Category Archives: Uncategorized

Now, We Fight Back

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Photo by @pollyjohughes (dissembledesign.com)

7/7. The Opening Ceremony of The Olympics. Marching in The Women’s March on Saturday. Recalled moments in which I have felt a welling sense of pride in my adopted city.

They say that the arts thrive in times of intense uncertainty and pressure. I believe it true of progressivism as well. That we will become stronger through having our beliefs tested to the utter limits over the next four years I do not doubt. Though unwelcome, I wonder if the left perhaps needs this in order to sort ourselves out and pick more exciting candidates that act as beacons of moral leadership.

Whatever the sinister circumstances that brought us together over the weekend, let us not let it break us apart in the trying times ahead. Let us counter every one of Trump’s utterances of moral depravity with fierce, fierce love and unity. Let us counter his cynical, insidious narrative, every time.

Highlights of the day: a dog walking around with a sign on its back that said: ‘Even I wouldn’t grab a pussy,’ having to explain the course connotations of the word ‘pussy’ to my ten year old (Thanks, Mr President!) because it just became inevitable, and the eloquence of those present on the day, including Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, whose speech was moving and who spoke with conviction about the murdered Pro EU MP Jo Cox:

“We are marching because a talented woman MP was murdered by a far-right extremist and we need to call it out as the terrorism it is. And we are not just marching – we’re … standing up to the misogynists, the bullies and the haters who try to intimidate and silence people online, just as for years they tried to intimidate or silence women on the street.

“We are here because we want to take a stand against Donald Trump. Millions of American women and men voted for him. Marching isn’t enough – we need to persuade, to win arguments, to challenge the causes of division and to build a future in common. For the sake of our children and grandchildren … we are here because we will not let the clock be turned back.” (Reprinted from guardian.co.uk)

Thank you, London, as so many of the placards on Saturday said, we shall overcomb.

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Surviving a Trumpish Presidency, at Home or Abroad

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Batten down the hatches, you say. Take cover, you say.

Repent, for the Trump is nigh, you say.

And well you might. The storm is no longer approaching. The storm is here. It’s raining down acidically on workers’ rights, the environment, third world countries, reproductive rights, our esteem in the world and the ideals Americans of every class, creed and culture hold dear. And those dark clouds in the distance are just about threatening functioning healthcare as we know it.

Ride it out for four years in the shelter in the backyard, you say.

Ride it out in Canada, the great paradise of the north, America’s own Scandi style Yukon Utopia, some say.

It won’t last, others say.

Not my problem, say the remaining few, the ones who didn’t bother to vote, refused to talk about it, and prefer to not get political because it ‘doesn’t affect them’.

But here it is, folks, the end of days. America’s last president.

You want to survive the next four years, the Trumpian apocalypse? Here’s a few tips how from someone who lived abroad during the dark, dark Bush years.

1. Stop complaining about the electoral college. Do you know how often we have a serious discussion about the electoral college and how unfair and undemocratic it is? About every four years. Because that’s the only time it comes up and we only really find it at fault when it throws up an anamolous result, like one that is the exact opposite of the popular vote. The truth is if Hillary had told a compelling enough story and convinced enough people that she was human and that she cared, we wouldn’t be worrying about the popular vs the electoral college vote. I’m not saying that sacred invention of the founding fathers is just or right. I am just saying that when the dust settles, we have bigger problems to worry about, like having a psychotic billionairre in The White House.

2. Own your country! Back in the Bush years, I was held responsible for every invasion, misadventure and stupid thing that my country inflicted on the world at dinner parties. Now it’s up to us expats and you mainlanders, to convince and keep convincing the rest of the world we’re not brash, loud, obnoxious, literal-minded morons. The decision our red-voting brothers and sisters have made has not helped in this matter in any way, shape or form. You’re at a dinner party and someone asks you what’s wrong with your countrymen, putting a bigot in The White House, you say uh… hello? Brexit? Le Pen? Actually, no, we’re being ambassadors not abusers. You say we also elected the first Latina senator, the first Indian-American senator, the first Vietnamese American congressional rep and the first LGBT governor in US history, all women. Our president may be a vile, hypocritical, crude, sexist, but most of us are not. More of us voted against him than for him. And we’re also responsible for the best TV (House of Cards, Mr Robot) and the best films that you watch. We are not necessarily a melting pot, but look for the extremes and you won’t be hard put to find people who are as unlike Trump as a bad toupee is from real hair. Emphasise that to our fellow citizens of the globe, and be conscious of that when you are sharing your life on a global social medium.

