The place was called Manzanar, which means apple orchard in Spanish. But there was nothing idyllic about it. We were in the middle of nowhere, three hours north of LA and a good hour from Mojave, which for my money is the ugliest city in California (I speak as a man who recently spent 24 hours in Stockton, which Forbes dubbed the worst in America). It was cold, windy, and very bleak.
Most Angelenos pass Manzanar in a flash, as they plough up the 395 freeway towards Mammoth Lakes, the nearest decent ski resort, or Yosemite, the majestic national park that so bewitched Ansel Adams. But we had time on our side, legs in need of stretching, and were intrigued to see its huge watch-towers so far from civilisation. So we stopped to trawl round the visitor centre.
It was quite an eye-opener. I'd heard, vaguely, about internment – the policy by which the US rounded up citizens of Japanese ancestry after Pearl Harbour, and bunged them in concentration camps. But I never realised its ugly extent. Manzanar, which is now a ruin, was one of 10 such camps, dotted across the country.
The place is staggering for its sheer scale: it was two miles square, and housed 15,000 people in long wooden huts. It was heartbreaking to hear, as we looked round, how families were kicked out of their homes and shipped there in trains. And horrible to see how they spent three years sheltering from the freezing wind, working in on-site factories, and waking each morning with a layer of fine dust in their hair.
Today's America is infinitely more tolerant than the one that demonised the "Japs" and locked them away, and far slower to condemn. It's striking, for example, that (despite dire predictions) there has been no real backlash against the Muslim community in the wake of the Fort Hood shootings.
So maybe people really do learn from their mistakes. I hope so: it would mean that a small amount of good came from Manzanar's ugly chapter in modern US history.
Giving rugby a try
Clint Eastwood's new film Invictus, about South Africa lifting the 1995 rugby world cup and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, got stellar write-ups this week, and promises to be a contender this Oscar season. Provided, that is, that US audiences raised on "gridiron" and cheerleaders can get their head around the oval ball game.
"The viewer just has to jump in," Variety's reviewer soberly advised, "and surmise that [rugby] is something like a cross between soccer and American football." Try telling that to the crowds at Twickenham...Reuse content