‘Al-Ja- what?’ I can picture my very conservative parents saying.
My Dad is from very, very pre-hipster Brooklyn. He knew it waaaay before it was cool, when it was a nice, white place to grow up and you hitched a lift on the back of the tram-o-matic to spend a few pennies at Coney Island on rickety wooden roller coasters of a weekend. Or something like that. My mother is from somewhere deep in the 1940s and has just kept traveling, like some curious Kurt Vonnegut character, backwards in time throughout her life ever since. Last I checked she was somewhere deep in pre-universal suffrage and laughing and shaking her head at ‘all those silly dreamers demanding equality.’ I’d have to check but I think she’s also been deferring her vote to my father’s opinion for the same amount of time, single-handedly handing Trump Pennsylvania back in 2016.
I digress. A little.
I haven’t actually told my parents I’m at an Al-Jazeera event, just in case they think Al-Jazeera is Arabic for ‘Come with me, my brothers and sisters, let us go and conspire against suburban and rural, pretzel eating, sedentary, apostate America that worship at the altar of Starbucks and Kanye mwahahahahahaha.’ (Of course it doesn’t. Not even close. It means ‘the island’ symbolically linking to the network’s justifiable claim to be the only independent news source in the Middle East). Of course my conservative friend from high school (you know the one you never knew was conservative because he was funny and arty and a lot of fun to hang out with) always called it Al-Gore-zeera so I don’t know what to expect.
But my Mom and Pop and their entrenched conservatism are ever present in my mind as I sit down in the front row of Oxford Union as AJ’s guest and make myself ready for an evening in the presence of someone as close to the Trump administration as I’m willing to get, JD Gordon, former security adviser to the Trump Presidential Campaign. I am at a recording of Al Jazeera’s version of Hardball, ‘Head to Head’ hosted by Mehdi Hasan, a bruiser of an interviewer capable of landing the inquisitorial equivalent of right hooks with Russian probes and Upper cuts of Trump’s casual racism to devastating effect.
It is clearly an audience of mostly comfortably liberal, self-congratulatory anti-Trumpers (I say that as a belligerently liberal, self-congratulatory anti-Trumper). We have come to watch Trump get grilled via proxy. If we can’t have the orange-a-tan-in-chief himself, we’ll take someone guilty by association, as I’m going to assume JD Gordon is, being one of the interviewees rounded up and questioned by the Mueller force in connection to
well let’s face it probable and nefarious possible links to Russia and collusion charges.
But I can see why the excremental, ruthless but not un-shrewd Bannonite Team Trump would have hired Gordon back in 2016. He’s a nice guy. He is the nice face of the Ugly American that Trump embodies not accidentally crashing around the China cabinet but intentionally, childishly kicking over everything in the cabinet and kicking the glass in for good measure. If Trump is to the second decade of this century what Nixon was in the 70s (and just so we remember, Hunter S Thompson wrote after Nixon died that the world was a better place without him) except worse, JD Gordon is its less offensive charm offensive. A former Navy Commander, he is brisk but not brash, bordering on soft spoken, while maintaining a sense of precise, military assertiveness.
As an AJ event rookie, I was told that this episode was fairly tame; I didn’t think so but then I do marvel in admiration at the gusto of British journalists compared to their powder puff American counterparts tossing each other into the fanged mouth of the sabre-toothed Huckabee Sanders over and over again, and at American audiences who tend to inhale sharply at what British audiences might simply describe as a ‘spirited exchange’. Apparently Hasan later told one of his colleagues that he would have loved to have driven at Gordon harder, but he was ‘just too nice.’
And there is a corn-fed innocence about his ability to stick to the party line and defend Trump or at least refuse to criticise him in any way shape or form even when he clearly did not agree with things he had done or said. JD Gordon and I both grew up in New Jersey, the shoreline of which Trump bled dry in the 80s. Gordon does have that same suburban 7-11 highways and strip malls sort of of charm about him, like he would mow your lawn because, well heck it was just another half an acre next to his anyway.
Make no mistake. I did not admire this innocent appearance and charm. It is dangerous in the kind of conservatism that seems to be the Right’s currency of exchange in today’s political discourse. If we’re charmed by people like this, then maybe Trump’s vile, destructive, cynical ‘straight talkin’ rhetorical doggerel isn’t so bad, right?
It is that bad.
And so much worse.
