Trish and I are headed back towards the US. Home is just around the corner. It’s been about four years since we left for England, and the closer we get, the more it begins to seem like we’re actually returning. We’ve been touring A Brief History of Beer for about three months straight now, with bookings in seven different countries, and the reviews are fantastic, everywhere we’ve gone. Now it’s time to see what the US thinks of our globe-trotting show…
Turkish Airlines is another order of airline entirely. Air travel hasn’t been this genteel for ages: in the UK luxury is only for the moneyed traveller, and in the United States it’s disappeared altogether (unless you own a private jet) for coming up twenty years now (thanks very much for that, TSA). Trish and I have been so thoroughly Anglicised that complimentary drinks came as an actual shock, and as for the meals (not snacks… honest-to-god meals)… Well, we probably haven’t actually eaten that well at home in a while. Seats that reclined, legroom, delightful airhostesses, and lovely exotic music before and after take-off. Flying like I remember from my youth. Not to mention that, the further we get from the land of paranoia, the less dehumanising and humiliating air security becomes. I’ve gotten so use to surrendering my dignity that I’m unprepared for it when it’s enough to simply walk through the metal detector – shoes and belt and all.
It’s coming up to sunset in Istanbul and we’ve made our way out of the airport and figured out how to buy tokens for the metro (a pretty Turkish girl facilitated our communications with the man at the gate and helped us get change for the machine) and we’re on a tram now shooting through Sultanakmet, the historic district of the city. Approaching from the outskirts, the view of Istanbul from its edge was breath-taking and imposing; the city piles up on itself, rising in heaps and steps of domed mosques and palaces, ancient streets running like cataracts down in every direction. The city is awesome… as in awe-inspiring. Twinkling lights peaked out from a hundred thousand windows and cafes as dusk settled and we made our way in, and it felt a little like riding a magic carpet into a fairytale.
Sultanakmet is the epicentre of all the magic. Back when this city was the capital of the Roman Empire, this was the happening place to be. From what we can see out of the window of this tram it looks like it’s now mainly tourists rambling around trying to get a deal on cheap lamps and magnets (I’m not going to lie, Trish and I buy a magnet for every city we visit), but that doesn’t detract from the sweeping majesty of works like the Haggia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. But we can only catch a glimpse as our tram continues on its way.
One of the difficult things about this trip is that we’re pretty much always on the move. We’re here in Turkey for two days, and I could spend a month here easily. So we should be picking and choosing very carefully. In actual fact, a lot of what we end up doing is sort of wandering ‘round and getting a little lost. Not that we ever actually get lost. Vodafone’s been getting their pound of flesh since we left the UK. Roaming charges for wireless Internet are through the roof, but we haven’t been anywhere long enough for getting a new SIM card to seem like a good idea yet. But we just bumble a bit… It’s okay for us – we see the world through the eyes of wandering vagabonds, and we like it that way.
Berlin isn’t really what I was expecting. It’s a bit blander. To be fair, it’s freezing-ass cold. I mean literally moustache freezing into spiky little chunks of ice on face cold. So we’re not really too enthused about plonking about the city the way we usually do. And with the hurried departure from the UK, the whirlwind of preparations for the tour, the many tearful goodbyes, and trying to pour as many cocktails as possible so as to not be penniless on the long voyage… We didn’t really do all the research we should have done before departing. That is, we didn’t actually do any research. At all. So I guess what I was expecting was some sort of fanciful mix of cyberpunk euphoria and post-war depression. Or Run Lola Run. The reality is a predictably efficient German city. Daunting blocks of flats, eclectic indoor markets, and the river dividing it all, chunks of frozen water sliding slowly past us as we stand in the frozen morning taking it all in.
Of course, it passes like a blur – we’re here for less than forty-eight hours. Long enough to check out the memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, explore the ruins of the Berlin wall, do our show at the Vagabund Baruwerij and earn ourselves a nasty hangover before getting on another flight (Turkish Airlines this time) to Istanbul. The experience fills me with a raft of feelings. On my mother’s side, I’m Sicilian and Polish Jew, and everywhere Trish and I go, we make sure to stop in to whatever Jewish History sites are on offer. Aside from helping to make me feel closer to an important part of my heritage, these outings provide a sort of continuity to our travels. A common thread winding through cities flung around the globe. And that’s lovely. But this on-going exploration of the past also means that I cannot think about Berlin without thinking of the holocaust.
It’s seventy-odd years on, and there’s very little trace of the war on the face of the city, but if one looks around at all, it’s all very apparent. Where many old cities are all about the past, or at least mix it liberally with the present, wearing their histories like peacock feathers Berlin wears a certain bland melange of seventies apartment-building. This is not a city that’s celebrating its past. Disinherited, Berlin reminds me in some ways of a man returned home from prison after a lengthy sentence. But these are all just fleeting impressions; we’re not here long enough to form more than a cursory opinion.
