Aye-Up, Tour!

10458444_10152532787108659_6439064225440468270_n“The world is watching us,” said the man from Malham in the Yorkshire Dales tourist office.  “We best make a good showing of it.”

Aye.  The world is watching my neighbourhood.  And not just in a creepy googlemaps kind of way.  And not just watching.  Over the next few days the world—or at least the bicycle lovers of the world—will be descending up on us as host to the most prestigious cycling event on the athletic calendar: The Tour de France.

For those of you who are rather confused why Le Tour is coming to Le Nord, allow me to refer you to my blog post of January 2013.  If you can’t be bothered to click on the link, let me sum it up for you: The Grand Depart (start) of the Tour De France (big bike race) will be in Yorkshire (Leeds-Harrogate then York-Sheffield) this week-end.

10513471_10152554109763659_21541252559353369_nI have never been at Ground Zero for a major sporting event.  Being taken unawares once on a Saturday morning during football season in Lincoln, Nebraska was enough to turn me off all sporting events for life. Not that I was ever turned on by them.  If you are not au fait with American College Football, in the mid-late 1990s, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were Kings of the…errr…I want to say “pitch” but I’m not really sure what to call the thing people play football on. For me, that nightmarish football Saturday felt like being caught up in some cult parade: a human tide of red surging in one direction with singular intent.  I dropped my farmers’ market booty, got on my bike and pedalled away at speed just in case the mob needed a virgin (to football) sacrifice.

My bicycle saved my life that day, and it was not the only time.  Children of the 80s lived on bikes and I was no different.  As a teenager I hated my driver’s ed instructor so much that my bicycle became a form of protest.  “I have no need of a car.  My two-wheeled environmentally-responsible rebel vehicle takes me where I need to go in this frankly very small town.  I shall ride it with smug superiority.”  And I did.   Everywhere.

10421206_10152554097403659_260002573400864410_nIn fact, my best memories of getting from point a to point b all involve a bicycle.  Racing a thunderstorm with my cousins in Iowa, the sirens blaring in our ears, rain drowning us and lighting all around.  Riding Constitution Trail in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois during my college years on a bright red Trek mountain bike I named Felicia.  I even, one memorable evening, rode it in the dark without a bike light.  But only once.  It was far too scary.  But memorable.  The summer I spent as a girl scout camp counsellor in Wisconsin.  Every day we had two hours off.  Every day I spent those two hours riding around the incredible countryside.  I saw the best sunsets that summer.  And here in Harrogate we are lucky enough to cycle paths like The Nidderdale Greenway, where I experienced my favourite moment as a parent so far: seeing my daughters biking side by side. 10438918_10152487063738659_6333466069554672502_n

I am certainly not alone in my love of the spoke and chain.  Recently, cycling has enjoyed a surge of popularity in the UK.  Great Britain has won The Tour de France two years running and dominated cycling events at the 2012 Olympics.  This has led many to take it up as both exercise and a greener way to travel.  I see more bikes every day.  Maybe in the near future York will be like a second Amsterdam in the sheer number of people cycling everywhere.  Who can say what Le Tour may bring? 10514590_10152554102568659_4902562814346299244_n

Meanwhile, in the present day, Yorkshire is getting her glad rags on for the spotlight.  It’s quite exciting being on stage.  I do love a spotlight and a stage.  The Yorkshire decorating committee has been hard at work for some time dressing up our already beautiful county. In November 2013 the call went out to knitters of all ages and persuasions to deck the streets with boughs of jerseys.  Tiny little knitted t-shirts in colours representing the various winning Tour jerseys have been draped from the lamp posts of every city, town and village in the county. So many tiny knitted t-shirts in fact that local councillors were concerned about the structural soundness of iron posts groaning under the weight of adorably rampant woollyness.  Worry not though, dear readers. No lamp posts have been harmed and the bunting is cute as hell! 10514603_10152554124568659_8960884357956830103_n

On a purely selfish note, I am thrilled that Le Grand Depart is happening the day after American Independence Day.   I never get to celebrate The Fourth of July.  This year not only do I get the day off but I get to ride the Pre-Depart celebratory wave.  Of course, I realise the bunting, streamers are not for my silly little national holiday but If I tilt my head and squint a bit, all the little GB flags look almost like the stars and stripes.  Almost. 10406391_10152556847863659_3159653235933347244_n

Flags, ickle knitty jumpers and bunting draped around anything that holds still long enough are just the beginning of the party atmosphere in Yorkshire.  Yellow bicycles have been appearing in the most amazing places and in some truly creative ways.  Businesses in particular have been going all out for the customers they expect to pour into our area.  A Harrogate restaurant even customized its wine labels to celebrate “a summer of cycling.”

Madder things are happening as well.  In the town of Ripley, just off the  aforementioned Nidderdale Greenway, a man is working night and day to complete a stone sculpture of a cyclist biking atop what looks for all the world like a pyramid.  10492303_10152556846068659_3554964477559972465_nArt is happening.  Music is happening.  Drama.  Film.  Food.  And lots and lots and lots of bikes.

