‘Al-Ja- what?’ I can picture my very conservative parents saying.
My Dad is from very, very pre-hipster Brooklyn. He knew it waaaay before it was cool, when it was a nice, white place to grow up and you hitched a lift on the back of the tram-o-matic to spend a few pennies at Coney Island on rickety wooden roller coasters of a weekend. Or something like that. My mother is from somewhere deep in the 1940s and has just kept traveling, like some curious Kurt Vonnegut character, backwards in time throughout her life ever since. Last I checked she was somewhere deep in pre-universal suffrage and laughing and shaking her head at ‘all those silly dreamers demanding equality.’ I’d have to check but I think she’s also been deferring her vote to my father’s opinion for the same amount of time, single-handedly handing Trump Pennsylvania back in 2016.
I digress. A little.
I haven’t actually told my parents I’m at an Al-Jazeera event, just in case they think Al-Jazeera is Arabic for ‘Come with me, my brothers and sisters, let us go and conspire against suburban and rural, pretzel eating, sedentary, apostate America that worship at the altar of Starbucks and Kanye mwahahahahahaha.’ (Of course it doesn’t. Not even close. It means ‘the island’ symbolically linking to the network’s justifiable claim to be the only independent news source in the Middle East). Of course my conservative friend from high school (you know the one you never knew was conservative because he was funny and arty and a lot of fun to hang out with) always called it Al-Gore-zeera so I don’t know what to expect.
But my Mom and Pop and their entrenched conservatism are ever present in my mind as I sit down in the front row of Oxford Union as AJ’s guest and make myself ready for an evening in the presence of someone as close to the Trump administration as I’m willing to get, JD Gordon, former security adviser to the Trump Presidential Campaign. I am at a recording of Al Jazeera’s version of Hardball, ‘Head to Head’ hosted by Mehdi Hasan, a bruiser of an interviewer capable of landing the inquisitorial equivalent of right hooks with Russian probes and Upper cuts of Trump’s casual racism to devastating effect.
It is clearly an audience of mostly comfortably liberal, self-congratulatory anti-Trumpers (I say that as a belligerently liberal, self-congratulatory anti-Trumper). We have come to watch Trump get grilled via proxy. If we can’t have the orange-a-tan-in-chief himself, we’ll take someone guilty by association, as I’m going to assume JD Gordon is, being one of the interviewees rounded up and questioned by the Mueller force in connection to
well let’s face it probable and nefarious possible links to Russia and collusion charges.
But I can see why the excremental, ruthless but not un-shrewd Bannonite Team Trump would have hired Gordon back in 2016. He’s a nice guy. He is the nice face of the Ugly American that Trump embodies not accidentally crashing around the China cabinet but intentionally, childishly kicking over everything in the cabinet and kicking the glass in for good measure. If Trump is to the second decade of this century what Nixon was in the 70s (and just so we remember, Hunter S Thompson wrote after Nixon died that the world was a better place without him) except worse, JD Gordon is its less offensive charm offensive. A former Navy Commander, he is brisk but not brash, bordering on soft spoken, while maintaining a sense of precise, military assertiveness.
As an AJ event rookie, I was told that this episode was fairly tame; I didn’t think so but then I do marvel in admiration at the gusto of British journalists compared to their powder puff American counterparts tossing each other into the fanged mouth of the sabre-toothed Huckabee Sanders over and over again, and at American audiences who tend to inhale sharply at what British audiences might simply describe as a ‘spirited exchange’. Apparently Hasan later told one of his colleagues that he would have loved to have driven at Gordon harder, but he was ‘just too nice.’
And there is a corn-fed innocence about his ability to stick to the party line and defend Trump or at least refuse to criticise him in any way shape or form even when he clearly did not agree with things he had done or said. JD Gordon and I both grew up in New Jersey, the shoreline of which Trump bled dry in the 80s. Gordon does have that same suburban 7-11 highways and strip malls sort of of charm about him, like he would mow your lawn because, well heck it was just another half an acre next to his anyway.
Make no mistake. I did not admire this innocent appearance and charm. It is dangerous in the kind of conservatism that seems to be the Right’s currency of exchange in today’s political discourse. If we’re charmed by people like this, then maybe Trump’s vile, destructive, cynical ‘straight talkin’ rhetorical doggerel isn’t so bad, right?
It is that bad.
And so much worse.
