‘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.
“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.”
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).
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.
We are in Friendly’s, an American institution that provides serviceably mediocre food and miraculously pleasure-inducing concoctions called Fribbles. I am immensely content. I am on my annual summer pilgrimage back to the homeland and my younger brother, Paul has come out to dinner. The atmosphere is jovial, even though my parents are also out.
I usually know what subjects to avoid with Mom and Dad, such as politics, on which my father and I stand on violently different ends of the opinion spectrum on most issues, but I am relaxed, my guard is down, and it is July. The Trayvon Martin case is still fresh in the national consciousness, open and raw as a wound. I forget myself and marvel aloud, “Whew. That Trayvon Martin case. Pretty horrible stuff, huh?”
My Dad’s eyes widen in what I mistake for agreement, ‘Absolutely. Such a terrible case. I feel sorry for his family.’ I am touched by his uncharacteristic compassion until he continues, “I mean, if I was in his situation, I would’ve killed a black guy too.” I hear a record suddenly screech and come to a halt in my head. My brother’s fork drops from his hand to his plate with a loud clang.
My father looks around at all of us to make sure his assertion has had its intended effect, hooking his audience. There are several black families in close proximity to our table, some in clear throttling distance of my father. He continues chewing his rubbery steak vigorously and continues asserting with equal vigour. “Yeah. I’d have killed a black guy too in that situation. I definitely would have killed the black guy if I were Robert Zimmerman,” and then as an afterthought, perhaps registering slightly the collective horror on our faces, adds, “Or a white guy,” making no attempt to lower his voice.
Most people would look around and lower their volume. Most would know better than to say something like that out loud anyway. My father is not most people. He could not care less whether he is in the comfort of his own home where none of the public at large can spew racist bile even in context never mind utterances taken out of context. I am inclined to think that even people who agree with Dad know better than to say so out loud, in public. For I feel most would have the wherewithal to fear for their safety after exhibiting such behaviour. Frankly, I think even David Duke would know better than to say such things out loud.
But not my father. Oh no.
He is at the point in his life, his mid 70s, where he is both aware of his own impunity due to age (“Mommy, who is that racist firebrand in the corner?” “Oh, leave him alone dear. He’s from a different generation. Don’t stare now.”) and feels duty bound, utterly convinced of his own rightness, to “spread the word”. Ed Lawler, truth-teller, Christian soldier, saviour of the universe.
Likely as not, none of the other customers really care about what my father says as he launches into a tirade — before Paul or I can get over our collective shock and construct any kind of coherent response — about how much Trayvon Martin had it coming to him, how he was a gang member who bragged on video about how many people he had killed, about how he sold drugs and about how he was “high on drugs” that infamous night in Florida. In a furious internal race for a response, I discard the idea of reminding my father about that part in 12 Angry Men where Jack Lemmon proves to the rest of the jury that just because you talk about killing people doesn’t mean you are going to or have done the deed. Instead, I opt for a gentler, socratic method.
“But Dad, he would have had to have been high on PCP to act as ragingly violent as you say he did, wouldn’t he?”
Without missing even a half-beat, “That’s the least he was high on according to reports!” He’s worked up a righteous sanctimony at this point. What drugs, I wonder, that my Dad actually knows about, are worse than PCP for turning human beings into raging lunatics? Amanita Muscaria? Sure, my Dad has worked as a social worker with disadvantaged youth, but a narcotics squad consultant he is not.
As my blood pressure rises, I try a different tack. “But the emergency services told him not to approach the kid, didn’t they?” I think I manage a pretty reasonable tone.
“No! No they told him not to let the kid get away because the police were looking for him! He might have gone on to kill someone that night. He was into all sorts of gangs.” Should I mention that loyalty in sticking to one primary gang is generally valued as important in gang culture? Nah. Besides, facts are no longer germane to Dad’s argument.
Even as he makes this last comment, my mother, the June to my father’s Ward Cleaver (my parents’ relationship started in the early 60s and has worked its way backwards ever since), the woman who has most adeptly mastered the Nancy Reagan gaze of unquestioning adoration, even my mother is shaking her head in disagreement, “No Eddie. I think Pete’s right. The police…”
“No, let me finish,” Dad barks as we waves away my mother’s words with his fork, wielding it like an imperial sceptre.