3. Do something! Did you? Did you really? I didn’t start volunteering with the Democrats Abroad until this election cycle, even though I always said, ‘I really should’. If you really want things to be different in the midterms and in another four years, volunteer for your local party, whether it be Green, Independent, Communist or Democrat. Unless of course you want eight years of radioactive orange masquerading as a statesman. The hottest places in hell…

4. Banish these words from your vocabulary. ‘Actually, I don’t like to talk about politics. I’m not really that political,’ or any variant therein. From now on, you might as well stop pretending. Sticking your head in the sand is how we got into this mess in the first place. You care about schools, the price of gasoline, how high your taxes are? That’s political. You care about air quality, the amount your township clears your driveway and how much they charge you for it? That’s political. You care about whether your government provides you with any opportunity for advancement, incentivizes you retraining, how much you have to pay for basic necessities? Also political. I’m not saying it’s the only thing you can talk about, but avoiding it is delusional and dangerous. Duh.

5. Get angry and make noise.Make no mistake. Nothing in history worth changing — not slavery, not universal suffrage, not homophobia — has ever changed without a significant amount of anger and noise. No injustice was ever fought by going placidly ‘amidst the noise and haste.’ Injustice, inequality, all the wrongs that will issue out of the executive branch of the government over the next four years, must be fought hard and noisily. No inch must be given, no quarter conceded. This doesn’t just mean being politically active. It means challenging ignorance, whenever and wherever you see it. Workplace, public transport, social media? You let it pass and you are contributing to it.

Now you can batten down the hatches. It’s going to be an exciting — and angry — four years.

Should you want to get involved as an expat, www.democratsabroad.org is a great place to start. And in the spirit of equal time and because I assume most Republicans are secretly pretty embarrassed, http://www.republicansoverseas-uk.com.

Election Night 2016: The Nightmare

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‘History is a Nightmare from which I am trying to  awake.’

So says Stephan Daedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, in a moment in which he refuses to be politicized by the history of 800 years of British oppression of Ireland.

It puts things in perspective.

Election night. My fellow registered Democrats and I stand in a bar in Central London watching the results roll in. We have been working for weeks, and in fact most of my fellow Democrats for several months leading up to the election. We have regularly sat around a table littered at various points with laptops, bowls of potato chips, takeout coffees and sugary snacks, high up in a building let to the Democrats Abroad near Covent Garden, phonebanking our fellow Americans in order to get out the vote. Some of us — not me personally — have made thousands of calls. This is a massive global juggernaut of a campaign in which we have taken part. It has reached out to millions of compatriots worldwide.

Perched atop our liberal London eyrie, we steadfastly believe that our candidate is about to spread her flawed but moderately progressive wings and fly into history, heroically heralding in great swooping strides four to eight more years of Democratic residency in the White House.

Even as results roll in and we stand holding our collective breath, fingers crossed double behind backs, sugar plu, Joe Bidens dancing in our heads, even when we see the blue states crash blood red, even then we believe all is not lost, though our hearts are not as buoyant as they were when the evening started. Even as I leave my second party of the evening, the one I have got to after 2 am, the one where all the guests have already left in despair and the host ruefully sips wine and says ‘hath no man here a dagger for me?’ with his eyes, even then I think that the unions of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in my home state of Pennsylvania, which has not gone red for a generation, I feel even now most in our hour of need, the treacherous rednecks of Bucks, Monroe, Lackawanna and Susquehanna counties won’t betray us. Surely not now.

