Monthly Archives: July, 2012

Violent Trauma, The Aurora Shootings and The Way of Lunacy

There are a number of ways to deal with the experience of violent trauma.There’s therapy, which of course takes many forms: talking through the experience, associated memories, feelings and thoughts with a paid professional; art therapy, premised on giving vent and voice to your negative feelings and emotions through the creative impulse in a medium such as painting, sculpture or music; there’s hypnotism, drawing the suppressed negativity to the surface whilst in a mesmerised state; there’s repression, which we all do a bit of every day, i.e. we suppress the impulse to throttle our bosses because we submit to certain types of behaviour in order to live in civilized society; and we repress a certain amount of stress in order to function in every day life. Men are actively encouraged to repress their sentiments and affections for fear of appearing too soft, the long term effects of which are often cited as, among other things the reason why shaking baby syndrome occurs more often in boys and the reason Irish males between the ages of 18-25 account for one of the highest suicide rates in Europe.

And of course there’s fantasy, not in itself a terrible or deleterious element of a constructive course of psychotherapy, but when prescribed by an amateur or a petition of social media users as a way of helping 58 shaken victims by confronting them with an image directly associated with the violent trauma they have experienced, as the above appeal that I came across posted on facebook three days after the shooting, started by Emily Sanchez, requests of Welsh-born star of The Dark Knight Rises Christian Bale, then it starts to sound a little bit less healthy and a bit more deranged.

The request tacitly acknowledges that the film will be indelibly associated with the horrifying experience inflicted on theatregoers by James Holmes. Else what would be the efficacy in having Bale dress up as Batman except as some kind of reparation of the image in the victims’ minds for the upset that it may still be continuing to cause as a psychological symbol. But let’s stop for a second. If you are dealing with the mental trauma associated with gunshot wounds or even being witness to an attack like this, in which your memory is clouded with smoke, gunfire, bodies falling, running all around and screams of terror and anguish and hovering above it all in your grey matter is the image of the DC Comics hero, larger than life looming towards you on a cinema screen, what is going go be the effect of seeing the actor himself, striding purposefully towards you in a hospital bed, wearing the exact same costume, replicating and amplifying the imaginational icon of fear for you? I can think of nothing more fear-inducing.

Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed and I do think it’s good and noble of the actor to have gone to visit the victims of the shooting as himself, but isn’t there a strong chance we’d be seeing a second set of headlines about further upset caused if this insane appeal had been acted on? The philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in an analysis of The Joker, Batman’s nemesis and the character that James Holmes allegedly identified himself with before opening fire, says that the clown prince of crime is ‘not a man without a mask, but, on the contrary, a man who is his mask — there is nothing, no “ordinary guy” beneath it.’ What kind of message are we sending if there is no ordinary guy beneath the mask of The Dark Knight, that there is no piecing together the brokenness of violence, no dissembling the experience of trauma?

Not only is this attempt to deal with the tragedy dangerous, but it is also insultingly trivialising for the victims. You would not see an appeal like this with any other situation in which a group from the public have been deliberately terrorised: not a Holocaust survivor, not a refugee from Iraq, not a family member who has lost a loved one in an IRA bombing. You may as well send Adam West, belly sagging over his utility belt, Robin at his side smashing fist against palm crying, ‘Holy travesty Batman! We’ve just made light of an unspeakable horror!’ And if that sounds flippant, it is only to illustrate the undeniable flippancy in Sanchez’s probably well-intentioned and unfortunately popular effort.

The worst part about this campaign is that it seems to actively deny the real problem. It attempts to engage with nightmares through the use of escapism, instead of engaging with the issue in real, complicated terms. That poor, unfortunate community in Colorado, has sustained terrible loss and yet, as is the worrying trend in the wake of gun violence in America, firearm sales have spiked for fear that those pesky legislators in Washington DC may try through their dictatorial power of democratic process pass a law in some cockamamy attempt to protect the scaredy cat, commie citizens of this beloved nation. Fascists masquerading as elected representatives seem oblivious to the fact that we have to bear arms to protect ourselves from the fearsome colonial overlords trying any minute to quarter themselves in our homes. We must continue to perpetuate a perfectly healthy paranoia in the national psyche about ourselves and continue to desensitise our children to violence while guillotining any serious, difficult discussion about the real reasons individuals end up blurring the line between the value of human life and the enacting of a twisted psychological vision.

Until we, as a nation, recognise our collective culpability and initiate difficult national discourses about these issues, without leaders who only seem to grudgingly acknowledge days after the event that something must be done by the government of America to protect the citizens of America, I fear these unspeakable acts of violence will continue. Much will come out in the next few weeks about James Holmes and the unregenerable evil within his dark pit of a soul. It is almost certain that somewhere, he confused symbols of fantasy with his version of reality. Let us try to fight the good fight and refuse to give in to the same temptation. What do we become otherwise?

And I do know how it is. You see something in the sidebar or in front of you as you’re scrolling down and it’s a nanosecond of your time and an iota of effort to ‘like’ or ‘share’. I’ve liked everything from Matt Smith to Debbie Harry and I’m pretty sure I’ve shared a map of Panem because I thought, ‘Yeah, that makes sense with what the book says,’ but there must be a line at which you stop and think about spreading an arguably callous, wrong-headed campaign. I also think that Facebook and other social media can be a force to effect great social change and information sharing, as jives with Tim Berners-Lee’s great vision, but we also have to act conscientiously in what is by nature a superficial environment that often feels like it is all surface and no substance.