Pride.  That is what’s happening in Le Nord.  Folk here take for granted that Yorkshire is the best county in England.  This is not news.  I think these hard northerners are really looking forward to showing off for the rest of the world. 10455316_10152554106893659_8826107814946882365_n

Of course, Brits being Brits, there are many who would make a face at my grandiose claims.  “Oh, dear,” I’ve heard them say when conversations shift to Tour Talk.  “It’ll be awful.  I may have to hide/leave town/immigrate.”  I take these protests with a block of salt.  They said the same thing about the Olympics and we all know how that turned out.  Granted, Le Tour will not garner the same level of attention as the Olympics but now that England is out of the World Cup, I reckon the country is ready to get behind a sporting event we stand a good chance of winning.

Even if Wiggo is awol.

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Guest Post: Black Thursday outrage

Guest Blogger: Barb Benesch-Granberg

(November 28 was Thanksgiving in the USA – a holiday with controversies of its own. Held on the fourth Thursday in November and primarily celebrated by feasting with family (the Wednesday before Thanksgiving has been hailed as the “Busiest Travel Day of the Year” in the U.S., though that’s not technically true now, if it ever was). Many employers not only give employees Thursday off, but Friday off as well. As a result, the Friday after Thanksgiving has long been called Black Friday, and for a long time marked the kick-off of the Christmas holiday shopping season. For many years, retailers have marked Black Friday by opening stores very early Friday morning, and offering special bargains for shoppers strong enough to fight off the post-feast lethargy.

In recent decades, retailers have begun bringing out Christmas items and encouraging Christmas shopping earlier and earlier, a phenomenon derided by many as “Christmas creep.” Similarly, Black Friday has begun to creep as well, with many stores now opening Thursday evening, which means that employees of those stores are having to rearrange their holiday or miss it entirely. This has prompted protests in the form of petitions and Facebook groups calling for boycotts on shopping on these days.)

 

It’s late, of course, but I finally put my finger on why I have felt so uneasy about a lot of the anger I’ve seen about Black Friday creeping into Thanksgiving Thursday, and I think it’s that there’s a lot of classism being revealed there.

Not that I’m a big lover of Wal-mart and K-mart and all these other places that pay poverty-level wages and refuse to offer their employees health insurace. But the fact of the matter is, people have been getting their Thanksgivings mucked up by their retail and service-industry jobs for years and years.

I remember one Thanksgiving, my husband had to work until 6 a.m. that morning, and so it was up to me to drive our family to his parents’ house four hours away for Thanksgiving dinner. Finding an open Starbucks where the kids could use a restroom and I could get a gigantic coffee was like an oasis in the desert, and I expect I was embarrassingly effusive in my gratitude to the cheerful folks behind the counter.

I also remember hearing from a friend who worked at Kohl’s for the holidays talking about having her Thanksgiving dictated by being required to go in at like 10p Thanksgiving night to set up for the store’s Black Friday opening at 6 a.m. Her option was to miss Thanksgiving, make her family have Thanksgiving dinner at lunch time, and then sleep, or sleep all day while someone else cooked dinner, and make her whole family eat dinner at like 8p.

There are tons and tons of people who work Thanksgiving at restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, Starbucks, not to mention all the people who work in travel, whose chances at making Thanksgiving dinner are entirely dependent on weather and things like flight delays, bad traffic, etc.

And it’s not like any of those jobs are especially well-paid either. Better than Wal-mart, sure. But with a few exceptions, still not in the realm of nice middle-class sorts of incomes by any stretch.

So what’s the difference? The only difference I can see is in the clientele. People who are shopping at Wal-mart, the people for whom Black Friday may be their only chance at pulling off one of those big-ticket items under the Christmas tree, they generally aren’t the same people who are flying to see family for Thanksgiving. They aren’t the people who blithely stop at Starbucks to fuel their drive to or from the big family dinner. They aren’t the people who can afford to dine out on Thanksgiving.

The message then, as I see it, is that it’s okay for people to work on Thanksgiving, but only if their jobs involve catering to people who are relatively well off. Because those jobs, then, are somehow “important,” and count as part of maintaining our cultural infrastructure or some such. But the People of Wal-mart? Oh no, their needs are not important enough to warrant ruining someone else’s holiday.

And y’know, I’m not saying this because I love Black Friday, or love Christmas Creep, or think that capitalism becoming the dominant religion of the United States is a fab thing. I think all that is garbage and deserves all the scrutiny we can throw at it. But if you’re someone who was signing petitions against Wal-mart or Target for opening Thanksgiving night, but then stayed in a hotel Wednesday or Thursday night, or stopped at a gas station at some point Thursday, or made a last-minute run to the grocery store Thursday morning or really spent any money or used any services on Thursday at all, then I need to know what exactly the difference is. What makes this year so much different than previous years? Because I’m just not seeing it.