He is in his irrational stride and has struck upon another favorite of the right wing debate playbook: emotional blackmail.
“Think about Paul! The guys who attacked him were black. They targeted Paul. If anyone’s guilty of racial profiling, it’s them. Paul could’ve sued them for discrimination.” Ah yes, from the sublime to the ridiculous in one short leap. The dogmatic AK 47 rifle of the conservative arsenal — reverse racism. My brother looks less than impressed that his experience of a few years before of being beaten to the point of hospitalisation being moved out as a pawn in our father’s great oratorical onslaught. Then comes the proverbial smoking sidearm.
“If Paul had a gun, he wouldn’t have ended up in the hospital. They would.”
“Actually,” Paul pipes up, “I’m glad I didn’t have a gun because frankly, I think I’d be dead by now if I had since they probably would have used it. On me.”
This neutralises Dad’s attack, momentarily, but long enough for me to seize the momentum and redirect the course of the conversation, “Well done!” I exclaim in my son’s direction. “You’ve eaten all your vegetables!” The boy beams with pride and my mother, rallying without hesitation, says, “I think someone deserves an ice cream.”
And with that, hostilities temporarily subside, but this conversation is not over. And I know it.
That evening, I find myself driven by rage to the internet, desperate to find cold, hard fact, verifiable, documented, evidential weaponry with which to penetrate my father’s impregnable fortress of fiction founded on hoodie wearing youths, brains addled with a toxic combination of THC and PCP, knives and guns drawn, rampaging through the streets looking to slaughter innocent white and Hispanic neighborhood watchers concealing weapons.
I search out my father’s insular illusions first, entering the search terms, “Trayvon Martin was high on PCP,” only to find that he has gorged himself on the gluttony of a steady diet of Fox, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Greg Gutfeld, and others derivatively drawing on this guest list for the party to take America back for the stuffy, rich and white. Sifting past, I finally find what I’m looking for, print out my research, study it, and tuck myself into bad with a sense of excitement and smugness.
I don’t have to wait long the next morning before My father somehow manages, in the uncannily circuitous way he has, to bring the topic of the conversation back to his own myopic vision. Like me, he has trouble letting go. Over breakfast:
“That’s why I say, this guy was on drugs. He represented a clear danger to society.”
I waste no time.
“Actually Dad, according to the toxicology report from the trial records, there were only trace amounts of THC in his system that could have been at best, three days old and therefore would not affected his behaviour at all. Plus, since it was THC, not PCP, it would have made him anything but aggressive.”
This gives him pause. But not long pause. Here peers down at me as he helps himself to more coffee, with obvious patience and a bit of condescension. Suddenly I am 11years old again. He is teaching me chess and I have just fallen into the trap of the devil’s crossroads, again. Oh Pete, his eyes seem to say, will you ever learn?
“Well, a toxicologist is not a psychologist. I worked with a psychologist for years who said that anyone on drugs would kill their own mother for their next hit. Believe me. Being on drugs affected Trayvon Martin and he had no morals.” Believe me. Hmmm. With this pronouncement, he shrugs and walks back into the kitchen to fetch the maple syrup,
“But did you know that Zimmerman rang the police 40 some odd times in the last couple years to alert them to his suspicions of random black people around him?” I call futilely after him, to which his response is another shrug, as though calling the cops every day to express suspicions about racial minorities is a daily occurrence in his life. Surely, we should all have a quota of calls to make to the police expressing some anxiety about random strangers of a different skin color?
His defences are back up. My attack of reason has failed. My father retired from New Jersey to the backwoods of Pennsylavania to isolate himself from the challenge of the outside world and his mind has remained comfortably, sitting, defensibly, atop the peaks of his mountain.
But then, I consider, perhaps if a position is unassailable by logic and refuses to give account for itself through vigorous interrogations, then perhaps it is not a position any rational, reasonable person would take anyway.
Cold comfort, as I sip my coffee and look over at my son, carelessly popping Cheerios into his mouth and I wonder about his cultural inheritance, and the world into which he is growing.
