So Blakey, Bev and I​ are among the lucky ticket-holders to a big Silicon Valley campaign fundraiser for HRC. (Don’t ask, don’t tell.) Yes: Her Herness Herself! A friendly little plush-covered gathering for six hundred at some well-connected Palo Alto dweller’s farcically supersized manse! The next best thing to a private audience with the Hilldebeest! The Many-Horned Hillaria! (Bernie who?) Hellza-poppin’ H-Rod! (Not the Donald?) The Grinch Who Lost Her Emails! The Ethical Wreck! Our Straight-Talking-Thick-Ankled Lady of the Half-Explained! (Will Huma be there?) OMGoddess!

It should be awesome, we figure: our first sighting, not only of the She-Deity, but also of her millionaire internet-drone advance guard – boyish CEO putti of Cupertino and Mountain View, who have begun (it is rumoured) to flutter Democratically about her. Young-Titan Tesla guys with entrepreneurial dream-teeth and a no doubt healthy obsession with other men.(They’re good boys at heart: their artisanal leather wallets are made from 100 per cent organic Niman Ranch grain-fed beef.) The rail-thin wives should be there, too, of course: agile, urgent, newly hatched Clintonistas, vaguely dissatisfied with everything, but keeping it real enough with teal-green silicon eyeballs and pricey MRS degrees from Stanford. Not to mention the usual klatsch of ruling-class hangers-on: radical Botoxers; Pilates Instructors for Peace and Zero Body Fat; members of the pedicure-rights community – all Teetering-for-Hillary in black sheath dresses and fuck-me pumps.

Since it takes a village, we anticipate, too, the requisite flock of drugged up toddlers cordoned off somewhere in a nanny-pen, raptly checking the Nasdaq with tiny fingers or watching start-up porn on Androids larger than they are. Overlooking everything (or so one hopes), a magisterial phalanx of burly fellows in dark suits, sporting ear buds and bulletproof vests. We’ve heard that upper and lower colonic ‘background checks’ have already been performed on us in advance (without our knowledge!) and that tonight will feature metal detectors, iris scans and hologram IDs. Fine, fine, fine. After all, we’re going to have our official pictures taken with HER: who wouldn’t want to be safe? Sad to get wasted even as one stands leering hysterically at the (Possibly?) To Be Anointed One. I have a particular investment in survival tonight: I’m hoping that one magic handshake with HRH Hillary the First will cure my life-long scrofula.

Sailing down the freeway to Palo Alto at 75 mph, Blakey’s flooring it: we’re pretty giddy already. The three of us think back nostalgically to two years ago when, in a similar state of exaltation, we saw Susan Boyle on her first American tour. That experience, frankly, left us in a frizzed-out blissful heap for days. Three wrinkled yet ruddy faces, tear-stained with Britain’s Got Something But What? emotion. Lucky Bev even got the SuBo concert tee. Which is just to say that both as a trio and individually, we dote on Weird Yummy Females Who Aren’t Exactly Female. Not least when one of them performs a clunky-rockin’ cover of ‘River Deep, Mountain High’. Nor do we mind at all if said Weird Female has political ambitions and wants to ‘reach out’ to a larger audience, to address a public forum on pressing global issues, for example, or go for a girls’ night out with Angela Merkel. As we close in on the one and only H-Factor, even I, mistress of a thousand exclamation marks, cannot capture our blithery exaltation.