The Founding Fathers versus Henry VIII

393413_10150521073198659_1104260466_nEvery year my daughter’s North Yorkshire primary school performs a Nativity Play. Shepherds with towels on their heads herding cotton-wool-costumed sheep; Wise Kings bearing gold tissue paper gifts; flocks of tinsel-draped angels; Mary picking her nose because she has been sat too long by a painted cardboard manger: proper old-school Nativity Play.  This happens annually at schools all over Britain.  I never questioned it nor gave it a second thought—save the disappointment that my child, a drama teacher’s daughter, couldn’t cope with a bit of donkey choreography.

My mother questioned it.

‘What if there’s a Jewish child?’

‘Err…’  I struggled.

Do we have Jews in England?  I haven’t met any.  This struck me as odd considering how many I know in America.  But Rabbi Lionel Blue has a regular spot on Thought for the Day and there’s a good bagel deli in North Leeds which never opens on Saturday.  Britain must have at least a few Jews.

‘Hindus, Muslims, Atheists?’ persisted my mother.

‘Oh, we have plenty of those,’ I replied brightly, pleased I could show some cultural awareness of my adopted nation.

‘Don’t they complain?’

‘About what?’ I asked.

‘The Nativity Play!’ exclaimed Mom.

‘Why?’

‘Because,’ my mother sighed in frustration, ‘the play is Christian.  It’s religious.’

‘It is?’  I gave my mother a puzzled look.  ‘But no one here seems to think a Nativity Play is religious,’ I protested.

I didn’t need my mother’s raised eyebrow to realise how ridiculous this sounded.  Of course—of course a Nativity Play is religious. Nativity Plays date back to the ninth century, a time-honoured religious tradition.   Of course the birth of Jesus lies at the heart of Christian faith.  And of course any self-respecting, First Amendment loving American should recoil in horror from the very idea of a public school hosting such an obviously Christian event.

Oh my God!  My daughter’s school has been breaking the law every year.  And no one has ever turned them in.  Was the whole community in on the secret?  Have there been underground meetings?  Have pacts been made?  Signed in blood?  Where does the conspiracy end?

My mind raced.  What about Songs of Praise and Thought for the Day?  The BBC is state funded.  Good Friday and Easter Monday are recognised Bank Holidays.  Religious Education is part of the National Curriculum.  My students have been led in prayer by our Assistant Head teacher.  He hands out Bibles.  In school!

Holy Mary!  Why has no one sued Britain for Religious Persecution or Human Rights violations?  Someone call the ACLU!

Of course they don’t have the ACLU in England.  More importantly, England has no separation of church and state.  Thanks to Henry VIII, the Church of England and the English Nation are one—inextricably linked.   This was the whole point of America—to escape the persecution of a national church unwilling to embrace diverse faiths.

The impact of a State Church does not end with school Nativity Plays.  Aside from the reigning sovereign being head of The Church of England, Parliament includes church leaders.  The House of Lords, vaguely equitable to America’s Senate, is made up of two unelected branches.  The Lords Temporal consists of the aristocracy, those with inherited or sometimes earned titles.  The Lords Spiritual is a body of religious leaders: the Bishops of Durham, Winchester, London and the Archbishops of York and Canterbury.  Church leadership plays a direct role in the government.  Astounding!  Like all true American souls mine is certain—absolutely certain—that church and state should be separate.  In England they are joined at the highest legal, judicial and executive levels.

Yet American currency declares “In God We Trust”.  The Pledge of Allegiance: “One Nation Under God.”  Presidents end every sentence with “God Bless America.”  Clearly we’re kidding ourselves with this whole separation thing.

But that’s not the punchline.  England, with her state religion, head of the church monarch and primary school Nativities, is a far more secular nation than America could ever hope to be.  While America clings to God, England keeps God at a respectful and perhaps mistrustful arm’s length.

In 2011 the UK census reported 25% as “Having No Religion”.  In the same year only 16% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation.  72% of Americans identified as Christian while in the UK the number was only 59%.  Church attendance numbers are far lower than that.  It’s a bizarre reversal—though perhaps not that bizarre considering our histories.

America was founded by Puritans (religious zealots England cheerfully transported in their version of events).  Our churches have been centre stage of many great accomplishments: the Anti-Slavery movement, Labour Reform, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights.  England has been battered by its history with religion: Crusades, Catholic versus Protestant, The Hundred Years’ War, Irish Troubles, more Witch hunts than Salem could shake a stake at.  This is, naturally, a sweeping generalisation.  Of course it is.  It’s a thousand year trend.  But my point is valid.

970814_10151670015783659_876120044_nEngland has assimilated religion to the point where Nativity plays, Christening ceremonies, church holidays and even the buildings themselves—so many beautiful and ancient hymns of architecture— have been all but drained of spiritual meaning.  59% of the British identify Christian, but almost every parent I know Christens their child.  They might need Sat Nav to find the church, but they get there.  At the same time, a part of England’s racial memory recoils from religious fervour.  Like an alcoholic whose past traumas prevent her from drinking too deeply.

