‘Go West/ Paradise is there/ You’ll have all that you can eat/ Of milk and honey over there.’ Natalie Merchant, ‘San Andreas Fault’
Traveled out West on Thursday, West London that is. Leafy, clean and well-heeled, W postcodes are like a different country. People do things differently there. They bring dogs to pubs, they make contact when they kiss on both cheeks and they have comedy theatres with fairly famous comedians.
This last bit is what drove my wagon out West on The District Line to The Tabard Theatre in Turnham Green to see The Code Of The West by New York/London playwright Mark Giesser.
The play has at its centre the incredible historical figure of Joshua Abraham Norton, the eccentric, Englishman who became the self-proclaimed emperor of the United States, treated with all the fawning deference that one might afford any sovereign monarch, at least within the city limits of San Fransisco. I liked the concept of this story, partly because of the wonderfully quixotic nature of Norton’s story. It says a lot about our secret love of monarchy (oh we very much like to talk about our contempt for the irrelevance of an antiquated and pointless institution, but I saw the crowds gathered in front of big screens to watch Will ands Kate’s big day and if we want to talk about antiquated and irrelevant, what about the GOP, huh? Eh?), the ability for us as Americans to bluster through to great success and status based on immense confidence — a shoeshine and a handshake, as Arthur Miller put it in Death of a Salesman — without being questioned along the way, and our ability to make up the rules as we go along.
The code of the title is a seemingly random set of rules governing the conduct between two parties who seem to be at all sorts of impasses. Say what you will about a written constitution vs a constantly evolving one, there is something charming and wonderfully Californian about invoking a particular set of fictional, unwritten but strictly acknowledged rules that seem to allow characters to circumvent various imminent dangers and come out on top of very sticky situations involving other characters.
The nineteenth century American West is presented, in all its swinging door, stogie-smoking, player piano, patterned wallpaper splendor, as a place where anything is possible and an individual can set their bags down and reinvent themselves, with no judgement and no disadvantage, just as Joshua Norton did after his finances in the UK went belly up and just as a certain two ladies who claim to be connected to the house of Romanov do when they show up proposing a match for Norton.
It’s a fun night of theatre with some great lines that hold currency today. We laugh at an incredulously delivered, “What, borrow money from the Chinese?” and chortle knowingly at the casual declaration by an emissary of an alleged Russian noblewoman, “Oh we get no intelligence from Washington.”
I have to say though, despite his stage chops, David Janson’s Norton didn’t do much more than wander around winking slyly and making imperious declarations and negotiations. He certainly wasn’t the larger than Gordon Bennett presence that I expected and I felt like, marvelous though the historical character of Norton sounded, Giesser seemed to use him as a piece to play off of and a frame on which to hang the narrative and other more compelling scenes. No, the real stars of the show were Stephen Cavanagh as mischievous newspaper publisher Frank Tremont and Zoe Teverson as Claire Greenleaf, the supposed Russian Countess’ supposed emissary and general lady-in-waiting. That these two actors have performed together before is obvious from the chemistry between them that provides a sparkling frisson of energy whenever the two of the meet on stage. Their sparring is a delight to watch, culminating in a deliciously tense strip-poker scene (all a lot more chaste than it sounds). Cavanagh steals the show with a swagger and a magnetic charisma that makes us revel in his crackly, whiskeyed delivery.
The West is not part of the heritage of this ill traveled Northeastern boy who’s never seen the banks of the Mississippi, but I very much enjoyed this portrayal of it and have no doubt that it captures an atmosphere rich with renewal and grit and one that would well worth seeing especially if you’ve become as interested in American cultural identity as I have.
Go west. Good comedy is there.
The Code of The West is at The Tabard Theatre until 9 November to book: www.tabardweb.co.uk
In other news, I am now a featured blog on Expats Blog Directory. Click on the link and rate me positively and all sorts of wonderful things will happen purely due to good karma. Plus you’ll have that wonderfully smug satisfaction of having done someone a good turn. Pay it forward.
February! It’s been since February. Bad, bad blogger. What happened? Well, life, you know. It does. I’d love to blog and write and get paid for it and then spend a life lecturing about Samuel Beckett. I haven’t quite got to that level of professional satisfaction yet.