And I must confess also, JD Gordon did not make Trump look any better in his responses. When confronted by Hasan’s masterfully woven portrait and narrative — and Hasan really is master interviewer — on anything from Trump’s treason, to his dishonesty to his racism, Gordon stuck to a solid stock answer with little variation: this is what the American people voted for. His defence was fairly clumsy. On the racism charge, Gordon’s main defence seemed to be that Trump’s wives were all foreigners and he had praised foreign dictators, so he can’t be racist. Check out me facepalming at 0:15 on this clip.
If he was the smiling, pragmatic, excusing, apologising face of the Trumpernaut to an audience hoping for a pantomime villain spitting lies, incoherent nonsense and uncritical dogma, Marc Porter, president of Republicans Overseas and balancing Al Jazeera’s panel for the night, did not disappoint. Like a braying jackal, howling as though he’d been viscerally wounded, he cried and shrieked at the inconvenience of facts and the way in which dozens of damning quotes said by the king of Twit had been taken out of context, but when called upon, produced nothing of substance to offer as a defence except the unfairness of using the president’s own words against him, which felt as insubstantial as so much cypsela carried away on a late summer breeze. At one point, Porter persistently claimed that Trump’s campaign did collude but that, singing the most popular tune of Fox and Friends, it didn’t matter because collusion was not a crime (I mean treason is but why split hairs?). At another, he hit back against claims that Trump was a sexual predator by firing back ‘Clinton! Clinton! Clinton!’ or something to that effect, neglecting the pesky difference between the words ‘affair’ and ‘assault’.
When it comes round to my opportunity to ask a question, I think again of my parents and rightly or wrongly, note first to JD Gordon and the audience that dear old Mom and Dad voted for Trump and they do care how many lies he tells (not verifiably true, I’m not sure my Dad gives a toss).
But I ask anyway, ‘Why should the world believe in America anymore?’
His answer ranks among the greatest of logic denials I have ever heard from an avowed conservative. Ever. And that’s saying something. That’s a list that includes the following:
— Look, if a human were raised amongst wolves he would not become a socialist.
— You want to save the whales, yet you don’t mind killing babies?!
— ‘But Dad, statistically, Trump tells a lie every five minutes…’
’Yeah? Well Hillary tells a lie every two minutes!’
I don’t know how or why right wingers seem to have this ability to veer so far off topic so quickly and to commit so great a logical fallacy with such wanton abandon, but loath to buck the trend, in response to why the world should still believe in America, Trump’s former security advisor began by thanking my parents for their support (I knew it was a mistake flagging that. Damn!) and then said:
‘Well Pete, all I can say is this is what the American people asked for and this is what they wanted. Get used to more reality TV stars holding high office because it’s going to happen more and more.’
And… that was it.
I stared, dumbfounded, unable to pick my metaphorical jaw up off the floor, knocked by the swift left hook of irrelevance as Hasan moved on to the next question. How can a response be so wrong and so ominous at the same time? Who does JD Gordon have waiting to take office after Trump, the Kardashians? So, what you’re saying is that the world shouldn’t believe in ‘Merica anymore?
It was a riveting evening. I enjoyed seeing Hasan deftly trap Gordon over and over again, but it did feel a little unequal after a while. It’s easy enough for Al Jazeera to hold the first estate to account and assemble a cathedral full of anti-Trump expats and left leaning guardianistas.
It is infinitely more challenging to dethrone the post-truth narrative that looms large over America right now. It won’t be done by carping about the popular vote, but I still think it can be done by people like Bernia Sanders and his ideological successors like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who provide solid hope, instead of a bleak picture full of fear and vitriol. But it won’t be done until we successfully challenge stupid, in all its levels, including the weird dark, Grimm’s fairytale in which Trump rules as buffoonish Goblin King. Until then, we continue to be stunned by incoherence, into incoherence. You have to laugh, really.
To check out the whole episode (and I suggest you do) click here.
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.
Flying back from Dublin. Self-satisfied and smug, having sourced a helluva deal on a return to Newark with Aer Lingus for the upcoming annual summer sojourn to the Homeland. I haven’t flown Ireland’s national airline across the pond in years. But they’re cheap this year and if the movie listings for international flights in Cara, the inflight magazine are anything to go by (I mean The Shape of Water? Blade Runner 2049? I don’t get out to the movies very often) as well as the generally pleasant, friendly and efficient service so far, the experience promises to be pretty sweet.
