Category Archives: heritage sort of

Now, We Fight Back

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Photo by @pollyjohughes (dissembledesign.com)

7/7. The Opening Ceremony of The Olympics. Marching in The Women’s March on Saturday. Recalled moments in which I have felt a welling sense of pride in my adopted city.

They say that the arts thrive in times of intense uncertainty and pressure. I believe it true of progressivism as well. That we will become stronger through having our beliefs tested to the utter limits over the next four years I do not doubt. Though unwelcome, I wonder if the left perhaps needs this in order to sort ourselves out and pick more exciting candidates that act as beacons of moral leadership.

Whatever the sinister circumstances that brought us together over the weekend, let us not let it break us apart in the trying times ahead. Let us counter every one of Trump’s utterances of moral depravity with fierce, fierce love and unity. Let us counter his cynical, insidious narrative, every time.

Highlights of the day: a dog walking around with a sign on its back that said: ‘Even I wouldn’t grab a pussy,’ having to explain the course connotations of the word ‘pussy’ to my ten year old (Thanks, Mr President!) because it just became inevitable, and the eloquence of those present on the day, including Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, whose speech was moving and who spoke with conviction about the murdered Pro EU MP Jo Cox:

“We are marching because a talented woman MP was murdered by a far-right extremist and we need to call it out as the terrorism it is. And we are not just marching – we’re … standing up to the misogynists, the bullies and the haters who try to intimidate and silence people online, just as for years they tried to intimidate or silence women on the street.

“We are here because we want to take a stand against Donald Trump. Millions of American women and men voted for him. Marching isn’t enough – we need to persuade, to win arguments, to challenge the causes of division and to build a future in common. For the sake of our children and grandchildren … we are here because we will not let the clock be turned back.” (Reprinted from guardian.co.uk)

Thank you, London, as so many of the placards on Saturday said, we shall overcomb.

Food > Everyfing Else: Eating My Way Through Brixton

Kaff Bar Brixton

Sizzling Hot Creole Sharing Platter at The Kaff Bar in Brixton

Alas, I was a marked man from the start.

“Now, you’re the vegetarian, aren’t you?” says our gracious and knowledgeable host, Penelope, as our tour of Foodie Brixton begins.

I look around, hoping she’s pointing to someone else and I can chime in with, “Oh, that’s me too, I’m veggie too!” in about 30 seconds.

Nope. It’s me she’s pointing at. I’m the only one.

“Yes… I’m vegetarian,” I concede.

“Do you eat fish?” says our other equally gracious and knowledgeable host, Lindsay, hopefully.

“Eh… no.” Sorry. The short tour, then?

“Perfect!” they both say, smiling congenially, assuring me, “there are plenty of veggie options!” while I wonder if the other tour participants are looking askance at me and wondering how such a creature can exist amidst a London so enthralled in the hipness of toe-to-tail chic.

Thankfully, and perhaps surprisingly, from this, somewhat inauspicious beginning, grew a culinarily magnificent experience walking and tasting south of the river on a splendidly soaking Saturday afternoon hosted by the superlative walking tours company, Fox And Squirrel Walks.

Elsa Ethiopian Coffee Brixton

An Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony hosted by Elsa

Founded by London enthusiast Penelope Sacorafou, Fox and Squirrel have been providing quirky, bespoke tours around the metropolis for three years now, garnering the acclaim of ‘best guided walks’ from The Guardian. High praise indeed. And deserving. Slight blips concerning herbivorous lifestyles aside, the walk is an awesome experience, one that left me feeling both full, amazed, well-informed, and a little politically engaged with the local goings on concerning this historic part of the capital, due in no small part to the fact that Fox and Squirrel have worked really hard to establish excellent rapport with the locals and newbie restauranteurs and other business owners of Brixton Market.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Frankincense, olfactorily enchanting…

Locals like Elsa and her husband Mo, who own The Shawl cafe and hold Ethiopian coffee ceremonies just across the way on Brixton Station Road. I felt like a bit of a cheat having taken part in this East African ritual before at Asmara of Coldharbour Lane, but felt refreshed with all the history surrounding it. The ginger in the coffee was a surprisingly beautiful flavour, warming the cockles amidst the cold, slate grey of the dullish morning on which the excursion took place.

