Category Archives: London 2012

Our Special Relationship

Prime Minister on US TV

Now now. I’m not here to talk about why my public school education has left me ill equipped to answer questions about British culture. That’s for my researchers. (Photo taken from BBC News site)

For the life of me, I cannot see what David Cameron was thinking. Stiff as a waterboard, there he went, onto Letterman to face an audience of my compatriots, supposedly to “bang the drum of British business”. Did he not think that BP had done enough damage? He was very worthy and neither likeable nor wholeheartedly dislikeable, just affirming to America that, like the perception of British food, this country’s people are as insipid and as humourless as salty Scottish gruel. So worthy and so bland.

Somewhat bizarrely, much like his first Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons — not as Prime Minister but in opposition facing off against Tony in his last days — he seemed to come off very left of centre, which may suggest he knows how to play a Letterman audience after all. Facts of existence in the UK like the absence of gun usage and the thought of carrying a gun being incomprehensible drew cheers from the live audience, as did the fact that political parties are not allowed to advertise on British TV. Period.

But the point of the exercise still baffles me. Letterman controlled the banter and all the best lines were his, as they should be, so the only motivation one can possible detect is that this appearance is the latest in the bizarre oneupmanship contest between Cameron and the more affably charismatic Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who also appeared on Letterman in June, and who, unlike Cameron, took an equal share of the best lines and drew a much better reaction from the audience with all his bumbling and foppish Freudian slips (Letterman: Would you ban giant sodas [as Bloomberg has done]? Johnson: I I I… We’re not that… We’re not that… Whilst I am certainly bigger than Mike [Bloomberg], as a city, we’re not that… … fat. YET. [hearty and appreciative, self-deprecating guffaws from the audience]).

Much as it kills me to admit it, Boris is one conservative that I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with on all policies. He opposes a third runway at Heathrow, is pro-public transport, pro-cyclist, and stood up to Romney over the summer when Mitt paraded his blustering ignorance in the field of statesmanship doubting out loud that the capital could handle the Olympics. He’s very far from perfect, but his interview is well worth watching and quite entertaining.

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Americans in London 2012 – The USA Wuz Here

Simple plan: Head to Westfield Shopping Centre, wait at entrance to Olympic Village, take pictures of patriotically dressed Americans for blog. Complications: five year old son, could work to advantage as strangers always warm to a child with a winning smile.
On the penultimate day of the London Olympiad.
Given that I wrote ambiguously to disparagingly about how we wear our colours abroad a couple weeks ago in this blog, I thought I’d do a little photographical essay on us supporting Team USA, resplendent in all our ‘Old Glory’ red, white and blue.
And here we are, our true colours proudly, unashamedly displayed for all and sundry.
Above is my first victim, Ashton from California, whose cape turned out to be quite a fashion among Americans abroad in E20 (as I suppose we must call it from now on. Isn’t E20 where Eastenders is set?). Ashton was a great sport seeing as how I disturbed his lunch in the food court in order to take his picture. Excuse the ‘Shaky Auteur’ style if it’s not to your liking. I was still a tad nervous about approaching people to take pictures of them, about which I learned a lot and became more comfortable with as the afternoon wore on.
Bonnie, from the Washington DC area

Funny thing is that people can get awfully paranoid about strangers stopping them in the middle of the mall. Probably happened enough times before. Initially, they probably all thought I was after money, or trying to sell them The Big Issue, or worse, about to rob them blind of their Olympic tickets like the famed historical highwaymen of Angle-land. But once I told them what I was all about and that I wanted to take a picture of them for my blog, there was such a softening. Almost a thrill to feel the sensation of fame running at the fingertips. Bonnie here was keen, though her husband, not dressed nearly as patriotically, didn’t seem to want to be snapped at all. I suspect he thought I was stalking his wife, a suspicion that I shared with my son afterwards, perhaps wrongly, because it put me in the position of explaining rather too loudly what ‘stalking’ meant to a five year old within earshot of many equally suspicious looking Olympic fans who looked like they might have social services on speed dial.

Mind you, some were especially hostile to being approached. We’ll put those people in a category that I’ll call ‘the British who I mistook for Americans’. One of them was wearing an American flag t-shirt and carrying a plastic bag labeled ‘NBA’. Isn’t that like wearing a neon sign emblazoned with ‘American as Apple Pie’ on it? I think our English cousins are just a bit more closed and jaded than we are and I think the few who fall into this category were decidedly not Londoners.
Steve, from California
Steve was great. He really embodied one of the things that makes me proud to be American. I told him about my limited and sheltered northeastern existence, having never been west of the Mississippi in my life (True. All true. I know. Hard to tell with my worldliness). ‘Really?’ He said, ‘That’s a such a shame because as you go west the weather just gets better and better,’ and from Steve with that wonderfully honest American smile, I believed it. Because it’s true and also because there is a sincerity that goes beyond simplicity or literal-mindedness, which is what the Brits generally call us. There is an untranslatably beautiful honesty in a smile and pure delight in the sun shining every day. Steve’s never had Seasonal Affective Disorder and clearly no Scandinavian homicide drama could possibly have anything to say that would relate to his experience. And because of that American sincerity, that delight in the simple pleasures, I just felt like taking a trip out west, just to visit Steve and see the weather. Alas, were there time to exchange numbers in a heaving mall, but here in London, we live by a faster pace.
Virginians Abroad (Read that carefully, will ya?)