I have a feeling there are those who might think that I am spoiling a well-intentioned act, but there are many well-intentioned efforts that have ended in a jeremiad of despair, attempts to create a stronger German state for instance in 1938; more recently the attempt to prevent bloodshed through the location and elimination of weapons of mass destruction annihilating thousands of innocent Iraqis in the process; the effort to monitor the usage of libraries and the internet by free citizens in the name of preventing terrorist atrocities, swapping freedom for an anxious sense of security. We all mean well, but the extent to which we carry out our ‘good intentions’ can pave the way to a better world or a very bad place, as the adage goes.

I would end by saying that if I have caused offence, ‘that you have but slumber’d here‘ but that would be to attempt an escape again, to elide the real and dark chapter in our nation’s history that we must scrutinise unflinchingly if we are to avoid repeating it.

Do remember, I may disagree with you, but I’ll do as Voltaire would have done to defend your right to say it.

This post was informed by the following article:

http://www.globalnews.ca/should+bale+visit+shooting+victims/6442684935/story.html

And Jason Farago speaks to our tendency as a nation to avoid complex national discussions in this article:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/27/james-holmes-dehumanisation-causes-violence

This BBC Radio show features a fascinating discussion. Only about 28 minutes does someone finally call in and add a sensible voice to the discussion:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00vlk83/World_Have_Your_Say_WHYS_60Can_shootings_like_Aurora_be_prevented/

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Something on Being Starstruck for Olympic Opening Weekend

We are steeped in Olympic fever in London. Soon, the games will be nigh impossible to escape unless you are under a rock somewhere. The first thing I’ve noticed, being American myself, is the increase in the number of compatriots flooding this great metropolis. Even spotted Al Roker of The Today Show filming on the grounds of The Tower of London the other day when we were busy being tourists in our own city. I felt ambivalent about crowding in to get a few snaps and say hello to the man. He always seemed like such a big presence on the TV when I was growing up and yet, I never really spent a lot of time watching him, so was it  the American propensity towards being star-struck within spitting distance of celebrity that kept me circling like a distant satellite hoping to get a glimpse?

It certainly seemed to be this tendency for the crowds gathered outside the green in front of William The Conqueror’s original White Tower, many of whom spoke with pronounced North Atlantic twangs. I’ve never had many brushes with personages of high public profile. I met Michael Stipe when I was 15; stalked him half a block down South Street in Philly just to interrupt him while he was ordering coffee to tell him that I was going to see him in Veteran’s Stadium and that he really inspired me. Swoon.

Al Roker doesn’t have the same sort of appeal, but then neither does approaching celebrities any more. English and Irish people tend to be a bit superior to the phenomena, but then I do too and I wonder if it’s just because I can see the silliness in it. I suspect most Americans do, but that there’s something about a TV crew that brings out delirium in people. I tend to think it’s programmes like The Today Show that cement our great picket-fenced village and make us feel like we’re all having coffee together with Al and the gang, which you can see the magic in. It’s almost Rockwellian.

Here’s the link to the interview they filmed with a Yeoman Warder that day. It did manage to make me slightly homesick, in a scoffing superior, I kind-of-wish I was in America sort of way.

We are going to try to get to see the Opening Ceremony on the big screen tonight in Victoria Park, which is a ticketed event, a fact which raises great ire in my soul. I get more and more apprehensive about big events that, with increasing frequency, fence off public spaces. I’d like to think it doesn’t just stem from the fact that I don’t have a ticket, but tickets, really? To go to Victoria Park and watch something on a big screen? I’m sure there will be plenty of Heineken and McDonald’s tents, and as of this morning, with no more tickets being issued, it is possible to get in, but not guaranteed, another reason to check out the apparently much more open looking Haggerston Park events, or find something else spectacular to do with your weekend.

Should you be in East London — and if you are over for the big you know whats then you will be — There is a fantastic little place that you could check out at 51 Chatsworth Road, just up from Homerton High Street, called Creperie du Monde. I’ve reviewed here for the Hackney Hive. Well worth checking out.

However it is that you choose to spend your time, do make it magnificent.

The London Olympics: A Survival Guide For Visiting Americans

Photo taken by Paula Hughes



1) Avoid talking out loud. There’s not enough space in the whole of England.

2) Sew a Canadian flag into your backpack.

Only kidding. We never pretend to be Canadian anymore.

And in point of fact, since 2008, our likeability capital has increased significantly enough so that we don’t really have anything to fear in public anymore.  I’ve been overseas long enough to remember the dark days when Dubya’s simian visage was the face of America to the world and we were seen internationally as a rampaging, war-mongering cowboy. Gone are the days when sympathizers and descendants of Churchill would secret us away under floorboards so that we could say the pledge of allegiance in dark corners. No longer do we find ourselves hiding in abandoned junkyards patriotically playing baseball and furtively eating Crackerjacks. Thankfully, since a cool, worldly dude became president, the foreign exchange rate in popularity and positive reactions is quite favourable.

Having said all that, we may be fans of Downton and Doctor Who, but we are not yet a nation of world travellers and try as McDonald’s, Coke and Westfield Shopping Centre might to make the Olympic village into USA lite, there are probably still some Olympians, their families and other visitors who still might want to travel out into Londontown. It is in this intrepid exploratory spirit that I offer a few tips and pointers to help you get through the next couple weeks.