Only bleary eyed, in the cold, harsh political hangover of the next day after several precious but fitful hours of sleep the Ipad unusually laying beside me open to the BBC’s all night coverage, only then do I find that history is indeed a nightmare from which I am trying to awake all day long, and the corrosive politics of my country will once again away at itself and the world at large for a sustained and unpredictable amount of time.

Our eagle has flapped and fallen and we’ve all come tumbling down. Like the destruction of some intergalactic world, defenseless and full of reasonably progressive politics, it is as though a thousand leftist voices cry out in pain and then stop, disturbing the galactic balance of the force.

Well… the voices don’t stop for a good few weeks. They still haven’t.

Much to the displeasure of Trump voters and gloaters including my own Republican parents.

And well those voices shouldn’t stop.

The easiest path in the universe would be to throw in the towel, lie down and characterize your fellow citizens inbred piles of chewed up tobacco for brains as I did just six paragraphs ago, like the smug liberal piss ant than I am.

But we know what we have to do.

No. It’s not to rally together and bond, ‘healing wounds’ in some saccharine crusted patchwork quilt. Cauterize maybe. but not heal. Some wounds are worth keeping. Some pain is worth remembering.

We need to do what we did not do during the entire campaign. We must tell a compelling story about the terrible risk and the horrible threat that our own commander-in-chief poses to us as Americans. We need to keep raising our voices as loudly and clamorously as possible.

We need to keep on waking each other up from this nightmare of history, keep waking each other up every day and stay as woke as we can.

 

Crazy Sh*& My Republican Parents Say or Trying to Find Traction in Nonsense

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ibtimes.com

 

“But Dad, I read an article from Alternet that meticulously compiled Trump’s interviews and public statements. You want to know how often he lies? Statistically, he lies every five minutes.”

“Yeah?! Well She lies every two minutes.”

“Um… uh… um… well. That’s pretty bad.”

My father. Just a few weeks ago. Making a sound case that a vote for Hillary is just as bad as a vote for Trump.

I mean, come onAmerica! What do you do? And I’m not talking to just my small, closed-with-an-insularity-and-fascism-that-stinks-of-npr-the-guardian-the-new-york-times-and-radio-4, left wing, like-minded card carrying traitors commies liberals. I mean the almost sensible compassionless, selfishly driven amiable and good tempered conservatives and libertarians that I haven’t unfriended and or stopped talking to.

How do you find traction in a post-fact, post-truth world of unreality and ignorance. Like the young Republican — with whom I had a bizarre exchange back in my college days in front of the Willard building in Penn State — who told me in front of my Green Party Stall that he’s an environmentalist and has a great bumper sticker that says ‘pave the rainforests’ right before hearty guffaws of laughter, sudden change to seriousness and then, “but seriously, what about the family planning clinics that are responsible for the fall of Western Civilisation?” with no irony whatsoever, the right wing modus operandi is science fiction.And aside from my old pal ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, how is a thinking person to respond?

It’s the bistro ship in The Hitchhiker’s Guide. It defies all laws of history, memory, logic and thought to drag its notions of fancy and imagination from the ununiverse of black space dust and anti-matter into existence and real form, looking odd, misshapen, lumpy and… well… not of this world.

How else do you explain Trump? He’s finally used enough of his underpaid workers from his various restaurants and hotels (whose nationalities he loves) to bring himself from the void of nothingness in between dimensions into reality like some hideously deformed, monstrous product of hate fostered over say… oh… I don’t know… the last eight years or so (that’s right, Republicans, it’s true. This is of your own making. What Republicans read my blog?).

I thought that if I was honest with my father for the first time about my political views (I’m in my… ahem… late thirties), that we’d have a productive exchange of views, that we’d air our differences, that we’d get to know each other better. I mean, did my Dad really not know all these years that I was as far to the left as the hard shoulder of an American passing lane. Well as far to the left as a European Conservative. Well, as far to the left as an American socialist?