Ethiopian coffee

Mmmm. Ethiopian coffee. Beats yer average tax-dodging chain any day of the week…

A sharing platter atop a bed of spongy injera bread followed the coffee. If you had asked me ten years ago if I would have guessed that the cuisine of Ethiopia could be mind-blowingly delicious, I would have scoffed heartily, but the beauty of being an expatriate is discovery and thanks to some delightful experiences on both sides of the pond, I now know the error of my ways. The joyfully tactile experience of tearing a swather of injera and scooping some moreishly berbere seasoned lamb, lentil or spinach, was bliss.

Ethiopian Food Brixton

Oh, injera.

A quick swill of some vino verde and down Pope Row to family owned Brixton institution Las Americas Cafeterias, where we were afforded the opportunity to sample the uniquely Colombian Lechona, a whole hog (no literally, and yes, I did enjoy just writing that), crisped and stuffed with vegetables, beans and meat and slow-cooked.

Lechona Colombia

Lechona con salsa

Lechona Colombia Brixton

More Lechona, with cracking crackling. Crisp, delish, perfection, a carnivorous paradise…

Impressive still were the time-consuming lengths to which Penelope and Food Journalist guide Lindsay Faller went to cater to my tastes, requesting an order of arepa, the cheesy, cornmealish Colombian cousin to the tortilla and tailor made to hold the cafe’s dynamite salsa. Latin American comfort food at its best.

Arepas Colombia Food Brixton

Arepas, tasty y vegetariano.

Imbibing was the next order of business from local newcomers to London’s handcrafted brew scene, The Brixton Brewery, where we were given an intriguing crash course in the brewing process before tasting libations that would give any of Hackney’s half-dozen microbreweries a serious run for their money. NB: Brixton Brewery names its beers for the local area and the design for their brand is taken from the African influence on Brixton. Ah how I wished to linger and continue, lotus-eater like to lazily sample more of the Effra Ale.

Brixton Brewery

One of the tiniest microbreweries in London, under the arches in Brixton

Brixton Brewery

Makes be hoppy. Electric Pale Ale, named so for the avenue of the same name.

On to the market proper and Brian Danclair’s Fish Wings and Tings, and a colourful palate of Trinidadian flavours in a lively corner of Brixton. One critic has called Paul’s exquisitely flavoured codfish fritters, ‘like a high five from Jesus,’ and his rotis were equally flavoured to perfection, one goat and one pumpkin, perfect parcels of glee-inducing yum.

Codfish Fritters

‘A high five from Jesus’ I Be-LIEVE!

Fish wings and tings

The surprisingly perfect accompaniment to Fish Wings and Tings food

Brixton Market

The warmth of the market hall on a cold wet day

Pumpkin Roti

Perfect Parcel of Pumpkin Roti

Goat Roti

And the goat roti, omnivorous feasting.

And for dessert? Gelato that injects new vim and vigour into the trendified flavour of salted caramel at Lab G.

Lab G Brixton Market

Pure Creamy euphoria… Lab G

Hustle and Bustle

Hustle and Bustle

Brixton Market

Fusion of Cultures

Brixton Market

Fruits and veg of the market

I can’t say enough good things about the Fox and Squirrel foodie tour. I’ve had enough fun and  built up enough of an appetite reliving it while writing this blog post. My fear is that I’ve said too much, but, as they say, the joy is in the eating. I will say though that it is a far more unique walking tour, its guides more frank in their opinions, wittier in their banter, and far more inclined to specially cater to the whims and requirements of a particular group  than your average London walking tour, making eating your way through Brixton with them well worth the time and the cover price. Easily the best walking tour of London I’ve been on, even if I’m pretty sure there was some shredded pork in that last quesadilla (I’m also quite sure the tenderness will delight the majority of readers).

Hot Ginger Beer from The Kaff Bar

Hot Ginger Beer from The Kaff Bar

Reflections on Sandy II: Fables of The Reconstruction

Sandy Castle

Photo by Samm Bury

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Sandy Castle, a living monument to the indomitability of spirit of my runtish home state of New Jersey.

I’m a little late with posting this, given that we marked Hurricane Sandy’s one year anniversary a couple weeks ago. I posted then about the devastation that I bore witness to when I visited my cousin over the summer. The tone, overall, was somber and reverential, which was right and appropriate.

