Monthly Archives: September 2007

Let’s get one thing straight

A few people have asked me why my blog sometimes comes across as anti-American, given that I’ve made an active decision to live and work here. And the simple answer is that I’m not remotely anti-American. While it may have a morally dubious leader, and an alarming ability to turn fast food into a way of life, I actually have deep affection for my adopted country. Which isn’t surprising, given that I’ve been coming here for the last thirteen years.

When it comes down to it, I love it that you can get hold of pretty much anything you want, even at four in the morning. I like the fact that restaurants always bring you tap water whether you’ve asked for it or not. And I particularly like the fact that everything seems so cheap over here – or at least I will, until the penny finally drops that I’m being paid in dollars not pounds.

That said, when you’re new to a culture and a different way of life, maybe you just notice strange things a bit more than you would when you’re in your home country. I mean, maybe I wouldn’t notice if a man got on to a London tube train and began reciting sub-Pam Ayres ditties in the morning, but here it tends to stand out. At home, if a waiter didn’t understand something I asked for, I’d probably not pay it a second thought. Over here, getting a blank look when I ask for a white coffee (rather than coffee with cream) sticks in my mind.

I’ve now completed three weeks in the US, and while I’m slowly getting used to the different way of life, there’s still so much that makes me scratch my head in wonder. And to be honest, for as long as I’m here, I’m sure there always will be. After all, if I ever get used to saying cellphone or garbage can, something has gone horribly horribly wrong.

Second floor: carpets, travel goods and bedding

You can’t beat being British. For one thing, you get to be smugly arrogant about all the history that our country has, particularly when you’re currently living in a nation which has had McDonalds restaurants for around 30% of its existence. You get to complain about the weather for roughly 363 days every year. And most importantly, you never ever have to speak to strangers.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, New Yorkers stick rigidly to the principle that you do not speak to people on the subway. There’s always the odd rogue agent operating in isolation with a hitherto unimaginable determination to engage passers-by in chat, but you get that anywhere. On the whole, as in London, the residents of New York are true believers in the ancient commandment that reads “Thou shalt not talk to any person within twenty yards of you on a subway train unless thou art truly a nutjob.”

Don’t get me wrong, New York’s a very friendly city, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that you’ll go into a bar on your own (some things never change, dear reader) and find yourself deep in conversation about footballsoccer or music, with a bartender or fellow stool-resident. But if you go into a bar on your own, you’re kind of opening yourself up to conversation, so somehow it’s less of an affront to, say, everything you stand for.

So we’ve established that New York and London are one and the same when it comes to dealing with strangers. But there is one exception.

The liftelevator.

Until moving offices at the end of last week, I worked on the 42nd floor of one of midtown’s skyscrapers. As that was (and indeed still is, last time I checked) the second-to-top floor of the building, I would inevitably be last out of the elevator. And as a Brit, I would expect nothing more than complete silence for the whole thirty second journey, unless punctured by a cough, sneeze or unapologetic fart.

Not in New York.

Here in the city that never sleeps, walking in through an elevator door seems to strip New Yorkers of all their inhibitions when it comes to talking to strangers. The door closes, the buttons are pressed, and suddenly you enter a world that has more inane chat than a David Letterman marathon.

In the last week alone, I’ve been corralled by strangers into conversations about the relative merits of different models of Blackberry’s, the state of the weather (thirty three years of experience in complaining came in useful that day, I can tell you) and even plans for the weekend. On Thursday, I had to listen to a short analysis of the death of Pavarotti (“such a nice man, but all the money in the word couldn’t save him,” apparently).

Stranger still, every time you’re fortunate enough to be stuck in a lift with someone who adheres to the commonly accepted code of silence, they generally then have to break the idyll with a quick “have a good day, sir” as they slip out of the door. It’s as if they have been fighting the urge to speak for the last thirty seconds, and finally couldn’t take it anymore.

Who knows, maybe after a little bit of time, I’ll get used to this and even start indulging in my own unique brand of mindless chatter too. If you’re ever stuck in a lift with me in Britain, just be grateful there aren’t 42 floors until you can escape.

Reasons why America is great (part 1 of a series)

Schnack_2

And to think that Americans think that our drinks are weird. Forget dandelion and burdock, dismiss Irn-Bru, and don’t even think about Tizer. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the beer shake.