Trish and I are waiting for Ryanair… Again. For anyone who doesn’t know, Ryanair is a low-cost airline and, to be fair, if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have done most of the travelling we’ve done. They don’t have airlines like this in the United States, or at least they didn’t when we were there last. Cut-rate outfits that slash prices and amenities like surgeons gone insane. As global communications bring us closer together and drive up the demand for travel, more and more of these air carriers are popping up – WizzAir, Air Arabia, EasyJet, and the list of destinations is exploding into an international orgy of possibilities. But none of that makes the experience of flying with them any better.
At the minute, over a hundred passengers on this flight have decided it’s a good idea to start queuing forty minutes before the flight. This always happens. The lack of assigned seats (Want a specific seat? You can pay for that.) means that when one of us decides to jump on it early the rest of us are forced to follow suit or else be condemned to the seat next to the toilet. Or worse, next to a small child. So it begins. We’re all standing around like cattle waiting for the privilege of being slaughtered because some jerk can’t have a little faith and just wait. These are the same people that cause runs on banks.
Of course, Ryanair doesn’t help matters. Blue polyester-clad air hostesses goad the anxious, standing around offering priority boarding for ten quid, reminding us all that luxury is just a purchase away. What they don’t tell us is that we’re all going to be shunted into a cattle-shed ten miles from the gate to wait in freezing cold for another fifteen minutes until the plane comes and everyone makes a mad dash for all the ‘best seats’ (Let’s be honest about this – they’re all terrible seats), priority boarding or not. And once we’re on board, no there’s no perk that can’t be bought, apart from dignity, or quiet, or peace of any kind (They refuse to turn off the cabin lights because sleeping passengers aren’t buying scratch cards). Flying used to be such a pleasure… Just another casualty of 9/11, I suppose… But it’s all okay, because we’re going to Berlin!It’s a bittersweet departure. We’re taking our show on an international tour and stopping in eight or nine different countries, and that’s certainly exciting, but we’re leaving the UK as residents, no more. When our tour ends, we’ll be going to the United States and starting a new chapter. It’s all down to visas – we don’t have them. Well… We don’t have them anymore. Well… I don’t have one anymore anyway. Trish could technically stay in London until July, but my visa ended four or five days ago (I’m an illegal alien!) and it’s time to go. In this age of electronic tablets and magical spray-in shampoo, it sometimes seems like there are no material limits to what we can do. It’s the cult of choice and we’re all followers. But, in reality, there are still concrete walls and locked doors.
The recent years of economic hardship have spurred conservatives all over the western world to close ranks and tighten up borders, and immigrants are no longer the welcome guests they once might have been, on either side of the Atlantic. Realistically, we could have fought this. We could have hired a solicitor and applied for new visas and kept our jobs, and at the very least the application process would have seen our current visas extended out another six months. But it’s four years now since we’ve seen our families, and no one’s getting any younger. So we’re looking at this as an extended visit home. As delusional as that may be, it works for us.
Night busses and late night kebabs, bagles and curries on Brick Lane, arguments with transport jobsworths… All of these are behind us now. At least for a little while. Goodbye, London! We’ll miss you <3 :)
It’s official: Trish and I have been inducted into the great British Guild of Beer Writers! We’re headed to an awards dinner later this month in a posh Mayfair hotel and the drinks and nosh are sure to be killer. It’s been a long road getting here. The beer show didn’t come cheap or easy, but it’s a great piece of work, and we’re both really proud of it.
Very pleased to be working with Alexander Zeldin again, this time at The Yard, in Hackney Wick. The project is a devised work, to do with the marginalized people on the periphery of the working class, called Beyond Caring. I will be designing lighting organically for the warehouse space of both the space and the play.
Just thinking about beauty and the ability to appreciate beauty. And sophistication, which is, I suspect, what fans of sophistication would call the ability to appreciate and understand beauty. But I’m not sure. I just got done reading a 2007 article from the Washington Post by Gene Weingarten about a social experiment in which Joshua Bell, widely regarded as one of the world’s most accomplished violinists, positioned himself inside a metro station in New York and played pieces of great beauty and sophistication for three quarters of an hour to an unsuspecting public. The goal was to see if people, busy people on their way to work, would be able to appreciate beauty for what it is, even taken out of context.
The report takes many factors into consideration and examines many points of view, from Kantian philosophy which says that beauty must be appreciated in context, to Plato’s questioning of the possibility of objective beauty, but all the questions and deconstructions of the event, indeed all the discussion surrounding it at all, proceed from the unshakeable foundation that Chaconne and Colors for a Large Wall are beautiful.