This family taught me another one of those lessons about approaching the public, a heartwarming one this time. The teenage son in the foreground had been exchanging words in a tone of mild irritation more than matched by his mother. They seemed to be arguing about how to get where they were going, but I was desperate to get a couple more snaps of Americans so I decided to disturb them. At first the young lad had no interest in being in the shot, but I cajoled him and he looks somewhat reluctant, but a poised reluctant, as though he’s turned it into a modelling pose. The mother was only too happy, as you can see, to smile for the camera, as was the cute little girl. As I walked away I could hear, just within earshot, milder tones of concordance between mother and son and a general harmony between the three. Being approached by someone asking you to pretend you’re happy can have that effect. Pretend for long enough and some of it spills over into reality. You forget the bagatelle that you were annoyed with and move on. Quite a lovely, uncomplicated moment.

Fellow Expatriate Americans
I end with this adorably sweet couple because I know neither their names or where they are from. So astounded was I when they told me that they live not anywhere in America, but in Bury St. Edmunds and in such a rush were they to get to see Athletics that we didn’t have time for niceties, but I was elated to find two kindred intrepid spirits, fellow expatriates abroad, supporting the home team in all their glory, as we can’t help but do when we support our compatriots and separate ourselves for just a moment from the darker side of this Olympiad. Objectors will say that this act of forgetting is just what perpetuates a world run by megaconglomo-corporate entities and believe me, I’m on your side, which is why enjoyment is all the richer if you can celebrate the good in things while, with a fine sense of balance, understanding the underlying cost of all of our joy. Here’s to Rio in 2016. Well done, America in London 2012.

Celebrating The Olympics: Hackney Style

This was supposed to be a rather different blog post, an in-depth and personal probing exploration into whether it is possible to separate corporate sponsorship from the purity of enjoyment of sport in the middle of 3 fenced off big screens in Victoria Park, East London. That post may come, but my material changed very suddenly today when I innocently sought to take a picture of what looked like some garishly dressed, golden-bedecked hairdressers, styling a young girl’s hair to the backdrop of thickly pumping hardcore/trance, and was very quickly with coy and at the same time grandiose gestures, invited up to experience the ‘styling’ of Osadia, a street theatre group based in Barcelona since 1996 striving to push the boundaries of interactive, street entertainment and the extent of participation and ownership in that art through their performances.

Especially in the last few years, I’ve been trying to be more confident and let my inner-American out. We are to a great extent defined by how other people react to us and how we provoke those reactions and I enjoy sometimes exceeding the expectations of the kind of American people think I am. So instead of shrinking into a corner with my plastic bottle of what will remain an unnamed Dutch beer, I decided I was game. What I was game for I didn’t realise until about 20 minutes of styling, a round of applause and a crying child who wanted to know why I had changed so much later. I will admit, along with that brazen American stepping up to the plate or stage as it were, there was wild anxiety, which got slightly wilder with each step this fascinatingly fetishistically dressed performer took, because if you want hair this good, believe me, it is a long and involved process. I thoroughly enjoyed the result though as I became a part of the continuing artwork with various Park-goers striding up to take my picture or have a picture taken with me. 
Ah, the price of celebrity. Pictures don’t lie. I felt like someone or something different. Wicker Man crossed with Puck the mischievous fairy via Ziggy Stardust. Alas, I would have loved to have kept the look for longer, but the wonderful and lamentable thing about the carnivalesque is that you can only transcend your identity and the boundaries of it for the duration of the carnival. Leave it and you become a spectacle on a Hackney street, with some awed, some cat-calling, some scoffing, and some speechless. 
That was my Olympic experience today. I saw Katie Taylor, from Bray in Ireland, the same town my wife is from, win gold in women’s boxing. And I left Victoria Park, East London, blazing loud green and pink.   

Don’t Tread On Me – America The Branded

U-S-A! U-S-A!: American visitors wear the stars spangled banner with pride on hats, t-shirts and even sunglasses as excitement builds in the Olympic Park
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.

On the tube back, a heaving, humid, flesh-wall-cramped train car. A short stocky man of some sort of East Asian heritage squeezes on (melting pot significance, not passively racist. Swear). He is wearing red Bermuda shorts, a plain blue top, red, white and blue star-shaped sunglasses, a soft, fuzzy looking Uncle Sam style top hat and a red and white striped draw-string bag slung over both shoulders with a little American flag poking chirpily out the back. This too strikes me as utterly and completely appropriate. It’s too loud to be obnoxious. This man is America personified, wearing the country, proclaiming the preamble like a big flamboyant flamingo shouting to all and sundry, ‘I am the U. S. A!’ without saying a word.

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. 

