My Very Own Carnival

image by Maria Kristin Steinsson on flickr
image by Maria Kristin Steinsson on flickr

On Saturday I had gone to Covent Garden to get a few necessities and had to stop for a street performance. I never do this, having come to hate the bovine crowds they attract and the general baseness of the spectacle. But there was a tall, handsome man in a pinstripe suit on a giant unicycle, and he was about to juggle. With a little girl. Not juggle the girl, but the little girl from the audience was going to throw the pins to him. He’d asked her to catch him, and when she put her little arms out you could see his heart melt. What followed was a kind of sentimental physical comedy like I imagine true clowns could do if, you know, they weren’t terrifying. I haven’t laughed so hard or been so fleetingly happy for a very long time. I threw a lot of money in their hat.

On Sunday I went to Camden. I met my friends Amanda and Liza and we lost ourselves in Camden’s labyrinth of desire– there is no other place I know in the world that is so full of the phantasmagoria of hippie-gothness. And there is no other place that is also so very crowded, perpetually and inscrutably, with muggles.

Which brings me to the Dev, or the Devonshire Arms, the center of the London Goth universe until a recent pubco takeover. We were meeting Poggs for another friend’s birthday thingy there. Poggs had to give me directions to the Dev– I know, I lose serious goth points for that, but I hadn’t been in years. In fact, I had not been to the Dev since its takeover and reinvention as the Hobgoblin. It was a disappointment. The cider was off to begin with, and when I asked Poggs what is that smell? He clarified, “That’s wee.”

We sat at the kiddie table next to the main party’s table, and behind us were a group of crusties which momentarily gladdened me in a superficial way. I thought, foolishly, that this proof that someone was keeping it real in Camden. Not long after this fancy occurred to me, a seven-foot tall mohican entered with a dwarf in a box.

Yes, you heard me.

With an obvious sense of theatre this pair went about tussling, the dwarf not wanting to get into the box again and the mohican trying to pack him away. At some point the dwarf visited Poggs in an intimate and rather canine way and then later became fixated on a member of the party who he decided looked like Bono (the gentleman did share certain eyewear-choices, it’s true). Dramatic taunting and impromtu chants about the third world ensued. I was impressed with the restraint of Mr. Not-Bono, who was very Zen about being bullied by a crowd of crusties and a very angry dwarf, and this seemed to piss off the dwarf and his drunken friends even more, until the dwarf decided he was going to throw his beer on Not-Bono to make his point. I saw this about to happen, and I knew it was going to land on us, the cute goth girls in the party, and completely miss Not-Bono…but it was one of those stop-motion moments where you think you can stop it, get out of the way, avoid disaster somehow…but no.

All over Amanda ‘s skirt and my Sanrio purse…I think it was Staropramen, too. What kind of crusty-loving dwarf drinks Staropramen? Poggs had summed the night up nicely…life’s rich tapestry. Indeed!

Cocks and Staches and Stouts

photo by bubbahop on flickr
photo by bubbahop on flickr

Yesterday I went into town to see my friend V for a beer in the City.  It was strange to be back– starker now that most tourists are gone, and perhaps the lay offs have sobered the place, emptied it out? The shadowless St. Paul’s, now diapered in canvas and scaffolding, and Paternoster Square with its big bronze pineapple crowning the concrete fan of pavement– I always feel misplaced there, like the extra that’s wandered on the wrong set or like I’m the apple in a Magritte painting.

While perching by the churchyard, an extremely handsome, well suited man stopped me and asked the way to Paternoster Square– I told him he was almost there, and pointed, but he walked away as I was explaining about the pineapple– which is really the information you need to know you are actually there.  His loss. When people ask me for directions and I actually know them, this makes me feel like a Londoner, almost.

My friend and I met in the Cockpit, our favourite pub on the corner of a little side street.  The place is run by two men with magnificent moustaches and no matter how crowded it is I never have to wait too long to be served. I was amused that last night as I stood at the bar some gentleman called to the landlord, There’s a lady at the bar! I think he was trying to do me a favor but there was a tone of wonder in his voice.  The pub is usually filled with suits, bankers decompressing from the hard work of bringing the entire world to its knees, toasting each other while looking forward to the next day when they can hold all economic recovery hostage to their whims.  But I digress!  The place is painted dark red and decorated with steins and paintings and statues of cocks–  some of it perhaps from when the tiny, circular bar was actually a cockfighting ring.