I don’t know what’s current in American education. Well, alright. I have a vague idea, but not intimate knowledge. I’ve never taught there. I qualified in Dublin, taught there and taught here. And at least in classrooms over here, we repeat the phrase, “two stars and a wish” to our students, often when they’re marking each other’s work (imagine it in saccharine Hallmark tones: “Alrighty, class! Give your neighbour two stars and a wish and when you’re done with that give ’em a big ole thumbs up!”), the rationale being that children emphasise the positive in each other’s work twice as much as the negative.
And that’s what I’m doing today. Two proud Americans for whom I have a great fondness and one who really, really “could do better” (That’s another thing teachers write. Quite a bit. Just in case you didn’t quite see what I was doing there…).
Comedy is a hard thing to keep up with while living abroad. Ask me to name the big ones on the American scene and I’d struggle. Sara Silverman. Is she still big? I think Andy Borowitz is rather funny, but I’m partial to him because he hosts the American version of my favorite satirical British radio show, The News Quiz. But Stewart will always hold a special place in my heart. For it was The Daily Show that gave me solace with its grimly side-splitting conceits in the wake of Dubya’s theft of the election in 2000. And it is Stewart and his show that still form a bonding point when I go back home on my yearly summer pilgrimage and sit down with my brothers to convulse giddily while watching the man let rip with his Kronkite delivery and his incisive wit, tearing the powers that be and anything else that seems utterly ridiculous and nutty in America to shreds. I have caught my Irish wife, who has become suspicious of all things American — nothing to do with marrying me, she assures me — especially American comedy, laugh out loud (No really, she did. It’s not one of those cases where someone types it but they’re barely amused) at Stewart and it takes genuine funny to crack an Irish skeptic. Long live Stewart, fine American.
Ralph Nader, The Leftie We All Left Behind
If you could have been there. Here was a man who stood for something. Here was a man we used to toast at meetings of Amnesty International over wine and… letters. Here was a man who ran for president and who you voted for even though you knew he wasn’t going to win because in the end, you wanted to news broadcasters to say that a significant percentage of Americans cared about the issues. Because that’s what Nader did. He insisted on not shutting up about the issues like environmentalism, corporate greed and corruption and accountability, issues that no other politician would consent to mention in public. And he’s still doing it. Brazen enough to respond to the criticism that he split the vote for Al Gore, I once saw Nader respond to this issue on The Daily Show by saying, “Al Gore prevented me from being president!” Got to admire that spirit.
Dennis Miller, Clearest Transformation To A**hole
Ever tried googling “Was Dennis Miller always…”? Try it now. Actually, I’ll spoil it for you. Your non-evil browser will help unite your thought with the rest of the browsing community by suggesting, “conservative” and the second link it presents is headed, “When exactly did Dennis Miller lose his mind?” Which is entirely appropriate. I always thought that Miller was the obscure political comedian whose jokes I got because I was well-read and he made recondite references that no one else got, making him the pretentious intellectual comic that no one liked.
Until I saw him on Fox at my parents’ house (my folks are slightly bigger fans of Fox than I am) chumming around with Bill O’Reilly and frothing at the mouth about “damned liberals.” He had that same deranged and “slightly off the deep end” focus in his eyes that you saw the last time you were arguing with someone who thought that Ann Coulter was a perfectly legitimate authority. On anything. That conservative, “Oh but I know I’m right!” righteous look. You know the one. It was a sad moment for me. Because my earliest memories of Miller are also nostalgic ones of my older brother letting me stay up late to watch The Dennis Miller show on his TV. I remember laughing even though I didn’t get it a lot of the time and then the knowing, superior laugh when I finally started to get it. Never in my wildest dreams did I suspect that he was a rabid Repundit.
The concept that conservative commentators don’t seem to get though is that humour is generally subversive. It’s a bit cheeky. A bit naughty. A bit rock-the-boat. Confirming one’s own reactionary values with a knowing laugh is never going to be as funny or as popular. That’s why the miserable 1/2 News Hour was never, ever going to work. Yes, Joel Surnow, satire does tilt right sometimes, but then we call it desperate.
