Monthly Archives: September, 2012

Our Special Relationship

Prime Minister on US TV

Now now. I’m not here to talk about why my public school education has left me ill equipped to answer questions about British culture. That’s for my researchers. (Photo taken from BBC News site)

For the life of me, I cannot see what David Cameron was thinking. Stiff as a waterboard, there he went, onto Letterman to face an audience of my compatriots, supposedly to “bang the drum of British business”. Did he not think that BP had done enough damage? He was very worthy and neither likeable nor wholeheartedly dislikeable, just affirming to America that, like the perception of British food, this country’s people are as insipid and as humourless as salty Scottish gruel. So worthy and so bland.

Somewhat bizarrely, much like his first Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons — not as Prime Minister but in opposition facing off against Tony in his last days — he seemed to come off very left of centre, which may suggest he knows how to play a Letterman audience after all. Facts of existence in the UK like the absence of gun usage and the thought of carrying a gun being incomprehensible drew cheers from the live audience, as did the fact that political parties are not allowed to advertise on British TV. Period.

But the point of the exercise still baffles me. Letterman controlled the banter and all the best lines were his, as they should be, so the only motivation one can possible detect is that this appearance is the latest in the bizarre oneupmanship contest between Cameron and the more affably charismatic Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who also appeared on Letterman in June, and who, unlike Cameron, took an equal share of the best lines and drew a much better reaction from the audience with all his bumbling and foppish Freudian slips (Letterman: Would you ban giant sodas [as Bloomberg has done]? Johnson: I I I… We’re not that… We’re not that… Whilst I am certainly bigger than Mike [Bloomberg], as a city, we’re not that… … fat. YET. [hearty and appreciative, self-deprecating guffaws from the audience]).

Much as it kills me to admit it, Boris is one conservative that I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with on all policies. He opposes a third runway at Heathrow, is pro-public transport, pro-cyclist, and stood up to Romney over the summer when Mitt paraded his blustering ignorance in the field of statesmanship doubting out loud that the capital could handle the Olympics. He’s very far from perfect, but his interview is well worth watching and quite entertaining.

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Closer to Barack than Berlin

Yes We Can

Yes We Can!

Several weeks ago, after I had got back from spending the end of the summer in Ireland, I blogged about native Irish wit and the ability of our Hibernian cousins to take something that has become commonplace and squeeze it with a fresh twist of something subtle, unexpected, and intelligent. There is something of the same spirit in the slogan that Obama (I’m going to say he did it, likely as not it was one of ‘his people’ but I’m just going to pretend) coined or rather gave new life to through translation into Irish last year on his state visit to trace his family’s Irish roots to Moneygall in County Offaly.

Not to be outdone by HR the Q in her visit four days earlier – the first by an English monarch to The Republic of Ireland, when King George visited in 1911, it was still part of the UK – when she opened her speech in Dublin with “A Uachtaráin agus a chairde (President and friends)”, Potus closed his speech “as gaeilge” with the now famous “Is Feider Linn” (Colloquially, “Yes we can!” Say it with me, IS-Fayder-lin).

Like the French, the Irish like it when foreigners at least make an effort to speak the language that has been so neglected for so long by its own people and the Irish certainly like a president who is willing to come back home to find his roots. A cynic might say that he knows how to pay homage to the old Kennedy Irish American lobby, which there may be a bit of, but I think he did genuinely really enjoy himself and he certainly endeared himself to the people of Ireland by going one better than Dubya and sipping some of the black stuff in Moneygall local Ollie Hayes Pub.

Obama tall dark had some

The President sipping ‘the black stuff’ (Taken from post-gazette.com)

There’s a perpetual debate in Ireland about whether the nation’s policies and politics in general should be closer to Europe or the North Atlantic, succinctly put as “Are we closer to Boston or Berlin?” I think it’s clear how the Irish felt on this occasion.

What I didn’t realise until my recent visit is that the above image is now doing the rounds on postcards all over Ireland, commemorating the occasion with the phrase, “Tall, Dark and Had Some”. Irish wit.

Especially with the Romney campaign starting to look desperate, I think it’s worth popularizing the Celtic version of Obama’s tagline and chanting it at rallies as it is so indelibly associated with hope and possibility. Like some secret victory code. You start. Go ahead. Is Feider Linn. Is Feider Linn. Is Feider Linn…

Mitt Romney: Truer American Historically? Possibly, but we are still making history

The Republican Presidential Nominee 2012

I’m on my way to the Meeting House… I mean White House to take charge around here (Photo taken from the Wall Street Journal’s website).