I must have missed a thousand pithy punchlines in the process of being starburst/chewy sweet peeler for the missus, I muse (the fecking things are wrapped so fecking tightly!). It’s my special job in the first and last half an hour of any flight while ‘er next to me winces in pain and looks — and probably feels — like that false explosive head in Total Recall that keeps glitching on ‘Two. Weeks.‘ as Schwarzenegger’s character is passing through Martian customs. I take a moment to mourn the lost inspiration as my beloved grits her teeth and grunts ‘for fuck’s sake keep the ’em coming! This is bloody painful!’
Just keep peeling…
In the last twenty minutes as we can feel the rumblings of the landing gear underneath, I excuse myself and my geriatric bladder in a 39 year old body to pee. I make my way shakily to the back of the plane.
Left restroom: vacant. Open door, squeeze in, side strut. Jump back promptly. Immediate horror. I don’t want to know who has used the bathroom sink in an airplane to wash their hair but they’ve left it clogged to shit and they’ve got the sense of accountability and the personal hygiene of a university freshman.
Leave. Unacceptable. I’m too old to accept standards like this in my toilet experiences.
Across the aisle. Slide latch. Open door. Side strut squeeze in. Latch lock. Sink? Not clogged. Good. But oh fuck.
But I grin. I bear it. I relieve myself, wash my hands, molar kernel incrementally moving back and forth like a stubborn pebble resisting the undertow.
Shudder. Open the door. Slide out and return to seat. Smile composedly and imitate normality to wife.
Resolve self to re-check British Airways flight prices when we get back within wifi range.
You don’t have to look far to find this strange and delusional man’s vision for the countryI have an abiding memory of Donald Trump that seems illustrative.
I am 12 years old. It is 1990. I am laying lazily on my grandmother’s sofa sheltering from the summer heat. The TV is on. I haven’t put it on, haven’t tuned in, haven’t consciously looked for a particular show. It’s just on. And I am vaguely aware, from my almost supine position on my grandmother’s sofa after spending all day at the beach near Point Pleasant, New Jersey and then collapsed from sheer, childish exhaustion, that there are sports commentators narrating the events of whatever I’m watching. I’m furthermore vaguely aware that there are athletes in spandex shorts and oblong helmets and brightly colored shirts and muscles rippling beneath spandex, that are pelting down asphalt, sweating their hearts out, determination and hope in their eyes.
I look up to my uncle, who has just walked in from the kitchen, probably with a sandwich in his hands. He takes one look at the TV and says to me what is perhaps one of the most politically perceptive insights I have ever had imparted to me.
‘Ah. The Tour de Trump. I think he must have been very insecure as a child. He seems to have a compulsive need to name everything after himself.’
My uncle then plops himself down on the couch and proceeds to finish his sandwich while watching the race. Nothing more that I know of was said about it, certainly not in the vast stores of my memory banks. But the more I reflect on it as I see that the Republican Party has given in to is baser urges and finally taken complete leave of its senses, shifting the responsibility of steering the thing to those who have a compulsive need to take a hard right towards the next rocky outcropping, the wiser my Uncle’s insight seems.
Because Trump did name everything after himself back then including his galactic failure of a cycling event. Trump Tower, Trump Marina, Taj Ma Trump… no wait a minute… the Trump mahal… hang on a sec. The point is, for a time in the 80s, before Trump decided to upend the monopoly board with everyone else’s pieces on it, declare bankruptcy, and start buying the world and charging us double the rent for living in it all over again, Atlantic City became Trump World, an idealistic utopian space into which we walked when we wanted to each perfect venture capitalist paradise.So, if actions are indeed stronger than words and if we take Trump’s purchase and branding of a whole city as his model for his vision of America, what do we learn, boys and girls? Well, do we want an America in which retirees gamble away their pension plans, trust funds and retirement savings on slim chances in which there are no real winners? Do we want an America that looks shiny from a certain angle, say, coming at us from the Eastern side of The Atlantic only to find that the sheen we project is only as substantial as the glass front of a seaside hotel and beyond that, we are nothing but hypnotised obese, complacent automatons, waddling or scooting to the next billboard without questioning whether our lives belong to a higher purpose? A homeland where beyond that sheen, our poor, our starving, and our huddled masses continue to huddle and continue to reach out their hands in supplication lumped together with the degenerates, the undesirables, and anyone else whose lifestyles or beliefs are alien to the interests of the United States, leaving The Great Gamesmaster in his great tower, the great big insecure child presiding over, and branding us all, from his little fiefdom on the Jersey shore to his great inward looking fiefdom smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic?