Beware of Sarcasm



You make friends with some Brits. You get along rather well with them. Splendidly. Famously, in fact. So much so that they invite you out for a night on ‘the razz’ and you’re not quite sure what that means but it could  involve neon and fetishes or it could just be a few drinks and a few laughs. You meet your new mates and as you are about to step on the tube to head to the West End for your first stop on what promises to be a night of frolics and fun, you check with Gemma/Nigel to make sure your dress or shirt looks fab or sexy or ‘all right’ (in the case of Nigel) and your new Anglo-Saxon friend turns to you and says, ‘yeah’ and walks onto the waiting tube train. It could be a short, clipped yeah, or it could be a nano-syllable too long, but it’s a noncommital yeah, a clearly ambiguous affirmation, the kind of ‘yeah’ delivered with a half-smile enough to convince you that you’ve got lipstick on your teeth or a major cliffhanger, but I couldn’t be bothered to tell you. Just strike out all night and then wonder why at the end of it all; this noncommital ‘yeah’ is not delivered with exaggerated Chandler Bing emphasis. No one’s said to you, I’m sooo  not liking that top or you should sooo  go back to the hotel and change right now. It’s much more subtle and something so tiny that it leaves doubts in your head so niggling that they grow and grow until Oxford Circus when you are either ready to claw your friend’s face or give the guy a good bite of a knuckle sandwich and set him straight.

Before you do, slow down. Cool your jets, tiger. Remember that you are in the United Kingdom. Sarcasm and Irony are the official languages of state. You don’t get off the plane at Charles DeGaulle without so much as a ‘Parlez-vouz Anglais?’ and you shouldn’t walk around merry old England of Madame George and roses without expecting the most deadpan sarcasm you’ve never heard. Chances are, your friend just wants to get on the tube quickly because he or she fears that if it begins moving it will not stop and will mercilessly rip part of his or her body as it passes into the next tunnel and chances are you look fabulous, but you will find yourself in a plethora of situations in which you have to be a bit more acutely aware of context than you might otherwise be on the other side of the pond.

Hearts, Minds and The Danger of Assumptions


Try to avoid remarking to locals about how much good the Olympics is doing for the area, for London and for Britain in general. It’s a bit of a sore point. The Brits do love to complain, bless ’em, but this time you might forgive them for it. The official drink of the Olympics is produced by an American corporation; the official caterers to the Olympics are an American fast food chain and corporation; the official chocolate of the Olympics is British owned by American multinational, Kraft; the official beer of the Olympics is Dutch. It appears to the British public as though either the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), have gone out of their way to intentionally and perversely ignore British business interests. British businesses are finding their deliveries of stock are getting later and later, their customers are drained by Westfield and one local bookshop owner has stated that she has made more from the Anti-Olympics publishing boom than the games themselves. These events are not benefiting the British or local economy and British business owners will not thank you for it.

However, if you do want to win over the hearts and minds of the indigenous peoples of this island, there is something you can do. Hop the train to Hackney Wick, Homerton or Hackney Central (there isn’t anything in Stratford unless you are from New Jersey and you like that gritty, industrial, Mad Max sort of thing, which I can say being from New Jersey and must clarify as ‘humour’). Get off and walk down the street. Having trawled through the archives of my blog first, you will already know as you are walking that there is an array of fine eateries and coffee shops that will serve you a nicer soft drink than Coke (Victorian Lemonade or Elderflower Cordial?) a superior coffee and finer lunch than you will find in McDonald’s (Apricot chilli jam and cream cheese on toast or crepe filled with goat’s cheese and walnuts?) and a finer pint of British beer at a local pub than Heineken will serve any day (East London Brewery is particularly nice, found on tap at The Clapton Hart). You don’t have to go to Hackney just because I live here and I like it, but be careful to avoid assumptions about the coziness of familiar brands.

Londoners Stand on The Right

When I first moved here, I was amazed by the fact that Londoners use escalators for the purpose for which they are built: to increase the speed of your ambulatory movement downwards or upwards, which is brilliant. I get the impression in recent years that people think the same does not apply to escalators in shopping centres, but it does. And I would have thought that with a nation of health-obsessed gym members like us, we’d take full advantage of a free public stairmaster, but I tried to start the trend in America of continuing to walk on an escalator without stopping or letting yourself laze like a human mannequin on display, but for whatever reason it never took. I kept getting the dirtiest stares when trying to pass others up mid-conversation. Like good drivers though, Londoners walk on the left and allow a slow lane for tourists, but use the slow lane and stand on the right and do not be surprised if you are trampled for not doing so.

Remember, London is Still Keeping Calm and Carrying On



School’s out. It’s true. There are no teachers attending work or students attending school. But bankers still carry briefcases dutifully into the City of London. Nurses still don their scrubs when they get into London Bridge or The Royal Free. And estate agents (someone has to do it) still do up their Eton Knots and don their pinstripes in the hopes that the economy will pick up. But Londoners like to get to work efficiently and they like for you not to obstruct the progress of their city as it forges on in daily toil.

So if you have not mastered the ticket machines at tube stations, step aside and ask an attendant. Don’t try and be a hero. Do not try and figure it out at rush hour with the trader behind you seething because he is already 33 seconds late and on his second machiatto. If you do play at these heroics, do not be surprised when you turn round, triumphantly pleased with yourself at having figured out how to purchase a zone 1 single only to find a hulking green monster who’s just ripped genuine Armani and is now ready, with the rest of the commuters, to rip into you.

I would say this applied during peak times, but in the next few weeks, peak times are twenty four hours a day. So, be mindful of others around you.