Many years ago, when I was a slip of a youth attending history lectures at Penn State University, one of my most brilliant and dynamic lecturers, Dr. Harold Aurand, said something that’s stuck with me. He probably didn’t think about it much at the time; it was more by way of instruction that he told us that America’s first two colonies were The Virginia Company and The Plymouth Colony. The first, founded in 1606, was a commercial venture, driven by the need to make money out of fertile unexploited land in ‘the new world’. The latter, founded in 1620, was a group of ‘pilgrims’ fleeing religious persecution and setting out to create a perfect puritan society, a low church utopia.

What struck me was that there you have the twin pillars upon which our fine nation has been founded: Religion and Profit. In the 90s, when I was attending university and ever since, it’s been a helpful filter through which to understand a lot of what goes on in my homeland, including the increasingly bewildering alignment of the extreme right with big business and major American corporations financing people like the moral majority and charter schools that have an austerely puritanical ethos.

And so it is with the GOP’s offering this year for the highest office in the land; he happens to be the two things most beloved by reactionary America: severely Christian and rich. I’m not holding either of those things against him personally, but extremist elements of the right have been misquoting history for years now starting with the “Tea Party” (terrorist act against the crown anyone?), so it is no surprise that the North Atlantic Tories have a special place in their hearts for Mitt.

I just worry.

Great as our nation is and great though our forefathers were, I have no desire to return to a society that outlaws general rabble-rousing, hunts down non-conformists as witches, and declares the church to be at the centre of society. Nor do I want to be a remote cog in some grand business plan, for I fear I would not last long as a cog always wanting to spin in different directions and fit into square holes as a round peg and whatnot. I want neither a business or a city on a hill out of my America and frankly, I’m sure there were many in Plymouth and Jamestown who felt the same.

And besides that, we have accomplished so many things since the days of cash crops and the intolerant north. From basketball to Broadway, tall tale to short story, Great American novel to Hollywood, Jazz to trip hop, the Hudson school to Ivy League schools, there is so much in our rich history in which we can take pride. We can acknowledge where we came from without embracing the baser parts of our origins and be a better nation for it.

So while there’s nothing innately wrong with Mr. Romney’s profession or his religion, what he seems to be peddling to us is old school Calvinism at its best. He may have got his sums wrong, but clearly, 47% of us are not of the 144 chosen that will ascend with him in the rapture and sit at the right hand of that great CEO in the sky. 47% were not born to greatness.  Our destiny has been written with no possibility of veering off of a course of victimhood and sloth and we are clearly not worth Mr. Romney’s effort or campaign advertising. But if my country is to be cynically turned into a business and run like one, with the ‘unprofitable’ cogs in this great vision left behind, I shall proudly stand with the 47%.

But let us hope it doesn’t come to that. Even as we ponder these issues of the past, we seem to be living history. The Wall Street Journal, no puppet of the liberal left-wing media, wrote this  earlier today, and it seems to me as good a reason as any to spread the good word.

American Classic? Hard to tell.

The Great Gatsby Baz Lurman

Who needs narrative? We’ve got Jack White and Jay Z

I’m torn.

I was ready to like Leonardo DiCaprio as the eponymous protagonist in this upcoming adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann. I had forgiven them both for Romeo and Juliet and had come to accept that cinematic effort in all its smoking guns glory as a useful and exciting way to introduce teenagers to one of the most difficult stories Shakespeare has to offer in terms of engagement and narrative.

I thought  Carey Mulligan would work as the beautiful, thoughtless and morally bereft Daisy Buchanan, and I actually thought Toby Maguire was perfect for Nick Carraway, the deceptively innocent looking young man from the Midwest who comes out to New York to make a living and resist the city corrupting his soul while he hypocritically claims the moral high ground.

Nor am I so close-minded as to think that a non-American director can’t handle an American story. Sam Mendes did too good a job with American Beauty for anyone to think that.

Apprehensive though my English teacher’s heart was about this sublime story being given the Hollywood treatment again, I had been convinced by various parties and was ready to believe that it could be done with style and still convey some sense of the aesthetic wonder that is Fitzgerald’s prose.