That’s right, a milkshake made with beer. Or stout, to be a little more accurate. Oddly, it tastes pretty good. Margaret Thatcher would have had every right to be The Milk Snatcher if the school milk she’d been taking from the mouths of infants had tasted like this. Although you don’t want to get ill drinking this stuff – I mean, that would not be pretty.

What’s next – tomato juice and cider, white wine with Coke, or maybe a cheeky little Boddington’s and pineapple??

Land of my fathers

Reading David Hepworth’s blog today, I was struck by a real moment of homesickness. Not because of friends and family, who clearly I always miss being away from. But strangely, considering that I could never be considered particularly patriotic, it was all because of a national anthem.

The Rugby World Cup starts this weekend, with the hosts France having already been beaten by Argentina. I’ve seen a handful of rugby matches in my time, but when it comes down to it, I’m no desperate fan of the game. More specifically, it’s the supporters that I don’t like, particularly the unique brand of smarmy England rugby fan who thinks the world revolves around him.

Admittedly, I’m a Welshman at heart, and with that comes certain responsibilities. Not least of which is supporting the Welsh in any sporting endeavour against the English, whether it’s a game of football or a particularly vindictive game of tiddlywinks. Of course, such commitment brings with it a certain amount of disappointment – the Welsh don’t often beat the English at anything. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the recent revival in Welsh rugby, we’d have been drowning our sorrows for many a long year.

But one place where we truly beat the English is with the national anthem. The Welsh anthem “Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (translates as “The Land Of My Fathers”) encapsulates the passion and commitment that the Welsh have for their rugby team. It’s the ultimate barnstormer to send the troops into battle, while the English struggle even to identify an anthem from the turgid ranks of “God Save The Queen”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” or the marginally more acceptable “I Vow To Thee, My Country”.

As David identifies, there’s always one rugby player who is so caught up in what it means to sing the anthem and represent Wales, that he can barely spit the words out. Fortunately, there’s fourteen other players who sing it so hard that the veins in their neck threaten to burst.

If you want to understand what passion is all about, take a look at the Welsh national anthem below.

In part 654 of Great Lines That You Wish You’d Written, David sums it up perfectly:

“If Planet Earth was going to have one national anthem to play before its first game against Mars, this is it.”

This is a low

One of my favourite phrases in television is “jumping the shark” – the moment when a series whose popularity is possibly on the decline does something desperate to try to give ratings a boost. The saying comes from a moment in Happy Days when Henry Winkler, playing The Fonz, literally jumped a shark on a pair of water-skis. The Fonz was on the water skis, I hasten to add – The Fonz jumping over a shark that was in turn wearing a pair of water skis would be a step too far, clearly. But it was still pretty ridiculous, and the episode is generally regarded as the beginning of the end for the show.

Tonight, running myself ragged on the treadmill at the local gym, I finally saw a show jump the shark. In fact, I may well have seen popular culture truly eat itself.

There’s not much excuse for this, but I was watching entertainment news show Extra, on NBC. There, I’ve said it. Given that my other options were “All Access: Awesomely Ridiculous Celeb Moments” on VH1, or back-to-back Pavarotti obits on CNN, it somehow seemed like the lesser of three evils.

Hosted by Dayna Devon and Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, Extra is the televisual equivalent of reading OK! magazine, yet marginally more vapid and irritating. You’d get more in-depth interviews from trained turtles. And everything is coated in a shiny layer of pure unadulterated sucrose. Mark McGrath has progressed from rock star to polished presenter, while Dayna Devon’s no slouch in the journalism stakes. She’s presented TV news for ten years, and while at ABC in Memphis, she was part of a team that picked up an Emmy for Best Live Broadcast.

So when Dayna decided to have tummy tuck plastic surgery because she felt that she couldn’t lose the weight gained after having two children, you might have expected a serious piece on the pros and cons of such invasive surgery. You’d have been wrong.

Not only was Dayna advertising the fact that she had sold the ‘before, during and after’ pictures of her surgery to People magazine (“the new edition hits newsstands tomorrow” according to Dayna, in a thinly veiled voiceover plug), but the feature was essentially a commercial for the revolutionary techniques of her incredible plastic surgeon.

Who just happens to be her husband.

Yes, Mr Dayna Devon (Brent Moelleken) is a plastic surgeon – and coincidentally when Dayna decided to have work done, he bravely stepped in to offer his services. The remarkably positive coverage of his surgery on primetime American TV did not even enter his mind.