Granted, there’d been a moment of consternation earlier: the virtual invitation had said ‘Business Casual’. What did this mean, particularly if one were a superannuated Lez-Been-going-on-Haz-Been? Dockers and golf shirt from Target? One’s nicest, if also somewhat shapeless, elastic-waist pants? A Churchillian boiler-suit? Brushing one’s hair? As it turns out, we have all three opted this evening for a Boomerish, sixty-something-but-still-hot Bea Arthur look: long woolly sweater-coat thingies on the outside – the main event is to be held in a giant garden tent behind the sponsor’s house and will likely be wet and cold – co-ordinated with cellulite-binding Patagonia jeggings and lovely lady-invert tops with Nehru collars. Footwear-wise Blakey has gone most rad: pointy stilettos à la Alice and friends in The L Word; but Bev is also v. glamorous in a pair of très bijou tenderfoot booties. I’ve opted for classic Teddy Girl spats and a tiny Santa hat, all in the possibly vain hope that Cate Blanchett (pensive, fur-coated, alone) will by some miracle be attending the festivities and mistake me for the nubile Therese in Carol. None of these stylish accoutrements, as it happens, will prove sufficient protection against what is actually to come: two freezing hours in a vast backyard mud-slough all too reminiscent of Ypres in 1917. Still – tiny spoiler alert – a welcome rush of sartorial vindication will later come our way in the form of HRC’s Dr Scholl’s low-rider pumps and tragicomic Mongolian shepherdess pantsuit.

We find the house (a massively upscaled example of the charming local style known as Transylvanian Arts and Crafts with All the Intimacies) and pull up. And guess what: every bizillionnaire homeowner in quaint, fully dude-wired ‘Old Palo Alto’ now has his very own dedicated valet parking station. On a gala evening like this one, one can see why. Cop cars, gleaming Uber-stretch limos, even a pair of Black Marias, hover in the suburban gloaming, ready (one presumes) for any emergency transport that may be needed. Members of a not so hidden armoured Swat team peep out, fairy-like and phosphorescent, from giant hydrangea bushes. More odd shadowy forms – sniper-pigeons no doubt – flutter on the rooftops above us. Several CEO wives, it’s rumoured, have been trained to do bomb disposal using simple kitchen appliances. We stand there gasping and gawking for a moment, then hurriedly join the gaggle of excited Hillary boosters massed on one side of the house. There, looming in the dusky half-light, is tonight’s formidable security checkpoint, complete with guillotine. Ecrasez l’infâme!

Which isn’t to say everyone shares the magical mood. The Palo Alto deputy sheriff charged with searching our bags proceeds to sift through them with pokey Neanderthal punctilio, giving each of us a look of extinct-species hatred as he does so. I think I’m good: all I possess in the way of concealed carry are two iPhones, three iPads, my laptop and a Laocoön-like tangle of charger-cords and cables – the minimum one needs to function these days. But Blakey and Bev? They both hoard moisturiser. Anything could happen.

Thankfully, we pass through unmolested: three giddy girl-goddesses on our way to be scrutinised – and one of us perhaps to be chosen? – by our very own She-Paris. Yes, since his recent transition, the good-looking playboy son – now daughter – of Mr and Mrs Priam and Hecuba of Troy has announced that she wishes to be known as ‘Our First Woman President’.

But two hours in the Tent? Well, frankly … not quite as glamorous as imagined. (Who’s in charge here? And where is She? I’m effing freezing.) For a sacred space, it’s a bit squawky and unruly. Various Gooples (female spouse-seeking, product-worshipping Apple and Google managers) hog the few stand-up tables and rhapsodise over a new killer app for tracking one’s anorexia. (Post your most recent binge-and-purge-video, and will send you a flood of congratulatory emoticons.) Other amenities? Hardly numerous. There’s no place to sit; the ground is sodden from the day’s accumulated rainfall; and like the last faltering members of Scott’s Antarctic party, two or three restaurant terrace heaters struggle feebly against the unseasonably frigid air, then crumple face-down in the snow. Ah! thank goodness: one has just spotted amid the throng a little folding table where a gallant waiter, ankle-deep in mud, pours a nice Safeway Pinot for the faithful. We order two or three glasses apiece and start chugging.

Eventually, an organiser bustles into the tent from the big house to give us the lowdown. Her most excellent HRC, we learn, is hobnobbing in the Garden Room with local luminaries and special guests, but will soon begin readying herself for us. When the time comes, we will be asked to form a crocodile leading into said Garden Room, where each of us will be introduced to Herself and have our pictures taken with Her. (O sweetest of moral and political unguents!) After that, we will assemble again in the tent and have the pleasure of hearing our new friend Hilldebeest deliver a rousing speech. In the meantime, we are invited to network with other fine Clinton dudes and babes and enjoy the gourmet canapés!