Oh, Republicans, my fellow Americans, my moderate peeps, where are you? I used to number among you. With his latest call to boycott Apple for their cowardly call to stand up for civil liberties, Trump turns my stomach. If I was still a young conservative, he would certainly have turned me liberal.
No no. This is not (as my soccer obsessed seven year old thought) me suddenly doing in-depth coverage of the Bundesliga. Thankfully, there is so much more to these two German metropolises than the combined sum of their sporting talent, rich though it is.
Having taken two excursions into the Teutonic mainland in the last year, what I was struck by was not so much how wonderfully German each city was, but how incredibly and significantly different each urban experience was. It’s a bit like comparing Dallas to Austin or Jacksonville to New York, or Bath to London. On the one hand, you have the seat of Germanness in very affluent, very laid back, warmly welcoming city of lederhosen, weissbier, and bratwurst (seemingly best combined). On the other, you have a very chic, cool, urban experience, full of high fashion, coffee culture, a rich history and international influences.
Both have their strengths, but just how do the two stack up?
Language (as in do they speak yours?)
Southern Germans, Bavarians, the good people of Munich, are genuinely friendly. They smile at you when you try to speak in a broken, fundamentally flawed version of their language. Aren’t you cute? they think, holding back the wince as they hear their precious verbs and common nouns chopped to pieces. God bless you, American-who-lives-in-London-but-has-an-inexplicably-faint-Irish-accent, you’re trying.
With a flourish of pride, I got to the point where I could order coffee, pastry and beer, though not usually in the same breath.
And they’ll smile and they’ll give you directions slowly. In English. Sometimes they’ll even let you practise your German and patiently wait and answer you back in their native tongue, as through they are speaking to a small, slow child. They seem to smile naturally in their traditional volky attire, the hills alive with the sound of Dieter and Anke.
Berlin, on the other hand, is, as they say here in fashionable London, sh*t cool. Too cool for school and certainly too cool for small talk and open and extravagant gestures of friendliness. You’ll find hipsters and slackers. You’ll find Chelsea boots and skinny jeans, and certainly where we stayed at a friend’s place in Neukölln, the Hackney/Brooklyn/West Philly/(insert your local pretentious neighbourhood here) of Berlin, flat whites and street markets full of artisanal wiener schnitzel and hemp jumpers tempered with the cries of mountain goats, but you’ll get no random acts of welcome here.
You could try speaking the language, but you won’t get very far.
‘Zwie flat white, bitte.’ Armed with ingratiating smile.
‘Sure. You want sugar in your coffee?’ is the usual response. But the eyes speak volumes. They say, in a benevolently condescending way, look pal, you are in what used to be known as the American quarter. I speak better English than you will ever speak German. Let’s save us both some time here, eh?
‘No thanks,’ I reply. Subtext: fair enough.
Which is fine. Berliners are not unfriendly, nor are they, contrary to some opinions, aggressive. They just don’t seem to feel the need to bow and scrape with open arms or mince their words when you’re in their way. Come visit us or not. We’re Berlin. We’re not going to try to sell ourselves to you. Have a coffee in the street or don’t. Don’t stand in my way while you’re doing it.
We’ve been ravaged by history and you’re coming in with your American dollar and British pound and taking pictures of it all. What do you want, a medal?
Yes, Southern Germans can commonly be found walking around the market square, chowing down on a gherkin in one hand, easing its path down the digestive tract with a tankard of hefewiezen in the other.
You’d be silly to visit Munich and not sit down in the city’s oldest Beer Hall, Hofbräuhaus, and order a pretzel and a sausage smothered with sauerkraut and mustard. Or to cycle through the Chinesischer Turm biergarten and have… you guessed it, beer and sausage. For vegetarians like myself, the beer was nice. The food can get slightly repetitive.
Though in fairness to Munich, they had one of the best vegetarian restaurants at which I have ever had the pleasure of eating, Prinz Myshkin. The Thali plate was gastronomic euphoria. But like many things in Munich, it’s fancy, beautiful and expensive.
