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.
…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!
‘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.
As the Northeastern United States has finished recovering from the inexplicably named Superstorm Nemo, and as we prepare to head off to Oslo for a few days, I reflect this week on our Northern vacation last February up to the city of Hans Christian Anderson and macabre, underplayed murder mystery serials, the Danish capital of Cophenhagen.
It’s true, some prefer to go someplace warm and Mediterranean to escape the cold — hours lounging on the Costa Del Sol perhaps or maybe some Island hopping in Sardinia and Corsica — but not us. My wife, being Irish, tends to react to the sun the same way the witch of the west reacts to water, and I, being raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania on the Mount of Pocono… by wolves, tend to prefer the cold wintry winds and see them like a refreshing tonic to the system. Besides, the missus has a penchant for design and no one is more beloved in the design world right now than the Scandinavians. And I’m easy and I like the ancient and proud notion of beautiful and desolate North.
And Easyjet flies there fairly cheaply. Bonus!
But I have to admit, aside from visiting the Design Museum and the Lego Flagship store (Lego is Danish! Yes, really!), we didn’t really know what to expect of Copenhagen. It turned out to be full of surprising delights.
Going from Place to Place
Transport for instance, which, I know, is usually relegated to the end of the writeup under a subheading like “getting around” or “Tubes and buses” or, in some countries, like Ireland, “Good Luck”, was one of the most exciting elements of our Danish getaway. We touched down thinking that it was a Scandinavian city and so bound to have an efficient underground and bus network of which we would take full advantage. But by our first evening, we couldn’t help but notice that there was really only one main, preferred mode of transport: Bikes!
Everyone rides a bike in Copenhagen, including the tourists. And because of the sheer joy of doing as the Romans do but not having done it in years, this became our healthiest holiday in years. We rented a standard issue four speed for the other half and a Christiania Bike, the kind that were actually invented in Denmark, in which to transport my son.
And we biked for miles every subsequent day of our stay. Gloriously, we cycled through snow, over bridges, in sun and warmth, in traffic and out of town until our leg muscles ached with a kind of gladsome soreness at the close of each day. As Copenhageners are well catered for with cycling lanes on every road, cycle traffic lights, and even metal footrests for when you are waiting for a light to change, biking in this bustling hub was easy, exhilarating, and inspiring (we bought bikes on our return to London). And for my money, the only way to travel around.
Other impressive elements of the Danish capital included its sheer and audaciously impressive grandeur. We visited the Rundetarn on our first full day and were awed. A cylindrical edifice built in 1642 by King Christian IV as an astronomical observatory (Remember Tycho Brahe from Science class? Danish.), it is essentially a cobblestone pathway that ascends spirally for 686 feet affording a breathtaking view of all of the city from the top.
The “Quirky” Neighborhoods
When we first started exploring different parts of the world, being vegetarian, we acquired the habit (naturally) or seeking out vegetarian restaurants in each new city. It’s become a kind of pastime and it always tends to lead us into the most intriguing parts of a city. Thus you will find vegetarian cookery in The Lower East Side, Soho (the original, you know William Blake’s Soho), Stoke Newington, Kensington Market in Toronto, Montmartre in Paris, and artsy, bohemian neighborhoods in Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Madrid. So it was with Copenhagen, but the area, in this case, formed part of the main “destination” or attraction.
The Freetown of Christiania is a ramshackle collection of dirtstreets, homemade houses, caravans, corrugated iron roofed houses, and some new cheap chic looking warehouse studios that falls within the confines of Copenhagen, but outside its laws. Originally a deserted military barracks until squatters took up residence in the 70s, it now boasts a 1,000 residents. Drugs can be bought fairly openly on the streets and there is a wonderfully hippy-dippy free spirit about the place. Despite being on the map, it’s also charmingly difficult to find. We ate hearty vegetarian stews in a clapboard cottage-housed cafe called Morgenstedet and despite the food being delicious and the staff being uncharacteristically effusive (the Danes don’t effuse), the fire-in-a-steel-drum charm of Christiania wore a bit thin on us and we began to worry about the safety of our bikes.
Still, a fascinating wander off the beaten path just for the sheer sight of this community outside of the laws of its surrounding community. And the cheapest hearty lunch to be had in Denmark.
Yes, we all love Lego and it was a brilliant store, but even more brilliant was how child-friendly a city it was and how child-centered a culture it seems to be. Scandinavians don’t tend to send their children to school or even think about teaching them explicitly how to read until they’re about seven. It may all sound a bit Steiner School, but it also values the idea of a child being allowed to have a free and well adjusted childhood full of play. Not for nothing do our Northern neighbo(u)rs give some of the most generous parental leave of any country in the developed world. Children are encouraged to form strong bonds that will see them through adulthood with confidence. Parents and their charges are openly affectionate and lavish attention lovingly and unashamedly. We could learn a lot.
Food and Drink
It surprised me that Copenhagen has recently developed into a culinary capital, but it was a surprise beyond mere joy, especially with a fantastic place like Bio Mio.
Food is comforting and divine, but the fun element is in the ordering — from a “mood-based” menu, directly from the chefs. I ordered from our chef, trying my one stock Danish phrase, “Taler du Engelsk?,” to which the Danes stock reply was, “Yah. Of course.” To this day, I can’t figure out whether “Yah, of course” is a stock reply they learn when in school or whether they just think it’s mind-numbingly obvious to any foreigner that all Scandinavians speak English better than quite a few native English speakers, but whichever the case, it’s delivered with such amiability and charm that it has to induce a smile, as did our night of dining at this lovely eatery.