I think at some point in his career when we’d all forgotten about him Dennis Miller made a conscious decision that he wanted to be remembered for something. It’s just a shame he chose to be remembered for being a slightly off-the-bend right-wing maniac. Could do better.
Well that’s it folks. Peace out. I’m at work tomorrow. Rest assured, I’ll be reminding my British colleagues that I’m internally celebrating my independence from them. In the meantime, Happy Fourth ya’ll!
I went to see the spine-chilling tale The Turn of the Screw Tuesday night in The Almeida Theatre in Islington, my review of which appears on The Hackney Hive soon to be followed by an interview with the famed director Lindsay Posner. It’s a deliciously indulgent and penetratingly haunting tale about a young governess trying to protect her charges from the corrupt influence of phantoms from the past. I could go into an interpretation that sees this as an analogy for the American condition, but like jokes, some figurative comparisons just write themselves.
But seeing The Turn of the Screw led me to thinking about Henry James, a man with whom I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship since he is American-born, but lived for so long in Merry Old England, like myself, negotiating the foggy obscurities of being a stranger in a strange land, always living as though his soul is split in half, a condition that seems perfectly reflected in the dense and difficult resistance a reader encounters in the language of say The Beast in the Jungle or Daisy Miller, the latter featuring an American character trying to find herself ‘on the continent’ and ending up doing the opposite.
But funnily enough, it took leaving America to appreciate American culture. It was only after I left, and especially after I started teaching in Ireland, that I started to appreciate the genius of Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, and Emily Dickinson to name but a few.
What has intrigued me for years though is the number of writers who’ve gone a bit further than their “tour of the continent”; those writers who, like James, left their homeland to find their own sense of belonging and in so doing carved out for themselves a new literary identity. Not to put too fine a pretentious point on it. Here are three of my favo(u)rites. A by no means exhaustive list, but certainly some good ones to start looking at writers who’ve traveled to find home.
1. Edgar Allan Poe
What do you mean Poe doesn’t count? He went to school in Chelsea and then got gritty and spent 3 years in Stoke Newington right here in Hackney, East London. It’s no wonder his writing is permeated with gloom and shadow. He had some easy material growing up in the gloom and shadow first in Irvine Scotland and then down here in the famed London fog living through the tumultuous “year without a summer”. Sure, he was only a child, but these were surely his formative years.
Besides, it’s easy to underestimate Poe, as a staple of the school curriculum of most American schools, the assumption is that he’s kid’s stuff — high class pulp. But see past that for a second and you’ll see the Derridians and Barthesians who have done so much to revive him are right: his work is all about the obscure nature of existence and the horror of uncertainty. What is more expatriate than that?
What’s a real pity is that so many seem to miss his bleak sense of humo(u)r. How could he have been doing anything but messing with his readers and seeing just how far we could go with monkeys for murderers and the gleeful insanity of Dr Feather and Professor Tarr? For that wonderful mix of bleakness and surreal wit that centres on expatriate concerns of travel, survival and negotiating the cultural other, I would start with Poe’s only published attempt at a novel, the incomplete but wonderful Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
2. James Baldwin
Black in the 1940s in America, gay, and deeply disturbed by the political environment of his native country, James Baldwin was assuredly a writer destined to find his voice abroad. That he did, giving voice to that displaced condition that situates an intellectual in a lonely place in their own country and yet yearning to feel a sense of home. For that, he had to join the cultural radicalism of Paris’ Left Bank, where Baldwin would remain resident for most of his life, writing about that recurring sense of disorientation that all of us as expats feel. You have to admire a man who can capture this condition so perfectly in a phrase like, “the earth tilts, he is thrown forward on his face in darkness, his journey begins,” which is, by the by, from Giovanni’s Room, a novel depicting that thing that has ensnared so many of us and rooted us down in foreign climes, a romantic relationship abroad. For aesthetic beauty and a deep sense of pathos, it is a compelling read.