Bavarian food is traditional, honest and most importantly, German.
I very much expected the same of Berlin.
I was very much wrong.
You’d be hard pushed to find traditional Juh-man food in this city. The first night, we ate at a vegetarian burrito bar. The first morning, we scouted out all the comforts of home: flat whites, pastries, cappuccinos served by expat Kiwis and Aussies.
We did scout out a traditional beer garden in Berlin institution Schleusenkrug (because when in Germany…), which was lovely, but even they didn’t serve Bratwurst. They served something called weiner wurst, boiled Viennese sausage with an ethereal pallor that I’d never seen in cooked meat before. To my mild surprise, my son gobbled it up, after telling the man behind the order window that he was ‘1/8 German!’ (he’s fallen into the American habit of fractioning off his identity into different older European cultures).
We hunted down the Berliner favo(u)rite, Curry wurst, but once we found the legendary Fleischerei Imbiss and the Mrs and the boy plated up, it didn’t look much different to me from a meal I was partial to as a child: hot dog, cut up, with ketchup. Apparently, the good people of the German capital add curry powder.
This is a city full of punked out pizza (Alsatian tarte flambee), Vietnamese Banh Mi, and any number of cool vegetarian and vegan places and international influences. Look for food adventures instead of traditional German fare.
Awesome Places To Go
The forecast for both our German vacations was quite gloomy. Strangely, we were luckier with weather in Berlin than Munich, which may, coupled with the fact that we accidently coincided with a Catholic feast day (man, those Southern Germans really are devout) on the day we had intended to rent a car and drive out to Neuschwanstein Castle, yet taint my consummately professional, analytical opinion.
To give Munich its due, it’s a walkable (or bikeable, as is the favo(u)red mode of transport in the city), beautiful and inspiring city. We climbed to the top of Peterskirche, to gaze out from dizzying heights over the many spires and gothic delights in the local environs. We cycled through the Englischer Garten, secluded from the city streets, larger than central park and home to two beer gardens, many playgrounds, a Parthenon-like structure, a pagoda, and several different locations for river surfing. On the last day we even had a gander at the excellent ode to scientific discovery, The Deutsches Museum, with a fine kinderreich (Kid’s Kingdom), in the basement that kept my son happy for the last day of our stay. Historical, stunning, and laid back, Munich is a marvelous city.
But there was simply something about Berlin. It wasn’t as clean, but it was edgier. Where else in the world is there an airport that’s been turned into a public park? Tempelhof Airport, where we spent a bemused half a day, ceased operating as an airport in 2008 and reopened as a public park two years later. On first approach spooky, especially on the windy day that we trekked out, there is some strange sense of joy about walking around on abandoned runways, seeing people picnic, play soccer, cycle or walk their dogs on wide open spaces where once great metal machines revved up off the ground and groaned back down as well.
I avoided the more overtly Jewish elements of Berlin tourism. Any German city is steeped in a deep and perpetual process of soul searching over The Holocaust. The one ‘cargo’ train at the end of one of the sheds in the Technikmuseum was enough for me. What fascinated me more was the incredibly rich history surrounding the Berlin Wall, the fall of which seemed in many ways to be the pinnacle historical event of my childhood, playing out in breaking real time on all our television monitors as I sat glued at the tender age of 11.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend traipsing from Brandenburg Tor to Checkpoint Charlie on a cold day with a seven year old, but the boy did enjoy watching trains in futuristic Potzdamer Platz Station and we enjoyed the rest.
That depends on you, doesn’t it?
Do you want beer, pretzels and lederhosen, red-faced Germans pulling you pints of tasty Bavarian brew? Or do you want to see the graffiti that marked a thousand heartbreaks during the communist era and then sip away the contemplative sorrows of history in Becketts Kopf?
More importantly, with two cities this cool in one country, why haven’t you booked your ticket yet? Don’t expect me to tell you where to go! Get a move on, man and make up your own mind. Go, become more cultured, experience the continent, experience the world as it is in all its glory.
Off you pop!
Let me know what you think.
When I first ventured abroad on a study abroad programme to a place in Ireland called Maynooth, I was enchanted by the spirit of adventure. I booked a flight that would arrive two days earlier than my semester abroad programme started so as to spend a couple of days experiencing all that Dublin, this capital city in foreign soil on which my feet had never tread, could offer. So I booked myself into Avalon House, a swanky hostel as far as hostels go, according to the Dublin Rough Guide in 1999, and probably still is today, I haven’t been back there in about 15 years. I do know from their website, they still seem to do a healthy business.
