NPF: THE BALLAD OF SMILEY RATLIFF

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 7th, 2016 by Ed

Because my work schedule involves me working a lot and sleeping little on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before a 3-4 hour drive home in traffic on Thursday evening, I've really been dropping the ball on NPF lately. Let's just say I'm not filled with enthusiasm for writing or doing much of anything else when I walk through the door at 9:00 and flop on the couch. I'm going to try to make it all up to you with the power of this one story.

The British Empire once proudly boasted of covering more of the planet than any in history. While it remains technically true today that "the sun never sets" on said Empire, it has declined to a very tiny sliver of what it used to be. Yes, the UK still has colonial possessions of various kinds. However, the list is not terribly impressive. In the three decades after the conclusion of WWII nearly every part of the Empire that stood a passing chance of surviving on its own economically and militarily declared independence, and the last real part of the Empire of any significance – Hong Kong – returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. What remains, with the arguable exception of Bermuda, is a scattered list of barely populated islands held due to military significance (Diego Garcia, Ascension Island) or because nobody wants them (Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha, etc). The Empire as it remains is less a proud possession and more of a burden. You get the distinct impression that were there any way to talk Saint Helena into declaring independence or perhaps to find another country willing to take it the Brits would hand it over with pleasure.

The saddest part of the Empire, though, is Pitcairn Island. Home to less than 50 people today, Pitcairn is known (if at all) as the place where Fletcher Christian and the mutineers from the "Mutiny on the Bounty" incident took refuge. The story has been made into books, films, and other media countless times, so at least Britons are familiar with it. Pitcairn is one of the most isolated populated places in the world, and its population of heavily inbred castoffs has only garnered the interest of the modern world in 2004 when women who escaped the island brought suits in UK courts claiming (accurately, as it turned out) that the island's primary social activity for decades had been organized rape. The UK is at present patiently waiting for the remaining islanders – no women of child bearing age remain to grow the population – to die out so they can declare it uninhabited and be done with administering it once and for all.

So. Let's time travel to a different but equally sad place: Appalachia in the early 1980s. It's time to meet a man named Smiley Ratliff.

Mr. Ratliff was a cartoon character, a multimillionaire coal baron right out of Central Casting. He was dumb, crude, uneducated, weird, profane, and somewhere to the right of the John Birch Society (which he actively supported) – a hybrid of JR Ewing from Dallas and Jed Clampett. Briefly, Mr. Ratliff had a short list of things he hated with a passion bordering on obsession: Communists, psychoanalysis, paying taxes, and journalists were the primary villains in his world. The things he loved included privacy, drinking, his dozen mistresses, and watching old cowboy movies. So, to make a long story short, Smiley decided in the late 70s that what he really needed was to find a remote island somewhere on the globe, buy it, rebuild his enormous mansion there, and be left alone for all eternity.

That is how, one day in 1982, a no doubt bemused British civil servant responded haughtily to a request to purchase Henderson Island – an unpopulated rock off Pitcairn – for the purpose of building an airstrip, leveling everything else, and importing the entire life of one Mr. Arthur "Smiley" Ratliff there. Parts of the Empire are not for sale, "SIR," you can imagine him saying. Undeterred, Ratliff used his wealth and political connections to press the matter. Eventually it occurred to someone in Whitehall that, matters of honor and pride aside, the British do not actually want this goddamn place anymore. And – though it later attempted to deny it – that is how the British ended up very nearly accepting his generous offer of $3 million cash, an airstrip on Henderson with a ferry boat to allow its use by Pitcairners (who were and are otherwise without an air link to the outside world) and medical and telecommunications facilities for Pitcairn and Henderson.

The man was crude and uneducated, but he knew how to do business apparently. The UK government began to realize that it couldn't generate a good enough excuse NOT to accept such an offer. Pitcairn was a money pit and its people a national embarrassment. Here was a man willing to essentially take over the burden of supporting the place in exchange for being allowed to do whatever he wanted on an empty fragment of land near it. Alas, those proud defenders of Empire and British pride found salvation in the World Wildlife Fund, which pointed out that Mr. Ratliff's plan would devastate the pristine habitat of dozens of rare flora and fauna. Some are found nowhere else on Earth. Rather than further antagonize the environmentalists already vocally criticizing the UK government in the early 1980s, Whitehall informed ol' Smiley with regret that it must decline his very nice offer.

Ratliff died in 2007, never having found a government to sell him an island but not for lack of trying. And that's the story of how the British almost sold part of the Empire populated by inbred hillbillies to a different, very wealthy hillbilly so that he might turn it into some kind of Xanadu / Fortress of Solitude.

It's good to be back, Fridays.