But my father, like so many Republicans so happy to trample all over Godwin, likes to pull arguments out of all sorts of places and as long as he emphasises them with enough conviction, brandish them as truth or fact or legitimate even. It’s difficult when truth gets in the way, so it’s easy to brush aside. Like when my mother also said over the summer:

“I’m hopeful. George W. Bush didn’t seem too smart at first but he did pretty good,” to which of course my reaction was absolute horror, or in the parlance of the post-truth millennial world, shocked face, shocked face, shocked face, pile of poop. How could my mother not know to say pretty well instead of pretty good? So embarrassing.

And how could bad, Northeastern Pennsylvanian grammar erase the truth from one’s mind of one of the most divisive presidents in history?

In the same way that the constant drip of Hannity, Dennis Miller and the strange, circuitous, other-worldly logic of Trump can make you think that he’s “not that bad”, that he’s going to “make America great” again and that he’s going to somehow “sort out the jobs for everyone” by closing us off to the world and tacitly encouraging a violent dystopian society in which dissenting voices are dragged out and silenced.

And I suppose this is why the best argument we have lies with the post-millenials, like my nine year old son, who, on our first morning of our annual trip to America, said to my father, “Grandpa, do you actually like Trump?”

My father cautiously replied with, “Well, I like some of his ideas,” to which my son, with great conviction responded with, “don’t! I think he’s a big fat idiot and farthead!” and continued making fart and poop jokes about Trump for another ten minutes.

Out of the mouths of babes comes the most effective rebuttals to the childish arguments of the right.

Laughter, the most potent weapon.

Homeland! What the f*$£! are you doing?!

Right.

That’s it. That is it.

What the…?

Forty seven to forty what?

That is it. This needs a blog post.Where’s the computer?

All right, America fans. Here’s how it is.

I know you’re going to say, that I’m sitting on my great British Spotted Pony of a high horse.

Believe me. I know. I’ve been called Madonna for extolling the virtues of walking up the escalator on the left and condemning my compatriots for standing in the middle.

I’ve been called an ex-patriot for dripping contempt on the invasion of Afghanistan (by my family).

But as the saying goes, sticks and stones may break my bones, but this is freakin’ important, America.

And insane.

I told you this was insane. 

It started as a farce and now it’s turned to the blackest, most tasteless joke in American history. Donald J Trump, controversy-ridden, provincial, racist, bigoted dealer in debt and misery, is a percentage point away from the highest office in the land.

And you put him there.

Okay. Okay. We put him there.

Now it’s time to undo the damage, folks.

Why, you ask? Why?! Because this is the greatest threat to America since The X Factor and if we don’t act now, it could prove almost as clear and present a danger to our way of life. Almost.

But here’s why else:

  • As this study (that I will come back to in my Saturday blog) from Alternet categorically concludes, Trump is not the straight talker that his supporters think he is. He lies, on average, every five minutes, even in his sleep (okay, I made those last clause up, but it was to prove a point and you wouldn’t put it past him, would you?

 

  •  Do we really want one of the most blatantly racist men in the history of business and politics sitting in the oval office? No. no, we don’t. Not just when the world has spent eight years understanding that we’ve finally started to grow up about the question of race.

 

  • He is also one of the most proudly stupid businessmen or politicians in history.

 

I know you think it isn’t a big deal and that Trump is a man of the people. I once got on a Guardian forum to defend our voting for George Dubya, telling British readers that it wasn’t that we were stupid, but that, unlike the British, we liked our politicians to be, not elevated above us, but just like us, if not below us. And if there was one thing we couldn’t say for Dubya, it was that he was above anyone intellectually.

But proudly stupid? Dubya was brainless, but unaware of his own brainlessness. Trump knows how stupid what he’s saying sounds and the louder he says it, the more it increases his credibility with his core, all of him understand that to say stupid things in public is to admit to your own humanity and therefore to be one of us (not one of me thanks).

As the saying toes, we get the leaders we deserve, compatriots. In our proud history of Charlie Parker and Bessie Smith, Edith Wharton and TS Eliot (that’s right I bet you all forgot he was one of us, didn’t you?), Thomas Edison and The Wright Brothers, in all that cultural and intellectual richness, don’t we deserve better than proud stupidity?