3. Bill Bryson
On a lighter note, I don’t think any bookshelf should want for a volume or several of Bill Bryson’s witty words; nor, in fact are there many expat bookshelves that do, such is the joy one feels on curling up with Notes from a Small Island, The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, or The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America. Bryson is one of two writers (the other is David Sedaris, another great American humo(u)rist, on the darker side of things) whose writing has actually made me snort aloud on public transport, such is the power of his convulsion-inducing sense of the comic. He ranks up with H.L. Mencken for incisive delivery that illuminates the ridiculous in things we have taken for granted, from American diets and walking habits to the inability of provincial middle England to keep its streets clean, nothing is safe, nor should it be. It takes a man who has lived outside his native land for a number of years to highlight its faults and foibles to his fellow Americans and he does it with style.
I could of course have included countless others in this list. Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth moves my soul, but I can’t quite stomach her politics. Amy Lowell’s poetry, especially pieces that concern her travels abroad, renews the world-weary spirit. But I decided arbitrarily to stick to prose. And then there are non-Americans who have given us their perspective on our country, Joseph O’Connor (brother of Sinead) in his side-splitting The Secret Life of the Irish Male, Dickens’ scathing American Notes, which lost him the Downton audience of his day, and Orwell’s irony-laced accounts, not of America, but of Europe in Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, in which he fought in The Spanish Civil War and remarked that his life was saved many times by the merits of Spanish marksmanship.
But as Levar Burton used to say, you don’t have to take my word for it. I’m forgetting, ignoring, or unaware of countless others that help us to identify our own sense of wandering through this kaleidoscopic mass of confusion that is cultural displacement. But I see great value in any author that is able to bring us out of our day-to-day existences and grant us a sense of the wider world.
I was ready to like Leonardo DiCaprio as the eponymous protagonist in this upcoming adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann. I had forgiven them both for Romeo and Juliet and had come to accept that cinematic effort in all its smoking guns glory as a useful and exciting way to introduce teenagers to one of the most difficult stories Shakespeare has to offer in terms of engagement and narrative.
I thought Carey Mulligan would work as the beautiful, thoughtless and morally bereft Daisy Buchanan, and I actually thought Toby Maguire was perfect for Nick Carraway, the deceptively innocent looking young man from the Midwest who comes out to New York to make a living and resist the city corrupting his soul while he hypocritically claims the moral high ground.
Nor am I so close-minded as to think that a non-American director can’t handle an American story. Sam Mendes did too good a job with American Beauty for anyone to think that.
Apprehensive though my English teacher’s heart was about this sublime story being given the Hollywood treatment again, I had been convinced by various parties and was ready to believe that it could be done with style and still convey some sense of the aesthetic wonder that is Fitzgerald’s prose.
And then I saw the trailer.
It left me with something nameless beyond apprehension, something approaching dread. How can you tell a quintessentially ‘Jazz Age’ story without jazz? What this trailer appears to do is take Gatsby out of the roaring 20s, and place him firmly in the twentyteens (that seems all right, doesn’t it?) not so much roaring as swaggering with his trousers around his knees and his bling firmly on show, dressed to impress.
Which is not to say I have a problem with the presence of hip hop or even Jack White’s cover of U2’s ‘Love is Blind’. I can actually see the parallels and the reasoning perfectly. The song that was chosen for the trailer, ‘No Church in the Wild’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West, seems to ‘teach the lesson’ of Gatsby, dropping lines like, ‘When we die the money we can’t keep,’ but it also talks about ‘the girl in all leopard… rubbing the wood like Kiki Shepherd,’ not quite the flapper dresses, feather boas and the Charleston of the roaring 20s.
But still, I can see the temptation. In all honesty, there is a lot of rap that is about acquiring material wealth and flaunting it as a kind of two fingers to an oppressive state and rigid class structure that has made it all but impossible to acquire such wealth or any sort of social mobility. And Gatsby is a man who makes his fortune dishonestly but for what seem like the right reasons, holding a quixotic candle for years to one day impress Daisy in the same way Pip one day would like to be ‘good enough’ for Stella. So the excess, the decadence, and the emptiness is all there. And I can see that.
But why then does it need to be updated? Why take away the joie de vivre of jazz that ultimately evokes the hollowness of the glitz and glitter indulged in by these characters, especially when that loud whizz bang blare of apparent life and unthinking esprit serves to heighten the depths of pathos at the end?
