This Election Business

Seattle stencil from Elena777 on flickr
Seattle stencil from Elena777 on flickr

Though most of the free world is currently biting their nails, waiting for the results of the election, some people remain (blissfully?) unaware. Take my co-worker who gets most of her information from the Daily Mail and the Metro.  Today she turned to me and in her heavy South (Sowff) London accent she asked, “This election business–”

“Yes?” I was eager to talk about something besides her obsessions with real estate and immigrant swindlers.

“What is it for?  Is it for the President?  Or is it for whoever will replace Bush?”

“Um, yeah.”

“Why doesn’t Bush run again?  Is he tired of it?”

“Bush can only be president for 8 years.” I mumbled, I’m tired of it.

“Who is Bush then, Obama or McCain?”  I think she was asking who was the Republican– thinking that the successor would be appointed like in the UK.

And here was my dilemma– explain the electoral process in a soundbite between her surfing the Home Buyers bulletins, or make it simple?

“McCain shares Bush’s policies, though he says he doesn’t.”

“Right then.”

And I went back to processing the perversity of bankers’ expense accounts, and to my reverie: imagining waking up tomorrow to a world that just got a bit better, a world where you could say you were American without cringing, where decades of racial struggle have come to joyful fruition, where the antiwar movement I sweated and cried over becomes vindicatied.  That kind of morning.

The fierce urgency of now

I began considering leaving the US during George W. Bush’s first term in office.  After spending years organizing against the wars in Iraq and for reproductive rights, his presidency was a cynical seal on my activist burnout. As he was sworn into office for a second term, I was booking a flight to the UK and dealing with visa paperwork.

If I could have put any quote on my American Passport it would have been Woolf’s  “As a woman, I have no country.  As a woman, my country is the world.”

But the years I have spent in England have taught me a great deal and probably the most complex lesson has been that I am at heart an American and will always be. I didn’t come to London because I’m an anglophile or even because London had charmed me, which on previous visits it had not.  I came because it seemed of all the places in the world, London would have me.

Landing in Heathrow was a bit like jumping from a cloud.  My four years here I have wondered at all the people who have been there to catch me in various ways, regardless of where I’d come from or why.  This is why I love this place: in London, everyone gets a second chance, though you may pay dearly for it.

For the first three years here I tuned out American politics.  I took a long sabbatical from doing the cassandra song, reacting to Bush.  I couldn’t bear the sound of his voice, his brutal misuse of language, the chaos he seemed to court while America went to hell.

With the election just two weeks away I’ve turned my ear back to politics, gingerly at first– and now rather voraciously.  I first heard of Obama in the context of the anti-war movement.  His speech in 2002 to the crowd gathered at the Federal Plaza in Chicago were the first brave, true words I’d heard about the war from a politician.  He was one of the first mainstream politicians to not treat the anti-war movement like the the madwoman in the attic.  Yeah, the dems wanted our vote but could we please just play nice and tick boxes?

I also remember Hillary voting for the war and feeling betrayed– it’s why I couldn’t get behind her in the primaries.  Could she look me in the eye as an activist and shake my hand or would the ones who do the grassroots work still be at the kiddie table, being told to be quiet?

I remember hearing Obama’s speech in 2002 and thinking, “He should be president”– but it seemed some crazy thing that would never happen.  I’ve had my hopes dashed at election time before, always settling for the lesser of two evils, but there’s one thing that’s different this time.  Obama is a fighter.  Read his speech from 2002 and it’s still relevant today.  People say he’s all rhetoric but after 8 years of Bush’s misuse of the language, what is wrong with wanting someone who can use the language in all its power to reassure, persuade and embolden?

For the first time in my life there is a candidate who speaks directly to me with immediacy and relevance, making me consider again the potential of innocence.  Not the innocence of ignorance but that of hope.  To be free of cynicism, to believe in renewal. I recall, without apology, that this feeling is exactly what it is to be American.

A Piss-up for Boris

Image from BBC News, Revelers at Liverpool Street Station.

Revelers at Liverpool Street Station. Image from BBC News.

Earlier in the week I steamed my black satin cocktail dress and dusted off my fascinator because this weekend I was going out to the Circle Line Cocktail Party. I even considered bringing my absinthe gear to the Last Orders Party happening on the 31st of May, before the drinking ban went into effect. I’d never gone to a Circle Line Party, and I was making up for lost time. This one was in protest of Boris Johnson’s (the new conservative mayor of London) attacks on personal liberty which begin with banning drink on the tube, and will continue to legislate other drinking behavior to the point of absurdity.

I never put on the cocktail dress, and the absinthe bottle remains unopened on my shelf. One of the pitfalls of living most of your life in your head is that reality never really matches up. By the time a few friends had agreed to go with me, so had several thousand other people via the “Last Orders” Facebook page. My friend Aaron texted me to say that on Friday night it was on the front page of the evening papers. What I thought was going to be a nice piece of semi-political street theatre suddenly became a full on street party. I remembered the sloppy and abrasive British stag nights I’d seen in Amsterdam. This would be like that but multiplied by thousands. And then I remembered the World Cup– since I don’t watch football it was just a drunkfest of macho bullying to me.

Lads rampaged the cyclical-tube-car-cocktail-party in my head. I stayed home.

Liverpool Street Station was shut down, as was the Circle Line itself. Chances are I wouldn’t have been able to find my friends in the chaos, anyway. The awful mess left on the tube this morning only makes an argument for Boris’ ridiculous policies, and this is unfortunate. It’s interesting that in the news today emphasis was made on the “exclusive” neighborhoods the Circle Line serves, inferring that it would be unacceptable to have the drink-addled masses partying in posh postcodes. London has become too exclusive for even the people that live in it. Except of course for the ultra rich, but I digress.

To miss-paraphrase the NRA, it’s not drink that makes people antisocial, it’s just that anti-social people drink. When I first came to London I was shocked that people were allowed to drink on public transport. My first real experience with this was the World Cup, as I have mentioned. I witnessed one element of British drinking culture– a bunch of raving louts bullying people around them and eventually passing out or being sick. The testosterone-and-lager-fueled spectacle was punctuated for me by a woman dragging her wasted man slowly up the massive tube staircase at Bank, one step at a time.

That was probably one of the more pleasant public-drinkng drinking problems I’ve witnessed. Once, on a sweltering day in August on a double decker bus which actually still had the heat on (I later learned that is how some buses here cool their engines. In the days of global warming this is just cruel, but I digress). Next to me was an old man with a face full of broken capillaries and a wool coat that had seen at least one World War and pehaps had been unwashed for as long. Each coat pocket was distended with a can of Guinness. A fight broke out in the front between an Arab off-duty bus driver and a Jamaican woman and the bus driver pulled the bus over like a disgruntled parent so that we were all trapped inside, umoving. Some people started to scream at the fighting pair, at the bus driver, at each other, and an explosive noise issued from the old man next to me. He’d shit himself.

Another occasion on the 70 Bus, a scraggly man sat in the rear with a can in a bag, admonishing an invisible companion. I looked down at the aisle where a copious river of his urine was coursing down the length of the bus.

And once on the 607 I sat beside a man and his little son who was maybe six. The father cradled a four pack of Stella in his lap. Taking one out and cracking it open, he handed it over to his son silently. No doubt if this little boy is lucky, when he grows up he will find a girl to drag him up the tube stairs when he’s obliterated himself.

But of course Boris’ measures are going to stop all this.

At least we can be certain what it will stop, and that’s anything sensible and joyful involving drinking on the tube. I leave you with a video of the Central Line Dinner Party.