Get Off The Beaten Path For Once



There are some obvious things you are looking forward to doing on your London bucket list: seeing men in large funny hats swap shift, paying too much for a black cab, gawking at strangers from atop a double decker bus, that sort of thing. Think for a second though. This city wasn’t planned out like most American cities, grid-like and structured, it evolved and sprawled and reached out and stayed where it was or kept moving or got bombed out of existence only to rise like the phoenix all new and mansion-block like.

London is a savage beauty. I love it for its raw, gruff, bracing multicultural sense of ‘live and let live’. One thinks of the line from Yeats: ‘A terrible beauty… Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.’ That unapologetic, Londonness is also its charm. Bit like New York that way. Don’t expect saccharine. Expect frowning and friendly.

There are so many hidden nooks and corners that if you allow a day or two just to get lost, the dividends are amazing. When they ask you if you saw poet’s corner, you can say, ‘No, but I walked around the Catholic Church in central London used by the KGB as a dead-letter box during the Cold War and wrote the opening chapter to my first spy thriller.’ When they ask if you stood in front of Big Ben and took a picture of yourself smiling, which is something no one in London ever seems to do, you can say, ‘Yeah, but I found walking around a recreated 17th Century Huguenot house, with a narrative that ascends with you through five floors, way more enthralling.’ Again, it doesn’t have to be The Brompton Oratory or The Denis Severs House, but find some corner of this city that few others have bothered with and find some memory to cherish and take back with you. You’re traveling over a thousand miles, some of you for the first time, perhaps some for the last. Make sure you do something that will stay with you, not something you could have done if you stayed at home.

A couple good places to look for the unusual and out of the way in London are:

@UnusualLondon

Insider London

and

Secret London

Enjoy your stay.




Five Things About The Olympics That Will Sodden Your Sporting Spirit

I have to admit, I like the concept of the Olympics. I like the idea of the whole world being united in a sporting contest that goes back to antiquity and encourages a striving for excellence in physical abilities as well as sportsmanship. I like the idea of sport, unmotivated by lots of corporate sponsorship and greed as it seems football is here in England (and Baseball was in the 1990s, when I stopped following my team, The Mets, because I lost faith in players during the strike). And in some weird, perverse, London way, I feel a sense of pride that we got the games. But being an adoptive Londoner, I think I’ve also acquired a kind of second-nature scepticism about waves of positivity sweeping over a place like a juggernaut leaving nothing but vitamin C and sunshine in its wake. It smacks of the worst of blind American optimism and as Springsteen said, blind faith in your leaders, or anything, will get you killed.

There’s no smoke without fire and no scepticism without a seedy little fact lurking behind those shiny Olympic rings.Whilst I think The Games should be an enjoyable experience, here are a few uncomfortable truths to bear in mind as we are jubilantly celebrating sport.

Mowing down the Marshes

The Borough of Waltham Forest, on 7th February, 2011, greenlighted The Olympic Development Authority to build a large basketball training facility right on top of a massive amount of green space in the Porter’s Field section of Leyton Marshes. You can read all about the campaign to prevent the courts from being built here. The ODA say they are obliging themselves to restore the Marshes to their former state by 15th October 2012, but as with rainforests, no matter how many trees you plant and fields you build over, there is no going back to the ‘original state’ of an historic green space. And I have to ask, why does London, a city with a surprisingly large amount of green spaces, need to sacrifice some of them? We host millions of commuters from the home counties every day. It’s not as though we don’t do big events.

Roll up, roll up, Olympic festival fans, it’s Walthamstock

Exploiting green spaces for quick cash during the Olympics seems to be a real trend with Waltham Forest. A council licensing panel granted the Big Events Company (BEC) permission to sell alcohol and have dancing and recorded music between 1 and 10 pm, despite protests from local residents. According to The Waltham Forest Guardian‘s website: 

 ‘Last year the council secretly signed a contract to lease the land to the firm, hoping that a share of the profits from the deal would help pay the estimated £1.5million bill for its ‘Big 6′ series of events to celebrate the Olympics.’

A cynical person might think Waltham Forest was milking the games for all it was worth.

Branded like Cattle 

We have new stadiums, we have a new shopping centre, we even have a new postcode (E20, as if we can really call Stratford a city) but could we please leave our E15 greasy spoons alone? Kamel Kichane, the owner of The Olympic Cafe in Stratford was forced to change the name of his caf or have to pay the council £3,000. The following is Mr. Kichane’s low cost solution to the problem.

What it reveals though is a wrong-headedness, a blinkered vision about the Olympic Brand. What was I saying up there about a competition untainted by commercialism? Correction. The sponsors and organisers project an image that the Olympics is not motivated by commercial greed and work very hard to project that image, but the fact is, according to Adweek magazine, the Olympics has been about greed and private sponsorship since LA in 1984 when Peter Ueberroth, the president of the Los Angeles Organizing Committee of the games that year, actively gunned for private, corporate sponsoship to resurrect a moribund tradition lurching towards oblivion.

Ben Johnson, left, beats Carl Lewis in the 100-metres on Sept. 24, 1988.
Growing up in America, the notion of purity in the Olympics was cultivated. There was a general sense that these weren’t like quarterbacks and big hitters getting paid several hundred thousand dollars per game; you expected double dealings and deviousness in sports like American football and baseball, what with their stink of greasy piles of dollar bills wafting through ballparks and stadiums acorss the country.  We were taught that Olympians were different; these were hard working athletes training for seven or eight hours every day to represent their country in some noble tradition.

