Good God, America.
I try to be a good ambassador. I really do. I argue that we have culture and intelligence and that we’re an ethnic melting pot built on the highest ideals. But you know what? You make it hard not to have contempt for you, my country, when things like this happen.
The internet is already awash with a raging war of words about Trayvor Martin, by individuals far wiser and more eloquent than myself, as is right and to be expected. This kind of case rips open the sensitive scar tissue of a nation. It sparks fears and riots and intense divisions.
One of the best that I’d seen though, shared by a friend on facebook earlier today was not from a pundit on either side, but from a great novelist. Ah those amazing observers of human behaviour and psychology. The storytellers. The novelists.
The empty calls for calm ring hollow in the midst of such clear injustice and since your various feeds will be saturated, I’ll be quick and share a poem I like an awful lot about what use words, poetry or beauty are in the face of such callous disregard for the principles of fairness. It’s called “For Saundra” by Nikki Giovanni. You’ve got to stick around for the end. That’s the kicker really. Enjoy.
i wanted to write
but revolution doesn’t lend
itself to be-bopping
then my neighbor
who thinks i hate
asked -do you ever write
tree poems – i like trees
so i thought
ill write a beautiful green tree poem
peeked from my window
to check the image
noticed the school yard was covered
no green -no trees grow
then, well, i thought the sky
ill do a big blue sky poem
but all the clouds have winged
low since no-Dick was elected
so i thought again
and it occured to me
maybe i shouldn’t write
but clean my gun
and check my kerosene supply
perhaps these are not poetic
Slightly misleading post title, I know. I mean it’s purely theoretical. I don’t have any plans to leave at any point soon. Why would I? Duh, it’s London.
There are of course push factors: lack of any family in close proximity to us, a moderate to small flat with no outdoor space, Michael Gove, David Cameron, you get the picture. But frankly, nothing’s reached tipping point yet. My son’s in a good school that The Missus and I both like, modest though our flat is, we’ve made it our own and we may not have a
backyard or front yard garden, but we do have a lovely flat roof veranda that we have to struggle to climb through the window to get to adjacent to the bathroom loo. So, why would we want to move from this dreamy place?
I’ve been to more theatre than ever this year, courtesy of a few different online and print publications that I’ve been reviewing for and I feel so privileged to be able to have done it and to keep doing it. The truth is theatre in London is nothing less than phenomenal. Though the first item on your bucket list in one of the greatest cities in the world may not be to spend two hours in a darkened room with crowded strangers, there are good reasons why it should be.
Obviously, you’ve got The West End. Word Famous. Who hasn’t, right? But it really is the overpriced tip of the iceberg. Any chump can wait in line at a kiosk in Leicester Square, part unthinkingly with 100 quid for two seats with restricted viewing to see Billy Elliot and go home happy, having gawked at Elton John’s vision of the working class in the North of England. What you’ve got to do is explore.
Pre-parenthood days, when we first moved to London, the weekend consisted of picking up the Guardian Guide in the Saturday Edition, paying £6-12 a ticket, and seeing some marvellous, or appalling theatre. Whether it was marvellous or appalling, it was always engaging, in only the way that a performance that utilises space, human voice and movement, and the deep connection between performer and audience can engage on that deep, penetrating sort of gut level. I have seen Paul McGann reach heights of magically realist redemption in a backroom space of a pub in West London in Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, took a student group to see a version of The Tempest in West End that was heavy on trapeze artists but fell just short of meaningful, was genuinely touched by Samuel Beckett’s ode to Vaclav Havel, Catastrophe, failed to be moved beyond audible snoring in a dishwater-dull perfunctory attempt at Faustus in The Arcola several years ago, and recoiled in horror at a character’s eyes being gouged out of their sockets in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall as part of Serpent’s Tooth, written as a response to a production of King Lear. But my greatest, most heartfelt, and most intensely cathartic experience in London theatre was in a tiny little performance space underneath a pub in Baron’s Court, near Knightsbridge. The production was a version of Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), an immersive performance that set you up with a frame story lulling you into a false sense of safety until the actors turned everything on like a switch about 10 minutes in and from there to the end of the night it was a joyfully bleak journey to the utter depths of the human capacity for pathos.
