Thursday, November 15, 2012

Five Shades of Paint

Very occasionally I write something that other people take an interest in, and so me and my fella were invited to the House of Commons this week to present some of our work at an event. I have never been in that building before so it was quite exciting (as I am a 40 year old middle-class British man, that's the equivalent of saying I was "totally stoked") and I felt very much like a pensioner who had won a prize in a magazine by naming five new shades of paint. I had a cup of tea in the House of Commons Cafe, and was a bit disappointed that there were white plastic spoons and no milk jugs, just those little UHT capsules - although as someone pointed out to me, if they'd had milk from a cow and gold spoons, there would be a taxpayer outrage.

We had printed out our invitation which had been sent via an email, and brought passports for ID purposes, although we weren't asked to show anything. In fact, once we'd got through the airport-like security machines ("take off your belt sir"), we were waved through by friendly security people who didn't ask any questions. I guess once they'd established you don't have weapons, there isn't anything very controversial you can do anyway - apart from employ the very British tactic of looking as if you disapprove or moaning quietly.

I used to suffer from public speaking anxiety, which over my ten years of lecturing has abated a lot (meaning that I only get just as nervous as everyone else now), but this wasn't the usual crowd of students - there was a cross-party set of politicians - some of whom even I'd heard of before - including Jack Straw and Simon Hughes. They were due to speak before us, and I was glad that we'd arranged beforehand that my job would just be to work the powerpoint slides and answer any questions that my fella couldn't answer (thankfully he could, so I didn't have to say anything in the end). My fella is somewhat excessively charismatic and forceful - if there is ever a war, he would be an ideal person to front a conscription campaign like Lord Kitchener, although he'd also work equally well as a Commander General, code-breaker or international spy. He is wasted in academia where only 15% of his skills ever get used.

Jack Straw sat right next to me, and ate a sandwich, before getting up to give his talk. It's always slightly weird when you are next to someone off the tv. Then I discovered something about these events - the way they work is, the politicians get to speak first and say a few inspiring and encouraging words about how great everything is. Then, during the applause, they slip out through a back door. So in the end, none of the politicians stayed around to hear about our research findings, which seems a bit of a shame.

Still, the event seems to have been a success, and after it was done I went to the House of Commons shop and bought two teatowels, two bars of chocolate and a jar of jam (which I am imagining was made personally by Nadine Dorries).

Oh, and I had a photo taken to commemorate the occasion. My five shades of paint were shroud, infection, varicose, toenail and mocca.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Not My Homeland

This makes me choke back tears, and I sometimes resent that

I spent most of last night reading about the American civil war, finding out about terms like Jim Crown, Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Southern Strategy. I've been doing some historical reseach because my publisher is encouraging me to write a book about America, and while I'm looking forward to the project, I sometimes resent the hugely disproportionate influence that America has over my life and the lives of people who live in the UK and rest of the world in general. From an early age, along with Bod, Playschool and Andy Pandy, I was exposed to American accents and values with the likes of Scooby Doo and The Red Hand Gang. The first film I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz, and when a penpal craze swept my school when I was 12, everyone put "America" down as their first choice for the location of their penpal.

The cultural cringe continued into adult-hood, when I took my first of many trips to the US aged 22 - and I worked out with shock that I've probably spent something like 1/24th of my life in the States since then, due to various holidays and conferences. And generally, once you're through the hideous queues and unsmiling staff at immigration, I have a nice time. The weather is usually better, the shopping is great, everything is familar but different, and there's a relaxed yet ordered atmosphere which I like. Constrast those big wide avenues with enormous sidewalks, enough room for everyone, all set out in a sensible grid system so it's difficult to get lost, with tiny, winding British pavements - I regularly get lost in British town centres, even with my Iphone map app.

Although I think there is tendency in the US to over-sugar and over-salt food which often dulls my tastebuds while I'm there, and I normally come back feeling more ugly and less socially articulate than before, due to the relentless use of attractive people in advertising and the general perky sass that people from a superpower have. Brits, on the other hand, had their 100 years or so at the top, and apart from some nice masonary in our cities that didn't get bombed, I sometimes feel we don't have that much to show for it. We certainly don't have that confidence.

So when another US election rolls around, it's difficult to avoid it, especially when the media hype it up as such a close contest with such huge consequences. When I realise that I somehow know an awful lot about demographic patterns in certain swing states that I've never been to, the cultural cringe feels ever evident. And the contrast with China, which also had a change of power this month - an even bigger country - and rising in power, makes you realise just how much America likes to put itself out there.

America does have a lot of good tv, and I realise that the shows I regularly watch are from the States - the Walking Dead, Mad Men, American Horror Story, Glee and various reality shows I'm too embarrassed to name. The show Homeland, now in its second season, is one I'm particularly enjoying at the moment, although it is perhaps the most American of them all - with a central theme being "how much do you love America?" Claire Danes, who plays the chief protaganist, FBI agent Carrie Mathison, struggles with manic-depression, is on tablets, blames herself entirely for the events of 9.11 ("I missed something that day") and will stop at nothing to catch ALL the terrorists, even if it means having sex with them. She's a proper maverick in the Sarah Palin sense of the word, and wins my award for the most American person ever.

For the last god-knows how many years, we've spent New Year in New York. This year, we're probably going to that most un-American place, Paris. We will visit Versailles and be ignored by surly French waiters and stand in dog poo by accident, and I will wish that I had kept up my French because not having a second language makes me feel unsophisticated. It's 8 years since I was last in Paris, although it is a few hours away on the train and only a few miles separate France from England. Yet compared to America, sometimes it feels like another planet.