On the opposite shore, America tries to keep religion out of politics.  But we can’t help ourselves.  We fight to embrace it, we fight to reject it.

I wonder if America will grow ambivalent over time as Britain has?  If the differences between faiths continually rip apart the fabric of our country, we will someday look back at our Bible-bashing past and cringe?  Will Britain swing back the other direction?  Perhaps the current recession, the need for meaning and community support will draw her people back to the pulpits?  God knows.

The Milk of Human Pretense

As a child, like many children before and after me, I hated sprouts.  Sprouts.  Blech!  Just thinking the word made me shudder.  They looked, smelled and tasted of concentrated ogre excrement (or what my active juvenile mind imagined ogre excrement might look, smell and taste like).  My mother also hated sprouts, but she made me eat them at least a few times a year.  Why?  Because her mother made her eat sprouts and her mother before her and so on and so on back to the mother-effing Stone Age.  She called it character building.  I call it revenge.

At some point, one of my female ancestors—possibly my grandmother—decided milk was the key to enduring Sprout Torture: take a small bite of sprout, drown it with a gulp of milk and repeat until the sprout, at last, is conquered enough to allow a well-earned dessert.  With respect Granny, the milk doesn’t work.  It doesn’t change the essential nature of a sprout.  It’s nothing but a futile attempt to dilute the impact on my digestive system.  I still tasted every mouthful of vile, green horribleness and now I don’t like milk very much either.

As an adult I am still not a huge fan of sprouts, but I recognise that they are good for me and an inescapable part of any British Christmas meal.  Resistance to the sprout is futile.  In a mature version of my learned childhood pattern, I now attempt to douse each mouthful of sprouts with a generous swallow of Pinot Grigio.  It doesn’t work any better than the milk did, but by the time I’m finished I could care less about sprouts or pudding or much of anything really.  Strangely, my own children like sprouts.  I blame their father who has never met a brassica he didn’t like.

I have been thinking a lot about sprouts lately, and about milk and about futile attempts to dilute the essentially distasteful.  I have also, like many on both sides of the Atlantic, been thinking a lot about Syria and chemical weapons and Martin Luther King’s dream.  Putting all of these disparate thoughts together, I am starting to wonder about war crimes.

By and large I consider myself a pacifist.  I live by the immortal words of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and the whole world will soon be blind and toothless.”  I find war unethical on a personal, social, political, spiritual and universal level.  Perhaps this is the attitude of a privileged Western woman who has never lived under true tyranny, never experienced violent subjugation, never been at risk of being called to arms.  Maybe I would have fought to defend my homeland against European settlers alongside my (admittedly distant and questionable) Native American ancestors.  Maybe I would have taken up arms against the oppressive English with my even more distant but less questionable Irish ancestors.  In an alternative, Steam Punk world I might have machine gunned my way to suffrage with my feminist sisters.

But I like to think that no matter where or when I lived, I would share the beliefs of Ghandi and Dr King.  The idea that a victory achieved through bloodshed is no victory.  Both leaders worked hard for change, but refused to be part of a new order achieved through violence.  Such a world would be one not worth living in, they argued.

And yet, when I hear peacemakers flap on about the Geneva Convention and the ethics of modern warfare I get a bad taste in my mouth reminiscent of sprouts.  The idea that there is a right and wrong way to conduct war seems laughable to me.  Even if we accept that warfare is an inevitable part of human nature (which I do not accept), the concept of creating regulations which govern human behaviour in times of war…

Well, it tastes of milk and sprouts to me.

The Geneva Convention, the Hague Convention and all the accompanying articles were born of witness.  A writer witnessed a battle first hand and it left a bad taste in his mouth.  War is brutal, the writer realised.  What a truly startling revelation.  And so a movement began to make warfare more palatable.

But war is war and sprouts are sprouts.  No amount of kindness or milk changes their essential nature.  War demands we reject the concept at the core of ethical and legal philosophy: killing people is wrong.  Once you force someone to throw out this basic moral tenet, all bets are off really.  How can limiting regulations or dilutions have any impact on an institution which turns over such an essential block of our psychological DNA?

I don’t think I am suggesting we burn the Geneva Articles, but there is a part of me that feels like the entire concept of war crimes is milk to the sprouts.  I resented my mother for enforcing this pointless act of making something gastronomically intolerable allegedly easier to swallow.  I felt betrayed for believing in the slim hope that perhaps I could handle the sprout under these parameters.

But it was lie.  Sprouts are bad.  War is wrong.  Period.

When I hear the justifications for intervention in Syria on the basis of the government’s use of chemical weapons, it seems childishly ludicrous.  Why should that be the moral issue which forces our hand?  It’s war.  War is brutal, violent and inherently amoral.  That is its nature and, like sprouts, it’s not going to taste better for a bit of milky kindness.

If we aren’t willing to swallow all that war brings with it, we need to think about whether war has any place on our plates at all.

When a Yankee Visits Yorkshire Part Three: Grandma’s Adventures with the NHS

5358673496_d0c1ac3961“I’m afraid there’s been an accident with your Grandmother.”