And I must confess also, JD Gordon did not make Trump look any better in his responses. When confronted by Hasan’s masterfully woven portrait and narrative — and Hasan really is master interviewer — on anything from Trump’s treason, to his dishonesty to his racism, Gordon stuck to a solid stock answer with little variation: this is what the American people voted for. His defence was fairly clumsy. On the racism charge, Gordon’s main defence seemed to be that Trump’s wives were all foreigners and he had praised foreign dictators, so he can’t be racist. Check out me facepalming at 0:15 on this clip.
If he was the smiling, pragmatic, excusing, apologising face of the Trumpernaut to an audience hoping for a pantomime villain spitting lies, incoherent nonsense and uncritical dogma, Marc Porter, president of Republicans Overseas and balancing Al Jazeera’s panel for the night, did not disappoint. Like a braying jackal, howling as though he’d been viscerally wounded, he cried and shrieked at the inconvenience of facts and the way in which dozens of damning quotes said by the king of Twit had been taken out of context, but when called upon, produced nothing of substance to offer as a defence except the unfairness of using the president’s own words against him, which felt as insubstantial as so much cypsela carried away on a late summer breeze. At one point, Porter persistently claimed that Trump’s campaign did collude but that, singing the most popular tune of Fox and Friends, it didn’t matter because collusion was not a crime (I mean treason is but why split hairs?). At another, he hit back against claims that Trump was a sexual predator by firing back ‘Clinton! Clinton! Clinton!’ or something to that effect, neglecting the pesky difference between the words ‘affair’ and ‘assault’.
When it comes round to my opportunity to ask a question, I think again of my parents and rightly or wrongly, note first to JD Gordon and the audience that dear old Mom and Dad voted for Trump and they do care how many lies he tells (not verifiably true, I’m not sure my Dad gives a toss).
But I ask anyway, ‘Why should the world believe in America anymore?’
His answer ranks among the greatest of logic denials I have ever heard from an avowed conservative. Ever. And that’s saying something. That’s a list that includes the following:
— Look, if a human were raised amongst wolves he would not become a socialist.
— You want to save the whales, yet you don’t mind killing babies?!
— ‘But Dad, statistically, Trump tells a lie every five minutes…’
’Yeah? Well Hillary tells a lie every two minutes!’
I don’t know how or why right wingers seem to have this ability to veer so far off topic so quickly and to commit so great a logical fallacy with such wanton abandon, but loath to buck the trend, in response to why the world should still believe in America, Trump’s former security advisor began by thanking my parents for their support (I knew it was a mistake flagging that. Damn!) and then said:
‘Well Pete, all I can say is this is what the American people asked for and this is what they wanted. Get used to more reality TV stars holding high office because it’s going to happen more and more.’
And… that was it.
I stared, dumbfounded, unable to pick my metaphorical jaw up off the floor, knocked by the swift left hook of irrelevance as Hasan moved on to the next question. How can a response be so wrong and so ominous at the same time? Who does JD Gordon have waiting to take office after Trump, the Kardashians? So, what you’re saying is that the world shouldn’t believe in ‘Merica anymore?
It was a riveting evening. I enjoyed seeing Hasan deftly trap Gordon over and over again, but it did feel a little unequal after a while. It’s easy enough for Al Jazeera to hold the first estate to account and assemble a cathedral full of anti-Trump expats and left leaning guardianistas.
It is infinitely more challenging to dethrone the post-truth narrative that looms large over America right now. It won’t be done by carping about the popular vote, but I still think it can be done by people like Bernia Sanders and his ideological successors like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who provide solid hope, instead of a bleak picture full of fear and vitriol. But it won’t be done until we successfully challenge stupid, in all its levels, including the weird dark, Grimm’s fairytale in which Trump rules as buffoonish Goblin King. Until then, we continue to be stunned by incoherence, into incoherence. You have to laugh, really.
To check out the whole episode (and I suggest you do) click here.
It is 11 am. I am at work, up to my eyes in marking and up against the looming apocalyptic shadow of dozen deadlines closing in like ringwraiths.
My phone — which I probably shouldn’t have had so close to me or on which I should have had set self-obsessed book notifications turned off — lights up.
S_____ has tagged you in a post!
‘Dude, do people get really excited over there about a royal having a baby?’
What’s my reaction to a royal having a baby?
I’ve been abroad through a royal wedding, a jubilee celebration (Yaa-aaa-aaay. She’s still alive. And we’re still supporting her. Whooooo) and two royal births and haven’t been bothered enough to send two congratulatory shits as a wedding/Christening gift.