And then I saw the trailer.

It left me with something nameless beyond apprehension, something approaching dread. How can you tell a quintessentially ‘Jazz Age’ story without jazz? What this trailer appears to do is take Gatsby out of the roaring 20s, and place him firmly in the twentyteens (that seems all right, doesn’t it?) not so much roaring as swaggering with his trousers around his knees and his bling firmly on show, dressed to impress.

Which is not to say I have a problem with the presence of hip hop or even Jack White’s cover of U2’s ‘Love is Blind’. I can actually see the parallels and the reasoning perfectly. The song that was chosen for the trailer, ‘No Church in the Wild’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West, seems to ‘teach the lesson’ of Gatsby, dropping lines like, ‘When we die the money we can’t keep,’ but it also talks about ‘the girl in all leopard… rubbing the wood like Kiki Shepherd,’ not quite the flapper dresses, feather boas and the Charleston of the roaring 20s.

But still, I can see the temptation. In all honesty, there is a lot of rap that is about acquiring material wealth and flaunting it as a kind of two fingers to an oppressive state and rigid class structure that has made it all but impossible to acquire such wealth or any sort of social mobility. And Gatsby is a man who makes his fortune dishonestly but for what seem like the right reasons, holding a quixotic candle for years to one day impress Daisy in the same way Pip one day would like to be ‘good enough’ for Stella. So the excess, the decadence, and the emptiness is all there. And I can see that. 

But why then does it need to be updated? Why take away the joie de vivre of jazz that ultimately evokes the hollowness of the glitz and glitter indulged in by these characters, especially when that loud whizz bang blare of apparent life and unthinking esprit serves to heighten the depths of pathos at the end?

It’s not as though it’s a story that’s completely alien to us. The young and the restless of a generation get carried away speculating with money they either don’t have or that doesn’t exist or will never come back from bad loans but no one heeds the warnings because everybody’s having fun. No one wants to hear about it because everybody’s too busy spending money and partying. The desolation when the party stops is stark and unbearable. Sound familiar anyone?

Those of us who have been in education or in theatre or just appreciators of beautifully composed language know that translation is an occasional but lamentable necessity and that something is always lost. Will what appears to be one long F Scott Fitzgerald inspired music video manage to convey the existential longing in lines like ‘Men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…’ and the subsequent tragedy, or will this story be a narrative with the life-blood cruelly drawn out of it? Will this, in the more modern sense of the word be, simply a tragedy?

Great Gatsby 1974

Gatsby, with the jazz left in

Flying the Flag

Burning of The American Flag

I had just begun to feel comfortably at ease with my nation being, if not the object of affection, at least, as Happy Loman put it, ‘liked but not well liked,’ widely generating respect and general good feeling around the world.

I lived in the UK during the Bush years, when that right honourable Texan went around brazenly offending the world for eight years, storming out of Mexican state dinners, invading Middle Eastern countries under false pretences and rather callously joking about it, and doing his best to alienate Muslims and the whole of Europe at the same time (no mean feat).

I’m familiar with the generic reaction — ‘Who cares? We’re American Dammit! We do what we want and if the rest of the world has a problem with it, they can go take a jump in a lake! U!S!A! U!S!A! U!S!A!’ Which is fine. There are plenty of other countries who adopt similar attitudes, China, Iran and Malaysia among them, but I for one would like to avoid odious comparisons, not invite them.

And our current president, for whom I have great respect, has made great headway in healing the wounds opened and liberally salted by his predecessor, building bridges and consciously acknowledging America’s important part in and dependence on the global community.

Which, I suppose, is one of the reasons why it seems such a shock to me that the divide between the Middle East and the West is still so acrimonious and so filled with the bitter bile of irrational, mutual antipathy.

It puts me in mind of September 11th, 2001, when I lived in Dublin, and saw first hand how Dubya inevitably failed to even attempt to open channels of communication between America and the moderate voices in the Middle East, but instead, went in, unilateral guns blazing, ingloriously entrenching us first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. In doing so, he effectively obliterated the genuinely heartfelt outpouring of sympathy that the rest of the world had expressed for the indescribable tragedy that was 9-11 and very quickly ignited and fanned the flames of Anti-Americanism for the rest of his time in office.

