Just You Wait: Reflections on Hamilton, Founders Chic and the Need for an Example in the post-truth era
There were two types of people in high school in the late 90s: those that screamed and swooned and became haunted with a lost look in their eyes at the mention of Tori bloody Amos (I mean Christ I had friends who wrote flipping research papers about her) with a log-lady like protectiveness, and those that wondered what the fuck they were on about.
I must confess, dear reader, I fell into the latter.
I fell outside the clove-cigarette smoking circle.
I couldn’t tell you y Tori kant read.
And I was never a Cornflake Girl.
Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the beauty of her music; perhaps it’s just envy or frustration that I missed the rapturous mass convrersion to the Church of Tori.
So it goes with most obsessive fads: Harry Potter, Bubble Tea, Christianity.
Blink and you miss the wave and the further it drifts away from you the less fun it seems like to catch.
Which is funny really, because I write to you from inside the Hamilton bubble, that wonderful phenomenon of storytelling that has swept from Broadway to most major American cities and now on to the London stage and that everyone who is anyone seems to be talking about and seems to know everything about.
Except me. I knew almost nothing. I heard vague references to a hip hop musical and Alexander Hamilton, who had always been a footnote in American history books mentioned somewhere in connection with federalist papers (yes, it’s true when they say ‘every other founding father’s story gets told’). And I hadn’t expected much because I’m one of those people who’s just ‘not that into musicals’ (I hated Billy Elliot the musical. Did I mention? Awww look at all the cute Northern miners striking for their very fucking survival! Good job, Elton John for condescending to them and treating them like pixies!)
And this wasn’t some desperate grab for tickets. This wasn’t me entering the Hamilton lottery every day or calling ticketmaster or camping out like I did for Ani DiFranco tickets back in Penn State. This was pure luck. My editor at The American happened to be unable to go and so he offered it up to me. On the night my mother-in-law was landing from Dublin for Christmas.
I ask you not to judge me for choosing Hamilton.
I wish I could buck the trend and say it didn’t live up to the hype.
‘Well,’ my brother intoned to me skeptically over facenet with digitally raised eyebrows, a couple days after I had seen the show, ‘I hope it’s more than just… gushing praise.’
I mean it was articulate gushing praise.
My younger sibling was worried that I had not caught on to the trend of Founders chic, the celebration and the cool rebranding of our anglophile, landowning, manipulative power hungry founding fathers and the backlash against said trend. He was right. I hadn’t been all that aware that John Adams had been made cool again or that all the kids were pejoratively referring to their worst enemies in the playground as lobsterbacks.
And I get the point. I really do. We spent the first couple hundred years setting up these white men indignant at having less privilege than their British counterparts as Gods. And I know it’s not as simple as that, but it’s also not that much more complicated. George never came clean about the cherry tree. He never chopped down the cherry tree. It was a myth invented by Washington’s first biographer. Draw what conclusions you will but that tells you a lot more about our national character and our unquestioning belief in the deified founding fathers than any account of our first commander-in-chief’s life and times.
But is re-interpreting Hamilton’s life as an inspirational tale of an American grafter overcoming adversity by pulling himself up by his bootstraps really dangerous? As a former History major and a former teacher of History, I can sympathise (see above for my irreverence and unquestioning acknowledgement of our ‘founding fathers” non-greatness and flawed humanity) with the frustrated historians who see it that way. After all, I refused to shell out to see The Iron Lady in 2011 because I’m not going to financially support anything that humanises a woman who would gladly see her fellow MPs die on Hunger Strike and question their virility before she would negotiate for their rights as prisoners of war. To be sure, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill looks compelling but I’m deeply skeptical of the perpetual lionisation of prime minister who changed parties twice and didn’t really know what to do without a war to get him up and going in the morning (or midday… or whenever he slept off the previous night’s whiskey as it were).
But here’s the thing. Because Hamilton includes references to history does not mean it is to be taken as a History Lesson. It is fiction. A compelling story. But no more an attempt at a factual historical account than Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most compelling portraits of witty, villainous, despotism in which the bard, according to many frustrated British historians, greatly maligned the last Plantagenet.
