Interfaith spar results in awkward hug by jaffa cakes

interfaith

From left to right: Dr Kate Wharton, Dr Maria Heim, Dr Brandon Gallaher, Professor Gwen Griffeth-Dickson, Professor Chakravarthi Ram Prasad, Dr Clare Carlisle. Photo W. Merttens

A Buddhist scholar of Keirkegaard, an agnostic scholar of Buddhaghosa, an orthodox Christian theologian and a learned Oxford don who happens to be a Hindu were sitting side by side on a discussion panel.

Sounds like it could be the beginning of a rather convoluted study-of-religions joke, but actually it was an interfaith conference organised by Dr Kate Wharton, deputy secretary for inter-religious affairs to the archbishop of Canterbury.

The panel seemed to be uncovering a tentative common ground – each of them in their way complicating the notion that a religion is a coherent phenomenon that starts and ends with its card-carrying devotees.

Click HERE to discover what happens next!

Homeless in San Francisco

We are on a tight budget, Mon insists.

$25 a day. We have been doing free things, such as wandering around the streets.

We chatted to a homeless guy the other day. His name was Darryl. He served in both Iraq wars. He said that they were awful. He now lives on the street with his wife.

I asked him what he would do if he was president and he said “America should stop sticking its nose in other people’s business and start caring for it’s own.”

San Fransisco is full of homeless people, over 10,000 apparently. They trundle about with carts, picking up rubbish, which they can get money for at recycling plants.

Lots of the homeless are black of course, seeing as so many black people are so poor here.

Darryl said that life at the bottom is so hard that it is very easy fall off the last rung and end up on the streets. Once you are there it is easy to give up and start getting high/drunk whenever possible.

Many housed people seem to believe this sequence happens in reverse: people get addicted drugs/drink then they slide to the bottom rung and onto the streets.

A recent report on homelessness on the west Coast urges a change in thinking. Solutions to homelessness are often built on the assumption that homelessness comes about due to biographical factors, but really, this report argues, the problem is not about individual failure, rather it is due to ”systemic and broad structural causes” and that the omission of these from public discussion and policy responses is ”nothing short of a collective deception”

The report analysed the available data, and found that homelessness sky-rocketed after the huge cuts to subsidies encouraging affordable housing made in the 1980’s and thus advises that spending on homes for the poor be dramatically increased.

Darryl’s solutions were more short term. He said that there should be more facilities for homeless people, for lack of drinking water and access to toilets was a real problem. He also said that there should be shelters and half-way houses. We asked him what him and his wife receive in benefits and he replied that they get $67 a month between them.

We told him about our dear old NHS (at least what is left of her), and encouraged, he added that access to health-care would be nice too. Well we had ourselves a regular little Party meeting, I was just about to suggest that we start singing ‘The International’ when Darryl surprised us both by saying that he would vote for Romney.

You see, he is so very disappointed that ‘Obamacare’ is not producing what was promised that he was prepared to give Romney “a chance”. But wasn’t it Republican senators who tied the scheme’s shoelaces together anyway?

It struck me that voting is much less ideological and much more personal over here.

‘Ideological’ has become a bad word in recent years (not that I am aware of any years before the recent, as my good friend Stephen once said of me, “Wilf is so young that when he exposes himself to people in parks, THEY get arrested.” N.B. I don’t expose myself to people in parks).

But if we make our democratic decisions based on someone’s personality, aren’t we bound to be disappointed when their personality fails to alter the mighty flow of the socio-economic river of everything?

One person, however strong or good, and I do believe that Obama is a good person, cannot make such a difference.

Even truly exceptional leaders don’t so much turn the tide as ride the crest of a wave.

We saw an elderly Chinese woman out with her cart, all the different kinds of rubbish organised neatly inside. I watched her for a while. She seemed so sober, so ordinary. Just a normal grandma, selling rubbish to survive.

Like me and my imaginary wife, Darryl and his wife aren’t addicts who have given up on life, rather, they dream of having a farm.

Other homeless people here are less sane. They babble to dustbins, scream at passer’s by. Many of the old crazy black guys do one particular thing. They stand at the side of the street and wave on the traffic. As the headlights stream by they churn their arms, as if they are controlling the flow somehow.

They have given up trying to stop things happening you see. Once, like Obama, they tried, but now they have given up. Tragically, wisely, they have given up. Now, they tell it to pass, and they laugh at it’s passing. They don’t go with the flow, but, unable to change it’s direction, they show the flow they know where it is going.

Every night, short of a miracle, they are homeless. Every night, the traffic grinds by.

See www.cohsf.org/ for more info.

The Trouble with Christmas

It has rained consistently since we got back from America.