Alas – given that we’ve skipped our evening meal and now feel distinctly peckish – these delights turn out to be of two kinds only: green frondy things made of kale and quinoa (a strange new Californian food otherwise known as cardboard) and greasy devilled eggs with brownish spots. A cadre of white-jacketed Palo Alto High School students have been delegated to tote these dire nibbles around on trays, which they do, with growing surliness and teenage angst. As night advances and temperatures continue to fall – soon an hour will have gone by – the young people are obviously trying to keep warm by motoring round the tent at high speed and foisting their dainties on us every twenty seconds or so. Should you demur, say, at your 19th devilled egg, they give you a pouty, recriminatory look: we’re doing our bit – why aren’t you doing yours?

The sense of being trapped in somebody else’s repetition-mania is pervasive, subtly phantasmagorical. The background sound system, one notices, has accidentally been set on permanent replay, so that Aretha Franklin seems to be singing ‘(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman’ in an apparently endless Viconian cycle. The fabled Queen of Soul serenades us with the song at least 47 times, by my count, affirming to the point of anomie, one might venture, what must be natural womanhood of mind-shattering amplitude.

Blakey, Bev and I refuse to be disgruntled, however. We too are natural women and ready to go to the mat to support Caitlyn Jenner’s right to join us. And soon enough, we start to spot people of Our Own Kind dotted round and about: middle-aged female couples, trios and quartets, some still sporting the mullets and turtlenecks of yesteryear. Amazingly, a few are even wearing their secret aprons and carry their labyris-trowels, plainly visible, in special holsters. Such esoteric garb is how we have always recognised one another: we, the most loyal, deep-dyed, oft-tried members of the Hillary-voter demographic. Although she seldom mentions us, she must know – we feel sure she must – that we constitute her major electoral stealth-weapon. Should Donald Trump become the over-combed, orange-skinned Republican nominee, we plan to subdue him via an orgy of banshee bricklaying.

Tonight, however, we have left the Odd Fellows accessories at home. Only Bev even has her trowel with her. Undaunted, with wineglasses in hand, we sidle up to a group of likely soulmates; worm our way into the conversation; and enjoy flirtatious rumour-mongering about Hillary and Huma. (‘Of course, the marriage to Weiner was …’) We have all noticed a Huma-lookalike in the crowd – part of the posse of female Clinton flunkeys who run up and down counting people, checking name-tags etc. I was almost fooled when I first saw her: dark, sleek, Gucci-clad, with onyx flame-thrower eyes that could set a tablecloth on fire were she ever to have a need to do so. But no way – sigh – can this frighteningly leggy person be the enigmatic Ms Abedin: she’s now hanging out with a Straight White Male companion – her husband, perhaps? Or one of the several Olympic Team sperm-donors trolling the crowd tonight?

The conversation pretty much stalls at this point; our chatmates turn out to be somewhat gruff, fancy-impaired businesswomen (‘biotech … IPO … retired … Palm Springs … golf … dildo’) with whom dish can only go so far. They are polite but chiselled in stone when I speculate that maybe Huma has her own Huma and the woman we’ve spotted is Huma’s Huma.

So much more one might say about everybody. Yes, we spot a Famous Radical Feminist from Thirty Years Ago, looking crinkly if not altogether crumbly. We hobnob with a large contingent of Mumbai engineers and their plumply gorgeous sari-clad wives. (As part of their official party invitation each couple has been given two complimentary green cards.) Along with other respectful onlookers, we watch an Oracle manager perform a cathartic pagan dance with her companion-animal. The latter – a miniature Schnauzer like our very own Archie – has been a K9s-for-Hillary fundraiser, we learn, from puppyhood.

But the main events, so long coming, are suddenly (joy!) cranking up and we are hustled into a quickly forming photo line. Here we will remain, it’s true, for a few more donkey’s years – trapped inside the frigid tent, barely creeping along. But the large boisterous group ahead of us tells us they’ve just espied the patio outside (the rain apparently is belting down) and beyond that, the big French doors leading to the Garden Room. As if by magic, the not-so-secret Secret Service guys and gals suddenly triple in number and a loud murmuring ensues. Can it be?