It’s not as though it’s a story that’s completely alien to us. The young and the restless of a generation get carried away speculating with money they either don’t have or that doesn’t exist or will never come back from bad loans but no one heeds the warnings because everybody’s having fun. No one wants to hear about it because everybody’s too busy spending money and partying. The desolation when the party stops is stark and unbearable. Sound familiar anyone?
Those of us who have been in education or in theatre or just appreciators of beautifully composed language know that translation is an occasional but lamentable necessity and that something is always lost. Will what appears to be one long F Scott Fitzgerald inspired music video manage to convey the existential longing in lines like ‘Men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…’ and the subsequent tragedy, or will this story be a narrative with the life-blood cruelly drawn out of it? Will this, in the more modern sense of the word be, simply a tragedy?
I had just begun to feel comfortably at ease with my nation being, if not the object of affection, at least, as Happy Loman put it, ‘liked but not well liked,’ widely generating respect and general good feeling around the world.
I lived in the UK during the Bush years, when that right honourable Texan went around brazenly offending the world for eight years, storming out of Mexican state dinners, invading Middle Eastern countries under false pretences and rather callously joking about it, and doing his best to alienate Muslims and the whole of Europe at the same time (no mean feat).
I’m familiar with the generic reaction — ‘Who cares? We’re American Dammit! We do what we want and if the rest of the world has a problem with it, they can go take a jump in a lake! U!S!A! U!S!A! U!S!A!’ Which is fine. There are plenty of other countries who adopt similar attitudes, China, Iran and Malaysia among them, but I for one would like to avoid odious comparisons, not invite them.
And our current president, for whom I have great respect, has made great headway in healing the wounds opened and liberally salted by his predecessor, building bridges and consciously acknowledging America’s important part in and dependence on the global community.
Which, I suppose, is one of the reasons why it seems such a shock to me that the divide between the Middle East and the West is still so acrimonious and so filled with the bitter bile of irrational, mutual antipathy.
It puts me in mind of September 11th, 2001, when I lived in Dublin, and saw first hand how Dubya inevitably failed to even attempt to open channels of communication between America and the moderate voices in the Middle East, but instead, went in, unilateral guns blazing, ingloriously entrenching us first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. In doing so, he effectively obliterated the genuinely heartfelt outpouring of sympathy that the rest of the world had expressed for the indescribable tragedy that was 9-11 and very quickly ignited and fanned the flames of Anti-Americanism for the rest of his time in office.
The barely elected man-child gave the world every excuse to berate America in terms of the laziest and shallowest of stereotypes, condemning me as an American abroad to morning break monologues and dinner party diatribes decrying the loudness, brashness, obnoxiousness, arrogance, and naked belligerence of Americans. After the kind of battering foreign policy and countless Bushisms did to our reputation abroad, it became damn difficult to defend our nation. I did my best, but I wasn’t a paid diplomat.
I ended up playing devil’s advocated on both sides, which I suppose is a tautology in terms of devil’s advocates. I argued with friends and family back home who astounded me with their support for what seemed to me to be a catastrophic and vindictive military action. But I also argued with my colleagues who persistently encouraged me to attend anti-war demonstrations in Dublin, to which I would always frown, shake my head and say, ‘No. It’s simply uncritical anti-Americanism at its best. I can’t go.’
Due in part to their repeated insistence that it was ‘anti-American foreign policy not anti-American,’ and in part to curiosity about something happening so close to me and to which I felt so intimately connected, I did eventually attend and take part in one of the largest anti-war demonstrations at the time. Nothing unusual there: placards, posters, beards, megaphones, chants, the usual. I was taken aback however when I saw one young member of the Socialist Workers’ Party flying Old Glory. And then I realized it wasn’t. The stripes and the colours were there all right, but in place of the stars were neatly lined swastikas, all 50 of them. Sanctimonious as it may sound, something bilious lurched in my stomach. After all, this was just a flag, but it was also a national symbol that I had stood to attention for and adored, hand on heart pledging undying allegiance to every day of my childhood. That kind of indoctrinated loyalty doesn’t just fall away because you criticize your leaders. And here was the symbol of my nation superimposed with a symbol of everything that is loathsome and base in humanity.