But there are and have been some amazing efforts made by Jerseyans to rebuild a vibrant area. Sandy Castle is one that I have seen developing since Spring, when Ed Jarrett, Guiness record holding sand sculptor got in touch with his friend, Jersey resident Alan Fumo, and decided to try to break his own record for the world’s tallest sandcastle, all proceeds going to Hometown Heroes, a group providing aid to those who suffered and continue to suffer in the recovery from the storm.

The local communities around the area of Point Pleasant really got behind the effort. And with a symbol so iconically evocative of childhood memories of the Jersey shore, sitting sandy toed and smiling by ends of the waves, building great edifices with turrets and spires and great big windows to the imagination, who couldn’t get behind the Sandy Castle project?

Jarrett pooled his “labor” from local district schools, with whole crews of children sweating it out in the sun (with regular air-conditioned breaks of course), dedicated to raising up the world’s tallest sand castle. Two of those laboring volunteers were second cousins of mine, Ian and Sean, who we had the privilege of having as our guides to Sandy Castle when we visited in August.

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Sandy Castle: The Prototype

We saw Sandy Castle on our annual summer pilgrimage to the homeland, recollections of which often feature on this blog. After my cousin took us on a drive through the barrier island route, on which I bore witness to the destruction wrought by the terrible force that was Sandy, it restored my faith to take an old times’ sake walk on the boardwalk and to see this tribute to community spirit in a very much reconstructed and revived Point Pleasant Beach.

I know, I have often waxed lyrical about a misty eyed childhood spent loitering in places like Lucky Leo’s arcade wildly chucking skeeballs towards a target in hopes of winning tickets that would lead to brightly colored tat; or traversing the circuit of the old Waterworks theme park, down waterslides, floating endlessly in inner tubes on the lazy river, back up a slippery ladder I would pull my prepubescent self and back down the waterslides to start the whole perpetual cycle of waterlogged joy. But that’s because there are parts of Jersey that do hold that magic, that aura, are the seat of many a nostalgic treasure.

So it was gladdening to take my own son, with his older cousins, to this seat of nostalgia and to share with him, like the passing of a generational torch, the glories of the boardwalk. Not sure at first how he would react, being six, up past his bedtime, and not often on even mild roller coaster, we set him loose with his tickets to ride, his older cousins, and fun and merriment all around. Alighting from an airplane themed ride that swung him round at a gentle pace and allowed him to control the plane’s ascent or descent by a few feet either way with a throttle, he looked around at us, dumbfounded and inscrutable. Was he about to cry? Was he confused, nauseous, angry? None of the above as it turned out when the corners of his mouth surged upwards in a grin, his eyes widened and he crowed, “That. Was. Awe-some!”

Sean and Frey Point Pleasant

Bright lights, big boardwalk

My son had been baptised unto the boardwalk. The torch was passed.

On to Sandy Castle and a friendly greeting from Ed Jarrett, but the grand tour from my cousin’s husband and sons who toiled away helping Jarrett to build Sandy Castle. The first attempt to break his own record, which appears second in this post, was still up when we were visiting, complete with a list of items including flags, fish, gargoyles and other assorted castle ornamentations to sought out by visitors. Ed Jarrett’s first attempt crumbled slightly below the record mark after an unfortunate visit from some vehicles combing the beach and a special visit from Mr Obama who was keenly interested in Mr. Jarrett’s work. Like the shore itself though, Sandy Castle rebuilt, rising phoenix-like from the ashes to stand tall.

Sandy Gargoyle

Sandy Gargoyle

Sandy Castle at Night

Sandy Castle by the light of the moon

Sandy Castle explored, other traditions were to be kept. We taught my son the fine art of skeeball, pastime of kings. I learned, finally, that the joy is in the playing of the game, not in the prizes, which are always cheap and tatty unless you are a world champion skeeballer (I’m pretty close I’m sure. I need practice). Alas, he is too young yet for that lesson and there is joy in acquiring tokens for tickets for prizes.

Frey Skeeball

The Glorious Game

And so the witching hour came and so concluded our time in this idyllic cradle of neon for another year. My heart was lifted though, with the notion that the shore would survive, thrive, and create new memories for us for years to come, and that Sandy Castle stood as testament to it.

Sandy Castle

Standing against the wind. Photo by Samm Bury

Remember, Remember…

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Image taken from englishisallaround.blogspot.com

…The 5th of November. That’s the rhyme that the English use to get schoolchildren to remember that great precedent-setting event of Great Brrritish history: the foiling of a terrorist plot. That’s right. Guy Fawkes celebrates the war on terror, four hundred years old and still going strong.