So I’m teaching secondary school, which I also love (No tongue in cheek, really! I’m reconciled and happy). And we entered into the phase of the year in February where one can safely say the unsavoury matter hits the wall, that phase in which we send off student work to external bodies who would be within their rights to whimsically bring all the grades down a notch, violently shattering our collective professional confidence. Thankfully that has not happened and I’ve got slightly (SLIGHTLY), just slightly more time to myself at home now.
So what better way to use it than blogging?
A few, I know, but I’ve done those already.
So as I’m here, the world — most uncooperatively — just doesn’t stand still and wait for me to observe it pithily. It rolls on relentlessly and relentless and earth-shattering indeed have been some events in my absence from the blogosphere. I’ve picked a couple that have disturbed me and one that gladdens me. Let’s start with the former.
Our Epic Fail as a Nation of Gun Owners
We reach for the cliches: shocked, appalled, unspeakable, beyond words, horrific, inhuman.
They don’t seem to suffice. That’s probably because we shouldn’t have any cliches about gun violence and mass shooting incidents. Yet, here we are with lessons not yet learnt.
Back in July of last year, I wrote about how frightened I was for us as a nation after Aurora. Between it, Columbine, Newtown and various other mass shootings in America, you might think that we would finally collectively stand up and just slightly reconsider how we approach gun laws.
That would mean those in favour of sense and peace would prevail. Alas, they did not.
There are times when I feel like an alien in conversations with my own countrymen. Whenever any national convesation about gun control billows forth into the national consciousness, this alien moment takes hold.
For example, I heard friends and high profile commentators suggesting there should be more armed guards in schools.
The sight of armed guards in airports and possibly even in hospitals suggests reassurance. In schools, it suggests police state in which a fragile peace is bound together by bullets.
Nuts Owners of America suggest that we as teachers should be armed. Um, no.
We become teachers to impart knowledge and ignite the fire of imagination in young minds, not to fire loaded weapons to blow someone’s brain apart. We are the prevention, not the scorched-earth cure that would see us become deputised sheriffs in the classroom. And, not for the first time in proposing an exteme solution to gun violence in America, this ignores the real problem, that our attitude towards guns is unhealthy.
So we buy more firearms, stockpile ’em up. No Wash-ing-ton bur-o-crat is gonna take my gun away from me, dagnabbit. They ain’t even ‘lowed to check my crim’nal record (‘cuz who knows? They might find out where the bodies are buried. Shhh.)
Personally, I’ll take Jim Carrey’s response every time. Funny and effectively and resonantly stinging. Even funnier and scarier is the response from the Repundits uncontrollably foaming at the mouth. They don’t half lose control, do they?
I fear, homeland. I really do.
The Ways In Which We Are Losing The War on Terror
(It’s not quite what you think)
There is no doubt that Dzhokhar Tsaernaev is a murderer and that he committed an atrocity, an act of terror, the betrayal of the sacrosanct principal of respect for human life and the exploitation of fear to penetrate to our souls and to our sense of certainty in the existence of goodness in the world as opposed to an ever encroaching and all-pervading sense of menacing and violent evil.
But weapons of mass destruction? Seriously?
As my favo(u)rite conservative prime minister once said, ‘a crime is a crime is a crime.’ As I’m fond of saying, the devil may cite scripture for his purpose, but wrong-headed and vile though Thatcher’s criminalisation of the IRA was, it at least made some pragmatically ideological sense. The minute you confer a certain status on human scum that awards them a title higher than scum, you legitimate their authority.
What are we afraid of, that Tsaernaev won’t get the death penalty? Despite my moral objections to the capital punishment, if that’s the justice you want, nail him on multiple counts of murder, an act of terrorism even. Charging him with WMD transforms him into a demonic Goblin-like figure of myth who will rise to haunt us from well beyond — for I’m sure one way or the other, we’ll kill him, we can’t help ourselves — the grave. And once again, a national conversation about the polarising, marginalising and therefore radicalising American foreign policy that fosters these ticking time bombs will be buried with Tsaernaev’s body.