Somebody is definitely inside – hugging, possibly even French-kissing folks – but so many frothing Hillaromanes now bob about and block the view that as we inch towards the house, we see only a few flashes of the back of an uncannily familiar blonde head. Blakey, irrepressible as usual, decides to go rogue now we’re getting closer; she leaps out of line with her iPhone and sprints through the rain to a big window. But before she can snap a single Instagram masterpiece, she’s dragged back to the line by two Hillary-henchmen and made to cool her already cold heels. Wide-eyed, shivering, she regales us nevertheless. (Hee haw, gentlemen, wharr’s my chewing tobacco? I sawrd Her! Yar! It’s Her, by god!)

Now hushed be every ruder breath. For here comes the truly magnificent part of this Walpurgisnacht – and, for me, its bewitching, head-spinning climax. The pace of everything has suddenly picked up. (There are scores of waiting H-boosters to photograph, after all, before the Beest can give her speech.) Except for the toddlers from the nanny-pen – they’d been rounded up earlier for a Young Donors group shot – everybody, we find, is to pose with HRC, one-on-one, smiling for the camera precisely at the moment of clasping hands. (She has finally swum into unimpeded view – gasp – a vision in beige boiled wool.) Blakey, Bev and I goggle inanely at one another for a moment, then share high-fives: we know we have what it takes.

Granted, once one gets inside said Garden Room there’s a further gauntlet of aides to negotiate and a strange act of ritual self-abnegation to be performed. The Likely Nominee (Maybe) stands about twenty feet in from the door; we can see her in action at the centre of the room, busy posing with acolytes. To approach her, however, one has to execute a kind of involuntary striptease, presumably to demonstrate, yet again, one’s moral fitness for the occasion. The operation starts at the threshold, where a polite young damsel with horned helmet and ceremonial six-foot spear – recent Wellesley graduate in Valkyrie Studies? – asks you to remove your coat. A second young damsel – the real muscle – sneaks up behind you, swipes it roughly away and deals you a sharp poke between the shoulder blades, thus propelling you abruptly forward several feet, as if you’d missed a step. There awaits a third dexterous damsel: excuse me, madam, I need to confiscate your bag. Bag whipped away and invisible hands everywhere stroke your breasts and nipples. Someone else seems to be fiddling with your too tight, supposedly fat-binding waistband, then roughly gooses you onward. The Numinous One is now about eight feet away.

Is there a penultimate damsel to wave smelling salts under one’s nostrils? Or to keep one from tripping over one’s cankles, now puffy from standing so long? My mind is cloudy on these points. But what’s abundantly clear is that the Final Intern-in-Waiting – large, tall, dark, buxom, and no, her name is not Monica – is a dab hand at her job. She swiftly memorises the name on your name-tag (mine would have read ‘Condi’ had I not thought better of it); bestows on you the obligatory but still seductive dollar-sign-with-question-mark smile; then swivels adoringly toward the Cynosure of All Eyes. (‘Madam Secretary, I’d like to introduce you to –’) And thus is one delivered up – ripe for ravishment – with an extra-hard perfectly timed valedictory shove.

The whole business, I estimate, takes less time than hydroplaning on one’s bottom down the 400-foot pool slide at Waterworld. One soapy, madcap run and you’re done. I’ve just seen Blakey perform the entire sequence in less than two seconds: beamy smile with Hilldebeest, firm friendly handshake, camera flash; then Blakey’s rolling neatly away on the other side of the candidate, like a parachutist avoiding getting tangled in his chute. Dare I say my child-bride is far more athletic – not to mention businesslike – than I am?

Having now watched the drill, though, I realise how unprepared I am. Freakishly for me – lover of anxiety-numbing artifices – I haven’t rehearsed any jokey badinage to cast in HRC’s direction on being introduced; nor even tried out possible facial expressions in the mirror. The moment has arrived and I simply don’t know what to do. Thus it unfolds that even as Her (Mostly) Incorruptible Majesty reaches appreciatively for my hand, I am mortified to hear myself squeak out – like a dying baby bat mewling helplessly for its mother: ‘SORRYMYHANDISSOCOLD.’ Just that – all in a rush, all in a preternaturally silly little voice. Instant self-imposed death sentence: one’s inner Devil Girl (fangs filed down, claws tucked away) has suddenly gone dopey and shy. SORRYMYHANDISSOCOLD! – indeed. Good luck with that.