We grew up with names like Flo Jo, Greg Luganis, Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson ringing with heroic clarity in our heads. And even in this short but famous list, only the reputations of of Joyner and Luganis remain intact. Lewis is still dogged today with the cloud of controversy caused by his testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and still being allowed to compete. Canadian Johnson famously tested positive and was stripped of his gold medal the same year. Such was the pressure of the freshly minted money-fed sponsorship-driven games that a slew of Athletes are alleged to have taken steroids and got away with it. Is it pure coincidence that this unethical practice became popular in the wake of the games going corporate? This was an atmosphere that was capable of corrupting even Canadian athletes. Canadians, I say. Canadians! When you’ve got to the point where can wreck the moral compass of the good founders of The Peaceable Kingdom up north, all hope is very nearly lost.

As a result of all this branding, aside from it not being a fair representation of unenhanced human athletic ability, to paraphrase Steve Punt in last week’s episode of The Now Show, the official food of the Olympics is McDonald’s, drink is Coca-cola, official chocolate is Cadbury’s and official disease is type 2 diabetes. Perfect Pint UK reports that there is no British beer to be represented either at the London Olympics, just Heineken. God help you if you are drinking any water except Evian anywhere within the walls of the fortified Olympic Village. The Olympic village will have a ‘pop-up McDonald’s’ that will officially be the largest in the world. With the Olympics in London for the first time since 1948, what do we want to showcase? The sophisticated array of top-notch intelligent chefs and creative organisations and restaurants that the British food industry has grown up into, or the ode to efficiency that is the brainchild of American Ray Kroc? Actually, the former might take some effort. It’s not as though there are any Olympic boroughs serving any good British food nowadays and what chefs can we really claim of any reknown, let’s go with cheap and cheerful, eh?

In efforts to protect trademark rights, you are not allowed to consume anything made by anyone outside of those producers who are official Olympic sponsors. Bog standard confidence trick: advertise freemarket and freechoice, get the punters inside, eliminate the choice and jack up the price, thus annihilating any image the games ever projected of being a competition of pure, uncorrupted athletic prowess for the sake of athletic prowess.

The World’s Biggest Competition to Demonstrate What Exactly?
 
For an event that’s been advertised as a massive benefit to London in the long-run, it doesn’t seem to be doing much for us in the short term. A path I have only just started enjoying along the canal between Hackney and Stratford or rather Stratford and everywhere has been closed and placed under armed guard. Yes, because of the potential threat, you are no longer able to use your own athletic abilities to get near the site at which athletes from the world over are competing  to demonstrate their athletic abilities. Surely this is sending the wrong message, especially since the Games organizers had originally put money and efforts into improving the path and making sure the public knew that it was going to be an enjoyable way to get to Olympia, East London.
G4S — The Mos Eisley of Olympic Security?
Indeed, as the list of revelations slithers out from under the carefully closed and locked doors of the Olympic media machine, I wonder if it would be possible to find a ‘more wretched hive of scum and villainy’ than in the offices of the firm G4S. I posted about a protest I saw at St. Paul’s about the Anglo-Danish firm, not knowing much about them at the time. I’ve since researched and correct me if I’m wrong here, but we seem to have contracted a lawless band of unaccountable mercenaries to guard London in the summer of 2012. Were G4S a Catholic, the list of sins it might start with in the confessional booth run as follows:
  • The death of Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga whilst in the custody of G4S guards on a flight from Heathrow to Angola
  • Hiring confessed murderers as security guards
  • Carrying out the government’s deportation policy while sustaining 773 complaints of those that were within their custody
  • Failing to fulfill the contract to keep The Olympics safe in 2012
  • Hiring a director with really bad hair. I’m no one to talk, but if you had as much money as a CEO with a company like this, wouldn’t you try to look like you were older than 14?  
Probably best we just leave G4S and the local priest in the confessional. No telling how long either of them might be there.

When you wade through cliches, slogans and soundbites like ‘take the stage’, ‘London prepares’ and ‘Take the respect’, what do you have left at the centre of all the smoke and mirrors? We seem to have a London that has taken performance-enhancing security firms, regulations and cash injectiosn in order to improve its performance as a city this summer. It would probably be wise for us as Londoners to bear in mind that the Olympics committee chose London, in all its brash and savage beauty, not some sanitized, tarted up, Americanised caricature of itself.

Will we, for these and other less than savoury things about the 2012 Olympics, be like the people of Ursula LeGuin’s people of Omelas, and our joy be all the richer for knowing its real costs? I’d like to think so, but I’ve got a feeling that we shall just close our ears, open our mouths and eyes wide and smile, asking only for bread and circuses, lights and neon.

For more on G4S, take a look at http://notog4s.blogspot.co.uk/
For more on the creepy crawly things scuttling around underneath the sheen of the Olympic brand, look at
http://www.olympicsredflag.blogspot.co.uk/
To find out more about the efforts being made to fight the deleterious effects of the Olympics on Hackney and the East End check out http://saveleytonmarsh.wordpress.com/

To read about a very clever  and creative response to all this Olympian palaver, have a look at ‘The Austerity Games’.