Make him into some looming evil dictator with great power over some lethal arsenal and he wins . Terrorism wins. It continues to set the agenda. Has this young, bitter man succeeded in continuing to rain fear on us? Yes. Terrorists: 1. American citizenry: 0.
The Lady Might Well Be Turning
Tis said that it is bad to speak ill of the dead. Well, late the fates rain down on me because I feel obliged (not as a blogger with some inflated sense of self-importance) as a human being to dissent amidst the wave of warmth for Thatcher that’s come about not just at her death but in the past few years with all sorts of making over of the Iron Lady’s image from Gilbert and George claiming that she did a lot for the arts to Meryl Streep playing her in a biopic that I refuse to see for the same reason I refuse to pay tribute to her: she is an overglorified bulwark of tyranny that left destruction in her wake. Call me a party-pooper, but I just can’t seem to stomach a sentiment for an MP who let a fellow Minister of Parliament die on hunger strike in Belfast. Not only did she refuse to recognise the political status of Irish prisoners, which I understand many could debate, but she made light of their struggle in which ten prisoners died, claiming they were trying to demonstrate their virility.
Shortly after Thatcher’s death, my mother asked me, on the phone, “Tell me, was Margaret Thatcher a…,” and here she paused to gain breath and the correct phrasing, “popular politician over there,” to which I could not help myself. I laughed. “She was divisive, Mom. Let’s put it that way.” It seemed that people in America and around the world were confused by the celebrations, the jubilant singing of “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead.” Why was Britain trashing one of its most famous, long-standing and influential prime ministers in the wake of her death? It’s far from perfect, in fact it is ridden with as many problems as American society, but one thing that Britons seem to do well is to speak freely and, although they are good at standing on ceremony, they are individualistic and freethinking and happy enough to trounce on fictions like blind reverence as well. From the hollowed out factories in the North to the countrywide housing shortage, the sooner, the Iron Lady’s influence is shook off, the better.
Well, that’s it. I’m back now or at least I intend to be.
I did say I would give you pith on two disturbing events and one reassuring one. Didn’t I?
Lest you think I am reassured and my heart is warmed by death (every death diminishes me. I feel bad for Thatcher’s family), I’ll end on a high.
When Harry Met Jersey
I can’t help it. I’m a bundle of contradictions, but I find Harry to be the least repulsive member of the royal family.
In fact, in weak moments, I find him downright endearing.
He is, it has to be said, a frat boy in prince’s clothes and most of the time seems more comfortable in army fatigues than cricket whites, but that is probably his charm. He’s the fun brother.
That and his visit to the state my birth, that under-rated storm-torn little fighter, New Jersey.
Perhaps not being the next in line after Charles has done wonders for his independence and therefore he’s been free to practice that almost-of-the-people charm to perfection and he’s done some great work in the process for various charities.
Thanks to my cousin Samm who did an incredible job in running Backpacks for Brick in the wake of Sandy for sharing this bit of news with me and cheers, Harry, most humbly from Jersey!
I went to see the spine-chilling tale The Turn of the Screw Tuesday night in The Almeida Theatre in Islington, my review of which appears on The Hackney Hive soon to be followed by an interview with the famed director Lindsay Posner. It’s a deliciously indulgent and penetratingly haunting tale about a young governess trying to protect her charges from the corrupt influence of phantoms from the past. I could go into an interpretation that sees this as an analogy for the American condition, but like jokes, some figurative comparisons just write themselves.
But seeing The Turn of the Screw led me to thinking about Henry James, a man with whom I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship since he is American-born, but lived for so long in Merry Old England, like myself, negotiating the foggy obscurities of being a stranger in a strange land, always living as though his soul is split in half, a condition that seems perfectly reflected in the dense and difficult resistance a reader encounters in the language of say The Beast in the Jungle or Daisy Miller, the latter featuring an American character trying to find herself ‘on the continent’ and ending up doing the opposite.
But funnily enough, it took leaving America to appreciate American culture. It was only after I left, and especially after I started teaching in Ireland, that I started to appreciate the genius of Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, and Emily Dickinson to name but a few.