And it was a nice place. Sure, you still share rooms, but it was cosy and clean and had more in the way of amenities than my now better traveled self knows that some hostels have, which is not much, having stayed in hostels in other parts of Ireland and Spain since then. But the majority of you know what hostels are like. You’ve got to be careful in selecting them. This is where you rest your head for the night. This is where you go to seek respite from the hard day of globetrotting, of become more worldly wherever you are.
Which is all to say that I was ill prepared for a hostel as sleek, stylish and cool as the Generator Hostel here in London. I was fortunate enough to attend their relaunch party on Thursday evening and you can see that it was quite the happening atmosphere. If this is what hostels are like nowadays, I might have to revisit this mode of accommodation.
The night was buzzing with an atmosphere of bacchanalia and revelry. Bright young things lithely lounged in a comfy and welcoming atmosphere smoothly designed with an eye for detail. If Generator can make you feel this welcome on a launch night, think what they can do if you stay at their hostel.
Infused with a heavy rhythm provided by NTS Radio and Eglo records, the party was a sensory circus, complete with free photo booth, dance floor and chill out area.
So, if you find yourself in this fine capital and need a base from which to explore, Generator is a great bet. Rooms are reasonable and stylish. Service is friendly and accommodating. And hey, does a party like this not suggest something of the spirit of their hospitality?
Generator has eight hostels throughout Europe including Copenhagen and Venice. I didn’t ask about loyalty cards, but this is definitely a brand that inspires return custom.
Book rooms now at Generator London. Enjoy!
I don’t tend to trust books that are ubiquitously popular. It’s why I came very reluctantly and very late to Dan Brown (when I read Da Vinci Code, it only confirmed my worst suspicions: watered down Foucault’s Pendulum). It’s why one of my students had to recommend, pester and finally bully me into reading The Hunger Games. I somehow feel that if everyone’s reading it, there must be something wrong with it, as though there is some embedded message washing over us like waves of radiation as we read: we must read this book, we must read this book. When it comes to books that receive near universal approbation, I feel near enough to the same way that Henry Fielding felt about Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.
It is for this reason that I came late the Harry Potter phenomenon. I just didn’t trust throngs of commuters furtively hiding a tattered, well thumbed copy of what was initially known as a children’s book obviously behind the cover of a shiny new copy of War and Peace. Or worse still, trying to dignify their choice of reading material with an ‘adult cover’ as they were later published.
But, we all come to a point in our lives when we need pure narrative, something just to envelope ourselves in and in which to pleasantly laze away our hours after a day, or say a university course that involves a pressure cooker of thought for months to years on end. My wife was at just such a point at the end of her degree when she picked up the JK Rowling saga. I scoffed dismissively for years, but you build up a curiosity. You run into a sort of domestic critical mass, you pick up the book one day and you start reading and you find you don’t want to leave a world in which magic exists. I wasn’t hooked from the start, but I was hooked when I finally started.
I mean really hooked as well. All the midnight openings and launch parties, adult and child covers, and the whole magic hat full of the Potter universe. We once stood outside of The East Side Bookshop in Brick Lane with its shutters nearly closed at 2 am with our friend Aoife, driven to get Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, begging to be let in to pay our £10.99 to take home the volume and consume the latest in the saga.
And now, with a seven year old son of my own who is consuming the books quicker than you can down a pint of pumpkin juice at the start of the school year feast (he’s currently on The Order of The Phoenix), we find ourselves in close proximity to where the magic all happened in the film adaptation of these spellbinding tales. And as luck happens, our very good friend Vikki King, worked on the first three films, making the puppetry for house elves and owls and basilisks (Oh My!) and has a son who just happens to be our little American Londoner’s schoolmate.