I had been cleaning all day.  The kind of cleaning you do for company.  Removing books to dust shelves, wiping down picture frames on walls, hovering residual spider webs from the corners of every room.  And then a phone call comes to change it all.

“I’m afraid there’s been an accident with your Grandmother.” 

I thought the weather would be the biggest tragedy of this holiday.  I worried about my husband’s recent bout of flu, the state of the house, the behaviour of my children.  And then a phone call comes to change it all.  There was an accident with my eighty-seven-year-old Grandma, touristing in London before travelling North to see her great-grandchildren (and me).  She fell waiting for the lift and broke three ribs.  So there it is.  People make plans, but life makes other plans and we must chase the bouncing ball of chaos before it rolls into traffic.

Six years ago when my Grandpa lay dying there was nothing I could do to be with my family.  Our patriarch passed and I was an ocean away.  Last week it took me less than a minute to decide how to handle this fresh crisis.  I couldn’t get on a plane to Iowa, but a train to London—that was something I could do.

Packing happened, tickets were purchased and four hours later I got lost in the A&E of St Thomas’ Hospital, Westminster.  Good view of Parliament.  At least Grandma would be able to get in some quality sight-seeing from her sick bed. And yes, Auntie Madge…it is the hospital which went to the moon in that one episode of Doctor Who.  More importantly, it is a flagship NHS hospital which has been providing free health care since the thirteenth century.

“No one has asked us about money.” 

My parents sounded worried rather than relieved, and a bit mystified.  Of course, in an American hospital an eighty-seven-year-old patient in pain would not be hounded for their credit card before admittance, but someone with the patient, a friend or relative, would be taken aside and discreetly asked: “How do you intend to pay for this?”  Yes, even in the Emergency Room they would ask.  If you were bleeding from a bullet would they would ask.

My grandmother was given a bed, a dose of morphine and probably a cup of tea (right up there with morphine as far as the British are concerned).  I’m not going to lie and say her bed was regal or that she had a fleet of nurses flocking to her side seeing to her every need, but she was cared for and given what she needed when she needed it.  That’s the thing about the NHS.  It’s there when you need it—for ANYONE who needs it.  My grandmother was a guest in Britain, not even a citizen, but it didn’t matter to those who treated her.

After a few hours, she was moved into the Victoria Ward for acute medical conditions.   It had an even better view of Westminster.  They took x-rays and blood samples, fed her, counselled her, housed her over-night, gave her medication and a walking stick.  Before her transfer, an A&E nurse warned us we might be asked about our insurance.  Fortunately my grandmother is well insured, but no one ever asked.  Not once. 

377221_10150405441484219_1021563656_nLast week the taxes of Britain paid to treat a frightened, injured foreigner who came to their shores for a view of Buckingham Palace and a cuddle with her great-granddaughters.  My dear, old grandmother so loved by her family and friends.  Thank you St Thomas’ Hospital.  Thank you, National Health Service.  For all the frightened, alone people who come to you in need and receive necessary care, free of everything but their physical pain.  Thank you for looking after her.  My grandmother is worth every penny of tax and so is every other patient you treat.

America, I warn you.  Four tax payers are coming home who now understand exactly how Socialised Medicine works.  They know the truth.  The NHS hospitals of Britain may not have the fanciest equipment but they don’t need it—I doubt you do either.  They use what they have to treat patients in need.  Any patient in need.  It’s not a perfect system, no government system is.  But it’s there when people need it—for anyone who needs it.  My grandmother will not go bankrupt because of an accident.  Four Americans are coming home who get it now.  And they vote.

The Emo Olympics

BBC Commentators this morning referred to London 2012 as “The Crying Games”.  And it truly is!  The crying, cheering, laughing, gasping, hugging, jumping, leaping about, crowing like Peter Pan games here in the UK.  Emotions are all over the place because Team GB is achieving such heights of athletic greatness.  Yorkshire, especially, is doing so well  we could compete as our own country!

I have never seen the British get so excited about their own success.  I have never seen them so patriotic.  The Jubilee didn’t do it.  The Royal Wedding didn’t do it.  The Olympics did.  It’s not an “In Your Face, World!” kind of pride.  It’s bone deep.  It’s real, true, forever love–the kind many of them perhaps thought might have been lost.  Every medal, every waving flag, every play of the national anthem has them on physically on their feet and emotionally on their knees.

To Americans this may not seem a monumental event.  We have a sense of national pride in our blood that has never faded.  Even as an ex-pat I have it.  I can’t make it past a phrase of America the Beautiful or This Land is Your Land without choking up.  I  cheered my voice hoarse over Gabby Douglass and punched the air for the revival of American Women’s Gymnastics.  

But for this British this is fresh.  This is first love  with all its giddy, restless wonder.  In previous posts I have mentioned the British aversion to patriotism.  I even feared the Olympics might be a painful experience for Britain.  Perhaps history will cite London 2012 as a contributing factor to Britain rediscovering it’s sense of self and self-love.