Okay, okay. It doesn’t just celebrate the foiling of a terrorist plot.

It also celebrates burning Catholics.

So, get your marshmallows out. The fam and I made it out to a community celebration on Saturday to watch some fireworks lit off and what can I say? It was festive, as a lot of these celebrations are nowadays — no longer indelibly connected with morbid origins, they’re now just about getting together with your neighbour, reconnecting and lighting off some pyrotechnic displays, a bit like on the 4th of July, which, by the by, this is the closest the British have to, with mulled wine and flasks of coffee instead of brewskies and hot dogs.

If you’re still confused about what Guy Fawkes Day actually celebrates, have a look at the video below. It’s wildly hilarious and explains the occasion quite concisely while raising some interesting points of comparison with our contemporary political climate.

Enjoy that? Good. As you know from my last post, I’m doing Movember again this year. I’ve already raised £30 because of some very generous donations so far, but I’d like to hit £100 this week. Please click on the link below and donate a fiver to raising awareness of men’s health issues and to the greatness of my tache (it will be great by the end of the month, I tell you). Thanks!

Pete Lawler’s Movember Space 2013 (Click and Give. Make a Difference)

Still Missing Pieces: Sandy and The Shore, A Year On…

Hurricane Damage Sandy

Damage wrought by Sandy. Photo by Diane Hoffman

Our first stop is Bay Head. To shore ourselves up for the journey (the pun is entirely unintentional).

Before we had touched down in Newark for our annual summer sojourn to reconnect with the homeland, my cousin Samm — who lives in Ocean County, in the middle of where Sandy made landfall last year — and I had notionally talked about taking a drive down “The Barrier Island Route,” that stretch of road that traverses at least half of the narrow twenty mile long Barnegat Barrier Peninsula separating the bay from the Atlantic Ocean. Wikipedia calls it a “summer colony.” As a child, I only ever referred to it as Normandy Beach (one of the communities along the coastal line of the island) or more often, “Nana’s house.”

It felt like something I should do, something meaningful. I felt like I had lived a lot of important childhood moments there, a lot of growing up, a lot of sandcastle building, swinging, tag playing with waves, sitting by my Nana’s side for beach card games (they use elastic bands to make the cards stay in place. trust me. it works), secret passage exploring and boogie-boarding, ice-cream cone eating and crabbing, running against the wind of the sea with carefree, reckless abandon. I had not seen this place around which so many innocent and misty eyed memories were centered since the previous summer, before it had been ravaged by Superstorm Sandy.

Normandy Beach after Sandy

Normandy Beach, the town where my grandmother used to live. Photo by Diane Hoffman

It felt like something  that would illuminate for me this cloudy shroud of mystery that obscured a significant part of the world for me, that I’d only seen in news reports or in photo albums on Facebook by those determined that people should see and know. Having not been there and having felt powerless and remote, I wanted to hear the echoes of the past, as close to when and where they happened as possible. I suppose I wanted things to have changed as little as possible. I wanted the stories of men and women who worked for emergency services, army engineers, firefighters, paramedics who had risked their lives, people whose homes had been literally shaken to the ground and whose lives and community has been rent into shreds; I think I wanted those stories to be the exception and perhaps even a slight exaggeration.

I suppose I wanted some sense of closure.

Normandy Beach Superstorm Sandy

Infinite Nature. Photo by Diane Hoffman

But now that it came to it, now that we were in Mueller’s Bakery in Bay Head, about to embark on our journey, I must confess, I’m feeling a little nervous. Unsure of what lies ahead, I see that Mueller’s has put up photos, one of the town of Bay Head, completely submerged. So. No exaggeration. No sensationalism in the disaster movie-like footage from Sandy. This was real.