So it was off to Watford in Northwest London and the Warner Brothers Studios where the films were made to immerse ourselves in movie magic, wander wide eyed through The Great Hall, stroll past Harry’s Gryffindor dormitory with its four poster beds and it’s prep school charm, take turns riding atop a broomstick in front of a green screen on which the good employees at The HP Experience could superimpose all manner of backgrounds to make it look as though you were flying right over the Thames, through a stormy quidditch match, or banking with the winding train line through the middle of the country speeding towards Hogwarts. I have to say, it was rather spectacular. Particular highlights include The Burrow, magically cleaning itself and doing its own ironing, vegetable chopping and folding, and of course, Diagon Alley, the immersive pleasure of passing by Flourish and Blotts unsure of what brand of quills to purchase, dreaming of owning the Firebolt and using it to ascend to new heights of quidditch mastery, or mulling over spending your last few galleons on a packet of puking pastilles from Fred and George’s joke shop.
Alas, that is one of this venue’s shortcomings, that all of the magic creates a skin deep illusion that cannot really be interacted with beyond a visual, sometimes tactile level. It was the deal breaker for the missus, who wondered, ‘why couldn’t you actually go into any of the shops in Diagon Alley?’ That was a bit disappointing.’
To which my response was, ‘You want Florida. That’s the Harry Potter Experience where you can actually be a part of the whole thing.’
‘Oh. It’s finally happened hasn’t it? I’m just an American in search of a theme park, aren’t I?’
I sympathize utterly though. It probably could have been a more interactive experience, as though the world of Harry Potter was living and breathing before you on a loop that allowed you to enter and take part at any point. My fellow expat blogger, Sunny In London, has written a useful comparison of the Watford Harry Potter Experience and the one in her native Florida. Enjoyable though Watford was, what I’ve read does make me want to check out the Floridian Islands of Adventure that include The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
And as we’re speaking of shortcomings, if you do journey to Watford (which, again, is completely worth it so long as you know what to expect), bring your own food. The comestibles available on the backlot between the two halves of the tour were dire. Dry egg and ham sandwiches or hot dogs moistened with cold saccharine butter beer (all the internet recipes we’ve ever used involve warming the Hogsmeade bevvy in the microwave to help the butterscotch and the cream soda froth up and marry and it’s damn comforting on a cold and windy Halloween night in) were the orders of the day. There was a cafe at the front that didn’t look much more edible and it goes without saying, food prices were ludicrous. We were under what now seems to have been a misconception that BYO was prohibited. I saw people unwrapping pack lunches and digging in and no one was telling them off. It seemed a pretty poor tribute to a series of books so replete with such vivid descriptions of food that can wreak a frankly Pavlovian effect on the most detached of readers.
One of the great bonuses of having a former employee of the movie franchise with us was that we were let in on the secret that in the wand room at the end of the tour, every wand box has a name of anyone who has worked on any of the films. And though it was like sifting through a mythical haystack for a magical needle, I’m quite proud to say that, in among all the writer’s and actor’s names, I found our friend Vikki’s wand box at which there was much rejoicing. I knew there was a use for my ability to sift through unconnnected symbols and make sense out of verbal chaos somewhere in the universe.
I would heartily recommend the experience, though pick your times. Traffic was nonexistent first thing on a Sunday. It might well be a different story in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Aside from your pack lunches, you need only bring your imagination and your love of the magic of stories. Now, off to put in some more hours studying occlumency. And then an essay on blast-ended screwts for Monday. Cor Blimey!
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Sandy Castle, a living monument to the indomitability of spirit of my runtish home state of New Jersey.
I’m a little late with posting this, given that we marked Hurricane Sandy’s one year anniversary a couple weeks ago. I posted then about the devastation that I bore witness to when I visited my cousin over the summer. The tone, overall, was somber and reverential, which was right and appropriate.
But there are and have been some amazing efforts made by Jerseyans to rebuild a vibrant area. Sandy Castle is one that I have seen developing since Spring, when Ed Jarrett, Guiness record holding sand sculptor got in touch with his friend, Jersey resident Alan Fumo, and decided to try to break his own record for the world’s tallest sandcastle, all proceeds going to Hometown Heroes, a group providing aid to those who suffered and continue to suffer in the recovery from the storm.
The local communities around the area of Point Pleasant really got behind the effort. And with a symbol so iconically evocative of childhood memories of the Jersey shore, sitting sandy toed and smiling by ends of the waves, building great edifices with turrets and spires and great big windows to the imagination, who couldn’t get behind the Sandy Castle project?
Jarrett pooled his “labor” from local district schools, with whole crews of children sweating it out in the sun (with regular air-conditioned breaks of course), dedicated to raising up the world’s tallest sand castle. Two of those laboring volunteers were second cousins of mine, Ian and Sean, who we had the privilege of having as our guides to Sandy Castle when we visited in August.