This post has also been informed by the following two articles:

There Are Still Some Good Guys: Rosen Championing Reading For Meaning in the Great Phonics Debate

The piloting of the government’s current obsession with phonics suggests some interesting, but deeply worrying results. 
 vs 
I grew up reading. My parents made sure to take me on regular trips to the local library during summer vacations when I was a child. My mother read to us every evening before bedtime. I was reading a mixture of Shakespeare and Stephen King (because I found a tattered old copy of Skeleton Crew in my older brother’s closet, a hoarded away and hidden treasure to be devoured) for pleasure by the time I was coming to the end of elementary school and reading when I was younger seemed as natural to me as riding a bike. 
But I was lucky. 
I came to school with a certain cultural currency and my parents enabled me to learn that cultural currency with fluency and speed. Many that I teach and have taught over the last ten years or so are not nearly as lucky. Many do not understand how to read simple sentences out loud. Many have never been read to out loud. Many have never become familiar with the joy of fairy tales. Alarmingly, many are developing deep anxieties and even antipathies to reading for pleasure. 
I can think of no better way to expedite such a massive distaste for reading than the government’s current efforts to stalwartly fly the flag for phonics, phonics and little else but phonics in reading education. All children in England from this year are required to take a ‘Phonics Screening Check’ test at the end of the academic year 1, (aged 6) in which they have to decode 30 real words and 10 fake words. The government is even offering an incentive of £3,000 which it claims ‘will be hard to ignore for many cash-strapped schools’ in order to promote the teaching of ‘synthetic phonics’. 
The first examination took place in schools in June and the results were intriguing and unsettling. First of all, results were generally low, which the government may, no doubt say is down to teachers not having taught the ‘synthetic phonics method’ effectively. Could it be something deeper? Results also found that otherwise good readers had moved beyond just using phonics as a reading strategy, that they looked for meanings in the ten ‘psuedo words’, that their brains were making real words out of fake (eg storm out of ‘strom’) and some of the fake words were arduous to get one’s mouth around, deterring children from pronouncing them as they were spelt. 
So, children score lower in the test for trying to make meaning out of what is unfamiliar to them. Trying to construct order out of the unknown, otherwise known as creativity and initiative, is marked down in this new compulsory test, whilst sticking to what you know and rejecting all familiarity will be marked higher. The government is, through mandatory testing and irresistible cash bonuses to schools, disincentivising initiative and independent thinking in young minds. 
One is put in mind of Gradgrind from Dickens’ Hard Times: ‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts: nothing else will ever be of service to them.’

Say what you will about the American Education System.

Go ahead. Say what you will about it.

No, do. 

What worries me is that my son and many of his friends have already been raised up with a similar affinity for books and reading; what worries me is that when my son faces this test next year with his classmates, we will be sent a short letter home afterwards saying that he has scored low because he tried to make sense out of nonsense words, make meaning out of familiar looking verbal chaos. 

And what worries me greatly is that poorer schools in places like Hackney, where I live, will be unable to resist cash incentives for ‘synthetic phonics’ in the classroom. If the government wanted a docile, unquestioning mass of dunderheaded deltas and epsilons, unable to decipher complex treaties, pacts and agreements; antipathetic to compelling narratives anywhere except presented through moving images; unable to resist being oppressed through paternalistic power structures and figures; desiring nothing but bread, circuses and X Factor; and awed by the use of stutterings statistics and figures, a cynic might conlcude that there are fewer quicker routes that this one.

I owe most of the information in this post to Michael Rosen’s intelligent and well-thought out recent blog posts and his continuing effort to fight the good fight. Please do read up on this crucial issue.

This post is also informed by the following articles:

Something Else for the Weekend

My best laid plans for blogging this week seem to have all ganged aft agley. It’s been the penultimate week of term and so I’ve been putting reports to bed and eating glorious Indian food. More on that anon. As my compatriot the former governor of California used to say, ‘I’ll be back’. In the meantime, to tide us all over, here’s some more Bohemian Hackney mdf art to feast your eyes on. This little piece resides on Clapton passage and I just can’t decide, but I think it’s probably beautifully interacting with its environment. There are implications though that the subjects are trapped in their own depiction, non? It is covering up a house under construction in a dank area behind a shop and near a dumpster, if that aids interpretation.

When does street art become less edgy and more trendy? It could be when graffiti artists get commissioned, but I still think there are probably immense benefits to publicly funding a street artist and then celebrating his work, as happened last month with American artist Frank Shephard Fairey. Read about it here
American street artist Frank Shepard Fairey
Photo: Teri Pengilley, Copyright The Guardian
I’ve also started a new page on this blog entitled other writing and hopefully will be writing more frequently for sites like The Hackney Hive and other assorted publications, so I guess, quite literally, watch this space. In the meantime, here is the review I did of Sheba on Brick Lane for Hackney Hive. I have to admit, I was surprised. These days, the Asian end of Brick Lane can seem a little tired, so I was glad to find a delightful pearl among the… other places around the area. 
Enjoy your weekend, wherever you are. Many thanks for reading. 

Something for the weekend

Weekend post! Weekend roundup? Something for the weekend? It’s been a bit of an eventful week, so thank you for reading. I do feel like this thing has finally got some momentum going. Many thanks for all the tweets and for having a look and commenting. Whatever it’s supposed to be called, here are a few things to tide us all over and chew on for the next couple days.