The barely elected man-child gave the world every excuse to berate America in terms of the laziest and shallowest of stereotypes, condemning me as an American abroad to morning break monologues and dinner party diatribes decrying the loudness, brashness, obnoxiousness, arrogance, and naked belligerence of Americans. After the kind of battering foreign policy and countless Bushisms did to our reputation abroad, it became damn difficult to defend our nation. I did my best, but I wasn’t a paid diplomat.

I ended up playing devil’s advocated on both sides, which I suppose is a tautology in terms of devil’s advocates. I argued with friends and family back home who astounded me with their support for what seemed to me to be a catastrophic and vindictive military action. But I also argued with my colleagues who persistently encouraged me to attend anti-war demonstrations in Dublin, to which I would always frown, shake my head and say, ‘No. It’s simply uncritical anti-Americanism at its best. I can’t go.’

Due in part to their repeated insistence that it was ‘anti-American foreign policy not anti-American,’ and in part to curiosity about something happening so close to me and to which I felt so intimately connected, I did eventually attend and take part in one of the largest anti-war demonstrations at the time. Nothing unusual there: placards, posters, beards, megaphones, chants, the usual. I was taken aback however when I saw one young member of the Socialist Workers’ Party flying Old Glory. And then I realized it wasn’t. The stripes and the colours were there all right, but in place of the stars were neatly lined swastikas, all 50 of them. Sanctimonious as it may sound, something bilious lurched in my stomach. After all, this was just a flag, but it was also a national symbol that I had stood to attention for and adored, hand on heart pledging undying allegiance to every day of my childhood. That kind of indoctrinated loyalty doesn’t just fall away because you criticize your leaders. And here was the symbol of my nation superimposed with a symbol of everything that is loathsome and base in humanity.

Swastikas and Stripes

Taken from aconstantineblacklist.blogspot.co.uk

This did not bolster my colleagues’ case about the nature of the demonstrations and I felt at least temporarily vindicated in thinking both sides were uncritically dogmatic. But, as a friend told me on recounting the demonstration years later, a flag is a symbol and means very different things to different people. The Irish tricolour, which means freedom fighting and resonates with phrases like ‘tiocfaidh ar la!’ (‘Our Day Will Come!) is never flown in schools in Ireland for fear associations with militancy. The Union Flag (sometimes incorrectly called the Union Jack), once indelibly associated with imperialism, has acquired a cult status cool that’s gone from punk rock right into the main stream and onto toilet seats and SMEG fridges.

Hard and bitter a pill as it is for us to swallow, there are many who see the flag above as more representative of the kind of American foreign policy that’s struck a dangerously Machiavellian balance of sabre-rattling, ‘devil-you-know’ funding, and bombing back to the stone age that’s left many with the bitter taste of ash on their tongues.

It is certainly more difficult to engage with other nations while being a critical friend to our own, and infinitely more complicated, but the fundamentalists of the right wing of America have spent too long nourishing the bitter nightmares of a sleeping tiger (forgive the exotic metaphor) and unless we start to engage with the rest of the world in meaningful terms, I fear we have only begun to feel its bite. Yes, it is easier to be an American abroad now than it once was, but as we revel in our current chic, we also find ourselves, as another great American writer once put it, ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

Guilty Pleasure Tourism: The Viking Splash Tour

 