Isles of “Utterly Mahvelous” and “Umm…huh?”

Across the globe opinions have been mixed over Isles of Wonder, Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremonies extravaganza—or snoraganza depending on who you ask. From my limited investigations it seems the closer the nations are to the UK the more they enjoyed the spectacle. Aussies and Canadians mostly responded positively, Americans were rather divided. But then, when are we not divided these days?

Part of the interference with American enjoyment may have been the way in which it was televised. Huge sections  were cut in the States due to commercial breaks. Many Yankees missed the pogo dancing bobble-headed punks. An even more disappointing omission was the dance memorial to the victims and survivors of 7/7. According to my sources American television chose this moment to interview Michael Phelps.

Friday evening’s tribute to the victims of the July 7th terrorist attack, which occurred days after London won their Olympic bid, was an evocative piece of dance drama that resonated emotionally on this side of the Atlantic. Honouring the horrors surrounding the genesis of London 2012 was a daring move on Boyle’s part, but highly appropriate and moving. The hymn Abide with Me provided the music for the dance.  Traditionally Abide with Me is sung at British sporting events.  No rugby match can start without it.  The omission of this performance for American audiences is criminal. Those responsible should be prosecuted under Offenses to the Arts legislation. That exists right?

Despite television edits, about half the Americans I communicated with responded positively to Boyle’s vision. Some argued it was a little slow and even British viewers admitted  it might be difficult for non-Brits to appreciate  references to Eastenders (long running British soap opera) or the significance of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (winner of British Historical Idol and engineer in the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution). Perhaps it was a bit too…well, British. Fair enough. Boyle’s artistic aim was to represent the best of British: historical heritage, contributions to children’s literature and musical legacy.

There were many highlights of the performance for me. The lovely rendition of Jerusalem, sung by a charming choir of English moppets started the well of emotion. Jerusalem is the English (not British) equivalent of America the Beautiful. It’s the song that probably should be the national anthem but never will be because it is English-centric. I have seen even the most stiffened upper lips tremble under the influence of this song. If you have ever heard the term “green and pleasant land” in reference to England, it comes from this song. Since Britain is a four-way nation, we were also treated to traditional tunes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland sung by similarly adorable children. The Welsh showed off their choral skills by using lovely harmonies. I swear they practise triad scales in the womb.

Of course….of course Shakespeare would  feature. The first words of the performance are Prospero’s speech from The Tempest spoken by Isambard Kingeth Branagh. Happy my hero had been given his moment (Shakespeare not Branagh or Brunel), I then gaped in awe as a whole host of industrialists transformed the green and pleasant land into a factory hell. I loved this bit, bowled over by the scale and military efficient set transition.

The Bond-Queen film seemed to go down well on both sides of the pond. Up until the final moment I expected HRH to turn around and reveal Judi Dench in Majesty Drag. But no, it was the genuine Queenly article “parachuting” into the Games. Irreverently funny like only the Brits can do! Continuing the funny, Rowan Atkinson’s piano solo had everyone in our sitting room struggling for breath.

The sequence which seemed most confusing to Americans was my personal favourite: Boyle’s tribute to Great British children’s literature, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the NHS. Not an obvious link unless you know the relationship between JM Barrie (author of Peter Pan) and GOSH. I loved the nightmarish moments as a giant Queen of Heart erupts from a child’s hospital bed followed quickly by a towering Lord Voldemort. I clutched the sofa hoping Dan Radcliffe might swoop in on a broomstick but the Mary Poppins Nanny Army was even better.

Apart from the visual beauty and fun of this sequence, Boyle’s political message resonated loud and clear: save our NHS! Even if Boyle had walked up to Number 10 Downing Street and stuck two fingers up David Cameron’s nose the message could not have been clearer: threaten our health service and sack our nurses at your peril, Mr Cameron! I cheered. It’s a cheer that should have echoed on the other side of the Atlantic as well, but I suspect the message and its meaning were lost in translation…or in televisation.

One moment united all watchers I spoke to: the final lighting of the torch.  At last the mysterious petals carried throughout the procession of nations were explained.  Though I was hoping the whole thing might turn out to be a massive trebuchet which flung  flames into the middle, having the arms rise up and come together was probably better art and safety.  If they are going to keep that massive flame going for two weeks, however, I do not envy the Olympic Committee’s gas bill.

Well played, Danny Boyle.  Well played indeed.  Will we soon be calling you Sir Danny?

Not Enough.

Once in a great while I find myself pining for my native land.

I miss the sense of space.  The way you can drive for miles on straight roads where the only variation in the scenery is the swapping of cornfields for soybean fields.  I miss the wide stretches of sky.  I miss the energy of a young country exploring its cultural identity separate from her parent society.  A country still trying to figure out who she is and what she wants to be when she grows up.  I miss front porches and screen doors that slap you in the ass if you don’t get out quick enough.  Also rootbeer.

Then something like Aurora, Colorado happens and that screen door smacks me in the face.