And I’m not going to repeat the obvious arguments in greater detail than has already been outlined with greater eloquence than I could accomplish here (that hip hop subverts the white elitism that was the currency of Hamilton and Washington’s era and forces us to reflect on it with fresh eyes, that Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians playing historical figures who would have been exclusively white also challenges us to a process of cognitive reevaluation of the way we perceive our history).
What I will say is that we need Hamilton as a story and as a national mirror of who we are, and we need its critics every bit as much. We need Hamilton for reasons that neither Lin Manuel-Miranda nor anyone else could have anticipated back when the show opened in 2015, that its jibes at major political leaders would seem so much more poignant now than they did then. That we would suffer such a paucity of leadership that James Comey would join the ranks of bestseller authors by building a case several hundred pages long about the poverty of leadership from which we as a nation currently suffer. And we also need Hamilton because one of its very true facts: that unlike some of our current and recent political leaders, Hamilton came clean about his sexual misdeeds. He faced up and ‘overwhelmed them with honesty.’ He showed us how to handle a scandal. It may have circumscribed his political ambitions, but at least he was honest.
So read Hamilton‘s critics. Get to know them. Understand them. If this magically inspiring historical musical that is as American the spirit of protest that allows us to use our greatest words to protest through historical analysis, and to be inspired by an engaging narrative about energy, ambition and drive, then more power to it.
Catching Fire, the second instalment in The Hunger Games franchise comes out on DVD and blu ray here in the UK today and I can’t seem to help admitting to what amounts to a cardinal sin in the world of English teachers: I like the film better than the book. I know. I’m breaking my own rules and perhaps incensing the old guard of bookworms everywhere, which is why I feel compelled to justify myself.
But first, allow me to say, I’m a big fan of The Hunger Games books. The series had been popular with my students for years. In fact, I only read it on the suggestion of one of my favourite students who insisted that I borrow her copy of the book (Don’t fool yourselves. Teachers have favourites. Anyone who says they don’t is lying). It took me a while to fold myself into the texture and rhythm of the book’s prose, but once I did, I was hooked.
I have to admit, it’s partly because I harbour a secret and perhaps flawed belief that Katniss Everdeen is a Pennsylvanian. Don’t disabuse me of my illusions. Pennsylvania has one of the largest anthracite coal regions in the world. It’s perfectly plausible that a dystopian authoritarian state would reopen those unsafe mines if they considered the workforce disposable. Yes, certainly part of what propelled me forward in my reading of the books was my emotional investment in a heroine with whom I shared a stately, if distant and adopted heritage.
However much I try to get away from it though, there is an undercurrent of doubt. Not just about the fact that Katniss may in fact really be a (gasp) Virginian, but also about the overall quality of Collins’ writing. Yes, the story was brilliant, but a feeling kept niggling away at me that I was reading a very well written story by one of my high school students who wanted desperately to impress with all the right vocabulary and all the subtlety of a rhinoceros with a word processor.
Here’s why, in three simple points:
1. Teeny bopper romance. Squeal. Hashtag. #Squeal. #Lesigh.
I know that Suzanne Collins obviously has her target audience: teenagers. But most teenagers — and I know this from working with them for over a decade — don’t want to be talked down to and can tell when it’s happening before you even start talking. Or writing. So while I’m hooked by the wonderfully dark, if slightly implausible, Shirley Jackson-esque, dystopian aspects of Panem, I also find Katniss’ “teenage moments” for a story that deals with such grownup things as death and sacrifice, an oppressive dominant force as the state, to be jarring at best, queasy at worst.
We get dragged through over two hundred pages of visceral savagery… between children! And then, narratologically, to what do we return? To Katniss’ torn inner conflict as to which way her heart is drawn. We’re back in Twilight territory, which is really quite disappointing because I thought we’d somehow got past vampires and here was a love triangle sucking the lifeblood out of the story. Are you on Team Gale or Team Peeta?