It’s true: my hands have become mottled blue-grey ice clumps during the long wait. More than 90 per cent of all feeling has been lost. One knows just how Kate Winslet suffered while floating on that piece of prop department debris in Titanic. But then something uncanny happens. Despite my tiny pig’s-pizzle of a voice, Hillary Clinton – two-term First Lady, former New York Senator, US Secretary of State, legendary Iron Woman and all-around Smiling yet Fearless Maker of Executive Decisions on which our Great Country’s Future Depends – takes my frozen mitt in her own, enfolds it Don Giovanni-style, and now regards me with a rakish and appraising eye:

Well, Terry [she says]: We’ll Just Have to Do Something (heh heh) to Warm It Up. Won’t We? (Heh heh heh)

Love-impaled Sappho, help me in my discombobulation! Did you hear that? HILLARY CLINTON IS FLIRTING WITH ME! She’s got my hand and she is warming it up! Bejeezus! (It’s getting positively toasty!) Not only that – my god! She’s giving me the Look! (What look?) The Look You Can’t Mistake! The Nanosecond Too Long Look! The Look you get when someone shows you her trowel for the first time! The Look you get when contemplating the Mysteries of Rosicrucianism! The Look that goes with – has ever gone with – the wordless poetical language of Secret Handshakes! (Loud camera click, momentary blinding flash.)

Someone, somehow, has dragged me away from the H-Zone and is now putting my coat back on for me: I’m vaguely trying to help, like an unco-ordinated two-year-old. My eyes have rolled back in my head – I’m told later – so only the whites are showing. Somebody helpfully retrieves my bag but I barely notice. The damsels are gentle now, wiping me off, but I’m still dribbling a bit as Blakey and Bev reappear – like figments in a hallucination – to hear the details. They know something peculiar has happened; as they escort me back to the tent, I’m lurching around mumbling about various Seven Sisters colleges, almost as if I myself had attended one. Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Sarah Lawrence … The very names seem aphrodisiac, hallucinatory, like magic portents.

I will finally come around, shocked back into sentience by Blakey and Bev’s instant joint diktat, as soon as they hear the jumbled story of my encounter: You must put this on Facebook at once! (I do so indeed – the next morning at least – along with a sample of the cockeyed selfies we take when the Glad-Eyed (Was She?) One comes into the tent to deliver her campaign speech.)

But the speech itself also gets me back into the swing of things. We’re right in front of the stage for it, part of a churning mass in what might be called the Hillary Mosh Pit. The speech is thrilling enough, full of passionate call-outs for improved universal health coverage, a balanced budget, effective gun control legislation (take that, Bernie!), support for Planned Parenthood, immigration reform, better schools, an end to police brutality, more stem cell research, free clandestine email accounts and ‘Top Secret’ trowels and aprons (monogramming extra) for all. Everybody cheers. We feel emboldened and affirmed just by listening.

Dare one say – the only exception being her appearance as the bartender ‘Val’ on Saturday Night Live a few months back – Hillaria is more impressive in person than she ever appears to be on television? She’s funny and deep-voiced and confident: she can play the audience like Iggy Pop. At the end of her speech – which also marks the end of the night’s festivities – my only regret is that, unlike Iggy, she foregoes the opportunity to launch herself on us, human cannonball-like, so we can all hold her up, en masse, with our strong and capable female hands.

A couple of weeks on: one’s official photograph arrives, bearing a charming floral date stamp from the NSA. It, too, will go up on the aforementioned Facebook page, where it inspires an unprecedented blizzard of comments. ‘Whoa!’ ‘I’m so-o-o-o jealous!’ ‘Here’s Terry Castle slumming with the Hill!’ ‘Hand is looking pretty warm there, T.’ ‘Are you serious?’ ‘I’m total jelly, as the youngsters say!’ ‘Isn’t this Photoshop?’ ‘Baroness, don’t crush her hand!’

