Thursday, 19 August 2010

#31 The Gettysburg Largesse.

I spent a lot of time with my parents a couple of weeks ago. Among other places, we went to Gettysburg, the scene of the decisive battle of the American Civil War, and where Abraham Lincoln famously gloated about how great the Union was. We ate stacks of pancakes and waffles and ice cream, and I grew fat.The Gettysburg Address, and the Gettysburg Largesse.

The civil authorities of Gettysburg clearly know which way their bread is buttered: the whole town is built around the civil war. Every civil war-era house has a spiffy plaque proclaiming it as such; every other shop sells civil war costumes. There is a big market for said costumes amongst civil war re-enactors, who, in Gettysburg, are plentiful. I am curious as to whether anyone who isn't a civil war re-enactor has ever bought one, and whether, if so, he was drunk. On the better side, we went to a restaurant which served civil war-era food. I know not how genuine it was, but it was certainly scrumptious: game pie, sweet potatoes, watermelon jelly, apple butter, and so forth.

The most amazing thing about the American Civil War is how close a call it was. I know people say that about every war ("If only Hitler had continued bombing airfields/kept Stalin sweet for another month/not fired that nuclear technician/warn Swastika underpants..." my history teacher used to opine, with a hint of genuine sadness), but really, you couldn't put an Avanti condom between the Union and the Confederacy until Gettsyburg. The consensus was that Robert E. Lee (Commander of the Army of North Virginia, and the de facto head of the Confederate army) nearly had it, after major victories preceding Gettysburg. It was a truly unexpected tits-up for the Rednecks.

I like this topic a lot, as it allows me to exhibit a rare flash of Mancunian pride - the Union almost certainly would have lost the Civil War, if the City of Manchester hadn't agreed to stop buying Southern cotton. The loss of the South's major - almost only - source of income was disastrous for the Confederacy, and greatly undermined their military power. Abraham Lincoln wrote a humble letter thanking Manchester's workers, who suffered widespread hardship and famine throughout the rest of the war.

As I alluded to earlier, Gettysburg is, astoundingly, where the Gettysburg Address was given. Five months after the bloodiest battle the Western hemisphere has ever seen (in terms of the proportion of soldiers involved who perished, if you were wondering), as bodies were still being cleared away, he stood and spoke the following words to a 15,000-strong crowd:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Without wishing to get drippy, standing and reading those words of peerless beauty and eloquence is a pretty amazing moment. And when you're done, you can go and get your photo taken groping a bronze statue of Lincoln in the crotch.

#30 Intercourse, PA.

Sandwiched between the various grand cities of the East Coast, Pennsylvania Dutch Country is home to the assorted weirdos collectively known as the Plain People. The Plain People settled in Pennsylvania after fleeing from Switzerland due to religious persecution. Now, Swtizerland is a country of closet Nazis whose main exports are watches, chocolate bars and knives. Imagine what kind of unreconstructed oddball you have to be to be persecuted by them.

Sure enough, the Plain People - most famously the Old Order Amish, but also various other Amish sects, the Mennonites, the Hutteries, and so on; all Anabaptists, meaning they practise adult baptism - are to weird what the the lion is to the jungle. The Amish (I will talk about the Amish, though much of the same applies to the other Plain People) have refuted various bits of material culture, technology, and so forth, which they see as threatening to their way of life. They live by a strict and pious code known as the Ordnung. They are only permitted to marry amongst themselves. (Always an error, that one. You only need look at European royalty to see how inconveniently cretinous inbreeding makes you.)

Every time a new piece of technology of obvious merit comes along (the telephone, the plough), the Amish fall out about whether it is permissible. Usually those that think so split off into a new sect, and the Old Order continue their tediously, unenhanced lives. That noted, the Old Order have permitted firstly telephones (but not in the home, so instead of interrupting meals by chatting on their cells they interrupt meals by running down the street) and, hilariously, secondly, batteries. Yes, batteries. Electricity is only an unspeakable sin if it is wired directly into your house, and not if you buy it at RadioShack.