And if that sounds excessive, it is borne of the incredulity of a family, generation upon generation born and born again to abundance and plenty and disconnected from reality, continually supported by tax money and (and) by the tears, sighs and mental and emotional investment of thousands of supposedly thinking and rational individuals worldwide.
It puts me in mind of Woody Harrelson’s journalist character in the decent if a little worthy 1997 cinematic tendenzroman, Welcome to Sarajevo, who jadedly asks his British counterpart, played by Clive Owen, if the top British news stories of the day were indeed about ‘the duke and duchess of Pork, or something?… by the way, your queen… she’s the richest woman in the world, but what does she do?’
The comparison is apt. Sarajevo was getting the bejeezus bombed out of it. Hundreds of innocent Bosnians were dying and the British journalist’s network’s (I’m looking at you BEEB, hmmm?) main story was a royal divorce.
Not even the royal divorce.
Let’s compare for a second.
Right now — at. this. second — a self-obsessed egomaniacal billionaire with the temperament of a trapped wasp, the likeability of a route canal and the vindictiveness of the kid who realises they all only liked him for his expensive toys (because really who has that many GI Joes?) has the power to blow up the planet.
And probably several others.
And a moon.
And just last week, he got bomb happy. Our military dropped $50 million worth of missiles and explosives near to Damascus, killing dozens, but appearing to have resulted in a very expensive, but not bigly effective operation if the goal were to damage Syria’s ability to produce chemical weapons.
I’m not even saying that there is a better solution to Assad or the moral problem about doing nothing while bad things happen to innocent people.
But isn’t a better solution what we should be talking about?
The Republicans have throttled the life out of the country while we’ve been distracted by our own garishly iridescent neon display of pomp and circumstance in an oversized suit. Isn’t it worse to add in someone else’s powerless head of state whose family has also been conferred wealth and power through no legitimate means?
Not so according to statistics and surveys stating that 23 million Americans tuned in to William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011 (okay okay I saw some of it. WTF was that weird gesture she had to make every time he waved to the crowd. Weird). 33 million watched Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. And 3 million US viewers currently salivate over the Netflix period drama, The Crown. One in four Americans has a favorable impression of Prince Charles and that number doubles when asked about Kate and Wills.
We were supposed to reject the monarchy back in 1776, but here we are, two and half centuries later obsessed and distracted by inherited privilege and aristocratic pageantry, both at home and abroad.
But to answer your question, dear compatriots, eh, a little, but only in an uncritical resigned acceptance that someone else has a lot of money and a lot of land at the expense of the rest of society. Then again many of my British friends are republicans (they vote for Trump? Those heartless bastards… hey waaait, obviously republicans here means supporters of a representative republic and an end to the inherited privilege of the monarchy).
And it’s not as though the royals are evil or unlikeable. Is that what we’re jealous of? We don’t mind inherited privilege as long as those with privilege are likeable and marry American movie stars? Prince Charles is a well informed environmentalist and Harry does immense charity work and referees basketball games. In New Jersey. (#Jerseystrong #Jerseyreprezent)
And I know everyone loves a real live fairy tale!
But must we lose our dignity to slavish, peasanty period drama envy? Can’t we acknowledge the validity of an archaic and outdated historical institution without getting our Downton Abbeys in a twist over it? Unless they’re giving us a day off to get squiffy drinking Pimms in the street with our neighbours toasting the royal baby or Harry and Meghan — which they’re not — can we just move on?
Well done to this BBC reporter for doing so, or at least being unfazed.
Just You Wait: Reflections on Hamilton, Founders Chic and the Need for an Example in the post-truth era
There were two types of people in high school in the late 90s: those that screamed and swooned and became haunted with a lost look in their eyes at the mention of Tori bloody Amos (I mean Christ I had friends who wrote flipping research papers about her) with a log-lady like protectiveness, and those that wondered what the fuck they were on about.
I must confess, dear reader, I fell into the latter.
I fell outside the clove-cigarette smoking circle.
I couldn’t tell you y Tori kant read.
And I was never a Cornflake Girl.
Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the beauty of her music; perhaps it’s just envy or frustration that I missed the rapturous mass convrersion to the Church of Tori.
So it goes with most obsessive fads: Harry Potter, Bubble Tea, Christianity.
Blink and you miss the wave and the further it drifts away from you the less fun it seems like to catch.
Which is funny really, because I write to you from inside the Hamilton bubble, that wonderful phenomenon of storytelling that has swept from Broadway to most major American cities and now on to the London stage and that everyone who is anyone seems to be talking about and seems to know everything about.