Instead of the philosophical distance we might expect from an adult Katniss looking back on the most traumatic period of her life, we get an immature consideration, the pubescent cliches drip out of the page like so many insecurities dribbling from the mentally squalid adolescent’s mind. “He stops to gather wild flowers for me. When he presents them, I work hard to look pleased. Because he can’t know (they) only remind me of… Gale.”
Pass. The. Bucket.
And the last page, dripping thick with angst, “already, the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.”
And yet, the film weaves none of this well worn and trampled upon rug of teenage plots before us. The film is a fine, thoroughly adult balance of found footage, and eerily slick, funhouse future, twisted and gleefully glutted on an excess of ecstatic neo-Roman Empire type violence.
2. Good Grief. Talk about unreliable narrators, Charlie Brown. Katniss, honey, get. over yourself.
I mean, one minute, she’s the poor girl from the wrong district with no illusions about her own worth in the universe and a jaded outlook on her situation. The next minute, she’s swaggering through the pages like the Beyoncé of district tributes. After she and her co-tribute, Peeta, and the other sacrificial lambs from the other districts are paraded around for the masses in the capital, she proudly exclaims, “every head is turned our way,” “I can’t suppress my excitement,” and finally, “we’ve outshone them all.” I can hardly tell whether she’s getting ready to kill or on X Factor and while I’m sure that’s part of Collins’ point, the triumphant tone is really hard to take.
At least give us some sense of peril. Some sense of danger, as Jennifer Lawrence gives us with such intensity in her portrayal of Katniss. I know she’s everywhere and everyone loves her, but, since I don’t compliment film and tv actors as a rule, so therefore it must mean something, so I will say, part of what is so very gripping about the film is the way the performances, Lawrence’s in particular, drag you into the center of the emotional maelstrom at the heart of the protagonist’s struggle, much more effectively in fact, than the book.
3. Subtlety has left the building. Repeat. Subtlety has left the building.
Every once in a while, when I was an eager eyed youth in the suburbs of New Jersey and then the rural backwaters of Penn’s Woods, there was at least one among us who would ask the teacher, if we were required to maintain a perfect standard of English in all our writing and composition at all times, why were we reading writers like Mark Twain, who used grammatically incorrect colloquialisms, F Scott Fitzgerald, who experimented with sentence fragments at times and a conversational tone of a confidant with Nick Carraway, William Fauklner, whose sentences seemed to spiral on interminably into the clouds of narrative (talk about run-ons). How come we had to meet a standard of English that these ‘great writers’ didn’t seem to exemplify themselves?
The teacher’s reply was no more inventive, lamentably, than the explanation that I’ve often given to my own students. “Well, if you sat Mr Dickens or Ms O’Connor down here right now and asked them to write me a grammatically correct sentence, do you think for a minute they wouldn’t know how to do it? Of course they would.” Yup. That was usually about it. I don’t know. If you said something with an authoritative enough tone and you’re standing behind a desk, sometimes the effect is mysteriously subdued. It’s a pity most of the time, they didn’t say, “James Joyce knows the rules. He’s intentionally said screw the rules. Let’s see how much fun we can have with language and revolutionise storytelling in the process.”
I’m not convinced that Suzanne Collins knows the rules, even if you had her in front of you and you could ask her. Let’s take a simile for instance. In Catching Fire, when her sister reminds her of Rue, the young girl from district 11 that she befriended, she mentally exclaims, “Bam! It’s like someone actually hits me in the chest. No one has of course, but the pain is so real I take a step back.” Oh Suzanne. We know no one’s really hit Katniss. That’s the beauty of figurative language. You can subtly drop things onto a page that will powerfully haunt the reader. But oh no, you have to go out of your way to make us feel like idiots and drain any real power from each and every sentence. All I can be thankful for is that she didn’t say, “It’s like someone literally hits me in the chest.” There’s nearly nothing worse than confusing the figurative for the literal.