And for lunch to Dyehaven, which, again, reminded me of a trendy place you’d find in the lower East Side, or rejuvenated and trendy West Philly, with its artsy locals meeting for a pint over some warming vegetable soup or some impressively tasty beetroot-dependent vegetarian smorgasbord, which of course, we could not leave Denmark without trying. As in the UK and the US, the craft beer movement is in full swing here in Denmark and the local brews were delightfully sophisticated, a party on the palate for the beer connoisseur.
And who could forget, Danish Pastries! They really are delicious, but they don’t really call them Danishes in Denmark.
Well, they wouldn’t, would they?
They call them wienerbrød (literally “Viennese Bread”) and really, what better way is there to start the day. I can’t imagine a single health benefit, but some mouth-wateringly flaky wienerbrød topped with chocolate or cinnamon does transport you. It transported me anyway.
Best of all though… Snow!
Some people really despise snow. They can’t stand the cold, are frustrated by the icy roads, and won’t take a step outside.
I wonder if those people have ever been to Copenhagen.
Although I’m often asked if I miss America, one of the things I miss most is a proper snowy winter to rejuvenate the soul. Snow, having fallen faintly and faintly fallen gently on the back or our necks hours after checking into our hotel in Copenhagen, snow that chilled the air and seeped into our bones, invigorating our constitutions, that froze the harbo(u)r as we strolled through Nyhavn, packed tightly as we threw it at each other with gusto, snow that rested gently on every branch and bough as we rode through light layers of it, covering the streets of Frederiksstaden, on a crisp morning on the way to a comforting breakfast, snow renewing an innocent spirit of joy. Here it is in the far North in all its arctic, purely driven, exhilarating grandeur and glory (yes, thank you Geography majors I know that’s not quite correct) in a place that wears a dusty blanket of snow with a particular panache.
And with that, we turn our heads away from the snowy North and its enthrallingly desolate beauty and turn our heads towards Spring, which is supposed to come early according to Punxatawney Phil. Before we do, here’s another ode to the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson, an oldie, but goodie.
All photos were taken by Paula Hughes.
As I’ve said before, 2013 has officially been dubbed The Year of The Gathering, for the duration of which Ireland will play host to the whole diaspora of its sons and daughters come back to see the homeland, to reunite with family they didn’t even know they had, to disabuse themselves of illusions to do with leprechauns and to generally appreciate all about the land that disproportionately produces world-class poets such as Patrick Kavanagh, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Michael Longley, Louis Macneice, Paul Durcan, Paul Muldoon, Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney (insert name of your favo(u)rite here) and many others besides.
But let’s face it. In order to see the best that Ireland has to offer, you need to rent a car. I don’t think I’ll be saying anything controversial or intensely debatable when I assert that Ireland’s public transport system is neither cheap nor efficient. Its urban rail system, the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) is one of mechanized transportation’s great misnomers and I’ve taken train journeys down to Kerry that involved long and tedious connecting coaches from Mallow in Cork (I don’t know so don’t ask). But that is Ireland’s pace and part of its peculiar and particular charm.
But thanks to the Celtic tiger of the 90’s and noughties, Ireland’s road system has undergone some massive modernization, especially around the cities, and is a general pleasure to drive around, basking in the rural fields of green flanking either side of some fairly efficient, if a tad congested thoroughfares (I know those who have experienced them will take this as irony and I’ve been in the traffic jams too, but they’re not that bad).
And what rewards to be reaped from driving 10-15 minutes in any direction outside the capital, from Brittas Bay on the Wicklow coast to the passage graves of the Boyne Valley, from Bray Head south of Dublin to Howth Head to the North.
Such as this gem just 40 minutes south of Dublin as you whip round the quiet country roads, Glendalough (literally, “Glen of Two Lakes”). Glendalough is where the famed sixth century Irish ascetic, St. Kevin, sought refuge from his followers and is said to have slept in a bronze age cave at the edge of the mountain. Who can blame him for wanting to stay in this place? On a fair day, such as the one we visited on, views anywhere in Glendalough are stunning.
The gently rolling brooks and streams make for peaceful passing of a lovely day.
The rural splendor can only possibly elevate and inspire the soul.
And at the same time it is a place steeped in the spiritual heritage of this island, featuring several different stone churches near the hiking trail on the site, dating back as early as the 10th century. Oddly enough, there were marauding American tourists that were over for the Notre Dame vs. Navy taking place at the Aviva Stadium. My compatriots were a tad loud, brash and somewhat badly dressed, but generally pleasant. Just as I was feeling on the verge of an epiphany amidst the graves and medieval stone structures, I heard a voice, as if it ‘buzzeth in mine air’ from a rotund lady in sunglasses just to my left saying, ‘WHAT’S THAT, CHER? THAT’S RIGHT. MEET YOU BY THE CHURCH.’ Ah the high dulcet tones of the North Atlantic twang. That, as I have said many times before, is our charm. We don’t mind how much like sore thumbs we stick out; we will blunder confidently on in hopes of a miracle… or a little guidance.
Notwithstanding being surrounded by my countrymen, there is a blanket-like tranquility in the air, a permeating peace and beauty, that leaves no wonder as to why the Irish landscape has inspired such mysticism in its poets.
Well worth the day if you’re going to be in Ireland or could make a very good reason to make the trip.
For car rental, Enterprise’s Dun Laoghaire office just south of Dublin cuts right through all the minutia and hassle of holding insurance on cards and all that palaver. There are a couple nice pubs and restaurants in Glendalough, but you’d be better off following the signs north again towards Avoca in Kilmacanogue for a lovely plate of food and a soothing stroll along the grounds.
Go. Be inspired! Feel the rhythm of your feet along the ground informing your consciousness in verse. Come back and tell me about it!
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.