Okay, I know that even printing that sentence is enough to get me labelled as a philistine, but stop for a moment and hear me out before you go firing up your torch. First of all, it is a commonly accepted truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There have been thinkers and philosophers who’ve tried to assert that the mind works this or that way, and that certain constructions must therefore strike chords on some deep physiological level — so-called rules of aesthetics, and people with deeper insights than me are still in debate about the validity of supposing any such rules. And I’m certainly not arguing that these pieces are inherentlynot beautiful. Or indeed not beautiful at all. They may very well be. What I am arguing is the assumption that they are, or that such a thing as beauty exists. It might be better to say that appreciation exists.
I think about going back. Waaaay back. To a time before there was anyone with a right to assert anything like sophistication. Lucy is wandering around, foraging and scratching herself with her stone hand axe, and she sees a butterfly settle on a nearby outcropping of stone. It’s wings reflect all the myriad colors of the rainbow in the brilliant light of the early afternoon sun. The world around her is largely unshaped by the exploits of her fellows, and grasslands spread out beneath the baking sun as far as her post-simian eye can see. Does she perceive beauty in the scene before her? Of course there is no way to tell. I mention this moment in her life only to point out that these things have not always existed. That one could easily imagine a world in which Mozart and Picasso had never created their works.
I mean — What is beauty? This is not a topic which, for sheer magnitude and complexity, I have the strength to even consider looking into, so I will simply say that, setting beauty as such aside, one can most likely recall having had an experience of liking before. That is to say, having liked something — a piece of music, a painting, a poem, a sculpture, or some other form of human expression, or some form of nature. There has been, for each one of us, most likely in our lives at some point an experience which we have liked. Whether that is to say that it has soothed us, or excited us. For the purposes of this discussion I am excluding those experiences whose appeal is predominantly sexual or appetite-related (not sure if I should do this, but perhaps that is in itself a discussion for another time). I am therefore confining the motivation for the ‘liking’ to aesthetic reasons — not because the experience or object fitted into some need, or because it got one off, or because it had economic appeal, but simply … because. That possibly Lucy, stopped short in the act of ripping skin off of a proto-gazelle by some movement, was inexplicably struck on some level she had no understanding of, by the sight of that butterfly for no reason at all other than just because. Did her successors, uttering the first ever words of human speech, become arrested in their ever-more industrious life-styles by moments of breathless wonder, seeing flickering firelight seem to give motion to their painted bison and deer?
I guess my thoughts are breaking down into really two different streams here.
• Does beauty exist in some objective form, or at all?
• Is there such a thing as banality, and is it inherently of less value than beauty?
See, in the Washington Post report, Weingarten points out that Bell, in his experiment in L’Enfant Station, chose not to play catchy tunes people would be familiar with. No show-tunes, no violin-ized versions of Queen or Journey, and no 1980’s cartoon theme-songs. He stuck strictly to high art: classical masterpieces that have withstood the test of time, selling out packed theatres and recital-halls for centuries to crowds of wealthy aristocrats and literati. While the educated and elite for all those years were enjoyng Bach, Schuman, and Beethoven, what were their (far more numerous) social lessers whistling as they skipped to the pub after a long day of drudgery? Some bawdy sixteenth century version of Baba O’Riley, probably.
So is the music of the masses always inferior to the music of the masters? Is it ever? I question these systems of aesthetic value which tend to favor the theme: ‘The more inaccessible the work, the greater the genius of its creator.’ Maybe those commuters were busy and had unforgiving bosses who wouldn’t understand ‘I heard a master-violinist playing in the metro and I just had to stop and catch the last movement of the Ave Maria’. That is quite likely. Maybe they didn’t hear because they were on their iPods or their Zunes or whatever and they literally weren’t reached by the sound. Maybe they were broke and didn’t want to seem like deadbeats when they didn’t toss in a quarter, so they just hurried on. Or maybe they didn’t care. Maybe they didn’t care for the music. Maybe they would have stopped for something they recognized; something they liked. Something they could nod their heads and tap their feet to. And this is at the heart of one of my two questions up there. Would that, that preference for the familiar and for something that gives delight, would that make them plebian? Would it make them lesser than someone who preferred the long and drawn out, complicated rhythms and structures of Chaconne? Is wine always better than lager?
Yep, you’re thinking, I knew it. He’s a philistine. Wish I hadn’t wasted three minutes reading this drivel.