We Americans also celebrated our 236th birthday as a country. I think we’re looking pretty good for it. To celebrate, I went out to the launch night of Islington’s newest chic bar, Rattlesnake, designed and owned by Paul Daly, who also did Zigfrid Von Underbelly in Hoxton Square. Rattlesnake is an American style bar with a difference. Check out my review of the place here at The Hackney Hive. Let me know what you think of the place if you happen to check it out. 
Congratulations to Madame Fromage, doyenne of the Philadelphian Artisan cheese scene, on completing her manuscript  for The Di Bruno Bros. Cheese Guide based on the delightful Di Bruno Bros. Cheese Cave, at which my brother, Paul Lawler, the former local cheese impressario of Philly, worked for quite a while. I can’t wait to read it. Makes me hungry for good-quality cheese. Time to hit Hackney Home-made or Chatsworth Road this weekend, me thinks. 
Photo copyright of Todd Stregiel 2012
Finally, a bit of London Street art. On my road. Clarence Road if you must know. Home of the 2011 London Riots. Yes, Hackney is that edgy and Bohemian. Every bit of MDF covering a building is a canvas for our locals. I really like the way a gaze is turned outwards. It subtly implies that there is something behind this face, which there is (a building being renovated, probably end up a chic flat at the end of it all) and turns its gaze on the passerby in the street.
If you do happen to pass through Clapton in Hackney on Saturday, check out Millfields Community School Summer Fete, where you can see and buy children’s art and where my beautiful and talented wife, who runs the Artbash blog, will be presiding over the display of student creations from Arts Week. Check out Artbash for the results. Really astounding what you can do with kids and creativity sometimes. 
Whatever you are doing, have an inspiring couple days and do stop by and let me know if you get up to anything wonderful. 

Stars and Stripes Proud: How to be confidently American without being the obnoxious American

I used to be ashamed to be American. Used to hide my native colo(u)rs like a dirty secret, ape accents around me (a habit I think I still have a tendency to do) in order to blend in. Used to avoid my compatriots like the plague anywhere and everywhere they were to be found. 
When I first emigrated overeas, eleven years ago, then to Dublin, I used to duck and run at the sound of the Southern twang, beat a steady retreat at the waddle of the Bermuda shorts, carefully conceal myself from conspicuous Californians, and make mild noises of disapproval at Midwesterners. 
Sometimes with good reason. 
‘EX SCUSE ME, CAN YOU TELL ME HOW TO GET TO TRIN-IT-TEE COLLEGE?’ I’d often overhear, cringing on the DART line. ‘YOUR LAST NAME IS O’BRIEN? DO YOU KNOW THE O’BRIENS OF CORK?’ As if there’s only one or even as if it could ever matter. ‘WHERE ARE THE THATCHED COTTAGES? THEY MUST BE HERE SOMEWHERE!’ Overheard walking down O’Connell Street, one of the busiest streets in Dublin. 
The best example though of wonderfully embarassingly American behaviour was in the elevator (lift) coming down from the top of The Eiffel Tower. Having just experienced the majesty of the greatest of French cities from the zenith of that monumental edificial tribute to high modernism, I was still lost in the reverential afterglow of the moment when the over-sized t-shirt, aforementioned Bermuda short, baseball cap-clad retiree sharing the elevator with us pontificated to his similarly telltale dressed wife, ‘WELL. BEEN THERE. DONE THAT. GOT THE T-SHIRT.’ Which wasn’t even true. He hadn’t bought the t-shirt yet. Yes, for a nation of mostly passportless citizens, we sure do seem to get around.
However, just as the French Postcolonial Psychiatrist Frantz Fanon writes about the phases of development of the native intellectual, so I have seen my feelings towards my homeland evolve in different ways to reflect a sort of reconciliation. Oddly enough, it took an exchange with a couple of Irish colleagues, one of whom had said to me, ‘Yeah, but there’s no such thing as American culture is there? Just Disney and pop music.’
And just as I was shrugging my shoulders in shame and accepting resignation, it was another Irish colleague who sprang to my defens(c)e. ‘Rubbish! The best novelists and poets are American. Jazz, The Beat Generation, The Hudson River School. Don’t let Irish bedgrudgery cloud your vision of a country rich in culture.’ I started not to after that. We do come from a rich and diverse cultural background that I declined to acknowledge for a large part of my life. Sometimes it just takes an outsider to help you see what has been hidden from you for a very long time. 
I have since tried to correct this remission on my part, with some success. I’ll never go around blindly celebrating the stars and stripes, chanting, ‘U!S!A! U!S!A!’ but my nuanced appreciation of America has helped me to reconcile myself to my national cultural identity. I’ve come around to helping confused Americans now instead of avoiding them and slipping them a few local survival tips while I’m at it (Don’t say ‘freakin’ out loud, Avoid the black pudding if you know what’s good for you, ‘Mind The Gap’ is a safety warning, not a sale announcement, that sort of thing).  
So, to celebrate the fourth this year, here are five things (in reverse order) about/from our nation of which we can all be very proud.
5. We mind our bloody manners. Having taught in English schools now for eight years, I think I have some authority to say that Americans’ politeness, our pleases, our thankyous, our general respect for decorum and for human decency is ingrained in us from the get-go. It may be puritanical and protestant of us, but common decency is important and shouldn’t be underrated by our dismissive cross-Atlantic cousins. When was the last time a Londoner asked you where you were trying to get to and then gave you specific, step-by-step, diagram-aided directions? Yet, if you so much as stop on a street corner in Manhattan, your likely to start a competition between locals and soon have a plethora of directions to choose from guiding you to Starbucks on 103rd and Broad. 
4. Optimism. As Henry Rollins once remarked, you wouldn’t get Morrissey in America. We believe in the fact that things can always get better and that we can change, improve and be anything we want to be (all part of the American dream). It might not be true, but it keeps some people going and gives millions hope. Actually, Russell Kane sums it up pretty well in the latter half of this clip. 
That’s right, it’s the blind confidence that enables us to keep copulating. The rest of the world might think it’s sacchariney, but America is the home of that undying belief in the potential of tomorrow. 
3. Mark Twain — And the never-ending attempt to write the great American novel, or rather top the great American novel, The Adventures of Huck Finn. But let’s face it, from the tall tales of Washington Irving to the intense psychological explorations of Donna Tartt, we are a nation that produces a rich belles lettres and are spoilt for choice when it comes to book club material. Let us continue to bust this myth that just because the English language came from England that English literature is innately superior to American. Some might argue we innovated on and improved it. Come back to Twain for instance. He invented a Mississippian character and took him seriously enough to painstakingly research and give him his own distinct voice and then used him to rewrite Paradise Lost set against the backdrop of the American South and issues of slavery, law and morality. 
2. Woody Allen — And David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, and Jerry Seinfeld and the much derided American sense of humour. It is a great pity that Friends became one of our most successful exports because it brought with it the idea that we are all cosy, coffee-swilling morons who can only do sarcasm through histrionic gestures and tones. Oh, Chandler Bing, what a lot you have to answer for. Go out and look up Bill Hicks or Sarah Silverman or read some Bill Bryson and then tell me we don’t do understatement, self-deprecation, irony or funny with adeptness and ease. 
1. Everyone wants to be us — It’s true! I’ve been teaching in England and Ireland for over a decade and sooner or later someone in every single one of my classes always comes around to the same question, ‘Sir, (yes they say sir) why did you leave a brilliant place like America for a rubbish country like England?’ Problems though I may have with the assumptions in the question, the fact remains that we have a huge influence on the rest of the world. Ordinary Britons and Irish people see Sex and The City, Entourage, 30 Rock and they want that glamour, they want that optimism, the want that American je ne sais quoi. It may be the Chinese and Indian Century, but it’s the American influence that remains over both those countries and the rest of the world. It’s the American sense of optimism that reigns in New China, it’s American simplicity, speed, and power that fuels the drive behind 20/20 Cricket, it is American R & B that makes Leona Lewis‘ sound so popular and so familiar and it is American hip hop that influences so many British acts and unfortunately has provided Tim Westwood with a career. It is the culture of American college radio that enabled bands like Radiohead and Blur to break across the pond and catch on. Love it or loathe it, the influence of our country on the world is ubiquitous. When Europe disparages it, does it reveal more about the disparager than the disparagee? 
I leave you with a poem that emphasises our connections to the Old World and to Britannia, Robert Burns, ‘Ode For General Washingon on the Occasion of his Birthday, 1787’
No Spartan tube, no Attic shell, 

