Alexandria Old Town in Virginia is where Robert E. Lee lived and it's the State that Grant rejoined in 1862 after breaking with Lincoln. It is so close to the North but at the outset to the Civil War it seceded and went Confederate. A statue of a Southern solider now one hundred and sixty years later stands on main street head bowed facing South, with his back to Washington DC only some eight miles North and the sentiment is obvious. America is still divided in many ways.
Monroe claimed to have met with the devil a rich playboy called Robert who dispensed long legged girls and pointed with a cane - down by the waterfront at Old Town, Alexandria in one of the oldest communities in America.
Monroe was dark, ironic and drunk. It was shortly after he had landed a job in New York and we were on the phone after midnight for him and in London it was early morning for me.
Later he wrote to his brother with what he said was an explanation of his role in NYC.
"It's like running a ruined abbey on a hill side in Provence holy firs, oaks and tall stacked concrete cathedrals all layered with dollars and solitude..." He was apparently defining Wall Street for a European intellectual with a narrow conscious of experience.
"I have climbed a moral outcrop with towers like San G. just like those spent summers of our Tuscan youth…But of course there is no morality in either place. It was probably lost before Francis went native and took over Assisi.
Years later like mellow percussion Monroe said to his brother,
"You remember Michael, the writer who works for me at GO well he's tasked to write my biography- amusing and ridiculous I know he wants to talk to you. Tell him everything. All the bad stories, it will amuse him. Later he will remove anything I find too accurate from the final draft but we will keep the uncensored version. Also it will give him, you and me some purpose and that smiling sadness of old men who apparently know the truth. He'll probably want to write yours next. Now that would be ruinous! Monroe always seemed to display an irreverent washout intensity which sidestepped any pretence at truth.
One thing I am sure of is that before I knew him everything was quieter and more sedate. It was a steady musical cord mixed with a sympathetic harmony. And then suddenly it change. Reality was sharply louder and bustling with a major noisy cacophony of continuous activities. It started as soon as we met. As if being let into a personal secret Monroe told me about a dinner he had attended in New Orleans. It was the first of his more bitter stories, clouded and unsettling.
"It was a large noisy corporate affair hosted by the boss of an important oil and gas company. The evening arranged itself in a tall glass office building, misty from the outside but transparent from within, with windows wide-eyed looking out in all directions. This was the top, forty five floors up, overlooking the French Quarter and the Mississippi docks. White linen tables were laid out with crystal glasses, subdued table lamps in the shape of candles and silver confetti on the floor cut in shapes of drilling platforms.
"We were standing around gossiping, talking about the President, telling bad jokes, drinking cocktails and eating hot Cajun appetisers when the music was interrupted. The host stood on a plinth, cleared his throat and asked for a moment and then broke the news that from Texas it was now confirmed that Jack Kennedy died an hour ago of bullet wounds.
Suddenly spontaneous applause broke out and someone at the back of the room cheered. Only a couple of black waiters standing nearby seemed unmoved."
Monroe's eyes starred and he nodded with an awful grin and completed one of his inward rambles which never seem to finish satisfactorily. "Incredibly divided country assassination and murder is an acceptable method of government change." He looked out of the window across a New York sky line. "The reason they hate Europe is because it fails to act. It looks backwards and sideways whereas for them tomorrow is a hot future loaded with potential. England stopped doing that after Cromwell beheaded Charles and then realised he had no where to go. That was before the Enlightenment bypassed London and before God died for the French." He smiled ironically as if to say can you do better; have you a better explanation?
And here in London even more years on there is still no optimism for a shortened historic memory.
A mile down stream is where those unsentimental Romans crossed the river going north to Colchester. Their relentless pursuit of the straight line meant one fork of their beloved Watlin Street hit the Thames at a deep ford beside what became Deptford.
Not far from the outskirts of that London Roman Wall on the north shore of the Thames a newly painted line of fence posts stand almost to attention. They are all uprights against the dark rocks and black sand of the foreshore. And they stand like a company of new untarnished recruits.
Unfortunately another type of awfully raw recruit was found here not long ago back sliding restless and rigid in those early morning waves. Many days of weary churn had to be dragged bloated grey, brown and bruised with ropes out of the water. A man had apparently unaided thrown himself from Tower Bridge four weeks before now he was ballooned and stiff almost saluting the fence posts after being washed and bumped along the river bottom and hauled up and down miles of tidal water twice a day until finally the body's gases lifted him to the surface. Wapping marine police brought two boats closer and the awful body was carefully lifted on to the back of one boat with rods and ropes. The body's skin, like gloves was coming off. They collected as much of the skin as they could as it would be used for identification and took everything up river to Wapping Police Station. They curtained the remains on the dock until a doctor arrived, pronounced death, charged them for his trouble and later a coroner took away the body for an autopsy.
Now a month later behind that shinning fence is a muddy shoreline almost empty of refuse. Out passed some shallows the brackish Thames water is being kicked into waves and spray by a late easterly. A bright sky has white aeroplane tracks marking out the wide horizon with pathfinders from Essex and Greenwich to Heathrow.
