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.

A wrecking ball to the heart of Camden

Alienate Design, Camden Stables Market. (photo from the store’s website).

Herein continues the quixotic endeavor where I rail against the inevitable encroachment of the inane monoculture and property-development-land-grab into all that I hold dear.

The Camden Stables Market is slated for the wrecking ball. What will be built in its place? A modern shopping mall with more high street chains– H&M, Boots and Topshop.

Friday I ventured from the little converted church where I live in the sleepy village of Hanwell, to the vibrant streets of Camden to meet Cecile. She lives in Camden, and I heard about the development from her. We talked about the absurdity and the sadness of it. Sometimes I feel like I don’t live in London at all– and what I love of London is just being taken away from my friends and I and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

When I first came to London in 1999 it was Camden that really caught my imagination, while everything else– Carnaby, the King’s Road– had already been turned into an outdoor mall, but Camden survived. It was the last days of raver culture, and Cyberdog was going strong. That synthetic aesthetic that is now a cliche was exciting to me– it was done with such exacting verve and daring.

Camden has changed– most notable is the horrid modern development by the canal that is supposed to be stores and flats. Little by little the stores look more like high street clones selling sweat shop club clothing that’s more Coyote Ugly stripper stuff than trad goth or 80’s mix-n-match vintage style. (For Angelinos who remember, it’s like the transformation of Melrose from a fascinating subcultural landmark in the 80’s to a cheezy shopping venue in the 90’s).

The Stables Market’s catacombs, the dank stone labyrinth with its random stalls, was one of the only places I’ve found decent vintage in this town. A place where you could feel like you were discovering something. It is the place where I would eat on the cheap from one of the steam table stalls and people watch. Now what will be there? Another Starbucks and McDonalds?

I imagine the corporate culturemakers with their patronizing vision, taking this place and selling it back to us as trusted brands, now with a mohawk. Not unlike the ironically named Lab/Anti-Mall in Orange County California– a few years after its development it fell into a perpetual identity crisis, with an Urban Outfitters as the anchor store, and everything else an experiment in economic failure. The only difference is the anti-mall, even though it was designed for the “indie” target market, didn’t destroy something that worked, and that was historic and loved by many.

Eviction notices have already been served to the vendors in the Stables, and in a week come the bulldozers.

Nearer the Record Bin of History

I met my husband in a used record store where he worked on Hollywood Boulevard. That store isn’t there anymore.

In high school I used to go to a record store regularly with my first real crush. We would drive out to some other suburb and pour over the bins in this little red-walled hole. I could only afford maybe one record at each visit, so it had to be the right one. I picked out things like The Smiths, which disappointed my friend. He took pity on me and made me mixed tapes. But a record never really made me cool. It was such a luxury, an object I could bond with. I’m sure that little shop in the badlands of the Chicago suburbs is gone now, too.

I’ll admit I was spoiled by the grand Ameoba Music store in San Francisco and Los Angeles. (Where the guy at the electronic counter would actually set things aside for me like Hecate and Ove-Naxx with a secretive glee– no one in London would ever break out of their numb-cool pose to do that.)

Shopping for music in London is shit. The Virgin Megastore is this tourist hell of eviscerated top-down marketing. The Oxford Street HMV cavern broadcasts billboard-sized videos of the geriatric Stones flailing around silently, overlayed by the most recent Justin Timberlake or Gwen Stefani or what have you. All the employees have to wear shirts that say “HERE TO HELP” in giant pink letters and every one of them is soured by this lack of dignity, spending a lot of time sculpting their hair so they can at least look indie-vidual on top. Looking at the displays, where everything’s a “bargain”, you feel like all of London is listening to the same five records and you can’t even blame the radio now– people are actively subscribing to the monoculture.

And there’s Sister Ray in Soho– sad, sad, sad. I’ve gone in there asking for things and always get the same vague sneer. I mean, how dare they when really their store only offers things like the Pixies back catalogue and Baby Shambles tee shirts. Like a fucking bargain basement of indiesease. No Metric? No Frog Eyes? Not even any Sons and Daughters? What’s wrong with you, Sister Ray?

There was Fopp, which I loved (for Americans, it had a bit of the early 90’s Tower Records wacky stock about it), even if it was hunt and peck, outside of Rough Trade it was the best London had. As of a few weeks ago, it is gone, every store. (The one Cambridge Circus location will reopen in name only, owned now by HMV.)

Economic analysts are blaming music downloads for these closures, but I’m not buying it entirely. (From Fopp’s now-dead website: “Our store chain is profitable, well regarded and loved by our loyal customers and staff. However we have failed to gain the necessary support from major stakeholders, suppliers and their credit insurers to generate sufficient working capital to run our expanding business.”) Blame boredom and greed– a handful of corporate culture-makers saturating everything with their own perverse choices, categorizing cultural production into demographic consumables.

I looked at the squawking image of Mick Jagger dwarfing me in HMV and thought yeah– Jack-the-Lad 60’s boomers– you’ve done it, clinging to your now-linty cool-points, you own everything. My generation has had to invent itself in their shadow. I had my day, my secret joy of dusty-record-bin discovery. At least I know it’s over. In “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” Lester Bangs writes about buying a new record:

...The real story is rushing home to hear the apocalypse erupt, falling through the front door and slashing open the plastic sealing “for your protection,” taking the record out– ah, lookit them grooves, all jet black without a smudge yet, shiny and new and so fucking pristine, then the color of the label, does it glow with auras that’ll make subtle comment on the sounds coming out, or is it just flat utilitarian monochromatic surface, like a schoolhouse wall…And finally you get to put the record on the turntable, it spins in limbo a perfect second, followed by the moment of truth, needle into groove, and finally sound…

I won’t say I don’t miss it.