And a when a powerful simile or metaphor wouldn’t be out of place, you choose the blandness of superlative description. As the train pulls into district 11 on the victors’ tour, Katniss can smell “an excellent meal being prepared.” Excellent? Excellent? Not savoury, or beautifully seasoned, or tantalising, not mouthwatering in a mildly pavlovian way? That’s like saying a meal that’s just above very good, but a little unmemorable, or at least I’m not going to start with a distinct memory associated with a flavour first, that might tell the reader something real and concrete and give them an actual sense of scene. In President Snow’s mansion, on the buffet tables, “everything you can think of, and things you never dreamed of, lie in wait.” Isn’t that profound? Everything I can think of? I can think of a lot, but what I want to see is what the texture of this world, what the fabric of this moment is all about, but retreating into vagaries like “everything you can think of” just sounds a bit like, “Oh, just use your imagination. I don’t know quite what to tell you.”
Given that I sped right through the books at a breakneck pace, stopping for only for meals and occasionally to answer students’ questions, it can’t have been all bad. The story is genuinely compelling, which is what held me, but it amazes me that we can bring ourselves to overlook these niggling doubts in favour of a good yarn. The power of narrative.
Whereas, in the films — so far anyway — I find none of these faults. A thoroughly enthralling and at the same time, thought-provoking piece of visual narrative.
By all means, read the book, engage with the text. Get to know what the movie misses, but bear in mind, for a taut, well told story, for once, hard as it is to say, the film is significantly better. Order, watch, enjoy. May the odds be ever in your favor.
And on an entirely different note…
It’s St Paddy’s day, gentle folk. One way to celebrate traditionally is to attend a Ceili, a traditional Irish session of music and dancing, which is just what we did on Friday night, to benefit truly magnificent organisation called Street Child World Cup. Check out the video of what it’s all about here and see what more you can do to help drive the serpent scourge of poverty and malnutrition from countries taking part. Quite a catchy song too! 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!
“Isn’t this so exciting?” I am giddy.
We are at the BBC Studios in London for a Radio 4 recording. Radio 4 recordings rank among my favorite things to do in London (that and listening to Radio 4 in the morning while thinking snooty thoughts about all the other commuters on the train, but that is a different blog post). It keeps the “entertainment” budget down and is always a blast.
I am whispering in the hushed tones of a sweaty palmed schoolgirl about to meet Harry Styles. As it happens, I am not about to meet Harry Styles. I am about to meet David Sedaris, author of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and When You Are Engulfed In Flames as well as many other canonical classics. He is my expat writing idol. We are here to watch him record another series of readings for the BEEB’s next season of Meet David Sedaris. Initially excited at the prospect of having my favorite book of his, Me Talk Pretty One Day, signed by the man himself, I could now feel my nerves gathering. We had arrived so early that our timing bordered on unfashionable; such was our fear that we’d be turned away because of Sedaris’ popularity.
I had also expected the book signing to be afterwards in some chaotic rush waiting at the “stage door” like some stadium rock concert. Contrary to this, when the kind employees of the BBC usher us in, we are given a choice: directly into the theatre to the right or the line to the left if you have anything you want signed. And there, sitting behind a modest table and chatting affably to attendees who had brought books to sign was David Sedaris, smiling broadly as though his favorite thing to do of a Sunday afternoon was to shoot the breeze with his readers and sign autographs. I get to meet him sooner than I expected, I think, but what will I say? I haven’t even had time to come up with anything witty or even competent.
Further adding to my discombobulation is the man in front of us in the line, who is (some might say selfishly) squeezing as many precious moments of time as he could out of his encounter. “So sorry about this,” he says. “I’ve brought these for my book club.” He piles onto the table six thick volumes that might as well be The Collected Works of David Sedaris. I do hope the book club appreciate the effort, I think to myself. And the time.
“That’s okay,” David reassures, “Nobody minds.” His kindly eyes look sincere, but I’m not sure he means it. I raise my eyebrows to the missus, who looks at me admonishingly.
Book Club Man walks into the theatre door, his volumes bulging from his rucksack.