How astonishing is it that in this country, a TV presenter can sell to People magazine an exclusive story essentially advertising her husband’s business, and at the same time persuade her TV employers to run a feature on the whole thing? Can we expect Davina McCall to appear on her own show on BBC1, urging viewers to buy Heat magazine for its feature extolling the virtues of her father’s graphic design business? Whatever happened to the days of journalistic integrity and independence? They vanished long ago, it would appear.

At least viewers are having the good grace to be outraged by the feature. On Extra’s own website, viewers are leaving less-than-complimentary comments about the whole sorry affair. “Annie” sums it up pretty well:

“Nothing better than showing off your good-for-nothing huge ego while giving your hubby some free advertising. Niiiiiiice.”

While “A.B.” hasn’t got a bad point either:

“I remember when I heard that Dayna was marrying a plastic surgeon. Hmmmm… I wonder what her underlying motive was. She always desperately seems to try to be someone she’s not – fake laugh, fake sympathy in her voice… and now it’s been confirmed, a fake body.”

And “Donna” seems to have it sewn up too:

“I am so amazed that you did this story. How could you? …You may be fortunate enough to work in entertainment and be married to a plastic surgeon but you were very insensitive with this report. You come across as competely vain and I am very disappointed in you and the network. There are millions of women who “live” with their “ugly” bodies and you just made then feel terrible. I am ashamed of you.”

If you want to watch the piece in question, you can do so here. Just don’t expect Emmy Award winning television from Dayna Devon this time, OK?

Down to earth

It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes you read an article in a newspaper that just defies belief. No, not the kind of overblown pomposity that UK readers have come to expect from the likes of AA Gill or Richard Littlejohn – I’m talking about the news stories that leave you scratching your head, and re-reading them to find the hidden meaning that you somehow managed to miss first time round.

Today produced one such story, as I satstood reading Metro on the train into work. Now I know I may have railed against Metro in the UK in the past, and rightly so. All I can say in my defence is that the New York edition doesn’t seem to rely quite so much on wire services, doesn’t have the irritating blue masthead, and – most importantly – isn’t owned by Associated Newspapers.

Anyway, in a short story on the inside front page was an intriguing but tragic tale of a man who had jumped off a building in Brooklyn. Sadly the Metro version isn’t available online, so I’m relying on AP for this account:

“An emotionally disturbed man armed with a candlestick confronted police in a 17th-floor apartment before crawling through a broken window onto a balcony and falling to his death, authorities said.

The incident occurred at about 6 a.m. Tuesday after the officers and ambulance workers responded to a report of an emotionally disturbed person at a couple’s high-rise apartment in Brooklyn.

Once inside, they found the 33-year-old Queens man, a friend visiting the couple, swinging a long candlestick, police said.

The man used the metal stick to smash a hole in a window pane, and a sergeant tried to subdue him by zapping him with a stun gun but missed, police said.

The man crawled through the hole and onto the balcony and fell to his death, they said. “

See what I mean? Clearly this is an utterly heartbreaking story, and sympathies go out to the family of the man, and indeed the couple who will be forever traumatised by the experience. But this report demands so many more questions than it provides answers.

1) Did the man bring the candlestick with him? The New York Post describes it as a metal candlestick, and another report offers that it was quite a lengthy affair. Did he just knock on the door of the couple and say that he’d brought them a present, or was this a spur-of-the-moment candlestick brandishing kind of thing?

2) It’s not clear whether he jumped with the candlestick, or left the present behind. Maybe I should be checking eBay?

3) How incredibly unlucky can this guy be? First off, he’s (understandably) labelled as emotionally disturbed, and the Post claim that he had a history of drug abuse. Again, mental problems and drug addiction are a terrible thing for any person to go through. Next, he finds himself being confronted by police because of whatever situation he’s got himself into with the aforementioned candlestick. Then he suffers the ill-fortune not only to leap to his death, but to be allowed to do so because a police officer didn’t quite get his aim right with a stun gun. I mean, I’ve got no desire to be blasted with 1000 volts of electricity, but if it stops me from jumping 17 floors to my death, I’ll probably give it a go.

4) I’m no expert, but I’m guessing that forcing a hole in the reinforced glass of a balcony, and then crawling through it to your death, takes more than a split-second. That glass would never break first time, for a start. What were the police doing during this time? Arguing over the stun gun-toting officer’s incompetence??