I had to spend two whole days in Broadmead, which is the part of Bristol where all the products gang up on you.

Because of these things, and because I have just got back from a series of daring and sexy adventures in the GREATEST COUNTRY ON EARTH, I have not been feeling very good, geographically speaking.

This is my country. We are very lucky in many ways. However, I don’t want to talk about them at the moment, I want to moan.

Heathrow is determined to be ugly, and everyone there is determined to avoid your eyes. When you do catch someone’s eye they flash you a look as if to say “Oh great, thanks a bunch. Now I’ve got SARS.”

Americans may be unusually attached to murder, but at least they bloody smile once in a while.

Have you noticed that sadness is a real problem here? You think to yourself “I need to go into town, but when I get there I might feel really sad.” It is a thing you need to factor in to your decision making process, like the secret police would be if we lived under an authoritarian regime.

Why is it so sad in town? I love Christmas. I really do. The bite of the cold, flashes of colour in every house you pass, a wisp of smoke from a chimney, the smell of pine needles, the taste of mince pies. It really gets me going.

But going into Broadmead at this time of year is like watching an elf be ripped apart by dogs.

Now, I’m not getting on the old ‘Christmas is too commercial, we’ve lost the true meaning’ of Christmas’ bandwagon, because lets face it, not even Christians want Christianity to run Christmas again. What I will point out though is that town is bloody ugly. It is a horror show and it stresses people out, really it does.

Look at festivals all round the world. What is good, enriching, memorable about those festivals is that people join in to make and do things together, whether it is to prepare a giant feast, have a paint fight, or sacrifice some goats.

Festivals are not meant to be spectacles that you passively consume, and even if they were, they should at the very least be enjoyable.

We’ve let Christmas be ripped away from us by powerful interests. They turn immense profits and all we see from it is weeks of stress, crowds of morose zombies in the centre of every town, and a building sensation of sinister nausea – as if we’ve gone to visit grand-dad and found that the nurses at the home have dressed him up like Christina Aguilera and are insisting that he likes it.

Anyway, that was a rant. Just to contradict myself quickly, I do actually remember enjoying Broadmead one year, and that was because a friend, who will remain nameless for the MOment, was working on a sweet treats stall at that hideous German market.

When you went past him, he didn’t just give you a free chocolate, he let you ‘mind’ his stall while he went out for a cigarette. You would stand their, ignoring a queue of customers and stuffing as many biscuits in your face as you possibly could before he came back.

Perhaps it wasn’t the rustic ‘For us by us’ Christmas I am arguing for here, but it was still amazing.

A merry Christmas to everyone.

Final Thoughts

I had barely been back in San Francisco twenty minutes and had seen no less than three separate drag Santa-ettes.

When I started this blog I promised all the goss on what Mon is eating, for as you are probably well aware, there is an expanding network of cultish interest around what goes into this guy.

I know that have skimpt you a bit so far, hungry fanbase, so right here in our very last USA blog, I’ll give you a generous topping of insider’s chit chat concerning the gastronomic superstar’s fave eateries in all of ‘Frisco.

Ben Krupp is a friend we have in here. Ben has provided us with so much, sandwiching our trip with succulent hunks of prime hospitality. He is like the Lockheed Martin to our American Military.

Among other things he is a lover of food. When we first arrived he told us very firmly NOT to go to any Mexican restaurant until he had time to take us to the real deal. The real deal turns out to be a joint in the Mission district called Pancho Villa.

Me and Mon went there again just yesterday. You line up and go along the counter like in a Subway, answering a string of incomprehensible questions. Luckily Ben has taught us how to do this, otherwise I would have panicked and started crying.

I was at the pickle table when our number was called, and I had the ticket so Mon rushed over to me looking sick with worry. Once we had got our food and were sat down though he settled right down, studiously pouring a different salsa on every bite of his burrito.

As we were exiting I heard him mutter “delicious.”

The other place was this little cafe in China Town. San Francisco has a huge Chinese population that has been there as long as anybody. (Except the native folk of course, who, by the way, think Alcatraz is a sacred island when actually it’s a jail!)

We were hungry and I was grumpy and we went in to this cafe not knowing what to expect. Judging by the looks the old guys sat at the plastic tables gave us, we were the only white people ever to have walked in there. We chose numbers from the menu at random, and with the exception of a dish that tasted like spleen marinaded in bile, it was incredible.

It was so cheap that it made me really curious how it was all possible. We played with a little toddler and let her smash up our camera. She was overjoyed.

San Francisco is full of these hills. Because I am a utopian idiot I always assume there will be a glorious vista over each crest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And sometimes there is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK I love you goodbye.

Wilf and Mon vs. The Gun

Naturally, the gun control debate now rages across the states like a fire.

