Tuesday, January 31, 2006


As some of you may know, each week I present a radio show commenting on American life, in a slightly less sardonic tone than that reserved for this blog. It too is called "Swearing to the Flag." It is broadcast on London station Resonance FM, hence the link at the side. Some of you may be in for a surprise if you hear it. But that is the risk I am poised to take, as I have belatedly worked out how to put each show on-line, for you to download at your convenience, or perhaps inconvenience given the size of the file. In this week's show, I visit a strange monastery, laugh at James Frey, and speculate on whether, erm, new media is any good.

Hmm...perhaps you'd just better download it and take a listen.


I also play music, which this week comes from the Art Ensemble of Chicago and The Spinto Band. Suggestions welcome for tracks in the future. They have to be...American. So that only leaves a few. Nat King Cole? Anal Cunt?

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Impatient Tribes of Man

A very happy new year to each and every one of you.

In the past months I've received a fair few death threats and one request for intercourse, so something must be going right.

I've attended performance art festivals and parties in warehouses in Brooklyn, and sometimes it's been difficult to work out which is which. I've been on the receiving end of two strikes. All the while, buried in the middle of nowhere in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, I've been praying for this "gentrification" I read so much in the papers about. Every now and then, a good-looking woman passes by wearing a hip coat and thick-rimmed spectacles, and I think the prayed-for wave is upon me. But then five or six crazy people pass by, and ask me if I want to pay them to sing, just like usual.

My dear mother and sister came to visit over the festive period: I recommend anyone to juxtapose their mother with the impossibly camp East Village. As families do, we managed on Christmas Eve to have a blazing row about little in particular (Alison, Mum, if you're reading this, we were all in the wrong.) Rage spurred me to catch the subway to Manhattan, where I had little to do other then militantly pace the near-deserted streets, while my anger slowly faded, to the point where I was even conciliatory. To demonstrate my regret, I purchased a New York edition of Monopoly (the Statue of Liberty allegedly "is" Mayfair) and rented a copy of Stanley Kubrick's psycho-erotic final work, "Eyes Wide Shut."

After a brief flare-up of hostilities upon my return. we were happy families by the end of the evening.

The strikes, since you ask, concern the university I attend (the dispute in question being far too lengthy to unravel here) and secondly the entire public trasnport system, which was put out of action for three days recently, as a show of union strength. Of all the impatient tribes of man, New Yorkers are perhaps the most impatient. Monuments to New York restlessness can be grand, as in the contours of the Manhattan skyline, or petty, as in the bustling, seething crowds disgorged from the subway each morning, and this grandness and pettiness defines the city. So perhaps no other community on earth would be less equipped to withstand a temporary paralysis of their daily routine; and that, of course, is exactly what New Yorkers faced. As September 11 proved, New Yorkers can handle colossal disruption, so long as they can mobilize a response, be the response practical aid of grief. But the one thing that they cannot tolerate is a disruption that renders them idle.

On the morning of December 22, impatient New Yorkers were faced with no means of getting to work and, equally bad, no means of getting to play. Subway stops were taped off. Streets that were formerly deserted back-alleys groaned with traffic. The three bridges leading into Manhattan, Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, filled with commuters marching to a near-military pace and step. In Brooklyn, the traffic crawled; in Manhattan, you were fortunate to see it move at all. Despite the evident standstill, desperate or deluded commuters stood at the roadside, flagging yellow cabs already full to bursting. Internet sites filled with postings from people prepared to trade a lift for a blowjob. As decimations of a city go, this was obviously nothing to rival the scale of Hurricane Katrina; but from the despairing looks on the faces of some of those hailing individuals, you would hardly have noticed.

Once the general air of disbelief had subsided, however, the residents of New York surprised onlookers from within and without the city, by the small acts of kindness which began to pile up. Drivers with available room pulled over to give commuters straggling on foot a lift. Red Cross ambulances parked by the foot of the major bridges, dispensing hot chocolate and fig newtons to weary walkers. During the brief transport hiatus, swindlers and con-artists doubtless emerged, and more than one morally dubious buck was made. But the sight of New York drivers, notorious for clinging to their lane as if it were a birthright, actually moving over to let vehicles past, will live long in my memory.

Like many, I was forced to make the ten-mile round trip on foot to Manhattan, and like resourceful New Yorkers, I managed somehow to extract a moral from the proceedings, to wit, that I was "exploring the city in a way I never had before." This meant largely traipsing through East Williamsburg, an area famous for its concentrated Hasidic Jewish community. My prior contact with the Hasidic community extended only as far as my landlord Moses, who had a perennial stutter, and took his religiously-mandated clothing very seriously. Walking through East Williamsburg, I realised that everyone here was Moses, or a little Moses, or an ancient Moses, with hair grown long at the sides, ruffled dungarees, all-black clothing, and carefully-shined black shoes. For a ten minute stretch you meet nobody who is not a Hasidic Jew, and begin to feel conspicuous in the off-black Carhart jeans slung around your hips. The writing is no longer in English. To all intents, you are in another world.

I was enjoying a late lunch with my girlfriend the other day, when into the apartment burst Moses, along with three other people, none of whom I had ever seen. Moses had a grin on his face.

'I have sold your apartment!" he declared.

We were stupefied over our baguette. Had we lost our property?

"These are your new owners!"

And that was all we heard from Moses; all, except from his desperate attempt to escape with half of my $2,400 deposit.