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Houses. In the street. Photo by Diane Hoffman

Nothing prepares me for the island though. We pass plot after plot, some with gaping holes, some half-way in the process of reconstruction, some with warning tape stretching round them, some with barely skeletal foundations and a “for sale” sign added with bitter irony. A stunning landscape in which pieces have fallen away, as from a jigsaw, leaving gaping holes in my memory and the horizon. Where once it felt thriving and joyful, as we pass Mantoloking and Chadwick, finally slowing in Normandy Beach, things seem desolate and abandoned. We come to a stop on fifth avenue, a minute away from the bay where a swingset has succumbed to being tossed forever into the depths and the roads have recently been flooded. The place seems strangely calm. Houses seemed oddly together. Things have been reconstructed. Just. We sit with the engine idling in front of what used to be my grandmother’s house,  sold years ago, and yet, still the psychological space of all those precious moments, still the heart of this area for me. My cousin and I pass commentary here and there on little differences, adjustments the current owners have made. The car settles into reflective silence. I turn to my son, sitting in the back and say, “Do you see that? That’s the house where your great-grandmother used to live.”

I think he tries to accept this knowledge with gravity before sighing heavily and saying, “Can we go to a park now?”

I laugh. We laugh. Gladly. If Jersey is reconstructing, it is to preserve that childlike innocence and joy of life, and to create space for new memories, new precious moments, new joys. In our Jerseyan “Spirit of the Blitz”, our steely eyed determination to rebuild, we rebuild so that our children can once again associate the shore with the kind of memories that make us treasure it so dearly in our hearts.

The Famed. The Crumbcake. Mueller's. From Fema's website.

The Famed. The Crumbcake. Mueller’s. From Fema’s website.

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There are still many suffering the after effects of reconstruction or the inability to make efforts towards it. I rounded up a few stories about it here, an invitation here, and something here about the frustration individuals still feel in rebuilding, including the lovely and generous lady who provided the photographs for this post, Diane Hoffman, my grandmother’s neighbour for all those years when I was a slip of a youth, enjoying the seaside, and who only this week, a year after their storm savaged house blew away, are getting occupancy certificates.

And a special thank you to my cousin Samm, who I have mentioned before in connection with helping the recovery effort through Backpacks for Brick, for putting the APB out for photos.

Technicolor Americans: Imitations of Us

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“How can you be American and have got away this long without seeing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?”

We are in the pub for the Great British tradition of The Sunday Roast. My friend S is incredulous. She has certain criteria that must be met by her Americans.

“Well, he’s not really American, is he?” My friend P “wittily” retorts.

Oh, touché. I do my best to stretch my face into indignation. It’s no good. I’m used to my muddled accent and my “Europeanism” attracting similar commentary. I’m a mutt by lifestyle now as well as birthright.

S is technically correct. Earlier in the week, I had been to see Seven Brides in The New Wimbledon Theatre in order to review it for The American Magazine. I had never heard of it, despite its unflinching, cliché-embracing Americanness. I had received the email from my editor, seen “press tickets” in the body of the missive, thought: opportunity, and replied in the affirmative.

I didn’t think it was going to be a musical. I thought it was possibly some mythical magical realist piece (seven repeated in the title?) or some Kung Fu romance (there is a lot of avant garde theater in London).

I was right about the mythologism, well, half-right. It is based on the Roman story of “The Sabine Women,” in which the early Romans abduct women from the neighboring tribe, the Sabines in order to marry them and propagate the species. The story was rewritten as a Twain-esque parody called “The Sobbin’ Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet. From there, it was made by MGM into a movie musical in the heyday of movie musicals, fated to become one of the most beloved films of its kind of all time.

Except by me of course, since I’d never heard of it. That, and I tend to hate musicals.

I can’t stress this last point enough. In order to give you some sense of scale, I hated Billy Elliott. With a passion. I despised it for two hours while my wife and our friend, A, sat spellbound in a West End Theatre marvelling from expensive seats, open-mouthed with amazement at the gravity-defying feats of acrobatic excellence taking place on stage while I kept thinking: this is Elton John’s way of getting us all under one roof to say, “Aw, look at the cutesy wootsy working cwass! They’re soooo adawable! The way they dance away their pwoblems with idiotic gwins! I love love love it! Le Sigh.” Pass. The. Bucket. I think the film was a masterpiece, but the stage show does its best to trivialise the struggles of the miners and the main character himself, captured with such beautiful conviction in the film.

So, not generally a musical guy. Which is why Seven Brides took some getting used to.

Because once you realised that Adam Pontipee was an unreconstructed Davy Crockett lookalike with a barely post magnon attitude towards women, who was only slightly more well-rounded and modified by curtain call, and further realised that the denouement of the whole narrative involves Adam’s “sassy” wife Milly finding his overt sexism really rather charming (bless his beautiful hide), you begin to wonder what there is to like about these rustic types. Suffice to say the two principle characters were not what held my interest in the end. No, I ended up enjoying myself in spite of myself and them.

