Surely another local Emmy for Fox 40 News as they show us how to get on a bus. Hard-hitting stuff, indeed. Tomorrow night: How to hail a cab and truss a turkey.
Surely another local Emmy for Fox 40 News as they show us how to get on a bus. Hard-hitting stuff, indeed. Tomorrow night: How to hail a cab and truss a turkey.
My navel-gazing post on Thatcher touched upon what I termed “shadow California”, though actually known as the Central Valley. It’s something that I’ve debated with myself over whether to blog about or not (surprising as it may sound I do occasionally think about this blog and whether it’s just a glib expat blog about all the usual boring expat stuff – “you say zucchini, I say courgette” – posts that are full of reheated Bill Bryson observations, or if this blog needs to be something more personal, if more self-indulgent. You may have guessed that I’ve been leaning towards the latter). In writing about the Central Valley I was reminded of Joan Didion’s essay on her home region – “Notes From A Native Daughter” (essay can be found in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”). As an addendum to that last post, I thought that I would include a brief extract from that essay:
Every so often along 99 between Bakersfield and Sacramento there is a town: Delano, Tulare, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Modesto, Stockton. Some of these towns are pretty big now, but they are all the same at heart, one- and two- and three-storey buildings artlessly arranged, so that what appears to be the good dress shop stands between a W. T. Grant store, so that the big Bank of America faces a Mexican movie house. Dos Peliculas, Bingo Bingo Bingo. Beyond the downtown (pronounced downtown with the Okie accent that now pervades Valley speech patterns) lie blocks of old frame houses – paint peeling, sidewalks cracking, their occasional leaded amber windows overlooking a Foster’s Freeze or a five-minute car wash or a State Farm Insurance office; beyond those spread the shopping centers and the mills of tract houses, pastel with redwood siding, the unmistakable signs of cheap building already blossoming on those houses which have survived the first rain. To a stranger driving 99 in an air-conditioned car (he would be on business, I suppose, any stranger driving 99, for 99 would never get a tourist to Big Sur or San Simeon, never get him to the California he came to see), these towns must seem so flat, so impoverished, as to drain the imagination. They hint at evenings spent hanging around gas stations, and suicide pacts sealed in drive-ins.
Q. In what way does the Holy Land resemble the Sacramento Valley?
A. In the type and diversity of its agricultural products.
U.S. 99 in fact passes through the richest and most intensely cultivated agricultural region in the world, a giant outdoor hothouse with a billion-dollar crop. It is when you remember the Valley’s wealth that the monochromatic flatness of its towns takes on a curious meaning, suggests a habit of mind some would consider perverse. There is something in the Valley mind that reflects a real indifference to the stranger in his air-conditioned car, a failure to perceive even his presence, let alone his thoughts or wants. An implacable insularity is the seal of these towns. I once met a woman in Dallas, a most charming and attractive woman accustomed to the hospitality and social hypersensitivity of Texas, who told me that during the four war years her husband had been stationed in Modesto, she had never once been invited inside anyone’s house. No one in Sacramento would find this story remarkable (“She probably had no relatives there,” said someone to whom I told it), for the Valley towns understand one another, share a peculiar spirit. They think alike and they look alike. I can tell Modesto from Merced, but I have visited there, gone to dances there; besides there is over the main street of Modesto an arched sign which reads:
WATER – WEALTH
CONTENTMENT – HEALTH
There is no such sign in Merced.
I live in contrarian California, that shadow state that runs parallel alongside the real California; it is a land not of good vibrations but of almond plantations, of farmers, not surfers. There is no legally drawn line that marks the boundary between real California and its shadow twin, no sign on the highway welcoming you and urging you to enjoy your stay (not that you would), but as you drive east, away from the coast and the excitement, and enter the Sacramento or San Joaquin Valley (I assume you’re just passing through on your way to Yosemite … or lost), you will viscerally feel the change.
Those assumptions you may have about California – borne from watching a thousand films and TV shows, from listening to a thousand pop songs – are not to be found here. You are someplace else, somewhere more rustic, more rambunctious, somewhere culturally irrelevant, a confused hinterland that is California without the benefits and flyover country without the politeness.
This divide between the real and the shadow is made explicit on election nights. The real California, that strip of land that hugs close to the Pacific turns blue, but in the valley of the shadow California the electoral map turns red.
