Graham Reid: Midnight in the garden of liberals and tories

Savannah had drawn us like a magnet, pulling us to its historic centre of charming squares, Spanish moss dripping from its trees and luring us with the story of its survival.

Savannah was one of the few cities to survive Sherman's pyromaniacal march at the fag end of the Civil War. So the buildings in the old part of town near the river - those which survived a century of neglect until the advent of the Historic Savannah Foundation and the coincidental arrival in the city of restorer Jim Williams in the early 1960s - have stories to tell.

Our oddly named 17Hundred90 Inn on East President St had its resident ghost, and that wasn't uncommon in this city, where one of the most popular tourist attractions is the Ghost Tour which takes in old homes and the local cemeteries.

But there is another attraction, one that the locals tolerate but try not to engage with.

Savannah was the setting for John Berendt's remarkable book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which explored the story of Williams, his wild lover Danny Hansford, whom Williams was accused of murdering, and a colourful cast of characters including the famously flamboyant lady-boy Lady Chablis.

All these things - and a desire to see a city renowned for its Southern charm, mint juleps and fine restaurants - had pulled us across the country.

Many will say Savannah locals are slightly aloof but that was far from our experience. We were engaged in conversation, made to feel welcome, and thoroughly seduced by the lazy ambience of the old part of town.

The suburbs were something else, of course - urban sprawl is much the same anywhere - but out on the coast (and even at the famously touristy Crab Shack on Tybee Island) was the same relaxed, sometimes casually indifferent, atmosphere. We loved it.

On our final night at the 17Hundred90 Inn - the ghost of Anna Powers who threw herself off the roof in the 18th century after her married lover sailed away hadn't troubled us - we had dinner in the hotel's sophisticated restaurant.

It had a reputation for its candlelit fine dining, consistently rated as one of the top three in town, and again we were won over.

Savannah, we concluded, was one of the most interesting, enjoyable and friendly places we had been in our two-month drive.

After dinner Megan went to bed and I, still buzzing with the feeling that I could happily make this city my home if I could only afford it, decided to go to the bar for a brandy.

It was a warm and inviting room of dark wood and polished brass so I sat at a stool and ordered my drink.

The only other patrons were a young couple who were in the latter stages of their evening out. I chatted with the woman at the bar and left them alone.

Then, from the other side of the room I saw a movement, a previously unnoticed middle-aged man had raised his glass in my direction with an invitation to join him, so I moved around, introduced myself and we got talking.

He lived nearby and had dropped in for a nightcap, and he asked what had brought me to this fair city.

I told him and he seemed genuinely interested in some of the other - and lesser - places we had seen in the past few weeks. He had also had the misfortune to have once passed through Cameron, a shrimp and petroleum town on the Gulf Coast, and we laughed about that smelly and unattractive place.

We were enjoying each other's company, so ordered another drink, discussed the local architecture about which he seemed to know something, and I got some pointers on a good route to take when heading south tomorrow for Boca Raton and eventually Miami Beach.

And then he asked me what I did. I told him I was a journalist. "Now," he said eying me warily, "would you be a liberal journalist, or would you be a conservative journalist?"

The question stumped me a little and so I muttered something to the effect that I guessed I was somewhere in between, because on a personal level in some matters I was liberal and in others conservative.

He looked at me for an unnervingly silent few seconds then said with cold and unequivocal certainty, "Well, I am a Bush-supporting conservative Republican and I think you are a liberal journalist".

And with that he finished his drink in a gulp, stood up and walked out of the bar without a glance backwards at me, where I sat dumbfounded, wondering where friendly Savannah had just gone. 

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