Because theatre’s a risk, always. More often than not, I’ve been gripped and even when I haven’t, I’ve been provoked by what didn’t but should have gripped me. It’s a cognitive process that happens rarely for me with movies, and almost not at all with TV, probably because my most UnAmerican tendency is not watching it much.
My judgement of course could be somewhat flawed having never been much exposed to theatre when I was a kid, hailing from a small rural town in a mountainous region of District 12 and raised by wolves. My first real memory of proper theatre was a local university production of Waiting for Godot, in which the actors pronounced it Godot as opposed to what the rest of the world say, Godot (Cue Beckett’s gaunt and ghostly cyberfist shaking in indignation), beginning a lifelong obsession with Irish absurdist. But that it is the main reason why I review plays; not because it’s good practice or because it adds to my portfolio, but because I find theatre, especially here in this great metropolis, breathtakingly inspiring and that it lifts my mind off the ground nine times out of ten well after I’ve exited the foyer and am out on the street.
So if you’re in town, go to see a play. There’s nothing wrong with paying a lot to see a play in the West End (there could well be much wrong with paying through the nose to see a musical, but that’s another blog post) and you most likely won’t be disappointed by your investment, but it’s more fun, less expensive, and more of a unique experience to get out into the smaller theatres and performance spaces and see what’s out there.
Go on. It’s worth the risk.
I don’t know what’s current in American education. Well, alright. I have a vague idea, but not intimate knowledge. I’ve never taught there. I qualified in Dublin, taught there and taught here. And at least in classrooms over here, we repeat the phrase, “two stars and a wish” to our students, often when they’re marking each other’s work (imagine it in saccharine Hallmark tones: “Alrighty, class! Give your neighbour two stars and a wish and when you’re done with that give ’em a big ole thumbs up!”), the rationale being that children emphasise the positive in each other’s work twice as much as the negative.
And that’s what I’m doing today. Two proud Americans for whom I have a great fondness and one who really, really “could do better” (That’s another thing teachers write. Quite a bit. Just in case you didn’t quite see what I was doing there…).
Comedy is a hard thing to keep up with while living abroad. Ask me to name the big ones on the American scene and I’d struggle. Sara Silverman. Is she still big? I think Andy Borowitz is rather funny, but I’m partial to him because he hosts the American version of my favorite satirical British radio show, The News Quiz. But Stewart will always hold a special place in my heart. For it was The Daily Show that gave me solace with its grimly side-splitting conceits in the wake of Dubya’s theft of the election in 2000. And it is Stewart and his show that still form a bonding point when I go back home on my yearly summer pilgrimage and sit down with my brothers to convulse giddily while watching the man let rip with his Kronkite delivery and his incisive wit, tearing the powers that be and anything else that seems utterly ridiculous and nutty in America to shreds. I have caught my Irish wife, who has become suspicious of all things American — nothing to do with marrying me, she assures me — especially American comedy, laugh out loud (No really, she did. It’s not one of those cases where someone types it but they’re barely amused) at Stewart and it takes genuine funny to crack an Irish skeptic. Long live Stewart, fine American.
Ralph Nader, The Leftie We All Left Behind
If you could have been there. Here was a man who stood for something. Here was a man we used to toast at meetings of Amnesty International over wine and… letters. Here was a man who ran for president and who you voted for even though you knew he wasn’t going to win because in the end, you wanted to news broadcasters to say that a significant percentage of Americans cared about the issues. Because that’s what Nader did. He insisted on not shutting up about the issues like environmentalism, corporate greed and corruption and accountability, issues that no other politician would consent to mention in public. And he’s still doing it. Brazen enough to respond to the criticism that he split the vote for Al Gore, I once saw Nader respond to this issue on The Daily Show by saying, “Al Gore prevented me from being president!” Got to admire that spirit.
Dennis Miller, Clearest Transformation To A**hole
Ever tried googling “Was Dennis Miller always…”? Try it now. Actually, I’ll spoil it for you. Your non-evil browser will help unite your thought with the rest of the browsing community by suggesting, “conservative” and the second link it presents is headed, “When exactly did Dennis Miller lose his mind?” Which is entirely appropriate. I always thought that Miller was the obscure political comedian whose jokes I got because I was well-read and he made recondite references that no one else got, making him the pretentious intellectual comic that no one liked.