Here’s hoping that tomorrow’s newspapers provide some more answers.

Catching the bug

I don’t know where they’re coming from, but if I ever find them, I swear I will bring down havoc on them and their families. No, I’m not referring to Liverpool FC supporters (I know where they come from, after all), but mosquitoes, which are currently using my body as a testing ground for an all-out attack on mankind.

Ever since I’ve been coming to the United States, I’ve been a preferred stomping ground for the Culicidae family of insects. My first trip across the Atlantic was back in 1994, to work as a counsellor at a summer camp in Connecticut. With the camp being based in a relatively damp wooded area, mosquitoes treated the area as a playground packed full of fresh meat. But during the first week, I remained resolutely bite-free, while all around me saw the tell-tale red bumps slowly emerge over their legs and arms.

I boasted about my immunity to anyone who would listen, of course. Until I got bitten one evening as I sat near the bunk I had responsibility for. And then the dream of an itch-free summer was over, and in a very big way. It was as if the mosquitoes had called a status meeting regarding their assault on the camp, and realised that they’d made a glaring error.

Chief Mosquito: We’re on day nine of the campaign, troops, and I’m thrilled with the level of performance we’ve achieved to date. Our enemy is powerless to resist our advances, and their pathetic attempts to use citronella bombings have been met with bravery and courage. Squadron Leader Bassett, can you confirm that we have now scored a direct hit on every single person in the area

Squadron Leader Bassett: Every single one, sir.

CM: Even the tall awkward looking Brit with the cherry red Doc Martens and the stupid hair?

SLB: Erm.

CM: Get out there NOW – all of you. And don’t come back without his blood.

And get out there they did. By the end of the week, my body made me look like a chicken pox victim, and the itching was unbearable. And since that day, I’ve been on the Most Wanted list for every mosquito in the country, my poster presumably appearing in every pupa from here to California. I could be in a hermetically-sealed capsule, and yet still one of the blood-sucking little bastards will find their way in to feast on me.

Since I’ve moved to the US full-time, the nightly mosquito carnival has moved to Brooklyn. And just so that the pesky creatures keep things interesting for themselves, they’ve been finding whole new areas of my body to attack. Last week I woke up with five – count ’em, five – bites on the side of my hand. The pain was indescribable, to the point where I even dreamed that my body was covered from head to toe in leprosy-esque boils. My forearms remain a favourite zone, but the forehead is proving a satisfying alternative if it’s standing room-only elsewhere.

The blasted bugs haven’t actually bothered me for a few days, but I can only assume that was because they were taking advantage of the Labour Day holiday, as today they are back with a renewed commitment to their shadowy arts. I’ve got one bite on my arm, another on my face, and one for good measure just above the knee – and that’s even before I go to bed, when the biting festivities really begin.

Anybody got any good prevention tips? Short of covering the apartment in one giant net, that is…

In sympathy

Getting home this evening can’t have been easy for those of you reading this in the UK’s fair capital city, thanks to a tube strike which has brought nine of the London Underground tube lines to a complete standstill. And given that it’s a 72 hour walkout, it’s not exactly going to be a walk in the park to get to or from work for the next few days. Unless you live near Hampstead or Marble Arch, that is, in which case a walk in the park might actually be the only way you get to work.

It’s a clash over benefits and pensions that has caused the latest eviction of toys from the RMT pram by general secretary Bob Crow, and there’s the threat of another 72-hour walkout at the start of next week if Ken Livingstone and co don’t give the unions the reassurances that they’re looking for. Given that Ken has already called the strike “one of the most purposeless ever called”, there’s clearly plenty of mileage in this one yet. Which is more than can be said for the trains for the next couple of days.

Sadly, tube strikes are just one of those things that Londoners have been forced to get used to over the last twenty years or so. Maybe it’s the spirit of the blitz, but there’s something that allows Londoners to bond together over the difficulties that face them all, such as the IRA bombs and bomb threats in the 80s, the July 7 terrorist attacks, or a week-long Daniel O’Donnell residency at the Royal Albert Hall.

New Yorkers might be OK with Daniel O’Donnell, but they’re not so prepared to put up with a subway strike. In fact there have only been three strikes in the 100+ year history of the system, the last one being a mere two days back in December 2005. Before that, there was an eleven day walkout in 1980, after the Metropolitan Transport Authority responded to the union’s request for a 30% pay rise by offering them 3%. I make the same 30% pay rise request every year, but sadly all my employers to date have crossed the one-man picket line and carried on working, until I finally give up and sheepishly slink back into the office at about 10.15.