The Amish justify their bizarre Ordnung by saying that the objective is to preserve their culture, which is a reasonable argument, but for the fact that their culture of social pressure and the suppression of the individual is not worth preserving. The whole of Pennsylvania Dutch Country is under the illusion that they must humour these knuckle-dragging imbeciles, probably because they bring in a fair wad of tourist dollars.

But let us not forget the redeeming feature of the Amish: comedy. They put celery decorations out at weddings instead of flowers. They speak a bastardised, degraded version of German known as 'Pennsylvania Dutch' (the 'Dutch' is a corruption of 'Deutsch'), which is essentially the kind of German you hear in Carry On films: 'Ich bin ein bit tired, ich muss schleep', that kind of thing. And best of all: most of them live in a town called Intercourse.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

#29 Fashion worth fighting for.

In the 1957 movie 'Funny Face', Audrey Hepburn plays a downtrodden but educated woman who works in a bookstore; plain and dowdy. Her life is transformed when Dick Avery, a hot fashion photographer, decides she is to be the new face of Quality magazine, and, suddenly, she becomes the bleeding edge of fashionable.

I can empathise. Hepburn's experience is not unlike that which any European will has upon arrival in America. Because America, as a nation, is sartorially retarded. It is a wasteland. I've been to better-dressed homeless shelters.

Now, I'm not an individual overly concerned with fashion: I normally wear t-shirts and jeans, I have silly-coloured socks. My shirts - pure cotton though they may be - are unimaginatively plain and pinstriped, in a lazy, preppy sort of way. I do possess - and I admit this with great reticence - t-shirts with beer company logos on them. That's t-shirts. Plural. All in all, I'm no Kate Moss.

But I look decent. I don't wear white sports socks with a black suit. I don't wear shorts to restaurants. I don't own a fanny pack. I don't wear running shoes to work. I believe fedora hats had their day in the early 20th century. In fact, even a day was pushing it. (Oh, and by the way, it is customary in civilised countries to remove your hat inside. Cunts.)

Furthermore, I believe bermuda shorts to be a beach clothing item. You've already heard my opinions on baseball caps. Don't even get me started on wedding attire ("Congratulations, you looked like a complete twat on the most important day of your life").

Clearly, New York has some very fashionable people (I've even spied some harem pants of late: mais oui!), but if you speak to any of them - which I often do, in my line of work - they tend to be European. The Americans try and copy, but just don't get it. The hipsters - fedora hats, canvas shoes, capri pants, stupid, lo-fidelity headphones and badly-tuned guitars - are the worst, because they're obviously trying really hard.

In truth, New York is tolerable. But dare to venture out into New England or Jersey, and God help you. New York is a sort of halfway house - a safe haven for any would-be European visitor to start with. Like the little coves you practice windsurfing in, it helps those a little wet behind the ears to adjust. From there, they can make little weekend trips into the open ocean of sartorial carnage, so that the tsunamis of middle America don't immediately get them. One denim jeans-denim jacket combo is one thing, but try being faced by a hundred of them at once.

The whole thing is exacerbated by the obscene, graphic obesity everywhere you look. If you think a t-shirt bearing the logo of a fake girder company and it's fake date of incorporation printed faintly so as to add an air of Retro Charm is unspeakably horrendous, wait 'til you've seen it stretched hopefully, vainly over three hundred pounds of prime Yanksteak.

None of this bothers me terribly - as cultural omissions go, well-tailored trousers I can deal with. It just adds an old-fashioned air to the whole place, taken with everything else. Prices are a little cheaper, the clothes are a little 90s, the music is mostly pre-teen. They are still arguing about gay marriage. It's Europe, five years ago. Except there aren't any jobs.

P.S. Thought I should drop in a link to America's sartorial Bible: People of WalMart.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

#28 Brotherly LOVE.

Oh we do like Philly, very much. I was clueless before I arrived. It's a bit of a non-entity to non-Americans (at least to me): after New York, LA and DC, I jump straight to 'Other'. I can report that it is both lovely and important, like Michelle Obama.