No lyre Aeolian I awake; 
‘Tis liberty’s bold note I swell, 
Thy harp, Columbia, let me take! 
See gathering thousands, while I sing, 
A broken chain exulting bring, 
And dash it in a tyrant’s face, 
And dare him to his very beard, 
And tell him he no more is feared- 
No more the despot of Columbia’s race! 
A tyrant’s proudest insults brav’d, 
They shout-a People freed! They hail an Empire saved. 
Where is man’s god-like form? 
Where is that brow erect and bold- 
That eye that can unmov’d behold 
The wildest rage, the loudest storm 
That e’er created fury dared to raise? 
Avaunt! thou caitiff, servile, base, 
That tremblest at a despot’s nod, 
Yet, crouching under the iron rod, 
Canst laud the hand that struck th’ insulting blow! 
Art thou of man’s Imperial line? 
Dost boast that countenance divine? 
Each skulking feature answers, No! 
But come, ye sons of Liberty, 
Columbia’s offspring, brave as free, 
In danger’s hour still flaming in the van, 
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man! 

Alfred! on thy starry throne, 
Surrounded by the tuneful choir, 
The bards that erst have struck the patriot lyre, 
And rous’d the freeborn Briton’s soul of fire, 
No more thy England own! 
Dare injured nations form the great design, 
To make detested tyrants bleed? 
Thy England execrates the glorious deed! 
Beneath her hostile banners waving, 
Every pang of honour braving, 
England in thunder calls, “The tyrant’s cause is mine!” 
That hour accurst how did the fiends rejoice 
And hell, thro’ all her confines, raise the exulting voice, 
That hour which saw the generous English name 
Linkt with such damned deeds of everlasting shame! 

Thee, Caledonia! thy wild heaths among, 
Fam’d for the martial deed, the heaven-taught song, 
To thee I turn with swimming eyes; 
Where is that soul of Freedom fled? 
Immingled with the mighty dead, 
Beneath that hallow’d turf where Wallace lies 
Hear it not, Wallace! in thy bed of death. 
Ye babbling winds! in silence sweep, 
Disturb not ye the hero’s sleep, 
Nor give the coward secret breath! 
Is this the ancient Caledonian form, 
Firm as the rock, resistless as the storm? 
Show me that eye which shot immortal hate, 
Blasting the despot’s proudest bearing; 
Show me that arm which, nerv’d with thundering fate, 
Crush’d Usurpation’s boldest daring!- 
Dark-quench’d as yonder sinking star, 
No more that glance lightens afar; 
That palsied arm no more whirls on the waste of war.

And a recipe for this festive dish.

And some advice on some cool stuff going on to celebrate Independence Day here in London. 
The Ben Franklin House are having a fourth of July party. Were I not working during the day, I’d definitely check it out. Worth checking out this building dedicated to the most inventive of Americans anyway. 

And in the evening, The Old Red Cow, which I have blogged about before, is celebrating with a host of American handcrafted beers. For more check out the Red Cow’s website. 
Happy Independence Day!
LET ME BE FRANK

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