Most advocates of the right to bear arms stay silent, including the NRA. Others have begged their opponents not to politicise the shooting.

A panel discussion was held on national television yesterday, and it invited some of the key voices in this vintage debate to speak. Of the 31 prominently pro-gun rights senators invited, not one agreed to appear.

Many of those who have seen fit to comment have suggested that schools should no longer be ‘gun free zones’, such as they were made in the 60’s, and that either armed personnel should be present, or teachers should be armed and required to do target practice.

So the problem is just not enough guns then?

Here in San Francisco everyone you speak to disagrees with this.

Back in Louisiana on the other hand, Mon went to a football party. A football party is when you go to someone’s house, eat chips (which means crisps) drink bud (which is some kind of piss), and watch football (which is a fascinating game, with almost nothing to do with feet at all, where a ball is thrown up in the air and then 22 people in armour headbutt each other as many times as they can before the it touches the ground again) and was surprised to discover that he was the only one present who was not armed.

These were gentle, generous, music loving people in their mid twenties, just like our hero. Asking them why they felt they needed their hand guns and their knives, our hero was informed that they were for safety.

Our hero asked them if they felt they could ever see themselves stabbing or shooting somebody. Most answered in the negative.

This is what our hero said to them next: the danger in the streets is being mugged. When you get mugged someone takes your phone. If you pull a weapon on them, perhaps they will run, but perhaps they are armed. Now you have escalated the situation to an armed struggle. A knife fight or a gun fight is not a good thing to be in even if you are prepared to shoot or stab someone. If your not your bluff is going to be called and you will be dead, instead of just having to get a new phone.

Apparently they said that he “didn’t understand”.

I think it is very clear that our hero understands the whole issue very shrewdly.

However, lets see things from the right-to-bear-arms advocates for a moment.

Attitudes toward the central government in America are strikingly different than in Europe. In England our central state is like an alcoholic mother with too many kids, some of whom she refuses to admit exist. Nevertheless she does attempt to keep us in some semblance of togetherness, for instance if we have something on our face she might spit on a napkin and rub it off (only these days she says she doesn’t have enough spit and she has recently sold the napkin. Luckily though a private company has provided her with some sandpaper instead).

This is a bit like how Americans think of their local state and county authorities; they run the schools, keep the roads open, etc. The federal government actually provides very little, and almost nothing in rural areas. They don’t have any healthcare for a start. An ambulance costs more than $3000 in the city, probably way more if you live in the back end of nowhere. There are the police, but the police aren’t like in England where they will always come out, here you have to really work to convince them.

Again, if you live in a rural area then effectively you just don’t have access to the police. These people’s culture is founded on independence, and to a large extent, they actually are independent.

Also, they are in some sense right when they say that it people who kill people, rather than guns. They are also wrong of course, because guns clearly do kill people, but remember there are countries with lots of guns where they don’t get massacres of this type.

The question is, what is different about America that means this style of mass murder happens with such rapidity? Guns are part of the answer, but not all of it.

The answer I’ve heard again and again over the last few days has been ‘mental health’. Now, it is great that lots of people are pushing to get more funding to shockingly underfunded mental heath services, but the idea of the ‘lone psycho’ who can only described by such shadowy words as ‘schizophrenia’ or ‘isolated’, and who we can never hope to understand, I think obscures the cultural nature of these terrible actions.

We can probably see the roots of these crimes in our own minds as ‘sane’ citizens. I can, and I’m not even American.

I’m going to be honest here and say that I have ultra-violent fantasies. For instance during a battle with Her Majesties Revenue and Customs I found it most comforting to imagine marching into their head offices with a magnum and an ornate sword and decapitating every last one of their horrid, bureaucratic little heads and shooting their computers and fax machines before plunging my ancient weapon into their mainframe and freeing the populace from their tyranny while being electrocuted to my glorious, martyrs death.

I frequently imagine blowing up the houses of parliament too, and I plan to keep imagining it.

These explosive daydreams express my anger and powerlessness, and keep me out of trouble on long bus journeys.

The things that stop me actually enacting them are as follows:
1. I know as soon as I went in there I would see that they are human beings, irritating maybe, but essentially my brothers and sisters. Killing them would be wrong, upsetting, and unsightly.
2. My future seems like it would be better lived out being free rather than imprisoned and alive rather than dead.
3. It is prohibitively hard for me to lay my hands on the requisite weapons.

How can a society make it that all of these things are true for every person?

1. Dehumanisation is a trick that the American military deliberately tries to teach to its ‘grunts’ through use of, among other things, video games. This is because, as armies the world over have discovered to their dismay, most people don’t want to kill people. The way that people are convinced to kill, or to support mass murder, is through programs of dehumanisation – such as the Islamaphobia perfected by the western media over the last 20 years. Putting a stop to such programs would be a great start.

