychedelic wing. The people made sudden, happy sense of the harsh topography: for a moment, they made the Columbia look homely, in a solitary, Northwestern sort of way. There were at least a dozen of them in
view, but there was no apparent relation
between them. They weren't racing, it wasn't a regatta. Everyone was striking out on a freelance course of his or her own, each at a
different angle to the wind, sailing exactly as people seemed to live here, unsociably and at cross-purposes.
AS THE Cascade Mountains began to crowd around the river, the colour of the landscape slowly changed from tan to green. The first fir tree came and went; sparse woodland thickened into forest, and National Public Radio was back on the air, broadcasting from Portland. For the past few days I had been living in a chronological fog, and it came as no particular surprise to learn that the man in the news today was Warren Christopher - a name I hadn't heard for so many years that it sounded as if it belonged to the historical archives. Go driving long enough in the deep sticks, and you might tune in to find Cokie Roberts interviewing John Quincy Adams.
The road ran abruptly and unambiguously into the fall of 1992, with a lumber mill pumping steam into the overcast sky, some muddy acres of building lots and show-homes, a tangle of concrete ramps and two freeways, straddling the Columbia on high bridges. The whole landscape was permeated with the flatulent reek of the timber industry. I had meant to stop in Portland but took the wrong ramp and found myself headed north on Interstate 5, bound for Seattle and Vancouver. At the next exit I kept on going, and left the gassy city far astern.
Even on this Sunday afternoon I-5 was clogged. It was the main Mexico-to-Canada highway west of the Rocky Mountains; a 1,300-mile-long concrete duct that had been a marvel in its time but was now an almost continuous traffic jam. I made a slot for myself in the slow-moving stream and settled in. It was restful to have no more landscape to look at for a while, just the weatherstained back of a big milk truck, like a grimy blank page.
WHEN Lewis and Clark returned to Washington in 1806, each was looking for the classic ending to a 19th-century story of a young man's adventures. To go with the worldly honours they'd won with their expedition, they needed two weddings, two budding families. President Jefferson had given Lewis the job of Governor of the Louisiana Territory and had promoted Clark to the rank of brigadier-general and made him territorial agent for Indian affairs. Lewis was 32, Clark 36: by the standards of the time they were both unusually long gone in bachelordom, and they were in a justifiable hurry to be married.
Clark went back on a visit to his native Virginia, to the hamlet of Fincastle, near Roanoke, just off Interstate 81, where he proposed to Julia Hancock and was immediately accepted. Lewis wasn't so lucky. For several months, he hung around the social honeypots of Washington and Philadelphia, making advances to likely young women, all of whom turned him down. Lewis was used to hard going and uphill climbs, and he seems to have tackled the business of courtship in much the same spirit as he'd tackled the Lolo Pass. He wrote to a friend: 'What may be my next adventure god knows, but on this I am determined, to get a wife.' But he got nowhere. He was America's newest and brightest cultural hero, yet when it came to lovemaking he simply couldn't put himself in luck's way.
Charles de Saint Memin drew a ceremonial crayon portrait of Meriwether Lewis in Indian dress in 1807. It's no great work of art, and nor is its subject, who stares out of the picture with undisguised pathos. His deepset, doggily soulful eyes are full of trouble. Jug-eared, with a great conk of a nose and a small mouth like a credit-card slot, fantastically crowned with a twin-tailed coonskin hat, Lewis looks a more likely candidate for the comedy circuit than the drawing-room.
Poor Lewis. In 1808 he went out to St
Louis, still wifeless, to take up the governorship. The newlywed Clarks had already set up
house in the town, and Julia Clark was pregnant. The ugly bachelor found that the one dear companion of his life was lost to him. He felt miserably excluded.
Lewis got drunk. He hit the whisky with methodical deliberation, looking to the bottle for anaesthesia. Every day, or almost every day, he drank himself into oblivion. St Louis was a hard-drinking place in a hard-drinking period, but the Governor's drinking was a scandal even on the frontier. Lewis was pickled in alcohol. He got into shouting matches with the Secretary of the territory, who wrote: 'Gov. Lewis . . . has fallen from the Public esteem & almost into the public contempt.' He alienated Jefferson by failing to send any reports back to Washington. Sunk in depression and booze, he began to buy large tracts of land, paying for them with unsecured lines of credit.
Julia Clark had her baby - a boy. The Clarks christened him Meriwether Lewis Clark.
Travelling, like whisky, was a means of escape. In early September 1809, the Governor left St Louis to go to Washington by way of New Orleans - first by flatboat down the Mississippi, then by ship to Chesapeake Bay . . . a voyage of nearly 3,000 miles. The flatboat drifted slowly southwards on the current. Lewis drank. After 11 days of drifting and drinking, the travellers were in sight of Fort Pickering, where Memphis would eventually be built, only 230 miles south of St Louis as the crow flies. Lewis changed his mind. He would ride crosscountry to Washington.
