‘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.
“Isn’t this so exciting?” I am giddy.
We are at the BBC Studios in London for a Radio 4 recording. Radio 4 recordings rank among my favorite things to do in London (that and listening to Radio 4 in the morning while thinking snooty thoughts about all the other commuters on the train, but that is a different blog post). It keeps the “entertainment” budget down and is always a blast.
I am whispering in the hushed tones of a sweaty palmed schoolgirl about to meet Harry Styles. As it happens, I am not about to meet Harry Styles. I am about to meet David Sedaris, author of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and When You Are Engulfed In Flames as well as many other canonical classics. He is my expat writing idol. We are here to watch him record another series of readings for the BEEB’s next season of Meet David Sedaris. Initially excited at the prospect of having my favorite book of his, Me Talk Pretty One Day, signed by the man himself, I could now feel my nerves gathering. We had arrived so early that our timing bordered on unfashionable; such was our fear that we’d be turned away because of Sedaris’ popularity.
I had also expected the book signing to be afterwards in some chaotic rush waiting at the “stage door” like some stadium rock concert. Contrary to this, when the kind employees of the BBC usher us in, we are given a choice: directly into the theatre to the right or the line to the left if you have anything you want signed. And there, sitting behind a modest table and chatting affably to attendees who had brought books to sign was David Sedaris, smiling broadly as though his favorite thing to do of a Sunday afternoon was to shoot the breeze with his readers and sign autographs. I get to meet him sooner than I expected, I think, but what will I say? I haven’t even had time to come up with anything witty or even competent.
Further adding to my discombobulation is the man in front of us in the line, who is (some might say selfishly) squeezing as many precious moments of time as he could out of his encounter. “So sorry about this,” he says. “I’ve brought these for my book club.” He piles onto the table six thick volumes that might as well be The Collected Works of David Sedaris. I do hope the book club appreciate the effort, I think to myself. And the time.
“That’s okay,” David reassures, “Nobody minds.” His kindly eyes look sincere, but I’m not sure he means it. I raise my eyebrows to the missus, who looks at me admonishingly.
Book Club Man walks into the theatre door, his volumes bulging from his rucksack.
It’s our turn.
“Hey, we’re both wearing corduroy jackets! What do you think of that?” Already Sedaris has thrown me a curveball by remarking on our sartorial similarities.
“Quite. A. Co-inc-i-Denice?” I say, standing smiling stupidly, frozen in headlights. Uncharactieristically, I find myself a bit starstruck. The man is making polite conversation and I am acting like he’s thrown a mind-clearing zen riddle at me. Plus, my voice sounds a half octave higher than it should. Whether it’s to match Sedaris’ own high-pitched strain or anxiety, I’m not sure. I cast around mentally for a response to redeem myself and my mother-in-law’s favorite aphorism about how, “great minds think alike… And fools seldom differ!” comes to mind, but I discard it since it sounds just as foolish as what I’ve already said, which is not much.
Irish people generally and large numbers of Britons pride themselves on passing celebrities in the street with casual indifference. It’s one of the reasons why artists and musicians love spending time in Ireland (that and they pay no income tax). One Irishman famously refused to vacate an elevator for President Clinton’s visit to the Guiness Brewery in Dublin uttering, “Sure, who’s he that I should have to move for the likes of him?”
It’s one of the nicer qualities I thought I had acquired having lived over twelve years with an Irish person. According to my Irish wife, we have passed British actress Denise Van Outen, Spice Girl Gerri Halliwell, and no less a demigod of Broadway and The West End than Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber (yes, he is a lord, lil’ crazy, huh?) in the streets of this fair metropolis. They could be nobodies or (worse yet) anonymous estate agents for all the notice I took of them at the time. In fact the only thing that strikes me as memorable about any of those encounters is the way Paula gleefully observed how plain Denise Van Outen looked, which, apparently, “just goes to show it’s all makeup and airbrushing.”
Still, for all my celebrity nonchalance, here I was in front of David Sedaris, a man whose writing I found both riotously funny and also felt deeply “connected” to, amusing and poignant at times in equal measure, standing. Mute. Smiling like the village idiot.
I’m from Pennsylvania.
I’ve seen a lot of village idiots.
“We would like you to inscribe it to our son,” we manage to tell him before I go dumbstruck. “He’s six, so of course your writing is entirely inappropriate for him now, but we’re sure he’ll appreciate it when he’s older.”
“Any other children?”
“No, just the one.”
“Well, you’re going to have another one in 2015,” Sedaris confidently predicts. “The ultrasound will say it’s a girl, but it will actually be a boy, and although he will have an incredibly small penis, he’ll get on really well in life, great personality, wonderfully talented and you’ll name him… Congressman! Yes, you’ll name him Congressman.” I have to admit, at least until halfway through, he had us with his predictive powers, and now he has us and the rest of the line of attendees waiting for autographs in tears laughing. You either appreciate David Sedaris’ sense of humor or you don’t, like the marmite of memoir funny men. Paula jokes with him about how our son is half-American and how we were once told by American Embassy staff that he could be president legally if he wanted to. “or Congressman!” quips Sedaris. “Or Congressman!” repeats Paula, who seems to suffer from no similar case of starststruckness.
I am reminded of the time when I was 15 and I stalked Michael Stipe for three blocks down South Street in Philly, my friends reluctantly in tow, to finally follow him into the since closed Rhino Cafe, shake his hand and tell him what a great inspiration his music was and would always be to me. Yet here I stand before an eloquent and witty writer in a state of paralysis.
Sedaris gives us our signed copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, we thank him, and we walk into the theatre. As we sit at the back with Paula still raving about how funny and strange he is at the same time, I half- distractedly open the book and read the inscription:
I knew your parents when they were young.
Well played, Mr Sedaris. Well played indeed.
“Ah well,” I sigh. “I wanted to say so much to him.” And it’s true. I did.
“Oh, Pete,” Paula says with effortless condescension. “Probably best that you didn’t.”
The lights dim, the producer announces the show, I sit back, resigned to the fact that she is probably right.
– – – – –
If you’ve never read David Sedaris’ writing before, do get your hands on some of his stuff, post-haste. I heartily recommend Me Talk Pretty One Day, a book that has caused me to utter embarrassingly loud guffaws on the train. By myself.
And if you are in London or indeed anywhere in the UK for any extended period of time, get yourself on the BBC mailing list for free tickets to live recordings. They’re bags of fun and they’re free!
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 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.
|The Dolly with The Trolley (image taken from http://www.awaycity.com)|
|Grand Canal Dock Basin, fisheye view|
|Image taken from http://www.coffeyfilter.com|