I spent last week with a river lapping at my feet. I was in America's sublime Deep South, researching a story about music; from Memphis, Tennessee to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I drove through a thousand miles of Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union, and everywhere we went, the river came too. It wasn't just a conversation topic; it was the only topic – the river and how much it might inundate the homes of its inhabitants with its greasy, muddy, cold, brown presence.
Rumours flew. In New Orleans, I was told that Memphis was already flooded. In Memphis, I was assured that Rolling Fork was under water. In Rolling Fork, I learned that 5,000 people in Greenville were demanding something be done before the town was swept away. None of the stories was true. But everyone was afraid they would happen soon. And they still probably will.
Snow is to blame. There were tremendous snowfalls in the Rockies last December. When the snow melted, the water flowed into the rivers that drain into the Mississippi. And when the smaller rivers were swollen, the waters that couldn't drain into them flooded the fields. And the swollen rivers ran on down to the Mississippi, which kept rising and rising...
"Old Glory", as the great river is called, rose five feet in a week, creeping up the trunks of massive trees and flooding the pathetic wooden shacks at the water's edge. People talked about the Great Flood of 1937, when the river burst over levees 57 feet high. Could it happen again? "The Mississippi's gonna crest at four feet higher'* that," said Tom, a Vicksburg hotelier. "We're safe up here on the bluff, but I wouldn't like to be living down below on the 21st."
The 21st? "That's when the river reaches its highest point. May 21st. We won't know till then how many folks'll find it creepin' under their doors." With Nasa-like precision, American meteorologists have predicted Flooding Day. Inundation, like fate, is grinding towards the people. The levees can't be built any higher; you can't just pile more sandbags on and hope for the best. All the Mississippians can do now is watch the flood heading their way, like Romans watching lava pour down the side of Vesuvius.
The state was eerily quiet and depopulated, as if families were staying indoors, keeping vigil. But as I was reflecting on all this, CNN reported on a travelling band of fundamentalist fans of the sturdily Christian, California-based Family Radio, who are currently traversing Florida, from Jacksonville to Tampa, in caravans, warning people that the world's about to end. They've left their homes and families, given away their possessions, cars and pets, and festooned their vans with banners saying "Awesome News" – namely, that Judgement Day, as promised in the Bible, will be on 21 May. The saved will be "raptured" into heaven, as though beamed up into the Starship Enterprise. The rest will suffer five months of cataclysmic weather and mass death, before the world ends on 21 October.
What a pain for the good people of Mississippi. Here they are, waiting for the end, wondering if the flood waters will trash their homes and all they hold dear – and along comes the news that, the very same day it happens, with a kind of mad divine irrelevance, the world will end anyway. Honestly. Saturday week will be a bad day to be in Mississippi. Or anywhere.
Bartender, I need a drink, and this is loaded ...
Last month, Mississippi covered itself in glory by passing a gun law. No, not a law restricting licences, banning guns in public or insisting they fire only little flags that say "Bang!" No, the law was to remove any last objections to its Concealed Weapon Bill. Some states insist you shouldn't be able to walk into church with a gun hidden about your person. Mississippians do not share this panty-waist view. Gun enthusiasts can now bring a concealed Glock into churches, bars, schools, colleges and sporting events. You thought the combination of firearms and alcohol was unhealthy? You thought the heat and anger generated by football games was not conducive to having a Smith & Wesson .38 in a fan's pocket? Get real. As for bringing concealed guns into school... But the logic runs that US citizens should be able to defend themselves against mad people keen on killing sprees at Columbine, in bars or at Lakers games. The logic is so ridiculously partial and stupid, I just hope one of the state legislators who passed it soon finds himself in a bar in Clarksdale, with a Magnum .40 clamped to his head and its burly owner grating: "Did you move my beer, asshole?"
No one's a stranger in the warm Deep South
I don't want to smarm up to the Yanks, but I must say; Mississippians are the friendliest people I've ever met. If you're in a room, a restaurant, a lift, a hotel lobby or even the street, everyone habitually greets everyone else, even if you're all strangers. Everyone says "Hi!" and "Where're y'all from?" and "Have you tried the tamales?" and "What lovely shoes." If you ask directions to the airport, they go into helpfulness overdrive. In the past they used to counter your "Thanks very much" with a non-committal "Mm-hmm"; somebody has taught them manners and now they say "You're welcome," with a slightly shrieky intonation. Even the chap whose battered old Dodge I overtook on Interstate 10 gave me a cheery smile instead of a middle finger. And they'll talk for hours about British royalty.
The only false note I encountered was a Nachez lady who told me her prayer group had met for lunch and discussed Kate Middleton. She was a beautiful girl, said the lady, "but we were not impressed to hear she's been livin' with Prince William for months." I offered my apologies on behalf of the nation. "But mah friend Mary put us straight," she continued. "She said: 'Think of Mary Magdalene...'" So that's the royal wedding reinterpreted Southern-style: Kate was basically a prostitute; but she's married Jesus Christ, so it's okay.