But by now I’m pretty impervious to praise or blame. I like to imagine that this long-to-be cherished memento captures something of the sensual rapport I felt between us in the moment: the beginning of a mutuality quite unlike that, say, embodied in a mutual fund. I’m tempted to call it an I-Thou bond, like that between lovers, or a winning candidate and her various dark money campaign contributions. The chemistry between us was (and continues to be) great: though we’re both Women of the Left (sort of) neither Hill nor I has the dreaded Bolshevik Red-Eye, which is good. Plus our teeth appear to be the same lemony-canine colour.

My memory has also been pleasantly jogged. Earlier I mentioned in passing the reassuring vibe Blakey, Bev and I derived from H-Rod’s unpretentious campaign outfit – so unlike the fraught sartorial masochism of Silicon Valley trophy wives. Waxing allegorical, I even referred to a ‘Mongolian shepherdess’ pathos in Hill’s rustic slacks and jacket ensemble: poetry and function seemed to be naively yet lyrically combined. Now, however, studying this woolly beige fringe-fest in the photo – it’s definitely industrial felt and/or boiled wool – I remember precisely what it was that it reminded me of at the time:

Yes, the Filzanzug! And don’t ask me which Filzanzug! The beige one! Made of felt! Hanging on a hanger! Which is to say, the moving Conceptualist art piece created by Joseph Beuys, world-famous German avant-garde sculptor and art theorist of the 1960s and 1970s. I can’t believe you don’t know. No more quinoa for you.

Certainly, no other artwork of modern times has such an ultracool – if possibly fanciful – backstory. Beuys created multiple versions of the Felt Suit over his career; Number 87 can be found in Tate Modern. All of these Filzanzug multiples were produced, the artist explained, to commemorate the bizarre improvised suit made of ‘tent felt’ in which nomadic Tatar hunters wrapped him after his fighter plane crashed on the Crimean steppe during the Second World War. (Beuys was supposedly found in the wreckage unconscious and gravely injured.) This totemic gambit brought him back from the doorsill of death itself. ‘I remember voices saying “Voda” [Water],’ Beuys wrote later; ‘then the felt of their tents, and the dense pungent smell of cheese, fat and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in.’

Contemplating HRC’s presidential chances, one might take heart from the Beuysian parallel and its archaic utopian promise of felt-assisted survival against the odds. Its value as a morale booster is especially timely, given that, limpet-like, the annoyingly decent Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont, continues to hang in there as a viable Democratic challenger. Let us not even begin thinking about the Trumpen-Teufel, the spectacularly endowed son of Genghis Khan. No single Tatar has ever endorsed him, let alone wrapped him in animal fat.

Best to stay focused on the real issues – the things that average Americans have a recognisable stake in. Can a felt-encased Hilldebeest bring healing warmth, if not a certain blonde radiance, to the national body politic? Will she be able to reverse the terrible effects of global freezing, especially in Old Palo Alto? Can she help an ever-growing underclass – those forced to serve the plutocracy with devilled egg-things on trays – recover from juvenile pique and hypothermia? Will she legalise human-Schnauzer-beast-dancing? Most important: will she stop the ceaseless self-promotion long enough to hold hands with her most devoted supporters, however shy, feral or mullet-headed they may seem? Some of us fervently hope so, just as we now hope one day to visit the Crimean steppe, learn Tatar, flirt with same-sex wild boars and get measured for our own designer felt outfits.

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Vol. 38 No. 8 · 21 April 2016

Terry Castle relates the story of Joseph Beuys claiming that tent-dwelling Tatar nomads spoke to him in Russian when they found him and his German warplane crashed in the steppe (LRB, 31 March). One wonders if they tried the word for ‘water’ in their own Turkic language before using the Russian word (voda)? Given that they were camping in Central Asia only because they had been deported from their native Crimea by Stalin’s henchmen, it is unlikely that they saved Beuys thinking he was Russian; it’s more likely they were hoping the Wehrmacht would win.

Elizabeth Roberts
Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway

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