American TV shows, and American music, shaped and coloured my mental geography of the United States. America was The Banana Splits, Ironside, Kojak, Starsky & Hutch, the Six Million Dollar Man, The Rockford Files - all of which had more exciting title sequences and theme music than any British series of the period. By the Eighties, I was consuming shows like ChiPs and Hill Street Blues, but still no nearer to visiting America. Part of the attraction of a career in science, though - especially astronomy - was precisely the opportunities it offered for travel. It wasn't a TV show that came to mind when I thought of Georgia, though.
It was Tony Joe White:
Years earlier my dad had made me a tape of a Tony Joe White album and "Rainy Night in Georgia" was now imprinted on my mental soundtrack.
I can't tell you how thrilling it was to finally make it to the States. It was cold but crisp when I arrived in Atlanta for a science meeting, and I took a short train ride from the airport to the hotel and convention complex where I was staying. At that point, I doubt that I'd stayed in more than a dozen hotels in my life, so it was with some amazement that I checked in to the astonishing Marriot Marquis, a building like no other that I'd seen. It (and much of the surrounding part of Atlanta) was the work of the architect John Portman, as documented in this recent Guardian article:
What I didn't realise at the time was that this building was already iconic, and a popular location for film shoots. Later on the same trip I went to a reception in an art gallery across town and had the prickly feeling that I'd been in the building before. How was that possible? I asked around and it turned out that the location had been used as Lecter's prison in Manhunter, the 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon. When I got back to the UK I rented Manhunter again and realised that the Marriot Marquis was also in the film, although it obviously hadn't registered on first viewing. Atlanta (see that article above) was and is a popular shooting location, especially because so many of Portman's designs still look futuristic, in a sort of retro-seventies way. Indeed, another film - the not very good Freejack, with Mick Jagger - was shooting in Atlanta when I was there.
What of it, now? I haven't been back to Atlanta since 1992, but the hotel did have one lingering influence on my work which that article prompts me to mention. Those swooping interior elevators left a big mark on me, and when I came to write Revelation Space - which I started later that year - they became the model for the elevators in the Nostalgia for Infinity, especially the part where Ilia Volyova's elevator plunges through the vast interior of the cache chamber. When, in Chapter Two, Ilia's elevator announces its arrival at the "atrium" and "concierge" levels, that's all down to the Marriot Marquis. I'd never been in an elevator that spoke before.
As for Tony Joe White, it was with some enjoyment that I did indeed spend one rainy night in Georgia. That was just before the full-on blizzard that forced us to de-plane and spend another night in airport hotels. If anyone ever tells you it doesn't snow in the South, don't believe them.