This did not bolster my colleagues’ case about the nature of the demonstrations and I felt at least temporarily vindicated in thinking both sides were uncritically dogmatic. But, as a friend told me on recounting the demonstration years later, a flag is a symbol and means very different things to different people. The Irish tricolour, which means freedom fighting and resonates with phrases like ‘tiocfaidh ar la!’ (‘Our Day Will Come!) is never flown in schools in Ireland for fear associations with militancy. The Union Flag (sometimes incorrectly called the Union Jack), once indelibly associated with imperialism, has acquired a cult status cool that’s gone from punk rock right into the main stream and onto toilet seats and SMEG fridges.
Hard and bitter a pill as it is for us to swallow, there are many who see the flag above as more representative of the kind of American foreign policy that’s struck a dangerously Machiavellian balance of sabre-rattling, ‘devil-you-know’ funding, and bombing back to the stone age that’s left many with the bitter taste of ash on their tongues.
It is certainly more difficult to engage with other nations while being a critical friend to our own, and infinitely more complicated, but the fundamentalists of the right wing of America have spent too long nourishing the bitter nightmares of a sleeping tiger (forgive the exotic metaphor) and unless we start to engage with the rest of the world in meaningful terms, I fear we have only begun to feel its bite. Yes, it is easier to be an American abroad now than it once was, but as we revel in our current chic, we also find ourselves, as another great American writer once put it, ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
|Taken from The Daily Mail’s website|
I am on the District Line, traveling west, sitting across from a stocky young man who’s just boarded at Whitechapel. This corn-fed meal with tanned skin, mirror sunglasses, loose fitting jeans and chunky sneakers wears a t-shirt with the words ‘America, The Beautiful’ in red, white, and blue on top of a vertical star spangled banner, behind which seems to float the diaphanous image of a woman’s face that I can only assume is a feminine representation of ‘America, The Beautiful.’ I resist the urge to lean over to him and say, ‘You know, people would have known without you announcing it on your t-shirt like that. And another thing: It’s neither of the things you think it is – vaguely, subtly artistic or stylish.’
One is put in mind of the Irish poet Louis MacNiece: ‘Why,/ Must a country, like a ship or a car, be always female,/ Mother or sweetheart?’
Why is it that as a nation we feel a desperate compulsion to label ourselves?
It’s as though no one listened to Springsteen carefully enough to read irony into him.
Or as though we are still worried that someone might mistake us for being from somewhere else or belonging to some other cultural group.
No one will.
The minute we begin to speak, they know. Everybody knows. And it’s no bad thing. What is a bad thing is trying desperately to label it and somehow make it chic or cool and pretend it’s some artistic statement.
Here’s what I like: on the same tube journey, an individual boards the train in jeans and plain, off-white t-shirt, sits down and starts tapping his feet to the rhythm of whatever tuneful track is playing away in on his MP3 player. It’s then that I notice, his Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, faded, worn, ragged, but clearly patterned with Old Glory, stripes on each side, stars down the tongue. A cheeky treading with the flag, not on it, naturally, not flashing, not waving, but toe-tapping with a wonderfully tacit acknowledgement of nationality as a simple, softly spoken part of who you are.
|Taken from the Scavenge Costumes website|
I’m not given to wearing my national colo(u)rs very often, the 4th of July being an exception some years, but I think what bothered me about the first man’s shirt, aside from the inherent and age-old sexism and the mixture of telltale labels, was the pretension that there was some conscious art in declaring your national heritage, as opposed to treating it as some part of you that is as natural as your shoe size, as innate as a sexual orientation. We are Americans and intensely proud of who we are, but I’d rather we all avoid standing in odious uncritical hand-on-heart reverence to the flag, not in front of the foreigners, most of whom have a bit of a sense of humo(u)r about their homelands.
So, bundle of contradictions that I am, that’s what I think we all need: more pride, less reverence.
Don’t even get me started on what the term Republican might mean to an ancient Roman or a Frenchman circa 1789.