Across on the southern Bermondsey shore there still stands the Mayflower pub from where a captain, now buried behind in St Mary's churchyard, was laughing and drinking when he was brought a contract to take pilgrims to what became Virginia. After landing back in England he sailed back to Bermondsey only to die a few months later. A copy of his Will is disintegrating in a leaking frame on the pub wall.
Standing over and away from the northern shore is another old ship's public house called the Prospect of Whitby. Next to it is an old tropical hardwood pier and if you look back at the riverfront apartments, there five floors up a man is looking out his arms leaning against a dark red nautical balcony. He is talking to himself and you have already met him, it's me and I'm arguing about how to write about Monroe.
"If he was always difficult to write for.., it's because he seems difficult to define that someone could present so different an arrangement of views and still be himself. The face he offered television was fabricated and altered consciously."
I am early middling aged, white faced behind a pale tan. I often smile at my own inability to understand myself and others and I seem to only understand myself completely when I play blues piano slowly fingering and rolling the notes and cords from my own feelings.
"Someone touches a nuance; an encouragement and he became someone else. Isn't that enough? Why do I expect to see it differently?"
There are also things Monroe would want to say about himself. He had always been in memories way and had watched all those wheels that loop and turn, even when he was the one spinning.
And now just before we begin Monroe's story you need to have a slightly wider view of me and where I come from and so I want to offer you a kind of confession. Listen and be circumspect. Later consider when I tell you what my job was and where that leaves myself, you and us.
My father's great grandfather Stewart Connor McCloud said he was "out of bounds of sense and reckonin'," and this was certainly true he said by the time he fought for the Rebel's at Shilou in '63, but "mine and everyone's insanity continued".
In two years of mechanised slaughter over a third his regiment was dead and most of the survivors had taken at least one wound. He tried to persuade his brother to take a deferment.
"The Yankees have won. They will put us both into mud," he said. Towards one end of another battle at Bull Run Manassas his brother was shot once in the chest and once in the neck. He died on a schoolhouse bench without being looked at. Later that day some of his unit was shot for desertion.
"After my declined and a sloping off," McCloud wrote to a friend, "I drifted back across the Atlantic to Dublin where my father had visited and then I travelled on to my own old country and again I lived on Skye until I was forgotten".
Returning back to Tennessee eight years later, with a new bride Elizabeth who gave him confidence and a new name Michael Stewart, his sadness subsided. He and she gradually built a successful lumber and building business but the guilt and anger never quite left him. It was obvious from his letters and particularly from a diary he intermittently wrote. Yet he had success and some good times as Stewart and Harrington inc. and it is still a large firm of surveyors and builders that remains four generations later.
My mother's side could trace themselves back to the Scottish Covernanters who wanted independence from Charles 1st of England. Two and a half centuries later her father fought for the English infantry in World War One. His first posting was as a dispatch rider in Belgium. He carried orders and news to the front on a motorbike. I have a creased sepia photograph of a dark haired young man sitting astride a large grey BSA with owl goggles and an Italian scarf around his neck.
Eighty years later my job is more partial than my grandfather's delivery service. I create messages. Despite all the noise and disruption I keep few illusions. I'm a sorcerer apprentice and a weather beacon on the home front. I don't dodge bullets or lead men to death I am a public relations director.
Some call me a street liar others a spinning quack for the Corporation. In the main I keep the truth. It's easier to remember.
My only memory of my mother's father was when, in his early nineties, he would spin a knife on the dinning room table for my amusement.
"Which way will you go Michael east, south, west or north? You choose. We'll see if you are right," he smiled at me and looked down at the spinning knife.
Many years later Monroe, the Corporation's President, would also occasionally spin knives and flip corks for his own amusement. Occasionally he would bet on the precise outcome.
"Gambling is sin in black and white. You think you are betting about a better future, but betting always brings a timeless independent answer," Monroe mouth seemed to shuffle as he attempted to upend a wine cork with one bounce.
"You see old chap, all these colours in nature," his arm would gesture out of a window sweeping towards the blue of the sky and the green trees, "these colours must have come late to human consciousness as we still want to think in black and white. Colour brings with it all that ethical and emotional dithering. Colours are Catholic and they think they are divine." His eyes lit as the cork landed up right. "Your job Michael is to deliver us from rainbows and keep everyone's attention on our beguiling monotones."
William O. Monroe, Lord Monroe of Shoreditch, ran the GO Corporation as a colonial power. This was reflected in the area of London included in his baronial title. His East End ruled as far as India docks and Tobacco Wharf. He thought the title farcical but never gave it up. Like most well healed and dubiously bred Europeans he was a snob.
Amid the crowds and canyons he worked in New York on Wall Street for brokers, financial traders and later in Europe for an Austrian and then a British merchant bank before joining GO Division or as it was then known General Ordinance Division. Even then the Corporation was huge and he was the youngest Vice President to be raised to the main board.
GO owned oil, railways, and forestry, printing, publishing, television channels, two film studios, three arms factories, shipping and insurance. Its rambling unreconstructed assets grew to included technology, retail, and banking as well as steel works and mining. It operated in forty-eight countries and had tax deals with another eleven.
Some employees worked on secret programmes for a number of western governments and had installed satellite stations in geo-stationary orbit where most PR and people would tell you that humanity had never reached. In a caste of forms GO had existed for over five hundred years and it had remade itself three times. It was about to do it again.