2. People not having a future worth looking forward to is a social problem. Many working class people for instance are either outright oppressed or simply abandoned to soulless work stacking shelves as the industry that they spent generations fighting to make pay them fair wages is moved to countries where that fight has not been won. Even graduates often still have little hope of a secure job, creating what one sociologist terms the ‘precariat’. Working and middle-class people alike cannot afford basic healthcare, let alone any kind of humane treatment for mental health issues they may be suffering. One woman said recently that in the desperation to get her son mental health treatment she was tempted to try and get him sent to jail where it is provided free.

3. It will take a very long time, and it wont be easy, but you could take away America’s guns, leaving just the hunters and the farmer with their rifles. As one sobbing caller into a public radio forum put it, is it not the greater freedom gained by forgoing the right to carry weapons in order to live in a society where your five year old is less likely to be shot? Gun advocates have bumper stickers that say “Ban guns, and only criminals will have guns.” That is true, and that will be the biggest hurdle the authorities will have to face, but remember that school shootings are never done with criminally procured weaponry – they are perpetrated with licensed weapons, usually taken from the perpetrators own homes.

So there you have it America, I’ve solved another one of your problems. And this is the last one I will do pro bono.

Note: The author would like to state that although he used to think that ‘The Joshua Tree’ was an alright album, he is not pro Bono in any way.

Adventure

Long waits in stations, truck-stops, borders and so on make up great swathes of the actual flesh of adventures.

Waiting for hours while a customs official turns your anus inside out, or insists on a telephone interview with your grandmother, or keeps asking you to explain how you got a light dusting of meth-amphetamine on your visa, you feel bored, scared, tired and wired, all at the same time.

Tales of such hiccups are easily as mundane as the original experiences. I’m still going to share mine and everything, I just want to make sure you know that I know they make boring stories.

We sold our car to a man called Hugo. Like almost everyone we have befriended in Texas, Hugo is Mexican. Hugo’s dad came over here as an illegal. He worked hard, spent all his money on buying desert, and is now a fairly wealthy man. He is old now, but the police still stop him because he is a Mexican driving a nice car.

Mexico has been ravaged by the USA sponsored War On Drugs, and as big business is increasingly cautious to invest and small business is increasingly threatened by crime, for most people there is no money to be made except through the drug cartels.

The violence has now reached a level where victims are hung from the bridges on the freeway. Every Mexican we met is saddened by the horrific decline of their country over the last decade or so.

As an old joke puts it “Why does Mexico not have an Olympic Team? Because any Mexican who can swim, run or ride is American already.”

I can understand the tension in Texas. The white community is on the front line of where poor Mexican’s try to gain entry to the United States. If you are poor and white, the last thing you want is people undercutting your wages.

However, it is important to remember that not only does the USA have enough space and wealth to take on these refugees of the Mexican drug wars, and not only is it directly funding BOTH sides of the war in the first place, but America only functions like it does BECAUSE of Mexican illegals working for under minimum wage.

We all stood around Hugo’s truck, drinking beers and chatting away.

Hugo let us stay in his house, then in the morning his mum made us lovely, hot, sticky, spicy Tamales.

We hitched to El Paso, catching a ride from a Mexican cowboy. He didn’t speak any English at all. In an effort to reach out to us he flipped the radio from the Mexican station he had been listening to, to a pop one; probably thinking that because we were white than that is what we liked.

Trying to explain otherwise only resulted in him thinking I wanted it turned up. So we listened to pop for four hours or so. Mon said he felt like he was having brightly coloured plastic mashed into his ears with a toy hammer. I actually quite liked some of it.

We had a place to stay in El Paso, but we were dropped off on the wrong side of the city. Turns out it is a big place, and that it’s bus service closes down by 7. We were guided across the city by our host, a miraculously brilliant individual named Debarko, who is an Indian man studying something complicated at the University of Texas.

Debarko was so calm as we struggled across El Paso, hitching lifts or dragging our immense bags down the side of six lane freeways. I felt like I was in one of those spy movies where they have a boffin in an office guiding the hero. Man, did Debarko have some luckless, bedraggled, hopeless heroes on his hands that day.

Eventually we got to him, he came to meet us in the street, bringing a flask of tea. He cooked us a meal and gave us some magic-Indian-get-better-paste. We owe him everything.

The next day we found a really cheap bus to LA. All of our contacts fell through, so we called a friend of a friend of an eccentric lady we had met in New Orleans. Tipsy on cocktails, she had insisted that we MUST call Lynn if we were in Southern California.