You can see it written on the cars thanks to the omnipresent bumper stickers, the silent (and pitiful) means by which an American advertises his or her religious beliefs and political persuasions to strangers. In shadow California the anti-Obama bumper sticker industry does sterling business; when stuck in traffic pointed bon mots confront you: “Nobama,” “Obummer,” “Sorry Yet?” “Where’s the birth certificate?” “I Was Anti-Obama Before It Was Cool.”
Self-identifying as progressive these stickers never fail to make me cringe – almost certainly their intended effect. I find them pathetic. If they dripped with cynicism and a general disdain for politics and politicians, I might find them amusing, but these seem at best tribal and at worst the impotent angry cry of the hateful. I like to think that I could never hold such irrational and ill-expressed feelings towards any politician. I trick myself into believing that I am protected by a carapace of rationality; I would never think like these people – who are too rustic and too rambunctious – do.
Then Thatcher died.
Here in shadow California over the last week, a number of people have told me how they “loved” Thatcher. Perhaps, as is the case with the many conversations about the Royals that I’ve endured, it was just them groping for a common ground … but loved? That word strikes a discordant note next to Thatcher. Respect, I could understand, or admire, but wasn’t Unlovable Margaret the actual point of it all? An unlikeable but foreboding Matron figure to prod and hector the country back into health – Parliament’s answer to Hattie Jacques. Martin Amis has described her as being the “necessary Prime Minister,” the one tasked with having to make the difficult decisions that nursed the sick man of Europe out of the winter of discontent. Indeed, it may been the case in ’79 that the body politic required a thorough detox, but administer an enema too often and too vigorously and it soon starts to feel like a buggering.
I grew up in the North East of England, the Labour heartlands, and there are (some) similarities between it and shadow California, both struggle with high unemployment and justifiably or not feel forgotten and ignored. Thatcher was a permanent fixture of that childhood, an implacable force that I found severe and frightening, a person you could not imagine not being Prime Minister.
The pictures above are from today’s edition of The Northern Echo, the main paper that covers the whole region. They have taken the decision to offer newsagents and readers two different covers marking Thatcher’s funeral. One, a somber image of events in London for the funeral, the other featuring formers miners from colliery towns in Durham in the North East protesting “the women they blame for blighting their communities”. You may simply view it as an effective PR stunt on the part of the paper’s, but it does serve to visually encapsulate her divisive legacy and a regional divide that exists on this issue. As a child I remember being driven through those colliery towns (or more accurately ex-colliery towns once the pits had closed) – Blackhall, Easington, Seaham, etc. – and they were socially deprived communities, devastated by unemployment and now left unfit for purpose, what had been its only purpose, everything had been built around one single enterprise that they had called time on.
Unlike shadow California bumper stickers are not a universally recognized form of protest in the North East. The neighbors who lived across the road from my Auntie, however, had a German Shepherd that they had trained to do tricks when you said the word “Maggie.” It definitely gave a menacing growl on hearing “Maggie”, I also seem to recall it would make a spitting motion too, but that may just be childish memories of Bob Carolgees and Spit the dog (a terrible 80s variety act) getting mixed up with real life.
I remember the November night that Thatcher resigned. It was the night of the week I had to go to Cub Scouts, something I dreaded. Surprisingly the leadership contest between Thatcher and Heseltine had been big news at school. I can only assume that in the days of there only being four television channels available and pre-24 hour news, the news had been deemed so important that it had bumped the BBC’s regular children’s programming scheduling off the air, and instead of watching Gordon the Gopher millions of British children had been treated to the attempted (and eventually successful) ousting of Thatcher. That has to be the answer as we certainly weren’t politically astute nine and ten-year-olds. I do not think we even watched Newsround (a daily five minute news show on the BBC aimed at children. Fox 40 aspires to hit its heights), or perhaps it was just the thought of Thatcher not being Prime Minister that was interesting as it seemed so unfathomable to us. She’d always been Prime Minister. Yes, there had been other Prime Ministers (apparently), but that was in that dubious pre-history, the time before we were born and so could not be verified with any confidence. On leaving Cub Scouts that night, one boy – a fat ginger-haired child whose name I’ve long forgotten and who I always found a little too unpredictable in his behavior for my liking – asked his dad what had happened in the leadership contest. On being told that Thatcher had resigned the boy, embarrassing his father and confusing the other waiting parents, put the hood of his coat over his head, and let the rest of his coat function as a cape (it was the only reasonable way to play Batman in the playground) ran round in circles shouting “Ding Dong, the witch is dead.” And now so she is, and on the basis of this week’s top 40 that boy’s song choice proved prescient. Although it must be said that it is far wittier being an off-the-cuff remark of a nine-year-old boy than the collective act of thousands of adults.