When my Yorkshire high school students learn I am American, one of the first questions they ask me is “Did you live in Florida?” followed quickly by “Do you own a gun?”  Their voices express horrified fascination at the idea their teacher might know her way around a firearm or even have one she could produce at any given time.  If I were a lesser person I would use these prejudices to my advantage.  I am sure classroom management would be easier if my pupils believed I kept a handgun in my desk drawer.

Once the topic of guns comes up in serious conversation, horrified fascination generally morphs into derisive confusion.  They don’t really understand why Americans want/need to own guns.  Being from a rural community, many of them have hunted with rifles—usually birds—but they just don’t grasp gun ownership on an American level.

So I explain the Second Amendment.  “The constitution guarantees the right of all American citizens to keep and bear arms.”  That causes blank stares, so I explain the Constitution.

“In the latter part of the eighteenth century America achieved freedom from the British.  The Founding Fathers of the new nation wanted their rights, responsibilities and freedoms clearly spelled out, so they created a flexible written document to serve as the foundation of the infant government.   That is the constitution.  It’s like our book of rules and regulations.  The right to keep and bear arms is part of the Constitution.  To Americans that is pretty important.  Our entire political and legal system begins and ends with the Constitution.”

More blank stares blink back at me.  “But why Miss?  Why is the right to keep and bear arms important?”  So I put the Constitution into context.

“At the time it was written there was no organised military or police force.  The first part of the Second Amendment makes provision for the creation of one and makes certain that no one can take away the rights of the people to defend themselves.”

“But,” points out one brave, clever student, “you have the Army and the Police now.  Why do ordinary people still need guns?”

Now it is my turn to blink blankly back at them.  “Good question,” I say to stall.  I have to make a choice.  Do I give them an academic answer or tell them what I think?  This might be the only chance they get to hear an actual American comment on an American issue which resonates across the globe.  I choose.

“You are absolutely right.  They don’t need guns anymore.  America has a well regulated military and police force which provides for the security of a free state.  Just like the constitution says.  There is no reason why Americans need guns for anything other than hunting, which could easily be controlled under the same regulations you have  in the UK.

“So why do Americans still insist on their right to own guns, Miss?”

Sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness?  The constitution says they can so they will, gosh darnit?  The same rationale allows organisations like the Ku Klux Klan to exist, even though their mission flies in the face of democracy.  The First Amendment gives them the right to free speech, so they exercise it.

“Americans are proud of their Constitution and rightly so.  Any challenge to the rights laid out in the Constitution becomes not only a political issue but a deeply personal one.  It is one of the most significant political documents in the history of the world.”  But we cling onto it too tightly.  Infants do not part easily with a beloved teddy which has comforted them through dark nights and lonely moments.

The brightest student who has listened mostly closely interrupts.  “Amendments can be repealed, right Miss?  Like when you had prohibition and then you changed your minds.  Couldn’t you do the same thing with the Second Amendment?”

Sigh.  I am not going to get out of this easily.  Bless their innocent confusion and clear-headedness.

“There is a well-organised and heavily-funded coalition called the National Rifle Association which puts political and economic pressure on the government.  Most politicians are too frightened of the impact on their careers if they suggested a repeal of the Second Amendment.  Even restrictions on guns is not politically popular in the US.”

“But kids keep dying.”

“Yes they do.”

“Doesn’t anyone care?  They can stop it.  Don’t they want to change things?”

Not enough.

Compassionate Equality v Selfish Individuality

On the eve of America’s annual celebration of Freedom, I find myself turning over several thoughts about the nature of democracy and national character.  Last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of “Obamacare” echoes debates happening in the UK as well: to insure or not to insure; to provide or not to provide; to care or not to care.  The question of how to look after your people is at the core of government, no matter how it is organised.  I have come to the conclusion that every leader and voter must choose between one of two paths.

Compassionate Equality or Selfish Individuality.

Of course, everyone will say they choose Compassionate Equality.  “We are not monsters.  We care about each other.  We desire nothing more than to see all God’s creatures succeed.” (or words to that effect).   But consider what Compassionate Equality really means.

Compassion means considering everyone’s needs, not just your own.  A compassionate society provides for every member of that society.  A compassionate society of equals means that this care is not dependent on anyone’s socio-political status or financial capability.  If you live in, vote in or lead a Compassionate Society of Equals it means you are cared for and you care for others simply because we live together as one.

Equality means everyone is equal.  Not the same, but equal.  This means that in order for another person to have true equality, you must be willing to surrender a piece of your power and status.  That means money too.  Nothing comes free.  If you want to live in a Compassionate Equal society you must be willing to pay for it materially, socially, spiritually, economically and politically.  There is no other way.

“OK,” I hear you say.  “Screw the Compassionate Equality hippie crap.  I’ll take the Selfish Individuality thanks.  I am number one.  I take care of me and mine.  I don’t expect anyone to look after me.  I do not need a governmental mother, my biological one was enough.”