Lynn lives in Laguna beach which is a holiday town south of LA. We meant to stay with her only for a night but it turned into three. She is interesting and kind and well travelled. Retired now, Lynn was an art teacher, a sculptor, and a stained glasserer.

We snorkeled in the great kelp forests – spying starfish, leopard sharks, bright orange Garibaldi fish, and their young whose purple spots seem to be lit from within. The “winter” sun shined passionately above, and the few rays that managed to penetrate the swaying kelp danced in the water like transcendental eels.

In my head when I think of England I picture service stations and clouds of teenagers clogging up the foyer of Boots, but looking through pictures Lynn took when she sojourned in my native land, I realised that England is a beautiful, quirky, friendly, exotic, facinating, FOREIGN COUNTRY. Wow.

And homeward we are going. Weighed down with home baked cookies we set off again, up the gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous Californian coast.

We are now back in the Bay Area, where we began. Perhaps the hardcore among you remember me gushing that Oakland was some kind of paradise. Well, we got here late last night, were picked up from the station, and spent the night eating chicken soup and arguing about philosophy (so I was right).

Soon we will go back to San Francisco and see all those friends we met at the beginning. Because we have been travelling it feels like eons have past since we saw them in September. Because they have been everydaying it will probably feel like only minutes ago that we were last taxing their hospitality.

Those of you in the old country, watch out, because come Thursday we will be taxing yours once more. If you could bake us some cookies (soft biscuits), that would be great. We will have one day together before the world ends.

Stay powerful.

Elinor Rupert

Our intelligent, reliable, jovial, and fearsomely independent car, who has taken us over 7000 miles, has just died.

Luckily, we are in the middle of the desert and so the sun is shining, and there are plenty of snakes. Phew! I’m trying to convince one to give me an apple.

We had named the car Elinor Rupert after an intelligent, reliable, jovial, and fearsomely independent pioneer of the American West.

A lovely human being is helping us now. His name is Hugo. Human beings are great. You wouldn’t want to rely on a turkey vulture to give you a lift to a garage. None of them even stopped to see if we were OK!

Looks like Elinor is too expensive to fix. I think she is going to stay in Texas. We are going to hitch to the Grand Canyon, I guess.

The desert is HOT.

Black, White, Cajun, Creole

I have this little maxim: ‘Pretend you are in Utopia until further notice.’

When I am going about the earth I try not to assume that things are irreparably messed up, that the apocalypse is imminent, or that people are irrationally murderous selfish maximisers. Instead I assume I am walking through a perfect world of harmonious equality, open hearts, and superb haircuts.

If you’re anything like me: prone to episodes of confusion, unease, and pure terror, then this simple technique can help you feel at home wherever you are. People like you more too. They think to themselves “There’s something Utopian about this guy.”

The ‘further notice’ refers to the moment you confront the Dystopian. It would be messed up if when I came across some industrial waste spilling into a bird sanctuary, I carried on my little game.

The thing that stops you pretending Utopia in the USA, much of the time, is the issue of race, particularly that tension between ‘white’ and ‘black’ America.

As an outsider at least the really disturbing thing is that black people are so much poorer. Class in America has a strong racial element. I’m still getting my clumsy British mind around the whole ‘entitlement’ debate, but basically at the heart of it seems to be the accusation that poor black people are claiming welfare and enjoying it too much.

But is the tension only about money? Not a lot of American’s know that most welfare recipients are white. Much of the problem between white and black folks here are is bound up with stereotypes of who black people are that influence not only white people’s opinions of black people, but black people’s opinions of themselves.

Recently we went to see a show about race called Tar Baby. It was a solo show by Desiree Burch, who is a black actress and performer. I thought it was very funny, and very good.

It contained an alarming section where she got the audience all wrapped in a sheet-fort. It was like those ones you made as a kid, only it was big enough to fit a whole audience in, rather than just a few cousins and a reluctant cat.

She then proceeded to unleash torrent of diatribal ranting on the issue of race. The first five minutes were so moving that it made me cry. It went on for a long time, probably twenty minutes. Her voice was ragged at the end.

It was interesting talking to people after. Many of the white Americans had found the rant very grating. They felt accused, and as non-racist people who go out to shows about race with their friends of many races, they knew the accusation was not justified.

I strongly suspect that what they found really unreasonable was the twinge of guilt they felt. Why should they feel guilty? This guilt has been put on them, despite their lack of responsibility.

I have got the impression many times from white Americans that they are tired of the issue being brought up. They genuinely and fervently believe in racial equality themselves, and are happy that so many battles have been won – even the president is black, so why will the issue not go away?