Why? Because it is with the entrance of the seven brothers of the title that this big musical comes alive and is injected with some much needed vim. For it is their civilising, their reformation, and the edges that are left of them after that process of transformation that generates real interest in this story; the brothers on stage form a solid rousing chorus of toe-tapping unity, solidarity and at times, lament, that feels attractive, that envelopes you and lifts you along on a tide of rhythm and country charm.

And this brings me nicely and perhaps metaphorically back to national types. As I watched the brothers, I wasn’t convinced by their accents — which were inconsistent and sometimes pure Punch Magazine caricature — but by the flavo(u)r of their sentiments. I realised that the directors had made no attempt at authenticity or nuance in depicting America. This dancing, leaping pinwheel of colo(u)r is not really what the British think we are. This is what the world is nostalgic for and really want us to be: swaggering, confident, sometimes foolish, unerringly optimistic and larger than life in vibrant technicolo(u)r.

Seven Brides The American

You’re scandalized, aren’t you?

I stress, the West is not part of who I am as an ill traveled tristate boy, but this show made me wish that it was. There is still a mythical hold the American West has over the imagination, a place where one can still go to seize some space of one’s own, whether real or of the mind, and reinvent oneself as a prospecting, prosperous go getter, a rugged individualist with initiative, with getup and with gumption!

I’ve seen Seven Brides now. I can tick it off my cultural heritage list. And there are many beyond our shores who know enough to look past the stereotypes, and know that we are a diverse people full of cultural richness and intellectual depth. Although I’m critical of my country, it is because I love where I am from. Unlike Michael Moore, it personally annoys me when Americans blithely dismiss their compatriots in favour of a misty-eyed romanticisation of Europeans as though they are somehow innately better (just more civilised, that’s all). Nothing could be more false.

I will confess that I don’t always, as a Canadian friend recently put it, “give good American.” Upon my first meeting with my late grandmother-in-law in Dublin, her first comment to my wife-to-be once I’d left the room was, “Very quiet… for an American. Very quiet.”  And it is probably important to bear in mind after the humbling last few weeks in which we’ve become the stereotypical belligerently drunk American frat boy at war with ourselves and unable to do anything productive or function stumbling around in our own corrosive bitterness exposing the very worst of ourselves, our partisanship, our literal mindedness, our refusal to see the wood from the trees, our insularity, that of the national stereotypes there is to choose from — Hollywood’s walk-on English baddie (preferably Alan Rickman), the stage Irish drunk, the humourless German hun, the snooty Frenchman — you could do worse than the uncouth American frontiersman, staring down the elements and adversity, still offering something to the stage that is the world and open to new possibilities and to change.

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Theatre: The Code of The West

The Code of The West

Zoe Teverson, David Janson, and Stephen Cavanagh in The Code of The West

‘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

 

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Blatantly Islamophobic $#*! My Dad Says

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Image taken from americanprogress.org

“Do ya ever see any of those Muslims in London?”

We are sitting on my parents’ back deck. We have settled in for a warm and pleasant evening of beer, nibbles, and mildly racist banter by the pungent flicker of the citronella candle.

I know my father too well to think he is joking, but I am still blindsided by the brick bluntness of his solid granite wall of insularity that you would be hard pushed to surmount. He says “Muslims” like Jaques Cousteau would if he were talking about some rare multicellular organism found only in the deepest and most uninhabitable depths. I imagine the nature programs in my Dad’s head run as follows: “And here we have the rare and vicious Muslimus Britannicus Arabius Londinius, commonly referred to as the English Brown Muslim; not to be confused with its American cousin even though both depend on a parasitic relationship with other mammals in their environment.”

“Um…” I begin. How does one answer a question such as this? Have I ever seen any Muslims in the great and sprawling metropolitan capital of England and seat of governance of Great Britain? Do you ever see any Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Scientologists, Hardcore Zionists, Liberation Theologists, Dawkinsists, Seventh Day Adventists, Seventh Seal the movie fan clubbists, card-carrying Communists, frustrated Agnostics, Gnostic Christians, Coptic Christians, Eastern Orthodox mystics, Papal Cannibals, austere Protestant, tee totalling Northern Calvinists? Why not? Why not, damn it? Why can’t they all walk around with neon signs atop their heads and big brands burned into their foreheads from when they were all branded like sheep into their respective pens?