We saw Sandy Castle on our annual summer pilgrimage to the homeland, recollections of which often feature on this blog. After my cousin took us on a drive through the barrier island route, on which I bore witness to the destruction wrought by the terrible force that was Sandy, it restored my faith to take an old times’ sake walk on the boardwalk and to see this tribute to community spirit in a very much reconstructed and revived Point Pleasant Beach.
I know, I have often waxed lyrical about a misty eyed childhood spent loitering in places like Lucky Leo’s arcade wildly chucking skeeballs towards a target in hopes of winning tickets that would lead to brightly colored tat; or traversing the circuit of the old Waterworks theme park, down waterslides, floating endlessly in inner tubes on the lazy river, back up a slippery ladder I would pull my prepubescent self and back down the waterslides to start the whole perpetual cycle of waterlogged joy. But that’s because there are parts of Jersey that do hold that magic, that aura, are the seat of many a nostalgic treasure.
So it was gladdening to take my own son, with his older cousins, to this seat of nostalgia and to share with him, like the passing of a generational torch, the glories of the boardwalk. Not sure at first how he would react, being six, up past his bedtime, and not often on even mild roller coaster, we set him loose with his tickets to ride, his older cousins, and fun and merriment all around. Alighting from an airplane themed ride that swung him round at a gentle pace and allowed him to control the plane’s ascent or descent by a few feet either way with a throttle, he looked around at us, dumbfounded and inscrutable. Was he about to cry? Was he confused, nauseous, angry? None of the above as it turned out when the corners of his mouth surged upwards in a grin, his eyes widened and he crowed, “That. Was. Awe-some!”
My son had been baptised unto the boardwalk. The torch was passed.
On to Sandy Castle and a friendly greeting from Ed Jarrett, but the grand tour from my cousin’s husband and sons who toiled away helping Jarrett to build Sandy Castle. The first attempt to break his own record, which appears second in this post, was still up when we were visiting, complete with a list of items including flags, fish, gargoyles and other assorted castle ornamentations to sought out by visitors. Ed Jarrett’s first attempt crumbled slightly below the record mark after an unfortunate visit from some vehicles combing the beach and a special visit from Mr Obama who was keenly interested in Mr. Jarrett’s work. Like the shore itself though, Sandy Castle rebuilt, rising phoenix-like from the ashes to stand tall.
Sandy Castle explored, other traditions were to be kept. We taught my son the fine art of skeeball, pastime of kings. I learned, finally, that the joy is in the playing of the game, not in the prizes, which are always cheap and tatty unless you are a world champion skeeballer (I’m pretty close I’m sure. I need practice). Alas, he is too young yet for that lesson and there is joy in acquiring tokens for tickets for prizes.
And so the witching hour came and so concluded our time in this idyllic cradle of neon for another year. My heart was lifted though, with the notion that the shore would survive, thrive, and create new memories for us for years to come, and that Sandy Castle stood as testament to it.
…The 5th of November. That’s the rhyme that the English use to get schoolchildren to remember that great precedent-setting event of Great Brrritish history: the foiling of a terrorist plot. That’s right. Guy Fawkes celebrates the war on terror, four hundred years old and still going strong.
Okay, okay. It doesn’t just celebrate the foiling of a terrorist plot.
It also celebrates burning Catholics.
So, get your marshmallows out. The fam and I made it out to a community celebration on Saturday to watch some fireworks lit off and what can I say? It was festive, as a lot of these celebrations are nowadays — no longer indelibly connected with morbid origins, they’re now just about getting together with your neighbour, reconnecting and lighting off some pyrotechnic displays, a bit like on the 4th of July, which, by the by, this is the closest the British have to, with mulled wine and flasks of coffee instead of brewskies and hot dogs.
If you’re still confused about what Guy Fawkes Day actually celebrates, have a look at the video below. It’s wildly hilarious and explains the occasion quite concisely while raising some interesting points of comparison with our contemporary political climate.
Enjoy that? Good. As you know from my last post, I’m doing Movember again this year. I’ve already raised £30 because of some very generous donations so far, but I’d like to hit £100 this week. Please click on the link below and donate a fiver to raising awareness of men’s health issues and to the greatness of my tache (it will be great by the end of the month, I tell you). Thanks!