There you are, walking around in your Utopia, and suddenly someone is accusing you of racism, or you are accusing yourself. Why? Why are so many black people still so aggrieved? Can’t they move on? Civil rights was years ago, slavery even longer in the past. How long will it take?

We’ve just toured Cajun country. The British treated the French-speaking Acadians like crap, chased them out of Canada for no reason. Everyone in America treated them like crap too. They had to make their home in a swamp. But they settled down pretty good. They eat a lot of chilli-peppers and take it slow. You don’t find them complaining.

So what is going on with ‘black America’?

Tar Baby was all about feelings and identity. Desiree had told us how she had been born in a white area of California. Her parents were the only black people she knew until she went to college. She was talking about how it was a strange thing to be pretty much white, but obviously black.

I felt that the question the show posed was why has this woman, who hasn’t experienced direct racism or oppression, so angry? Where did this twenty minute explosion of emotion COME from?

The collective American mind, hosted by black and white people alike, provides identities for American’s to BE.

Like it or not, we are slotted into an identity from birth. They can be sculpted perhaps – but not made from scratch. Identities are fished from the communal pool of our ceaseless bantering.

Identity is as fundamental as WOMAN and MAN, and as niche as EXPRESSIVE GAY MALE, COY BUT BUSINESS MINDED, WITH NICE SHOES AND POSTER OF BILLY HOLIDAY.

In mainstream American culture, black people have a slim range of identities allotted to them. For instance: FUNNY HORNY BLACK GUY / RIGHTEOUSLY ANGRY BLACK MOTHER IN AFRICAN HEADSCARF / POOR BUT SOULFUL BLACK GENTLEMAN.

Tar Baby described the strange struggle that Desiree has had with these expectations. Her teachers, her friends – people she loved, her parents even – fellow black people, expected her to behave in a ‘black’ way.

The funniest part of the show was this bit where she was describing going to auditions and being told, obliquely, to ‘black it up’. “Couldn’t you do it, more kind of… urban?” They would ask.

Similarly, the black friends she made in college would say she was acting too ‘white’.

She got the audience to help her be more black. She kept repeating the line “Hold the Elevator!” and we shouted out stuff that makes someone ‘black’: a swagger in the walk, a certain waggle in the finger, more accent, more swearing, and on and on, until she was a screaming, dancing, head-bobbing mess.

It took me a long time to make peace with being LIBERAL WHITE MIDDLE CLASS BOY MAN. I felt I was a unique individual who couldn’t be squeezed into a box – and for sure I was right.

But unfortunately, while not having a secure identity have its benefits, in my experience for the most part it is unpleasant, and makes you prone to a viscous array of mental health problems. Part of being comfortable in the world is accepting where you come from, and what you look like.

I know that the identity is NOT who I am, but I accept that it is the vehicle through which I operate in the world. It may not be the most racy of identities, but old ladies like me and the police only give me a moderately hard time, even when I’m clearly breaking the law.

And, it is important to admit that despite the infinite possibilities afforded to me, the things I do, say, wear, the kind of job I aspire to, even my values – are all fairly congruent with LIBERAL WHITE MIDDLE CLASS BOY MAN.

I think that people from minority communities often feel a sense of unnerving disconnection from the identities – the ‘ways of being’ – allotted them by society. There is something sinister, patronising, or alien about them.

As far as the black American repertoire goes, many of them tend to be inferior in some sense – even the so-called positive ones.

Think of the movie The Green Mile. Here is the position given to black people at it’s most sentimental and pronounced: ignorant, strong, innocent, sad, and imbued with mystical powers.

The idea of ‘Black America’ is in a dance with the idea of ‘White America’. The dance is very very beautiful – but it also crushes people.

The dance reflects the historical realities of real black and white people to some extent, and it provides outlets for the immense wellsprings of subterranean emotion created by this reality.

Often it is the black identities that function as outlets. Black people can say things that must remain unsaid in ‘white America’. They sing the sad songs and shout the angry things, they hold the sombre wisdom that carries a cane and that “Known hard times”, they make jokes about race, they talk openly about the need of money, and the love of wealth.

Tar Baby was about was the way that Desiree had, against her will, become ANGRY BLACK LADY #314.

Anger is history’s gift to her, anger is her inheritance. The world wanted her to be more ‘black’ because she was black. To be ‘black’ is to have been once enslaved, it is to be poor and maligned.

When feelings are involved, it is pointless to say that someone shouldn’t be feeling a certain way. At most you will just force them to feel it secretly.

What was liberating about Tar Baby was the way Desiree expressed these feelings – not bubbling behind the lyrics of a song, not coded into the rhetoric of a speech, but rather as a direct, organic, ugly rant – the feelings as they would come to her in her most private place (the sheet fort).