Ayn Rand argued that selfishness was a virtue.  The selfish take pride in what they are capable of, make no apology and expect everyone else to do that same.  They are concerned only with their own interests, as we all should be, because then we never need to depend on anyone else’s compassion or interest in our own equality—we take that equality for ourselves.

Ayn Rand also celebrates the individual.  All hail individuality!  Everyone should be their own person without fear of persecution from “the masses”.  Everyone should be free to pursue their own interests, liberty and happiness.  So sayeth the Founding Fathers; so sayeth we all.

But what is the price of Selfish Individuality?  No one looks out for you.  You get sick, no one cares.  You die—no one helps your family.  You live in squalor under the thumb of a merciless employer?  Deal with it.  In a Selfish Individual Society, you are expected to handle your own problems.  Looking after your interests and issues is not the government’s job.  On the plus side, no one else’s problems are your problems either.  You do not have to pay in any way for other’s shortcomings or misfortunes in full knowledge no one will pay for yours either.  That is the price you have to be willing to pay if you want to live a Selfish Individual.  You must accept that no one will help you, you help yourself or you fall under the feet of greater individuals who never look where they step.

“But surely,” cries the voice of democracy, “a compromise can be reached.  You are over-simplifying.  The workings of society are not that black and white.”

Actually, I think they are that black and white.  Either we have Compassionate Equality or Selfish Individuality.  We cannot have Selfish Compassion or Equal Selfishness or Compassionate Individuality or even Individual Equality.  Not as a nation.  We must choose what kind of society we want to create and be part of.

I think the cold, hard fact that this is the choice with no compromise is the essential problem in Democracies around the world.  We cannot have it both ways.  If we value Equality, we must also embrace Compassion and relinquish a certain amount of our Individuality.  If we want Individuality it means buying into the virtue of Selfishness and abandoning our ideals of Equality and Compassion.

The debate over the future and nature of healthcare on both sides of the Atlantic is rooted in this choice.  The source of the political conflict over this issue is the fundamental misunderstanding that there can be no middle ground on a national level.  Compassionate Equality or Selfish Individuality.  No compromise.  Choose the nation you want to be.

 

Is Patriotism on the Rampage?

Two of my previous posts have addressed the issue of British Patriotism.  The British do not self-promote, the British do not rejoice in their sovereign, the British carry with them a sense of shame.  These have been my words…or at least a summary of their sentiment.  These days I am not so confident this is true.  British Patriotism seems to be on the rampage lately.

Next week-end we will be celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee: sixty years on the throne.  If she survives three more she will equal Queen Victoria.  If she carries on four more she will be the longest reigning English monarch and the longest reigning Queen in history (if Wikipedia can be believed). In honour of this blessed event us working stiffs get any extra day off.  (Although I am rather bitter that these two days have been cleverly woven into the week-long half-term holiday that, as a teacher, I always get so it’s actually more like only having three days off instead of five but I digress.)  Everywhere I look there is evidence of enthusiasm for the Jubilee.

Public art decorating a Harrogate roundabout near The Crown Hotel (fittingly enough).

Harrogate’s world famous Betty’s Tea Shop has created special Diamond Jubilee Cookies in the shape of HRH’s beloved Corgis and chocolate Queen’s Horse Guard Bears.  By the way, you are reading those prices right: five bucks for a cookie, around sixty for the cake and forty for the chocolate bear.  This in itself might betray a rather tongue in cheek sense of respect for the occasion.  Surely crowns or sceptres or Her Majesty’s profile might be more appropriate.  But no.  Posh As Betty’s is giving us dogs and bears.

Elsewhere, the major grocery chains are practically shoving Jubilee products in our faces, forcing us to get excited about it.  I’m honestly not sure whether this is in response to consumer demand or a case of product placement trying to convince us that, bloody hell, we really are jolly thrilled for the old girl. Everywhere are displays of Union Jack picnic accessories, clothing, bunting, commemorative magazine editions and event-specific packaging on everything from tea bags (which I understand) to Cocoa Pops (which makes no sense).  Tellingly these displays do not seem to run out of supplies, implying that no one is actually buying any of it in any sense of the word. I admit I bought a box of Jubilee Cocoa Pops.  How could I not?

My daughter’s primary school, much to my husband’s disgust, is hosting a Jubilee Party.  Students may dress up as Queens or Princesses (which makes me really wish for the first time that I had a son) and sit down for a nice little tea party.  My own high school is, of course, far too adult and working class for that sort of thing.  In fact, no one seems remotely aware of the Jubilee.  Then again, some might not be aware we have a Queen.

On the other hand I was truly moved by BBC2’s virgin airing of the Jubilee Song entitled Sing.  It was created by the unlikely duo of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gary Barlow (of Take That fame for the Yankees…look him up).  The song features a choir of Army Wives and…wait for it: Prince Harry on the tambourine.  While that sounds like a particularly ridiculous joke, I thought the song was beautiful.

So I am left with a sense of confusion: is Britain generally and genuinely enthused about Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee or, like last year’s Royal Wedding, are we just bloody grateful for a four-day weekend which has some chance of providing good weather?

Discuss.