Look folks, I get it. You want someone exciting. You want someone ‘non-establishment’ and Hillary is neither of those things, but she is whipsmart, has the experience and the drive to make America greater than any Trumpian nightmare dystopian vision, while keeping us in some kind of relative harmony with the rest of the world.

For that, I’m with her. I know how I’m voting. Just think of me and the rest of the expats. We don’t want to return to the Bush years. Don’t make us sow Canadian flags on our backpacks again.

Please! 

 

Underexposed

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Great stories do not present us with anything new; they present us with what is familiar to us and then they make it unfamiliar and weird and crazy.

And fantastic.

Underexposed Theatre have come pretty close to achieving this in their recent run at The Old Red Lion in Angel, with a clutch of new plays that seek to force us to question and complicate our assumptions about, well, everybody, from the typical male sex drive to a long distance gay romance between London and Syria to the good intentions of a doctor who is judged for the strength of her convictions.

 

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Nick Skaugen and Charlotte Nice in ‘Native Tongues’ Photo from twitter @UNDEREXPOSEDthr

The evening begins with a delightful piece called Native Tongues, A Sci Fi Sex Romp, by Nick Myles, a story with a thoroughly preposterous premise of an estranged boyfriend and girlfriend with a thorny relationship meeting in a gym and being thrown in different directions in time, the corollary conceit that the former lovers can still talk to each other across millions of years. Charlotte Nice as Jen and Nick Skaugen as Oli have such a sweet and amiable chemistry on stage and genuinely push us beyond the self-centred egos and 90s sitcom cliched reasons for breaking up and into the nature of companionship and connections.

Gabrielle Curtis is as impressive as ever, penning and starring in three of the plays of the evening, all of which were delightful, one of which, Bonus of Contention, A Sexual Battle of Wills, was pure magic. Said battle pits Kara and Seb, having got together for a ‘closure chat’, against each other with Kara attempting to seduce her ex and Seb utilising all the force of his willpower and quite a lot of wit to resist the notoriously male inclination to jump at sex whenever it is presented. The air sizzles electrically with sexual tension in this confrontation and Curtis and her partner in this piece, Connor Mills, deliver scalpel sharp dialogue with contrapuntally perfect comic timing, bringing the intense chemistry between the two characters very quickly to a rolling riveting boil. Wonderful.

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Connor Mills and Gabrielle Curtis in ‘Bonus of Contention’, photo from timeout.com

Also by Nick Myles is the powerfully hard-hitting London-Damascus, A Transcontinental Gay Love Story. This is a story that both contrasts and unites what it is to be gay in both a country where homosexuality is illegal and punished with death and in a country where it is embraced and celebrated more than ever before. Sweet and funny at points, heartrenderingly moving at others, this piece is poignant without ever getting preachy and Freddie Wintrip and Reece Mahdi are magnificent as the long distance lovers.

There are points in the night that don’t work so well. Daisy Jo Lucas’ The Goblin King presents us with a potentially intriguing and contemporary problem, that maternal instincts do not come naturally and that sometimes mothers genuinely fear and even loathe the role and its implications. And I’m not against a magical realist turn, but the one that happens feels a bit clunky and undeveloped. I don’t find I care much about Daphne, the career woman and resistant mother. And there’s nothing wrong per se with throwing in a character from The Labyrinth. Danny Steele does well. Ish. But I can’t help feeling like there is too much that goes undeveloped and that perhaps this play could have done better with a Goblin Queen played by the obscenely talented and criminally under-utilised Emily Bell, who plays Daphne’s assistant Clara.

And the evening does sink when it gets too worthy. Laurence Vardaxoglou’s C’etait Ouf felt interminable and unfunny, with Sophia Flohr, likeably enough stringing out clunky metaphors and telling us things that we all do in offices that trot out the old ideas that we all climb onto the same treadmill every day and never question it. I probably didn’t get it, but I can’t have been the only one.