Philadelphia used to be the capital of the US, did you know that? Well now you do. 1790-1800, which puts it in that Lady Jane Grey category of important-for-pub-quizzes-if-nothing-else. (What the Philly tourist literature doesn't tell you is that this was just because it took a little while to build DC.)

But wait; there's more. The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were both written and signed in Philly. That puts it alongside Runnymede as probably the most important place in Western law and politics.

Let's not forget the oldest continuously inhabited street in America, Elfreth's Alley, or a truly spectacular Museum of Art that ticks three of my four art museum boxes - well-lit, lots to read, and few children. (#4 is donation only/free, and almost always adversely affects the other three.)

More, you say? Mais oui! Philly has the largest city park in America - Fairmount Park. Which is, truth be told, a little flat and boring (Prospect Park - now there's a park!) And it houses the Liberty Bell, an international symbol of freedom that is a total con (it was silent during the signing and public reading of the Declaration of Independence, fact fans). Oh, and it is the home of a mediocre steak sandwich - the Philly Cheese Steak. And a series of mediocre Sylvester Stallone films. I could go on.

If in that last paragraph you thought I sounded a little down on Philly, you misunderstood - I'm down on what people like about Philly. It's a city of peerless charm - fascinating history, wide open spaces, sleepy streets. The perfect antidote to New York. Its artistic haunts are full not of posers and hipsters but of artists and observers. It is unpretentious about its historical import, the majesty of its attractions. It has some beautiful architecture - especially the Victorian revival architecture of UPenn. (Another mention should go out to UPenn's daunting Archaeology and Anthropology Museum, actually.)

But the best bit of all is the downtown layout. Seriously. It is an exercise in pleasing geometry - four equal quarters, divided by two huge boulevards originating from City Hall. Two subway lines each run along one of these boulevards. Streets are numbered away from the centre. Precise, simple, beautiful. It is where Da Vinci would have lived, if he was born a little later. The Vitruvian city.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

#27 Pilgrims' progress.

The Mayflower, bearer of New England's first permanent settlers.

America has come a long way. Really, it isn't said enough. She is the country we love to loathe, with her isolationist sensibilities and nutritional eccentricities, her paradoxical mix of I'm-free-so-fuck-you liberalism and prudish conservatism. A country more advanced than any, determined to revert to the Stone Age.

But in 400 years, the European settlers of what we now call America have thrashed out a nation that (let's face it) leads the world. And, on a good day, she leads the world based on laudable principles of egalitarianism and freedom. She is rich. She is pretty. She is spacious, technologically-advanced, and possessing of Froot Loops. Hasn't she done well?

Over the last few days, then, I have explored the genesis of this sometimes dumb, usually arrogant and occasionally marvellous nation. I have been through her underwear drawer and her baby photos. And all to present to you a potted history of a girl named America.

Massachusetts numberplates proudly boast of 'The Spirit of America'. It is, to many, the state that epitomizes everything that America should be. Here the colonists finally learned how to get on with the native Indians, and broke bread with them in a universal Thanksgiving. Here the British tyranny was first routed, and a nation more democratic than any the world had seen was born. Here natural resources are exploited way past breaking point, and sports teams are the best on earth. Here science is shoved violently forward beyond its furthest frontiers, clams are stuffed with deliciousness, and cities are all but unnavigable.

In 1620, the Wampanoag Indians experienced a shock. The shock was probably smaller than your history teacher led you to believe - after all, Basque and Scandinavian fishermen had regularly been visiting Cape Cod, the Wampanoag's homeland, for hundreds of years. The white man came again, but this time he intended to stay. (Actually, they'd already come to stay, in 1607, to Virginia; but the story of the Plymouth Brethren is so much more romantic.)

The white man arrived in winter, poorly provisioned, unfamiliar with the terrain, and largely clueless on the topic of subsistence farming. The Wampanoag helped the colonists through their first winter, fed them turkey, and forever cursed their decision. Waves and waves of further colonists came - 20,000 by 1630, all along the Eastern seaboard - and America was born.