Until I saw him on Fox at my parents’ house (my folks are slightly bigger fans of Fox than I am) chumming around with Bill O’Reilly and frothing at the mouth about “damned liberals.” He had that same deranged and “slightly off the deep end” focus in his eyes that you saw the last time you were arguing with someone who thought that Ann Coulter was a perfectly legitimate authority. On anything. That conservative, “Oh but I know I’m right!” righteous look. You know the one. It was a sad moment for me. Because my earliest memories of Miller are also nostalgic ones of my older brother letting me stay up late to watch The Dennis Miller show on his TV. I remember laughing even though I didn’t get it a lot of the time and then the knowing, superior laugh when I finally started to get it. Never in my wildest dreams did I suspect that he was a rabid Repundit.
The concept that conservative commentators don’t seem to get though is that humour is generally subversive. It’s a bit cheeky. A bit naughty. A bit rock-the-boat. Confirming one’s own reactionary values with a knowing laugh is never going to be as funny or as popular. That’s why the miserable 1/2 News Hour was never, ever going to work. Yes, Joel Surnow, satire does tilt right sometimes, but then we call it desperate.
I think at some point in his career when we’d all forgotten about him Dennis Miller made a conscious decision that he wanted to be remembered for something. It’s just a shame he chose to be remembered for being a slightly off-the-bend right-wing maniac. Could do better.
Well that’s it folks. Peace out. I’m at work tomorrow. Rest assured, I’ll be reminding my British colleagues that I’m internally celebrating my independence from them. In the meantime, Happy Fourth ya’ll!
I’ve recently starting writing for The American magazine, which I’m amazingly excited about because they are a genuinely fantastic monthly publication dedicated to keeping the expat community informed about goings on at home and relevant happenings abroad. They sent me out to see Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, which has just opened on The West End and is spectacular, in large part because they’ve got an absolutely brilliant Willy Wonka, played by the English actor Douglas Hodge. I thought it a timely opportunity to post about our recent little trip to The Roald Dahl Museum and more importantly, this gem of an English village where the Anglo-Norwegian writer lived for so many years, Great Missenden.
Having finally acquired a British driving license, I was looking forward to using the old motor to liberate us and take in a few of the sights and treasures around the UK. My son’s a huge fan of Roald Dahl (he’s read them all except Matilda and Danny Champion of the World. And the adult stuff. He is six), so we thought one of the first places to go was The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre tucked away in The Chilterns on the way to Oxfordshire.
Aside from getting out of London and contending with FA Cup traffic in the process — which took the longest part of the trip — it was a lovely drive (which is, by the by, the reason these photos are not my own. Phone battery drained fulfilling satnav function). I’d forgotten how pleasurable driving can be sometimes.
The Museum itself was good. Ish.
Don’t get me wrong. They’ve done a great job in installing some wonderfully presented rooms about the great man’s life and works, but for families on a day out, with a fairly lacklustre attitude conveyed by the employees, I wasn’t sure there was anything we couldn’t have done with my son at home with some markers, some paper and a copy of The Giraffe, Pelly and Me and The Great Glass Elevator.
What I was much more impressed by was the village that hosts the museum and that Dahl called his home for over thirty years. Imagine what you’ve always pictured England to look like. Open your eyes. There. You have Great Missenden before you. No doubt the town planners and their permission forms work hard to maintain such charm, but complete with narrow cobblestone streets, treelined little roads and a sleepily pleasant atmosphere even on the weekends despite Dahl tourism, this little hamlet is the place to explore.
Handily enough, before even paying the admission price for a family (it’s nice, but is it £21 nice?), the museum has free brochures detailing village and country walks following on the trail of different Roald Dahl narratives. See the woods that inspired The Fantastic Mr Fox, have a look in at the library at which Matilda read all those classics and became inspired by literature, and see the timber house that inspired Sophie’s “norphanage” in The BFG, all for the price of gas.
I do applaud the efforts of The Museum in paying tribute to such an amazing writer, but if I were to go back again, it’s for this village, a real piece of vintage Britannia at its best.