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Amy Quick and Nick Pearse in ‘Bones’ Photo from twitter @UNDEREXPOSEDthr

But the underplayed gem of the night was certainly Bones, a beautifully written and performed chance encounter between Dom, an affably, clumsy cliche-filled man and Clara, a card shop attendant with a past. To see the barrier of ice melt between these two characters, played with masterful timing and subtlety by Amy Quick and Nick Pearse, is a genuinely moving experience that punctures our complacent guardian-reading sensibilities and fills us with a sincere affection for these two individuals.

This collection of scenes, if you’ll permit me a tiny bit of drama in a theatre write up, captures that old familiar Kafkaism, wielding an axe on the frozen sea within our souls. They shake us. And stir us and I look forward to more challenges from Underexposed Theatre in future.

Keep informed about this fantastic company:

http://www.underexposedtheatre.com

My American Writing Voice

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And what else I learned about the creative process from 28 Plays Later

‘The funny thing is… your plays have a very American tone to them. They sound very American. You can tell the characters are American and it just feels very American.’

So says my Irish wife about the plays I have written as part of the month long writing challenge we are taking part in known as ’29 Plays Later.’ Organised by my very clever friend, writer, director and choreographer, Sebastian Rex, ’29 Plays Later’ (so named because of the leap year this year) tasks us with writing a play a day throughout the month based on a prompt we’re sent the night before. Hell, you say? A pressure cooker for the mind, you scream? Yes, both, but you know what Churchill said about hell and actually, it’s felt fabulous to put that kind of mental pressure on myself every day consistently because it’s taught me an enormous amount about the creative process.

Like that I have a naturally American voice when I’m writing.

And maybe all our cultural voices come through when we put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and start to doodle our way into telling our stories. But I find this especially fascinating since my accent has become a new model hybrid, running on the energy of both American and Irish influence. As a consequence, no one outside of Ireland ever guesses that I am American right off the bat. I have not made an effort to lose my accent, but I have even on occasion fooled Irish people, one who thought I was a ‘stupid git who’d spent the summer in the states’ and was trying to pick up the accent. That I write with an American accent, or an American voice, that gritty, crackly quality of the amber waves of grain, despite setting one of my plays in space, one in a London classroom, and one in a Glasgow pub reassures me.

Do our accents change naturally? Do we naturally adapt our rhythms and inflections? I don’t know. They say that in the first six months of life you learn all the the sounds you need to speak your native language and that there will always be a learning curve, even if you move to another country at that age because a certain amount of muscle memory establishes itself. Does the same thing happen with narrative? Do we learn the rhythms of our own cultural narratives from the places we’re born? It stands to reason. If so, I’m proud to be telling American stories.

Two more things: 

If you write it, it will come. 

Writing a play a day is bloody difficult with a full time job, but one of the rules The Missus has abided by  that I was too scared to try until tonight was just to sit down and write and see what comes. There’s a wonderful, charmingly impromptu message to be taken from this: the brain loves to play and given a field to run around in, it will start to dig up that field and build its own creations. And the great thing about it is, the more you think about ideas every day, the more they come to you. Fantastically pretentious, non?

Not everything that you write, in fact, very little of what you write, will be literature, and that’s okay. 

I’ve written a lot this month. And just writing that sentence makes me feel more creatively accomplished than I have in years. The takeaway? To keep accomplishing that wonderful feeling of accomplishment, to paraphrase Dory, just keep writing. Some ideas are worth returning to while others are best left in that digital recycling bin in the sky, but the more momentum I’ve built, the better I’ve felt about the stories, or writing that comes close to being a story. Or something like a story if it had a plot and characters. You get the idea.

Now you go. WRITE!

Oh and speaking of plays, go see Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at The National Theatre. It’s simply amazing! My review of it will be appearing in The American very shortly.

The American Story

An Exhibition by Dallas Seitz

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I grew up a child of the Cold War, as (I imagine) did most of my generation and going back for the two generations before me. I believed from as far back as I can remember with an untraceably embedded conviction that Russians and everyone near that gigantic nation were bad, bad people. That communism, and all its associated corollaries and manifestations were patently evil and tantamount to satanism (I mean, hello? RED? Can’t be a coincidence).