He was incapacitated with liquor. Captain Russell, the Fort Pickering post commander, forced him to stay and dry out, allowing him to drink only claret and some white wine. After five days of this - it seems to me - tolerant regime, Lewis gave Russell his promise that he would lay off whisky, and saddled up for the ride to the capital.
He left in a party, in the company of his two servants, an Indian agent, a slave, an interpreter and a group of Chickasaw Indians; but Lewis liked to ride alone and went on ahead of the rest. Cantering through the Tonnesses wilderness on dreadful roads, bottle back close-to- hand, Lewis perhaps found some relief from his goading furies. He was high on motion and whisky. On 10 October he was on the Natchez Trace, heading north for Nashville, when he pulled in to Grinder's Tavern.
Grinder was away, but Mrs Grinder was home. Later, she would describe how Lewis called for whisky, smoked his pipe, and paced the floor talking agitatedly to himself 'like a lawyer'. Then she heard shots from his room. At dawn next morning, the Governor died of wounds to his head and stomach.
Exactly what happened at Grinder's was never properly unravelled. The official reports said suicide; gossip said murder. At the time of Lewis's death, Clark was also on his way to Washington, travelling on the main road from St Louis with his wife and infant son. The news was brought to him on 28 October, and Clark, who knew Lewis better than anyone alive, responded with grief but without much surprise.
I fear O] I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him.
After Lewis's death, Jefferson wrote of his one-time secretary: 'He was much afflicted & habitually so with hypochondria' - a word used by Jefferson in its original sense, to mean acute depression or melancholia. In Jefferson's sympathetic diagnosis, Lewis had managed to keep his illness at bay with the 'constant
exertion' of his western travels, but that the 'sedentary occupations' of the governorship had led him to succumb to 'these distressing affections'.
In 1813 Clark was given the job that had broken his partner and became Governor of the Louisiana Territory; he lived until 1838, when he was two years short of being 70. His baby son grew up to work on the Rectangular Survey that Jefferson had begun: in June 1849, Meriwether Lewis Clark became Surveyor General of Illinois and Missouri.
MY WRONG turning had left me with a day in hand. I quit the interstate and headed northwest for the Olympic Peninsula and the Pacific coast. The road was a dead-straight furrow through rolling plantations of black firs - an enormous canopy of darkness held up by bare grey tree-trunks, standing as thick on the ground as stalks of wheat. The trees were of the kind that timber industry people call 'pecker poles' - all height and no circumference, like 100ft broomsticks. Over their tops was spread a smothering sky of oily-looking rain clouds like a dirty eiderdown. These were the foothills of the razor-edged Olympics, but from the road one could no more guess at the existence of the mountains than one could tell the time of day. Mile after mile slid by of the same dank, unpeopled lightlessness, relieved by the occasional patch of clearcutting.
Great tracts of the Pacific Northwest, like this one, resembled the interior landscape of manic depression. They ran through the same exhausting cycle. For days on end there'd just be gloom and dripping water in this natural dungeon where things grew like some fungal runaway mould. Then, without warning, the sky would clear and you'd find yourself suddenly open to the high white heights, and watch as the world changed colour on an instant, from vegetable black to brilliant moss green. The character of the region seemed strangely well-matched to the characters of the people who had first discovered and best described it: Vancouver, Lewis, Roethke, Hugo. By commission, choice or birth, they'd all
managed somehow to gravitate to this mood-
swing country, where their own disturbed, rollercoaster temperaments seemed to be
bodied forth in the objective physical geography of the place.
Foot down through the forest, I kept going until at last the ocean showed, like the ultimate clearcut, as a lightsome vacancy beyond the trees. I parked the Dodge and walked down to the beach. The sky was higher and thinner here, and there was even a meagre ration of evening sunlight, enough to make the big, half-sunken driftlogs cast distinct shadows on the sand. Though there was barely enough wind to keep the pine-needles in motion, the sea drummed and rumbled like the traffic on an overhead expressway as the incoming swell broke on the beach.
I sat on a log and listened to the sea.
The Sea which is imedeately in front roars
like a repeeted roling thunder, wrote Clark; and have rored in that way ever Since our arrival in
its borders which is now 24 Days Since we arrived
in Sight of the Great Western Ocian, I cant
say Pasific as Since I have Seen it, it has been
The Pacific rollers came bursting on to the beach like exploding snowdrifts. Each one started off as an unambitious crease, a pencil line on the smooth water 150 yards out, where the swell tripped on the shallowing sand bottom. With ponderous slowness, the crease sharpened and built into a translucent crest, through which the dying sunlight showed as through bubbled green bottle-glass. Now the whole wave was really on the up-and-up. Sixty or seventy yards off, it sprouted a thin white handlebar moustache, which widened rapidly along its lip. It kept on climbing. And climbing. The force of gravity appeared to have been suspended to enable its magnificent ascent. The arched wave hung in space, as thick and viscous-looking as a tower of treacle. Then came the break - a ground-shaking crash that you could feel in your bowels, as the sea collapsed into powder then reformed itself back into water again.
I shut my notebook and pocketed my
ballpoint. My log was now an island, and both my shoes had sprung serious leaks below the waterline.
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