But the lack of strikes can be linked directly to the first ever New York subway strike, which came in 1966. The twelve day walkout brought the city to a standstill, and led the following year to the Taylor Law. Section 210 of the Taylor Law not only bans New York state public employees from striking, and compelling them to binding arbitration, it also stipulates that employees who do strike are fined twice their salary for each day they strike.

While the Taylor Law does help unions in some ways (allowing public employees the right to organise and elect union reps, and defining boundaries for employers in negotiations and agreements the unions), it’s a tough piece of legislation that effectively nips striking in the bud and denies the right to peaceful and effective protest. It’s almost impossible to imagine it happening in the UK, where even the fire services are allowed to register their unhappiness by striking.

That said, one result of the Taylor Law being in force for the 2005 strike was not only a fine of $2.5m for the union, but also ten days in prison for the union leader Roger Toussaint. No matter how much you’re inconvenienced by the tube strike in London this week, a fine of more than a million pounds seems excessively harsh and punitive.

But ten days in prison for Bob Crow? Now there’s something that would put the smile back on to the faces of Londoners.

Making a (big) splash

We’ve just come back from a day of sunshine and splashing around at the New Jersey water-park Hurricane Harbour, making the most of the Labour Day three-day weekend. Imagine Alton Towers if all the rides were slides, and all the decorative tat had a vaguely nautical theme, and you’ll start to get close to imagining Hurricane Harbor.

[What is it that Americans have against the ‘u’? Was there a treaty issued shortly after the Boston Tea Party, banishing the letter from the kingdom, and forcing it to live out its remaining days as a hermit in a shanty town in Uruguay??]

Anybody who has ever had an even slightly negative body image should be forced to spend a day at an American water park. Those who know me well will know that I have a few issues about my weight – the main issue being that if I was swimming off the coast of Japan, I would be under near-constant threat of imminent attack from blood-thirsty fisherman with a penchant for blubber.

Yet in Hurricane Harbor, it’s possible for the average man to feel like he’s just been plucked from the pages of GQ or Arena, in comparison to the vast majority of the park’s male visitors.

This is, after all, a place where the main snack product available for purchase is the funnel cake. For the uninitiated, the funnel cake is like a giant donut which has been squeezed through a funnel to increase its surface area and fat content. People who manage to eat a full one can fully expect to see Norris McWhirter appear from the dead in order to proclaim a new world record for the amount of cholesterol consumed by one person in a twenty minute period.

And it doesn’t stop at the funnel cake either. The main food emporium at the park serves burgers, pizza, hot dogs or fried chicken, all with seasoned curly fries. It’s hard to believe that any meal at Hurricane Harbor comes in at under 1000 calories, and that’s before you’ve even begun to think about a large Coke. I asked for a chicken wrap, only to be greeted by the blank stares of staff who believed that the only two appliances in the kitchen were a freezer and a deep fat fryer.

All of this allowed me to swan into the water with all the confidence of Daniel Craig or that bloke from Lost who was also in the Davidoff ads. Obviously, now I’m back home, I’ve reverted to feeling like Les Dawson. Perhaps I shouldn’t have bought that third helping of funnel cake after all?

Mind the chat

Anybody who’s taken the tube in London will know that for every twenty train drivers who make boring anodyne announcements, there’s one who will play to his captive audience with a witty running commentary to keep the journey entertaining. Back in the days of catching the Northern line to Camden Town, there was a regular driver who would regale us with stories of all the fun that we could all be having if only we were overground. And there’s always one driver who will decide that attempts at humour are the best way to deflect people’s attention from the fact that everybody’s been stuck in a tunnel for thirty five minutes.

Here in New York, most of the announcements on both the platforms and the trains are unintelligible. Not because of the person doing the talking, but because the sound system is so bad that even a simple phrase such as “all the trains are f**ked, you’re going to have to walk home” is rendered impossible to hear by the average citizen.

The only time I have been able to hear the announcements in the last two weeks coincided with a driver whose brand of chat was more surreal than stand-up, with one line particularly standing out:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this used to be my favourite stop – it’s Second Avenue.”

Does anybody really have a favourite subway stop? What’s his favourite stop now? And more importantly, what did Second Avenue do to make our driver foresake it??