What has intrigued me for years though is the number of writers who’ve gone a bit further than their “tour of the continent”; those writers who, like James, left their homeland to find their own sense of belonging and in so doing carved out for themselves a new literary identity. Not to put too fine a pretentious point on it. Here are three of my favo(u)rites. A by no means exhaustive list, but certainly some good ones to start looking at writers who’ve traveled to find home.
1. Edgar Allan Poe
What do you mean Poe doesn’t count? He went to school in Chelsea and then got gritty and spent 3 years in Stoke Newington right here in Hackney, East London. It’s no wonder his writing is permeated with gloom and shadow. He had some easy material growing up in the gloom and shadow first in Irvine Scotland and then down here in the famed London fog living through the tumultuous “year without a summer”. Sure, he was only a child, but these were surely his formative years.
Besides, it’s easy to underestimate Poe, as a staple of the school curriculum of most American schools, the assumption is that he’s kid’s stuff — high class pulp. But see past that for a second and you’ll see the Derridians and Barthesians who have done so much to revive him are right: his work is all about the obscure nature of existence and the horror of uncertainty. What is more expatriate than that?
What’s a real pity is that so many seem to miss his bleak sense of humo(u)r. How could he have been doing anything but messing with his readers and seeing just how far we could go with monkeys for murderers and the gleeful insanity of Dr Feather and Professor Tarr? For that wonderful mix of bleakness and surreal wit that centres on expatriate concerns of travel, survival and negotiating the cultural other, I would start with Poe’s only published attempt at a novel, the incomplete but wonderful Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
2. James Baldwin
Black in the 1940s in America, gay, and deeply disturbed by the political environment of his native country, James Baldwin was assuredly a writer destined to find his voice abroad. That he did, giving voice to that displaced condition that situates an intellectual in a lonely place in their own country and yet yearning to feel a sense of home. For that, he had to join the cultural radicalism of Paris’ Left Bank, where Baldwin would remain resident for most of his life, writing about that recurring sense of disorientation that all of us as expats feel. You have to admire a man who can capture this condition so perfectly in a phrase like, “the earth tilts, he is thrown forward on his face in darkness, his journey begins,” which is, by the by, from Giovanni’s Room, a novel depicting that thing that has ensnared so many of us and rooted us down in foreign climes, a romantic relationship abroad. For aesthetic beauty and a deep sense of pathos, it is a compelling read.
3. Bill Bryson
On a lighter note, I don’t think any bookshelf should want for a volume or several of Bill Bryson’s witty words; nor, in fact are there many expat bookshelves that do, such is the joy one feels on curling up with Notes from a Small Island, The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, or The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America. Bryson is one of two writers (the other is David Sedaris, another great American humo(u)rist, on the darker side of things) whose writing has actually made me snort aloud on public transport, such is the power of his convulsion-inducing sense of the comic. He ranks up with H.L. Mencken for incisive delivery that illuminates the ridiculous in things we have taken for granted, from American diets and walking habits to the inability of provincial middle England to keep its streets clean, nothing is safe, nor should it be. It takes a man who has lived outside his native land for a number of years to highlight its faults and foibles to his fellow Americans and he does it with style.
I could of course have included countless others in this list. Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth moves my soul, but I can’t quite stomach her politics. Amy Lowell’s poetry, especially pieces that concern her travels abroad, renews the world-weary spirit. But I decided arbitrarily to stick to prose. And then there are non-Americans who have given us their perspective on our country, Joseph O’Connor (brother of Sinead) in his side-splitting The Secret Life of the Irish Male, Dickens’ scathing American Notes, which lost him the Downton audience of his day, and Orwell’s irony-laced accounts, not of America, but of Europe in Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, in which he fought in The Spanish Civil War and remarked that his life was saved many times by the merits of Spanish marksmanship.
But as Levar Burton used to say, you don’t have to take my word for it. I’m forgetting, ignoring, or unaware of countless others that help us to identify our own sense of wandering through this kaleidoscopic mass of confusion that is cultural displacement. But I see great value in any author that is able to bring us out of our day-to-day existences and grant us a sense of the wider world.
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.