Something More For The Weekend

Good Friday, gentle folk. More street art to beautify your next couple days, straight from Clapton Passage, E5, Hackney. An Olympic borough. I like the carnivalesque feeling these pieces convey. Wonderful, wild, masked and just on the far edge of transgressive. Puts me in mind of this wonderful piece from The Daily Mail of all places about East End political street art hero Banksy’s most iconic pieces recreated with real people. Check it out. 
Speaking of, The Olympics have turned out to be quite an exciting spectacle, especially the opening ceremony with Danny Boyle’s sneaky plea to remember the great triumph of nationalized medical care that is the NHS. When the Democrats were campaigning hard to get ‘Obamacare’ through congress, the Republicans worked very hard to bring willing Tories over on all-expenses paid flights I’m sure (or at least claimed expenses) to whinge about the NHS that they probably never make use of anyway, but I’ve definitely had better experiences with the NHS and heard less horrific tales than the chilling stories I’ve heard from friends and family about medicine in America. 
And the complaints from my compatriots on twitter about ‘leave it to the British to politicise the Olympics’. Politicisation of the Games began from at least 1988 when heavy corporate sponsorship was dragged in to resurrect a lurching moribund tradition. 
What do your weekends have in store for you all? I’m pretty busy and pretty excited. We’ve got lunches packed and we’re off to brave this mildly, partially sunny weather to picnic in Haggerston Park and see the Games on the big screen. Yesterday, my son told me he was watching France vs. New Zealand in the Velodrome Cycling. ‘I hope France wins,’ he said. ‘Why is that?’ I asked. ‘Because they have blue on their sleeve,’ he replied, quite matter-of-factly. That’s the kind of basis for an allegiance we need more of. Because they’ve got nice colours in their uniforms. 
I’m also immersing myself in nostalgia. I always get nostalgic around American accents and tonight, I’m seeing Savage in Limbo, by John Patrick Shanley, performed by The Planktonic Players in The Camden Eye. The play encompasses the stories of five disillusioned New Yorkers. Jaded New Yorkers. Stories about home. I can’t wait. 
Taken from The Planktonic Players blog. 
And tomorrow, I sojourn west, to West London that is, to be interviewed by OnFm about my opinions on Team USA, The Olympics, and my ongoing struggle to become a successful writer in this vast sea of opportunities. If you happen to be travelling through West London between two and three, tune in to 101.4 on your FM dial and see what you make of my first appearance on the radio. 
Have a magnificent weekend, one and all. 

Something on Being Starstruck for Olympic Opening Weekend

We are steeped in Olympic fever in London. Soon, the games will be nigh impossible to escape unless you are under a rock somewhere. The first thing I’ve noticed, being American myself, is the increase in the number of compatriots flooding this great metropolis. Even spotted Al Roker of The Today Show filming on the grounds of The Tower of London the other day when we were busy being tourists in our own city. I felt ambivalent about crowding in to get a few snaps and say hello to the man. He always seemed like such a big presence on the TV when I was growing up and yet, I never really spent a lot of time watching him, so was it  the American propensity towards being star-struck within spitting distance of celebrity that kept me circling like a distant satellite hoping to get a glimpse?

It certainly seemed to be this tendency for the crowds gathered outside the green in front of William The Conqueror’s original White Tower, many of whom spoke with pronounced North Atlantic twangs. I’ve never had many brushes with personages of high public profile. I met Michael Stipe when I was 15; stalked him half a block down South Street in Philly just to interrupt him while he was ordering coffee to tell him that I was going to see him in Veteran’s Stadium and that he really inspired me. Swoon.

Al Roker doesn’t have the same sort of appeal, but then neither does approaching celebrities any more. English and Irish people tend to be a bit superior to the phenomena, but then I do too and I wonder if it’s just because I can see the silliness in it. I suspect most Americans do, but that there’s something about a TV crew that brings out delirium in people. I tend to think it’s programmes like The Today Show that cement our great picket-fenced village and make us feel like we’re all having coffee together with Al and the gang, which you can see the magic in. It’s almost Rockwellian.

Here’s the link to the interview they filmed with a Yeoman Warder that day. It did manage to make me slightly homesick, in a scoffing superior, I kind-of-wish I was in America sort of way.

We are going to try to get to see the Opening Ceremony on the big screen tonight in Victoria Park, which is a ticketed event, a fact which raises great ire in my soul. I get more and more apprehensive about big events that, with increasing frequency, fence off public spaces. I’d like to think it doesn’t just stem from the fact that I don’t have a ticket, but tickets, really? To go to Victoria Park and watch something on a big screen? I’m sure there will be plenty of Heineken and McDonald’s tents, and as of this morning, with no more tickets being issued, it is possible to get in, but not guaranteed, another reason to check out the apparently much more open looking Haggerston Park events, or find something else spectacular to do with your weekend.

Should you be in East London — and if you are over for the big you know whats then you will be — There is a fantastic little place that you could check out at 51 Chatsworth Road, just up from Homerton High Street, called Creperie du Monde. I’ve reviewed here for the Hackney Hive. Well worth checking out.

However it is that you choose to spend your time, do make it magnificent.

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