I believed that Emperor Reagan was our saviour and that Bubble Gum Bush was his inheritor, that our fate was a constant war against the axis of evil. I was raised – and certainly not just by my parents – to believe that we lived in a nation of privilege in diametric opposition to oppression of the starving people of Russia, that we were blessed with the great fortune to live in a nation with the greatest living standards, and the best bestest of everything.

And that it was our superlative luck to have the freedom to shoot guns as often as we wanted, watch people on our cities’ streets starve as often as we liked and to aspire to be one of the good and the great and the rich that get to eat the poor for breakfast and then go to lunch on the dreams of the middle class. USA! U! S! A!

But, as with many such myths and fairytales, ‘when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ Maybe there was always an uneasiness. Maybe there were always questions there, but I didn’t get round to really asking questions about our own pretty little cultural fairytales until adolescence and perhaps it wasn’t brought home to me until a passionate Labour History Professor and something of a mentor in university delivered a lecture in which he talked about how sick it would make a person from Northern Europe to bring them to see the fine living standard to which we are accustomed to with the great privilege of working three jobs to make ends meet and dying of utterly treatable illnesses due to a lack of universal health coverage.

I digress. Do I? It seems poignant and right at a point in our nation’s history when we are potentially about to elect a socialist or a bigoted, venture capitalist dictator who seems to only truly believe in himself that we begin to question more. Of everything. Which brings me, in my charmingly circuitous way to the current show at The IMT Gallery in Bethnal Green, The American Story by the Canadian Dallas Sietz.

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From imagemusictext.com

A haunting series of images contemplating the after effects of The Cold War, photographed on forays into the Californian Desert, Arizona and Palm Springs, this exhibition presents us with questions about the conflict that threatened to end the world from late 1940s right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A telephone tower disguised as a palm tree reminds one of the empty, inorganic nature of a nation infatuated with its own technological innovation. A tunnel that leads to desolate rubble strewn nothingness brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s descriptions of the moon-like landscape of a firebombed and devastated Dresden in Slaughterhouse 5. These photographs seem a decontextualized lament for America and the hollowness of a belief in military might and an apparently vacuous culture, seething with a kind of life and inner tumult.

We live in interesting times, in which many are trying to simplify the essence of what it is to be American and where our future lies. Seitz warmly invites us to get lost in a rich labyrinthine complexity to see things as they are.

ImageMusicText Gallery is at Unit 2/210 Cambridge Heath Road London E2 9NQ UK (nearest tube Bethnal Green). The American Story runs until 6 March.

http://www.imagemusictext.com

 

 

Berlin Vs. Munich: Battle of die Deutsch Städten

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Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

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?)

Hofbrauhaus

And that was when The American Londoner lost his last shred of credibility. Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

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.

Berlin Coffee

Breakfast Berlin Style Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

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?

Food

Munich Beer Garden

In Munich, they tell you where to go. Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

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.

Sausage Saurkraut

Good German Fare Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

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.

Hofbrauhaus

Munich’s Oldest Beer Hall Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

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).

Schluesenkrug Berlin

When in Germany… Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

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

Deutsches Museum

The Deutsches Museum Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

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.

River Surfing Munich

River Surfing in The English Garden Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

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.

Tempelhof Airport

How cool is that? A park… that was an airport. Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

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.

The Berlin Wall

The Iron Curtain Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

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.

Verdict?

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.

Genießen! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Expats and Explorers! Stay in Style!

Gen X London

Generator X London, Super Chic hostels. Photo by Paula Hughes

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.

generator hostels London

Special cocktail created by Frank.

Generator Launch London

It’s plainly labelled.

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.

Generator Launch Party

You will never find a more sumptuous hive of bloggers and villainy.

Generator London launch party

The Gin and Fizz was excellent as well, Dahling.

Generator London Launch

This is London after all.

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.

generator launch london

We are… here, which is where it’s at.

Generator London Launch

Oh, I’m such a poseur.

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!

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