It wasn’t the Literary Pub Crawl. It wasn’t The Martello Tower in SandyCove. It wasn’t even a stroll through Trinity College Dublin to commune with the spirit of Swift and feel the rhythm of The Celtic Twilight beating in my breast. But The Viking Splash Tour in Dublin was shamelessly side-splitting fun and uncommonly good value in an wallet-stranglingly expensive city.
As you can guess, I approached the Viking Splash with some scepticism. Wearing big plastic hats with horns? Raising your arms in mindless glee and roaring obnoxiously in unison with the person next to you like a European football hooligan at the nearest passerby? Willingly, joyfully strapping yourself into a former military vehicle (some of the Viking Splash people carriers were used in the D-Day landings) to splash down in the murky waters of the Liffey? Surely this wasn’t for me? Surely this was for other Americans? Tourists. Those still inclined to call themselves 85% Irish Americans. Not for a radio-4-listening (Americans read NPR), Guardian reading (for Guardian, read New York Times, I think) culture vulture like me. I’ll take a stroll through Merrion Square and The National Gallery thank you very much.
There are probably two important things important to bear in mind. The first is that having a young child gives you licence to do whatever childish touristy stuff your sense of self-respect and dignity might not normally permit. Second, it turns out that the Viking Splash Tour is not the tourist-pandering game of dress-up that it appears to be (actually that would be the disappointingly cheap and unhorrifying Edinburgh Dungeon), but a floating comedy hour, guided by a born-and-bred Dubliner with a healthy dose of razor sharp wit and sarcasm that kept me convulsing until my sides hurt and my eyes streamed tears of laughter.
Our guide and driver, Anto, with a thick ‘Dooblin’ accent that I’m quite sure was his own, began with the premise that we were all Vikings — thus the tacky hats — surrounded by Celts, a foreign people so inimical to our being that we had to vocally rage against them, proceeding to catalogue the most loathsome types of Celts, among them Cappucino Celts (those dressed head-to-toe in highstreet gear sipping lattes on the sidewalks), Competitor Celts (those that had chosen other bus tours around the city), and Lost Celts (the ones standing on street corners looking at open maps in consternation). We dutifully roared like fierce Northern warriors. So ingeniously tongue-in-cheek was the whole idea sold to us that you couldn’t help but get into the spirit. That’s my excuse: I did it for irony’s sake.
Anto proceeded to narrate us through historic Dublin with the same subtle irony and  humour that is the very best part of the native character, from waving at another bus driver letting him into a lane and claiming he was a former parole officer who had done his job too well and had to make his living working for Dublin Transport, to requesting one of the passengers lean over to grab some copper piping off of the roof rack of a nearby van, “Cause that would fetch near enoof eighty Euro like, ya know?”, to explaining Ireland’s dire financial position through the local government’s choice to commission the new abstract ‘forest sculpture’ in the Docklands, “When a headcase lends a headcase eight million euro to pay a spacer, there’s something wrong like, ya know?… I mean it loits up at noit and it’s pretty but it’s not eight million euro pretty, ya know what I me-an, like?”
Which is not to say The Viking Splash Tour is not an educational experience as well. We were given the context to Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ whilst passing St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I now know why Dubliners have traditionally been called ‘Jackeens’ and I can rattle off with confidence the various nicknames by which the statue of Molly Malone at the bottom of Grafton Street has been known to locals. The Tart with The Cart, The Trollop with the Scallops, The Dish with The Fish, The Flirt with The Skirt, the poetic imagination of the Celt is clearly limitless.
The Dolly with The Trolley (image taken from http://www.awaycity.com)
And of course, towards the very end of your hour and a quarter in whichever Norse-deity-named amphibious vehicle (ours was called ‘Balder’ evidently ‘Day’ personified in Norse mythology) in which you travel around Fair City, you do get the thrill of donning a life-jacket, riding down a concrete ramp and doing a picturesque little twirl around Grand Canal Dock Basin, which, Anto informed us, would be a lovely place to live were it not for the Viking Splash tour, passing by twenty times a day.
Grand Canal Dock Basin, fisheye view
Surprisingly good craic, The Viking Splash tour. At 20 euro a ticket, I wouldn’t call it cheap, but nothing in Dublin is, even in these austere times. It is two euro pricier than the leading open top bus tour, but the pleasure of the experience, both in terms of sheer hilarity and with the thrill of an aquatic exploration, make this tour better value by far. You can’t beat the discounts either. When the charming man that we booked with on Stephen’s Green found out that my son was named after the Norse god of peace, prosperity and fertility (go ahead and search that one out), he gave my mother-in-law a student price. I believe she was pleased.
You are advised to book ahead, which may sound a bit insane, but they sell out quick. We showed up at noon hoping to stroll onto a Viking voyage and were informed that all excursions were sold out until 5:30. You can do so by going to Viking Splash’s website here or by calling 00 353 1 707 6000, or you could do what we did and show up on the day. Dublin is not a city short of things to do or places to spend money.One last note on Irish wit. I am always pleasantly surprised by how cleverly the Celtic imagination can incorporate what seem to be trite and hackneyed into something ironic and refreshing like these two examples, which can be seen now regularly around the Republic. I cannot vouch for the North.

Image taken from http://www.coffeyfilter.com
Seen in a shop on Grafton Street

 

Slan Abhaile!
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