It’s our turn.
“Hey, we’re both wearing corduroy jackets! What do you think of that?” Already Sedaris has thrown me a curveball by remarking on our sartorial similarities.
“Quite. A. Co-inc-i-Denice?” I say, standing smiling stupidly, frozen in headlights. Uncharactieristically, I find myself a bit starstruck. The man is making polite conversation and I am acting like he’s thrown a mind-clearing zen riddle at me. Plus, my voice sounds a half octave higher than it should. Whether it’s to match Sedaris’ own high-pitched strain or anxiety, I’m not sure. I cast around mentally for a response to redeem myself and my mother-in-law’s favorite aphorism about how, “great minds think alike… And fools seldom differ!” comes to mind, but I discard it since it sounds just as foolish as what I’ve already said, which is not much.
Irish people generally and large numbers of Britons pride themselves on passing celebrities in the street with casual indifference. It’s one of the reasons why artists and musicians love spending time in Ireland (that and they pay no income tax). One Irishman famously refused to vacate an elevator for President Clinton’s visit to the Guiness Brewery in Dublin uttering, “Sure, who’s he that I should have to move for the likes of him?”
It’s one of the nicer qualities I thought I had acquired having lived over twelve years with an Irish person. According to my Irish wife, we have passed British actress Denise Van Outen, Spice Girl Gerri Halliwell, and no less a demigod of Broadway and The West End than Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber (yes, he is a lord, lil’ crazy, huh?) in the streets of this fair metropolis. They could be nobodies or (worse yet) anonymous estate agents for all the notice I took of them at the time. In fact the only thing that strikes me as memorable about any of those encounters is the way Paula gleefully observed how plain Denise Van Outen looked, which, apparently, “just goes to show it’s all makeup and airbrushing.”
Still, for all my celebrity nonchalance, here I was in front of David Sedaris, a man whose writing I found both riotously funny and also felt deeply “connected” to, amusing and poignant at times in equal measure, standing. Mute. Smiling like the village idiot.
I’m from Pennsylvania.
I’ve seen a lot of village idiots.
“We would like you to inscribe it to our son,” we manage to tell him before I go dumbstruck. “He’s six, so of course your writing is entirely inappropriate for him now, but we’re sure he’ll appreciate it when he’s older.”
“Any other children?”
“No, just the one.”
“Well, you’re going to have another one in 2015,” Sedaris confidently predicts. “The ultrasound will say it’s a girl, but it will actually be a boy, and although he will have an incredibly small penis, he’ll get on really well in life, great personality, wonderfully talented and you’ll name him… Congressman! Yes, you’ll name him Congressman.” I have to admit, at least until halfway through, he had us with his predictive powers, and now he has us and the rest of the line of attendees waiting for autographs in tears laughing. You either appreciate David Sedaris’ sense of humor or you don’t, like the marmite of memoir funny men. Paula jokes with him about how our son is half-American and how we were once told by American Embassy staff that he could be president legally if he wanted to. “or Congressman!” quips Sedaris. “Or Congressman!” repeats Paula, who seems to suffer from no similar case of starststruckness.
I am reminded of the time when I was 15 and I stalked Michael Stipe for three blocks down South Street in Philly, my friends reluctantly in tow, to finally follow him into the since closed Rhino Cafe, shake his hand and tell him what a great inspiration his music was and would always be to me. Yet here I stand before an eloquent and witty writer in a state of paralysis.
Sedaris gives us our signed copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, we thank him, and we walk into the theatre. As we sit at the back with Paula still raving about how funny and strange he is at the same time, I half- distractedly open the book and read the inscription:
I knew your parents when they were young.
Well played, Mr Sedaris. Well played indeed.
“Ah well,” I sigh. “I wanted to say so much to him.” And it’s true. I did.
“Oh, Pete,” Paula says with effortless condescension. “Probably best that you didn’t.”
The lights dim, the producer announces the show, I sit back, resigned to the fact that she is probably right.