Strange feeling the end of this year coming so fast but the holidays have been so quiet. Time is this multi-textured thing which stretches and flexes this way and that, seeming motionless and velvety smooth but as hard and swift as knives it comes on just the same. Aging is becomeing more a part of who I am and it seems to be getting less terrible as it happens. I am thirty-three years old and the time when christmas lights twinkled on a tree the size of a forest of dreams is long behind me but I am still that little boy with eyes full of wonder and an endless world of possibilities waiting for me. The lessons are being learnt one at a time and the innocence is less with each year but the feeling of the innocence is still there. And as I lose family members sowly, each loss seeming utterly significant I am still aware that my own timeline is less than nothing in the vastness of creation; the infinity of time. And though the earth trembles for me and stars wheel pregnant with meaning and portents whisper on the wind I know it doesn’t matter to you. None of it. Because you live, whoever you are, in a separate universe to me and I am sole here. And that’s okay. Because I’m not alone, I’m just sole. My perspective is private and I couldn’t share it with you even if I wanted to because the world is all sealed up in my head, my world… Just like yours is.
So as the weather tilts back and forth offering warmth and cold in turn, and the end of two thousand eleven rushes up so silently, I take stock of what I am and what I have been. What I have meant to the people I’ve crossed paths with. The love and the joy and the anger and the hurt. The loyalty and the infidelity and the honesty and the concealment and the manipulation and the selflessness. And the pity. The force I have been. What have I done? What have I given in return for all that I have taken? And how the scales balance out. It’s a strange thing having to provide my own moral compass — no pole-star to guide me any longer. A lonely feeling, but a feeling of great responsibility. We are, each of us, a force for great effect, agents of change and we can be terrible or benign and often both in turns. And… You know… With great power… So we have to… We have to be conscious of ourelves of what we do and how we use the world.
It’s a terrible thing to miss people. And I do. Miss people. In my life. So what is the cost of ambition? It’s like knives gently cutting. Gliding up arms and down along ribs to slip in and cut. Choice is the cruel agent of this hurt, turning our losses onto our own heads, choice offers gain and accomplishment but always, always, always at a cost. So we harden ourselves just a little bit as the days turn into weeks and months and years. And we miss each other. And maybe we connect, but guilt and sorrow are companions to our triumphs and our joys. Because the tender young things inside us know that it’s been a long long time since we saw each other last.
New year is coming and I’m in London still, but I am thinking of those who gave me life and who raised me up. Watched Loony Toons. Looked into mirrors and flipped through books when the words were still incomprehensible wonders to me. Played in leaves and argued and learned how badly it can hurt to be turned away. I am still full of that curiosity. Still full of that wonder. That yearning. I guess we all are.
The big event is just two days away… And for some reason, for me, this has always been the symbolic end of the year. There’s Christmas, and that’s the end of the old year, and it’s dead. And empty. And then there’s New Years, and that’s the beginning of the next year. And there’s just a blank space of no-time in between. Like the week or whatever just doesn’t count. The lost week.
Maybe this is because I was gift-centric when I was young, and this has never completely left me. Or maybe it’s because most of the holidays when I was in school always encompassed both events and things just didn’t really get started back up until after the New Year. Whatever the reason, it has never struck me until now that I lose (at least symbolically) a week every year. Thirty-three weeks is well more than half a year, and that’s just so far. It’s blank-time. And it makes me wonder how much other time around the year I lose… How much time I throw away and discount because it seems like a dangling participle to me, so I just snip it off.
Maybe the key to excellent living, effective living, is to use every moment. Not to have no-time. Not to have blank time which doesn’t count. To wake up going and fall asleep on your feet. To ride the old year all the way in to the station….
It’s just that Christmas has this … air of finality to it for me. This sense that… Everything good that could come out of this year has happened, and it’s best to just get on with it and have it be the next year already. This sort of thinking was, of course, not a problem when I was younger and didn’t feel time’s tiny claws scraping me slowy away with their passing. But coasts are worn away one grain of sand at a time I suppose, and like everyone who has gone before me and everything that will come after, I am finite, and I have become increasingly aware of this as time has passed. Or rather, as I have passed time.
This will be the start of our second year here in the country of England, and it’s been a dreary winter this time. None of the glistening blankets of snow and crisp, dry winds of winter to lift our spirits through it. Just damp and cold. Time flies just as quickly, but it’s dark for longer. Wet more. Still, you’ve gotta try, right? Gotta make an effort. To make something good of it all. And really, it is lovely here. In a stark anonymous way. London swims like schools of fish, forever separated by the icy water all around each of us. High above, in the darkling sky, Father Christmas makes his reconnaissance, checking us all out… Getting a handle of the changed skyscape. Winds gather high in the heavens shaking out a few lingering drops of moisture and the sun slips behind the clouds, bathing the city in a momentary preview of night. Happy holidays.