Ireland has a blasphemy law.
Take a few minutes to digest that.
Because whatever you think it means, it means.
I had thought that my wife had got it wrong or that she had mistranslated what her mother had said or it was simply another my-mother-in-lawism.
‘We’ve got the Blasphemy Referendum on the same day as the presidential elections, you know,’ was the way the conversation went between my better half’s mother and her self.
‘What?’ the wife had responded incredulously, and somewhat confusedly. Her mother could have literally meant anything. Is it blasphemy to her to have another referendum? Do the Irish wish to place the Catholic Church back into a place of centrality in the constitution and Irish society and so therefore are about to commit blasphemy against all that is decent and good by swearing loyalty back to the holy Catholic Poobah of Rome in all his piousness? Or did my beloved simply mis-hear her own mother’s accent? Was my m-i-l sick of making decision through plebiscite? Was it with a heavy sigh that she said ‘we’ve got that blasted referendum’ over re-nationalising sewage treatment or something?
‘Because blasphemy is illegal, you know. You could be fined €25,000. €25,000!’
And a few moments of knowing acknowledgement of the Irish character of old and a google search or two confirm the laughably theocratic thing you think “blasphemy referendum” means, is what it means. The Irish are about to go to the polls to decide whether blasphemy should still be illegal in Ireland.
Which is interesting.
When I was I wee slip of a study abroad student at the tenderly legal age of 21, I left my native America and set foot on The Emerald Isle’s shores for the first time.
I had been raised Catholic but was not very good at practicing, well, at what I had been raised. But something vaguely spiritual awakened in me in the land of saints and scholars, land of my forbears, holy, holy hosanna in the highest, holy Catholic Ireland where St Patrick ran out the symbolic pagan serpents, and I thought, why not, for shits and giggles, why not see a real, devotional Catholic, pious country as it celebrates the most divine panus angelicus, the consecrated mysteries, the inner meaning of which always seemed to elude me (question as a child: why was Jesus keeping his heart secret?)? So I did.
I had been raised ‘Irish American’.
I have reconciled myself to the fact that ‘Irish American’ counts as a culture. I don’t think it entitles you to call yourself Irish, but it does require you, it seems, to buy into the stereotype of the Catholic Ireland myth, a place second only to Rome in its Catholicity, a land where the aisles up to communion are paved with potatoes and gold (neither of which are indigenous to Eire).
I had somehow not been privy to the many scandals to do with the Catholic Church, child abuse, rape, molestation and rank hypocrisy.
I had not been privy to Ireland’s secular awakening during the economic boom in the 90s known as the Celtic Tiger, a time when the Irish fairly quickly shirked off the shadows of groping priests and the shackles of roman collars.
I had also never seen Father Ted.
So my vision of a pure and Jesused Ireland remained untainted on a Sunday morning when I wandered into a church in the suburban village of Maynooth, just west of the capital, expecting at least some of the mass to be in Latin, expecting at least three miracles before the second reading, the whole church bursting with song and several hours of Irish people soberly and self flagellatingly meditating on the most divine.
An Ireland that was happy to give the Catholic Church a special place in the Irish state enshrined in the constitution of 1937.
An Ireland that would ban the joyously scathing satire of Joyce, Beckett and O’Casey (to be fair, it’s been a while since there’s been that scale of censorship).
An Ireland, bless it, that would write, and keep on the books a law that would sanction the the act of blasphemy (whatever that means and whoever decides what it means) with a fine of up to €25,000.
An Ireland in which a man from Ennis in County Clare would lodge a complaint about actor and writer Stephen Fry who, in an interview with Irish Radio and TV personality Gay Byrne, questioning the existence/benevolence of a god who would allow obscene amounts of children to suffer in horrible ways.
An Ireland in which the same man, clearly finding himself at a loose end, called up the police to find out if they could please update him on the status of his complaint two years later as he would like to know when they’d be prosecuting that awful auld Stephen Fry fella to the full extent of the law.
An Ireland, in sum, that pays gravely serious attention to its religion.
What transpired was a mumbled gathering of assorted worshippers, garbling through their prayers at speed, barely an intelligible ‘amen’ in the house, whilst all kept their coats on (in America’s puritanical Catholic Churches we were always taught to make ourselves comfortable in the house of god), a muted, dark and glum acknowledgement of a shared religious upbringing, with barely a bit of eye contact and not a note of music struck by a single vocal chord.
Far from genuflecting in front of our lord on the way out, the almighty was lucky if he got a curt nod as the becoated parishioners scurried out like rats from a sinking ship and blessed themselves as some hurried ritual to superstitiously ward off the holy cooties they might have contracted within doors, with Christ, as Beckett writes, ‘all crucified in a heap.’
It was not, suffice to say, the ossified holy Catholic Ireland that Irish America venerates. It was not an Ireland had time for a church steeped in constant controversy from the Magdalene laundry revelations to ‘illegitimate’ babies buried in mass graves by sisters of ‘mercy’ in whose care young mothers were entrusted bearing up against the then shameful badge of a pregnancy out of wedlock.
Tomorrow, the Irish go to the polls to vote for their president, a largely symbolic figurehead role (another discussion for another day with another host of issues) but the more important vote will be a kind of symbolic confirmation.
If Irish voters do as polls indicate they will, after years of far more important referenda embracing marriage equality in defiance of a homophobic past and bravely embracing reproductive rights in defiance of a chauvinistic and misogynistic past, across the country, they will be confirming their faith in themselves and humanity and liberal, progressive values, and away from a failed moribund model of morality.
In contrast to the cynical votes that brought about Brexit and President Trump, it will be an optimistic vote for the future. And for Ireland, simply a sign of the times.
So I say again, with less ambiguity, Ireland has a blasphemy law.
Soon it will not.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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 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.
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.
…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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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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‘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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