V and I joked about the vertiginous spiral staircase to the ladies room. After our third (or was it fourth?) round, they were closing up, putting stools on tables.  I ventured up the stairs and as I came down I saw a little door open in the side wall of the flight of stairs– an Alfred Jarry sort of moment (each floor of his flat was cut in half to make another floor)– where the mustachioed proprietor crawled out!  I jumped and said, Ha-llo! to cover my embarrassment and he just looked at me like, Lass– you’re squiffy!

On nights like the last, London seems to say: I love you, why don’t you say it back? And then it goes and takes my favourite necklace of 15 years.  It must have fallen off on the tube. I feel naked without it.

From a place called Kentucky…

photo by rhythmzslave on flickr

I am a quiet American. At least compared to most Americans in London who, even to my ears, sound loud.

Recently a British friend said to me, “Americans like to talk, don’t they?” and I didn’t know what to say. I never really thought of it like that. Americans here are more extroverted than your average Brit. I will risk generalization and say it’s not so much that we like to talk but we are spared that shy awkwardness that marks the Londoner’s public face.

I have learned this face well and am mostly silent. This is interesting, especially when the idea of “the American” comes up. I have heard everything from “eating meat is in their blood” to “they have no right to be in England. Why are they here?” (said a knitter who glowered over her clacking needles while tsking the deportation of two of my fellow ex-pat knitters.)

Any American that doubts that we are hated the world over should do a bit of traveling. We are easy to dislike simply because so few of us do travel and those that do are often obnoxious. We come from a service culture where even if you have little money, you can go to a restaurant and eat well and be “taken care of” in a way that is unheard of in the UK or Europe. And that’s why so many people travel to the US, to partake of this hospitality. It’s also the reason that most of Europe and the UK find American tourists obnoxious– Americans are hoping for the service and value they find at home, and here that is reserved for the ultra wealthy. At a recent job I had to attend a seminar on “customer service” where many presenters apologized for the idea which they said was “very American.”

Of course, if one is an American living in London, there is a good chance you are one of the ultra wealthy– it is quite difficult to obtain a visa to live here unless you are rich, highly skilled or married to a Brit. Very few people here know what range of Americans actually exist. They fail to understand that most Americans, just like your average Brit, are struggling to make a decent life for themselves against a government that has stacked the odds against them. And we both love American movies, American shopping and American food too. Maybe there is some small comfort in the monoculture being exported. We now all have something in common.

In the gym locker room today I heard a few ladies discussing rude customs officers in America, and they began to generalize so that soon it was the entire nation that was thoughtless and gluttonous and rude. One woman said, “Well, if you were American, you wouldn’t want anyone to know because everyone would just hate you and slag you off.” And there was a hum of agreement. Another said, “And can they eat! They are like pigs! Eating enough for a whole family for one meal! The portions!” And they then went on to describe the many holidays they had taken to different parts of America and the food they had eaten there, and how marvelous it was but the drawback was having to eat it with so many gluttonous Americans. (More tsking). Finally I said, “I miss those big meals– especially a nice big salad. Or having a great big drink when you’re thirsty. You can’t really get those things here, unless of course it’s beer.”

And they looked at me wide eyed and then agreed that Unlimited Refills ™ was a revelation, and why don’t they have them here? Another woman mentioned what a great time she had at Sea World where she bought a cup with a whale on it that she could fill as often as she liked. And someone else had gone shopping in New York, and another had stayed at some posh hotel in Vegas, and wasn’t it a bargain?

And then another girl said, “And the KFC there is better. The biscuits aren’t sweet and crisp like here– they are warm and fluffy and so good.” Here in London there is a KFC on every high street, and countless “Yankee Chicken” clones which I have happily avoided for the past three years, but most people here seem to live on this stuff.

Another went on to wonder, “Why can’t they make those biscuits here?”

And someone else said, “Because it’s from there, innit?” She looked at me for affirmation.