“Well…” I begin. “I’ve worked with Muslims. I’ve worked for Muslims and I’ve taught Muslims. In fact, one of my best students is called Hamza.” Thought my parents would like that last one in particular given all the trouble-making, freedom-hating, headline-hogging Hamzas that always seem to make it into the news here in the UK.

Plus, it’s just like saying, “I don’t roll like that, man. I’ve got plenty of Muslim friends.”

My Mom sees my liberal positioning and raises me a casual-racism, “well, I guess if he’s studying he can’t be making bombs at night.”

What?

Really?

Really?

My face must look a bit like I’ve been handbagged by the old one-two from Ma and Pa American Londoner because my mother – not widely known for her awareness of the jarring abnormality of her worldview shrugs as if to say, “What’s your problem, mister? I’m just proclaiming the gospel of Regressive Thinkers of America and saying out loud what every other American is afraid to say.”

And it is possible (just possible) that my father’s question and my mother’s ponderous observation are entirely innocent. It is possible that I’ve been spoiled by the tolerant melting pot that is London. It is entirely possible that you can live atop a mountain with nothing but Fox to watch, pretzels and chips to eat, and racist neighbo(u)rs with which to “exchange views” to quite innocently hate Muslims. In the same way you might hate really evil aliens. Or zombies (though what with zombie chic I don’t see how you could) that are hungry for brains.

I should disclaim at this point that my father is a generous man, my mother a kind and nurturing woman. These thoughts seem to happily settle themselves and thrive like fungus in amongst the sweetest and sunniest of dispositions. My Dad is as innocent and sometimes as unintentionally funny as Archie Bunker (British Translation = Alf Garnet).

Archie Bunker

As harmless as a friendly racist with a vote. Image taken from Wikipedia

And let’s face it. Before 9/11, my parents probably didn’t know what a Muslim was beyond some vague notions of a hate figure in Iran. In fact, they probably couldn’t rightly tell you what a Muslim is now (I have called my father out for insisting he’d seen “them” running around town “in their turbans”). No more than I could have told you what a Communist was when I was seven and taught to hate them. No more than children can stand up and swear allegiance to a piece of cloth (oh alright) symbol before they know what “allegiance” means.

It’s a simple thing to hate something you know little about and that doesn’t enter your sphere of existence from day to day. Pennsylvania has often been ranked number one for hate groups even with a low population of racial minorities. Draw what you may from that.

I’m not sure I can call my parents, as one kind reader wrote to me this week, “friendly racists… who mean no harm,” as they do seem to mean harm to all those who “hate freedom”, whatever that means. I’ve not met such an individual after nearly a decade in London. But what does scare me is that they are not harmless. They’ve got great big weapons: one vote a piece and plenty who think like them.

Beware America. Beware.

Two Stars and A Wish — Happy Independence Day, Homeland!

American Flag

Roy Lichtenstein’s “La Nouvelle Chute de L’Amerique” 1992 (taken from live auctioneers.com)

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…).

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart American

The Man, The Legend, The Stewart (image taken from jewishjournal.com)

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

Nader American

Man of Integrity (Image taken from guardian.co.uk)

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

Dennis Miller American

Jerk! (Image taken from worm radio.net)

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!

Image from writing-the-wrongs.blogspot.com

Image from writing-the-wrongs.blogspot.com

Phizz Whizzingly Marvellous: Great Missenden… Oh and The Roald Dahl Museum

roald dahl great missenden

Swishwiffingly Smashing! The Roald Dahl Museum (Image taken from trip advisor.co.uk)

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.

Roald Dahl Writing Chair

Roald Dahl’s Writing Chair, the highlight of the museum (image taken from daithaic.blogspot.co.uk)

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. 

Roald Dahl Museum

The inside of the museum. Delightful. Ish. (taken from floorinsite.com)

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.

Great Missenden

Purdy, in’t it? (taken from geograph.org.uk)

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.

Great Missenden

The Crown House, Great Missenden (taken from thebookhabit.blogspot.com)

FIlling Station Great Missenden

The Old Filling Station, Great Missenden. Ya don’t see that every day, now do ya? (image taken from geograph.org.uk)

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