My wife cannot fathom that, that enough people were willing to download “ding dong the witch is dead” in the event of the death of an 87-year-old woman that it charts at number 2. I bring up the Obama bumper stickers, but she doesn’t buy it. “They’re angry now, Thatcher hasn’t been in power for over 20 years.” I then explain about how with Cameron and new austerity, Thatcher and Thatcherism is more relevant than ever, and perhaps if this had occurred fours years ago or in four years time the reaction would have been a little more muted, but as I say this I know it is total guff that I am pedaling, the reaction would have been the same. The honest answer is, like the anti-Obama stickers, it is tribal; a malice thought, though on – if I am being honest – I can empathize with.
Over the recent Easter weekend, the smell of roast lamb permeated throughout the apartment. Normally I don’t like cooking smells that linger for days; there’s something regretfully institutional about the after-aroma of meals of fatty meats and boiled vegetables that settle into the walls and into the furniture, a smell found in school halls and hospital corridors and retirement homes, but on this occasion I waited a little longer than usual to get the air ventilating. Having a simple meal of roast lamb was a welcome change, and one that reminded me of a Sunday roast at home.
Lamb, as I’ve noted before, is an unloved meat here. Other than lamb chops it is difficult to find in the supermarkets, and what is available is often frozen and almost certainly hideously overpriced. Easter is the one time of the year when that changes and I was keen to take advantage of it.
America being traditionally a land of wide open plains rather than England’s rolling enclosures it is hardly a surprise that the rearing of cattle has dominated over the sheep.
The relative unusualness of eating lamb was reflected in the tagline that came with the meat I bought. Yes, meats have taglines here. Pork, thanks to mouthful that is the National Pork Board, was marketed for many years under the slogan “the other white meat” until they changed it last year to “Pork: be inspired” – an ironically uninspiring effort. Chicken, always edgier in the marketing space, goes by “motherclucking delicious” The lamb I purchased, however, came with the slogan: “taste the alternative.”
Only an idiot would schedule a dentist appointment for the week after Easter.
And so I found myself on the Tuesday after Easter sat in a dentist’s chair grimacing in pain as my molars and canines were scraped and polished.
I believe my dentist has grandiose plans for my mouth. It is to be her masterpiece. In its present form it is just too British for her liking. Too full of ugly, grey NHS fillings that she needs to expertly convert over into what will be a new all-sparkling American mouth. It is a slow, difficult process, but then all great art is.
It was certainly a thankless task for the hygienist charged with cleaning my ivories. As she works, she likes to play the local country music radio station. She does this whenever I visit. The other hygienist I could go to plays Phil Collins, so I’m really between a rock and a hard place. This, however, perhaps explains my complete aversion to country music. This is my very own Ludovico technique. Though my skull was filled with the sound of metal scraping on enamel, I couldn’t help but wish the sound was just a little louder so it would entirely drown out the Toby Keith song the radio was playing. Something about an old man who keeps the red, white and blue flying on his farm, breaks his heart seein’ foreign cars and his wife decorates on the 4th July, but says “every day’s Independence Day.” The chorus was just “made in America” repeated ad nauseam. I don’t know if this augmenting of an all-American sheen to my mouth is really quite taking
I recently blogged here on the NCAA championship. One thing I should have made clear in that post, and what should always be borne in mind when I write on basketball, is that I only figured out about three years ago that the Harlem Globetrotters are not, in fact, a real NBA team.
The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious.” One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.
Susan Sontag – Notes On Camp
The tagline of my local Fox affiliate’s news team is “news made simple”. Nobody could accuse them of not being true to their word.
I love (read: I laughed at the TV and shouted “wankers”) the literalism of this report: that “imploded” merits footage of a building imploding, the deflated ball, the attempted (but non-existent) dynamism in the sweeping away of the tokens representing the votes of 8 board members, the sheer awkwardness of it all. It was almost as bad as this.
If they’re soliciting further tagline suggestions, “news by simpletons, for simpletons,” has a ring to it.