– – – – –
If you’ve never read David Sedaris’ writing before, do get your hands on some of his stuff, post-haste. I heartily recommend Me Talk Pretty One Day, a book that has caused me to utter embarrassingly loud guffaws on the train. By myself.
And if you are in London or indeed anywhere in the UK for any extended period of time, get yourself on the BBC mailing list for free tickets to live recordings. They’re bags of fun and they’re free!
I’ve recently starting writing for The American magazine, which I’m amazingly excited about because they are a genuinely fantastic monthly publication dedicated to keeping the expat community informed about goings on at home and relevant happenings abroad. They sent me out to see Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, which has just opened on The West End and is spectacular, in large part because they’ve got an absolutely brilliant Willy Wonka, played by the English actor Douglas Hodge. I thought it a timely opportunity to post about our recent little trip to The Roald Dahl Museum and more importantly, this gem of an English village where the Anglo-Norwegian writer lived for so many years, Great Missenden.
Having finally acquired a British driving license, I was looking forward to using the old motor to liberate us and take in a few of the sights and treasures around the UK. My son’s a huge fan of Roald Dahl (he’s read them all except Matilda and Danny Champion of the World. And the adult stuff. He is six), so we thought one of the first places to go was The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre tucked away in The Chilterns on the way to Oxfordshire.
Aside from getting out of London and contending with FA Cup traffic in the process — which took the longest part of the trip — it was a lovely drive (which is, by the by, the reason these photos are not my own. Phone battery drained fulfilling satnav function). I’d forgotten how pleasurable driving can be sometimes.
The Museum itself was good. Ish.
Don’t get me wrong. They’ve done a great job in installing some wonderfully presented rooms about the great man’s life and works, but for families on a day out, with a fairly lacklustre attitude conveyed by the employees, I wasn’t sure there was anything we couldn’t have done with my son at home with some markers, some paper and a copy of The Giraffe, Pelly and Me and The Great Glass Elevator.
What I was much more impressed by was the village that hosts the museum and that Dahl called his home for over thirty years. Imagine what you’ve always pictured England to look like. Open your eyes. There. You have Great Missenden before you. No doubt the town planners and their permission forms work hard to maintain such charm, but complete with narrow cobblestone streets, treelined little roads and a sleepily pleasant atmosphere even on the weekends despite Dahl tourism, this little hamlet is the place to explore.
Handily enough, before even paying the admission price for a family (it’s nice, but is it £21 nice?), the museum has free brochures detailing village and country walks following on the trail of different Roald Dahl narratives. See the woods that inspired The Fantastic Mr Fox, have a look in at the library at which Matilda read all those classics and became inspired by literature, and see the timber house that inspired Sophie’s “norphanage” in The BFG, all for the price of gas.
I do applaud the efforts of The Museum in paying tribute to such an amazing writer, but if I were to go back again, it’s for this village, a real piece of vintage Britannia at its best.
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?
Ray Bradbury was arguably the most influential Science Fiction author of the 20th and 21st century. The world is a lesser place for his incisive commentary on our ever increasing conflict between technology and humanity.
The great American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury exemplified this in his prescient stories and novels. By his own admission, Farenheit 451 is more about the decimation of interest in literature by television than it is about censorship. How many of us, like Montag’s wife, have felt at times more emotionally invested in a television character’s life than our own? How many times have we seen the awful consequences of children being satisfied in all their material desires and being allowed to have an overflowing cup of the pleasure principle, as in ‘The Veld’?
As has been noted so many times by so many critics, Bradbury was the accessibly science fiction writer. I love Isaac Asimov, but he is the domain of the Sci-fi nerd almost exclusively. Equally, I love the works of Kurt Vonnegut, but there is once in every reading of Vonnegut where I feel the joke has gone slightly over my head.
Bradbury struck the right balance while still conveying sharp insight and most of all, capturing our fear of losing more and more of our dwindling humanity in our struggle with science and technology.
Do check out Margaret Atwood’s lovely article on Bradbury in last week’s Guardian right here.