We have feelings! It is not Desiree’s fault that she feels this way. The feeling doesn’t need to be justified. It needs to be expressed and understood, just as the frustration and guilt that bubbles away in the white culture also needs to be expressed and understood.

Of course, this is just the kind of namby pamby guff that LIBERAL WHITE MIDDLE CLASS BOY MAN always comes out with.

Meanwhile, out in rural Louisiana, we went to a Zideco dance; the “Zideco CULT” as one devotee described it. Zideco is a creole music. Creole indicates the mixing of the French Cajun culture with that of the African, via escaped or freed slaves who came to the mainland from the Caribbean.

Add to that a sprinkling of Spanish, French French, and native American influences, not to mention blood, and you have yourself one sumptuous melting pot of music, religion, food, and language.

The guys at the dance all wore brightly coloured pressed shirts, spangly belts, and cowboy hats.

The opposition here is not between black and white it is between Zideco and nonZideco.

Black, white, large, small, young, old – all dance together. The music is overpoweringly hypnotic. Not being much for footwork, I was simultaneously relieved and distraught when an 81 year old man, muttering in French, swung by and stole away the beautiful Cajun princess who had been graciously allowing me to trample on her toes.

I watched them waltz away under the lights. The swamp outside cackled to itself. The music swirled about.

I pretended I was in a Utopia for the whole night and there was no further notice.

New Orleans

We are staying on a ‘compound’, which means a kind of community where everyone has their own houses, but they share a garden space, chickens, and a fire every night.

On the night we arrived we hate oysters and learnt Cajun dancing.

Mon is learning Cajun cooking. So Bristol has much to look forward to: Gumbo, Jambalaya, Corn Macque Choux, Corn Bread and Boudin.

We borrowed a canoe and took it on the Bayou.

I have heard Hank Williams sing about ‘The Bayou’ before, and never really knew what it was. Turns out they are sort of big canals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Me and Mon canoed up toward lake Ponchartrain with Lily, who is 14, and one of those teenagers whose canniness puts the naive panic of your own teenage years (which are kind of still going on truth be told) into stark relief.

 

We parked the canoe and climbed over a fence into a cemetery.

Lilly was climbing over everything and breaking into mausoleums left right and center.

She said that if you “get lucky” then you find a tomb with a crack in it, and you can stick your head in and have a look at bones.

 

Once she found a crack in an ornate tomb that was just wide enough for her arm, so she stuck her phone through and took a picture. The picture revealed a skeletal hand holding a SWORD.

Lilly wants to be a Forensic Archeologist.



She put flowers on the unmarked graves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had Thanksgiving, which is an eating festival.

These are some of the things people say when you ask them why it happens:

– It was the early settlers from England saying “MAN I’m glad we’re not in England.”
– It is post-revolutionary America saying “MAN I’m glad we’re not England.”
– It was a special day when you would stop killing Indians and share a meal with them instead. (They next day you would sleep in and then resume killing Indians about 11 or so, maybe hand out a few poison blankets – and then eat leftovers.)
– It is a special day set aside so that people can overeat with their families, have an argument with their dad, then watch some guys in spacesuits take turns head-butting each other.
– It is simply a day to be thankful for good things.

Whatever the reason, Thanksgiving means cooking for a week and eating for a day. The spread of food that was laid on here at the compound yesterday was truly spectacular.

There were three massive tables which were swamped with homemade food, TWICE (brunch then dinner).

There were Cajun treats, stuffings, vegetables, salads, syrups, two inhumanely large turkeys, and (for me the piece-de-resistance) sweet potatoes baked with a crust of marshmallows.

If any of you dare look down on such practices, well then you’re an old-world fool; a dinosaur who needs to get with the program, damn you and your bland sandwiches. Americans are INNOVATORS.

Sweet and savoury are not separate here, they mingle flirtatiously.

(For perhaps my favourite instance, take the ‘corndog’: it is a SAUSAGE in a DONUT. Genius.)

Anyway, it was objectively the best meal I have ever eaten, and I felt pleasantly like Harrison Ford in Witness having a tasty communal time with the Amish.

We got really drunk and sat around the fire singing songs together and telling stories.

Soon to come: MUSIC, a trip to CAJUN COUNTRY, and a visit to a VOODOO TEMPLE.

If you’re in the mood for more blogs, check out my LINKS page, I put some of my blog buddies up there.

Stay powerful.
X

The good ship Nashville

Writing this blog is SO hard. Stuff is relentless, and I’m expected to somehow remember it all, and worse still, to communicate it in a digestible form.

It is ridiculous to hope to describe all the beauteous and alarming experiences we keep having, almost as silly as attempting to effectively convey even a tiny selection of the funny, lovely, sad, strong, wise, wonderful, dangerous, gorgeous people we have met.