Except me. I knew almost nothing. I heard vague references to a hip hop musical and Alexander Hamilton, who had always been a footnote in American history books mentioned somewhere in connection with federalist papers (yes, it’s true when they say ‘every other founding father’s story gets told’). And I hadn’t expected much because I’m one of those people who’s just ‘not that into musicals’ (I hated Billy Elliot the musical. Did I mention? Awww look at all the cute Northern miners striking for their very fucking survival! Good job, Elton John for condescending to them and treating them like pixies!)
And this wasn’t some desperate grab for tickets. This wasn’t me entering the Hamilton lottery every day or calling ticketmaster or camping out like I did for Ani DiFranco tickets back in Penn State. This was pure luck. My editor at The American happened to be unable to go and so he offered it up to me. On the night my mother-in-law was landing from Dublin for Christmas.
I ask you not to judge me for choosing Hamilton.
I wish I could buck the trend and say it didn’t live up to the hype.
‘Well,’ my brother intoned to me skeptically over facenet with digitally raised eyebrows, a couple days after I had seen the show, ‘I hope it’s more than just… gushing praise.’
I mean it was articulate gushing praise.
My younger sibling was worried that I had not caught on to the trend of Founders chic, the celebration and the cool rebranding of our anglophile, landowning, manipulative power hungry founding fathers and the backlash against said trend. He was right. I hadn’t been all that aware that John Adams had been made cool again or that all the kids were pejoratively referring to their worst enemies in the playground as lobsterbacks.
And I get the point. I really do. We spent the first couple hundred years setting up these white men indignant at having less privilege than their British counterparts as Gods. And I know it’s not as simple as that, but it’s also not that much more complicated. George never came clean about the cherry tree. He never chopped down the cherry tree. It was a myth invented by Washington’s first biographer. Draw what conclusions you will but that tells you a lot more about our national character and our unquestioning belief in the deified founding fathers than any account of our first commander-in-chief’s life and times.
But is re-interpreting Hamilton’s life as an inspirational tale of an American grafter overcoming adversity by pulling himself up by his bootstraps really dangerous? As a former History major and a former teacher of History, I can sympathise (see above for my irreverence and unquestioning acknowledgement of our ‘founding fathers” non-greatness and flawed humanity) with the frustrated historians who see it that way. After all, I refused to shell out to see The Iron Lady in 2011 because I’m not going to financially support anything that humanises a woman who would gladly see her fellow MPs die on Hunger Strike and question their virility before she would negotiate for their rights as prisoners of war. To be sure, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill looks compelling but I’m deeply skeptical of the perpetual lionisation of prime minister who changed parties twice and didn’t really know what to do without a war to get him up and going in the morning (or midday… or whenever he slept off the previous night’s whiskey as it were).
But here’s the thing. Because Hamilton includes references to history does not mean it is to be taken as a History Lesson. It is fiction. A compelling story. But no more an attempt at a factual historical account than Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most compelling portraits of witty, villainous, despotism in which the bard, according to many frustrated British historians, greatly maligned the last Plantagenet.
And I’m not going to repeat the obvious arguments in greater detail than has already been outlined with greater eloquence than I could accomplish here (that hip hop subverts the white elitism that was the currency of Hamilton and Washington’s era and forces us to reflect on it with fresh eyes, that Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians playing historical figures who would have been exclusively white also challenges us to a process of cognitive reevaluation of the way we perceive our history).
What I will say is that we need Hamilton as a story and as a national mirror of who we are, and we need its critics every bit as much. We need Hamilton for reasons that neither Lin Manuel-Miranda nor anyone else could have anticipated back when the show opened in 2015, that its jibes at major political leaders would seem so much more poignant now than they did then. That we would suffer such a paucity of leadership that James Comey would join the ranks of bestseller authors by building a case several hundred pages long about the poverty of leadership from which we as a nation currently suffer. And we also need Hamilton because one of its very true facts: that unlike some of our current and recent political leaders, Hamilton came clean about his sexual misdeeds. He faced up and ‘overwhelmed them with honesty.’ He showed us how to handle a scandal. It may have circumscribed his political ambitions, but at least he was honest.
So read Hamilton‘s critics. Get to know them. Understand them. If this magically inspiring historical musical that is as American the spirit of protest that allows us to use our greatest words to protest through historical analysis, and to be inspired by an engaging narrative about energy, ambition and drive, then more power to it.
‘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.