“Yes. It’s from Louisville.”

Blank looks.

“Louisville, Kentucky. It’s in the South.” I thought about grits with butter, and the familiar twang of my great-aunt’s voice when she would say, well, good night! when something amazed her.

But they were already on to talking about lobster in New England.

Happy Christmas, Dearest Reader

Christmas in London is a serious affair simply because everything closes. No tube, no buses. No shops or restaurants. The bustling, crowded city turns into a kind of ghost town. Other Americans have said to me, “I always dreamed of a London Christmas” and I’ve often wondered what exactly they meant– surely not the apocalyptic stillness I’ve encountered, having no one to see and no where to go on that day.

There is the argument that Dickens invented Christmas. Perhaps these Americans are thinking of A Christmas Carol— ragmuffins in the snow, conscience-pricking ghosts? Or is it something quaint, mulled and jolly– a received protestant memory? I suppose it’s where the archaic “Merry” comes from in the American “Merry Christmas”– this throwback of an idea. London is the Victorian city celebrating in ye olde stylie. Except it’s not. The only truth in these fantasies is that London at Christmas is a heap of juxtapositions, and maybe that’s why it’s amazing. It’s the one time of year you might have a Londoner smile at you for no reason, and that shopkeeper who you’ve seen twice weekly for years now might just let on that he remembers you. Of course, after the New Year things go back to brisk, slightly hostile anonymity.

Yule has always been my favourite time of year. I love the long nights and in London the nights are even longer. It’s harder to forget the pagan roots of the holiday– the lights and decorations are consolation in the darkness and the bitter cold. There’s less “Happy Birthday Jesus” and more puddings, ales, mistletoe and holly.

It’s easier to avoid the consumer cataclysm in London. I’m sure it exists on Oxford Street, the King’s Road and Carnaby Street, but if you don’t go there you don’t have to deal with it. If you do have to go to a store you’re more likely to hear a bizarre (to my American ears anyway), new-wave take on Christmas: Wham, Band Aid or even the Plastic Ono Band and Wizzard instead of the same schmaltz you’d hear in American retail establishments. Less Chipmunks and more Fairytale of New York.

And there’s something modest about the celebrations. As far as I can tell the big festivity here is the office party, and barring that, the coach ride to see relatives. Last night I was at our local pub and there was a table of celebrants having roast dinner. They all wore paper crowns (save two killjoys who took themselves too seriously. I believe you can judge the character of a person based on whether they are willing to wear the paper crown.). They read each other the stupid jokes out of the crackers which they pulled with childish glee, even though the lot were middle aged.

But there is the bizarro mirror, of course– being an expat here I see the British indulge in a Yank-style Christmas with I kind of sardonic guilt– it’s full on Hollywood romantic comedy, credits rolling over Louis Armstrongs’ It’s a Wonderful World. (The film Love, Actually kind of sums up this adaptation in a horrifying way.) Today two Radio 6 DJ’s I love to hate– Russel and John– played christmas music as they got drunk on cider and rose petal vodka this morning. And they played typical Yank Christmas songs, snarking all the way but still loving it, probably because they were opening gifts that contained even more alcohol. Damn if I didn’t get all warm and fuzzy, too. Especially when they played the atypical Ramone’s Merry Christmas, I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight. *sniffle*

But then, this time of year, almost anything sets me off, a song, a string of lights, a commercial for an ipod, even.

So today, after listening to Christina’s brilliant Xmas song, Things Fall Apart, I went for an astringent walk down the canal near my flat– frost-speckled webs drawn across the skeletal vegetation, only the thorns were left clinging to the frozen bank. The fog was so thick and ghostly, it blanked everything out– every tinselled sentimentality.

Hounslow Homegirl Does it Again

M.I.A.’s new video Boyz. She tried to get “every dancer with a name in Jamaica” in the video. I love her– her music, her 80’s radioactive tropicalismo aesthetic, everything. When I hear her music I think, that’s a London I love– screw the estate agent buckle-down, the “white girl respect your race” knuckleheads on the bus. Somewhere in her music I hear new London’s marching orders, burning up every St. George flag into a day-glo pixel kaleidescope.