Well you can call me Little Johnny Ridiculous, because here goes.

Nashville is ‘Music City’. It is the home of country music, as Memphis on the other side of Tennessee identifies itself as the home of the blues.

We saw some decent blues in Memphis, but the place definitely has a kind of theme-park museum feel to it. People aren’t making NEW music there, they are running through old stuff for the benefit of nostalgics like me and Mon.

(We sat outside Sun records and smoked cigerettes. I pretended to be Cash and Mon pretended to be Elvis.)

Nashville is more than just phantoms though. It is full of musicians making every kind of music, as well as those businesses big and small who distribute and capitalize upon on their produce. Nashville has STILL GOT IT people.

We have been staying in a house full of young musicians, artists, poets, and such. There are 10 people living here, I think, but the number of people staying at any one time fluctuates wildly. Most nights four or so people sleep in every room.

There are band practices in the living room, empty bottles lining the shelves, cigars being smoked on the rickety porch, bonfires in the garden, old posters on the walls, poems pinned to door frames.

A freakish wooden head looks askance, an ashtray bulges happily, a guitar hums from the next room. The kitchen is full of chatting and hugs.

As I write Mon is getting a classical guitar lesson from Max.

Last night we drunk whiskey, smoked cigars, and had a BIBLE STUDY.

Many of the people here study music at Belmont, which is a Christian College. I could devote an entire blog to the history of the place. Strictly speaking this isn’t true: but I like to say it was founded by a bear.

Part of studying music here is going to gigs. You HAVE to go to a certain amount per semester. Luckily there are thousands of shows going on in Nashville, in the street, in bars, clubs, bookshops, churches, and ice cream parlours.

In America, when you are at Uni, your not allowed to just study your chosen subject, you have to do other stuff. One of the strange things about Belmont are some of the required classes. For instance Max has to do a course on the threat of nuclear terrorism. Handy stuff for a classical guitarist.

Also at Belmont, not only are you not allowed to drink or smoke anywhere on campus but you are not allowed to have posters or books that reference those activities. If you do, the college has the power to put you into REHAB.

Luckily for the rehab services this house is not on campus.

I can’t talk about everyone who lives here, let alone the glorious string of winners who drop by every day.

Somewhat arbitrarily then, I will choose just one resident. Jerry is an old guy who lives in the basement here. He is real southern. When we got here and told him where we are from he said “You mean England, Kentucky?”

Most of the day he sits on the porch listening to the radio. “When you’re young you can run around” he literally just said to me “But when your old you take it slow.” I haven’t had much sleep and I said that being old sounded nice. “It’s pretty good” he grinned, shuffling off to make coffee.

Jerry has had a LIFE. He was in Nam. He got conscripted when he was 18. He said he was pissed (which means upset, rather than drunk), but seeing as his father and grandfather and great grandfather all fought in wars he wasn’t surprised.

He said that within a week of being in Vietnam he had killed a man, lost his virginity to a prostitute, and drunk his first beer.

On coming back to America he found his wife had shacked up with a sheriff and required a divorce. He had been sending money home to put her through college. I asked him what she studied. “Screwing” he laughed. But he is not bitter. He admitted that if it were women who went to war and men who stayed home he may well have done the same thing.

He moved to Nashville and spent many years listening to country music in bars and clubs and working in a hardware store.

He did two long stints in jail.

Then he was on the streets for many years.

Kevin and the boys in this house sometimes invite homeless people in for food.

Jerry never really accepted help from anyone and didn’t beg. He would just sit there listening to country radio on his headphones. But then he had had a heart attack out there and the house invited him to stay and live here permanently. He is a fine man, brimming with good humour.

As well as sitting on the porch and discussing existentialism, we have been driving around with erstwhile diva Berry Galazka, smoking cigars, and drinking wine.

Berry makes pop music. She is touring Europe next year, so look out for her.

When I first got in her car she put on some music, turned it up loud, looked at me and said “Prepare to be IMPRESSED.”

She sung along to every tune, from r&b to dubstep to rock to pop. She rapped along to the rap songs too; offering a stream of translation for my benefit as she rattled along. I learnt much. In England HAM implies a very thin slice of pig, but in rap music HAM means ‘Hard as a Motherfucker.’

I’ve still not quite worked out how to convincingly work it into a sentence, but gosh do I enjoy trying!

In the garden here, which is strewn with cans and rocked by the thrum of the freeway on the other side of an immense concrete wall, there is a massive bit of graffiti. It reads “Continue loving each other as brothers and sisters. Hebrews 13:1”

We call this house The Good Ship.