These first New Englanders landed on Cape Cod at Provincetown, on the far northern tip. 102 of them - Protestants, seeking the freedom to follow their devout faith awa from the meddling of Catholic King James - set out, and by the end of their first winter - despite the Wampanoag's intervention - half of them had perished.

By 1627, these survivors had settled in the already-charted town of Plimouth, on the Massachusetts mainland. If you visit Plimouth (and I hazard you should), you can see the rock marking their landing point. It is very dull, in a typically rock-like way. It is brown-gray. It is large. Someone has thoughtfully carved '1620' into it. It is surrounded by a gaudy Neo-Classical pavilion, altogether out of kilter with the uninteresting object it shelters.

Plimouth's far superior Colony-related attraction is the Plimouth Plantation, a village compromising both a mock up of the Colonists' village, and of a Wampanoag one. There are players in dress (well, in the Wampanoag village, there are Native Americans from various Nations), dubious West Country accents, and a lot of fun to be had.

Most of my time in Massachusetts was spent on Cape Cod. It is a huge promontory into the Atlantic - actually, it's been a huge island in the Atlantic since the Cape Cod Canal cut it from the rest of Massachusetts in 1914. Anyway, historically it was full of sea captains, windmills and teeming fish. Now its full of windmills and tourists. There are lots of dead fish on dinner plates, but the fish stocks offshore are severely depleted. There may still be sea captains, in fairness. I don't really know what a sea captain looks like. I have a vague pastiche of Captain Birdseye and Adam Ant in my head; I didn't see anyone quite like that. The tourists came to see the sea captains, fish and windmills, so are generally two-thirds disappointed.

I liked it, a lot. I've always liked places with a jaunty nautical air, and this nautical air was pretty much vertical. They served decent tea (New England is clearly more than just a name), the Indian place names were frankly unmatched (case in point: Mashpee), and everything smelled deliciously salty. I ate lots of taffy and quahogs (somewhere between toffee and boiled sweets; stuffed clams). The art in the galleries was shit ('Oh, you decided to paint a fishing boat in an orange-and-blue palette; truly you are an artist of unprecedented vision and depth!'), but you can't have everything.

I mentioned the Cape was full of tourists, but really, I hadn't seen anything yet. Off the coast of the Cape (that's off the coast of off the coast of Massachusetts, for those who are counting), lies the real tourist trap: Martha's Vineyard.

Martha's Vineyard is a place so romanticized that you sound like a dick whatever you say about it. Have you ever heard people talk about Paris? They either say how beautiful it is, and you think they're pretentious or generic, or they say how much they dislike it, and you think they're an idiot. Or, again, pretentious. You can't win.

Martha's Vineyard is sort of the same. It's clearly very pretty - beautiful, even - but sullied. That's not just in a everyone-and-his-dog-has-been-there-so-I-can't-like-it sense. They've actually ruined it. the shore, at least for several miles either side of the major towns, has been entirely sold off to private buyers at vast expense. You can't walk along it, or even see the sea, most of the time. The towns are of the sinister, soulless sort you find in major malls - a faux-village, painstakingly rendered quaint and quirky and - dare I say it again - jaunty. Except it doesn't work, because everything is twice the price it would be if the quaintness were genuine, and which real sleepy seaside town has a coffee shop and sells fuchsia capri pants? You can't put your finger on what's wrong; it's just slightly sinister. Like John Redwood.

Provincetown (which, as I mentioned before, was the Pilgrims' first landing place - gold star at the back!) has a secret. It's not really a secret, it was just unknown to me. It is New England's Brighton: a lovely seaside place with lots of nice oyster bars and sunburnt pensioners and a massive, incongruous gay community. Realising you're in a gay town slowly is wonderful. It felt very similar to the night in Casablanca during which I realised the 'restaurant' I was in was in fact a brothel: a mingling of discomfort, blushing aren't-I-foolish-ness, joy at all the bright colours and exposed skin, and from there on out an insatiable desire to stare at absolutely everybody. I'm sorry; I led a sheltered childhood. But it was fabulous. The Plymouth Colonists must be turning in their graves.