Monday, July 18, 2011

American Election Watch, Episode 1

Ever since Barack Obama was elected, a lot of pundits have asked: who will run against him in 2012? They do that because they’re paid to of course, but as the election draws nearer perhaps we should take the matter a little more seriously. Here, therefore is an E-Z cut out n’keep list of possible Republican candidates for next year’s presidential race.

1)    Sarah Palin
In June, Sarah Palin will travel around America on the “One Nation” bus tour. This will be a bit like 60s author Ken Kesey’s bus tours, only substituting Tea Party rhetoric for LSD tabs. The predictable media frenzy has already begun- is this the prelude to something big? Will she finally declare her candidacy? 

The One About the Chuckchi, the Irishman and the Scotsman

Although I am still in my mid-thirties I am often struck by how much the world has changed in my lifetime. For instance, I remember when it was acceptable to make jokes about stupid Irishmen on British TV. Indeed, when I was a child there was a ‘comedian’ named Jimmy Cricket, who was a professional ‘stupid Irishman’. He regularly appeared on TV, gibbering like an idiot, encouraging Britons to laugh at the supposedly witless imbeciles inhabiting the island next door.

Alas for Jimmy’s career, changes were afoot in British culture and within 20 years the country had become a world leader in the sphere of post-modern speech crime. These days, cracking a gag about the Irish tap dancer who fell in the sink is to commit career suicide. Stereotypes persist, of course, but people are afraid to vocalize them lest they be socially ostracized or face criminal penalties. Whether fear induced hypocrisy is an improvement over honest ignorance I’ll let the reader decide.

How I Slayed the Serpent

When I was a boy I was always glad that I lived in Britain, where there were no dangerous animals that might kill me. Yes, once upon a time there had been bears and wolves in the depths of the forest, but that was before my ancestors had so thoughtfully annihilated them all. Instead we had hedgehogs, wasps and midges (a tiny species of mosquito common in Scotland) and the occasional angry cow. And that was about it.

When I moved to Russia, things got more interesting on the deadly animal front. For a start, there were tigers, white ones even, but they were far away, and so I never encountered any. There were also wolves and bears, but alas, not in downtown Moscow- unless you counted the cops, of course. One time while traveling in Siberia I visited a religious community and the locals informed me that there were bears living in the forest that surrounded the village; however the beasts are so shy that hardly anybody had ever seen one. 
On the other hand, I did encounter a lot of cockroaches, which, although not dangerous, are certainly vile.

Osama Bin Laden, the Great Unifier

When I first saw the headline that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, I assumed it was a nonsense story that a lazy web editor had put online to score hits – you know, like “bacteria discovered on Mars”, or ‘nails from Christ’s cross found’. 

I’m so accustomed to cosmic incompetence from the folk in charge, (most recently stumbling into a war in Libya they don’t want to fight, for instance), that I just couldn’t imagine the US government or the CIA had finally whacked the world’s most wanted man.

Bury My Heart on Nameless Road

It was curiosity that led me to Nameless. I kept wondering: what lies beyond my local HEB, that vast supercenter of consumerism where I buy my groceries? The road seemed to lead nowhere, disappearing abruptly after a gas station and a chemist’s, devoured by the sky. But there had to be something else out there. So one day I resolved to follow the road to the end.

The bland, lunar housing developments dwindled to dirt and scrub and then, through some trees, I spotted a Buddhist Temple. A promising start to my voyage: a Buddhist Temple is not something you expect to see in rural Texas - even if the pursuit of oblivion makes a lot of sense out here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Party of the Damned

Recently I acquired a collection of LIFE magazines from 1971, and was curious to see what was making the news back then. You can probably guess some of the topics (e.g. the Vietnam War) and you’ve probably forgotten others (the opening of an airport on the Seychelles). As for me, I was particularly interested in the October 29th issue, not because of the David Cassidy cover but because it promised a report on “Kings, Queens, Emperors at the Shah’s Party.”
I’ve been interested in Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, ever since I read Ryszard Kapuscynski’s The Emperor some years back. The party in question - held in the ruins of Persepolis to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire - is described in Kapuscynski’s book as a nadir for Pahlavi’s regime, the point at which the gulf between the Shah’s autocratic excess and his people’s poverty became unbridgeable.
Of course, it’s easy to pronounce that type of judgment when you have hindsight.

RIP Yuri Gagarin, Long Live the Russian Space Program

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight. Indeed, I am writing this on Tuesday April 12th, known as Cosmonaut’s Day in Russia in honor of the hour or so Yury Gagarin spent spinning around the earth in a tin can.
I have been fascinated by Gagarin since childhood, and not just because I come from Red Fife, where we had a communist local councilor even into the 1990s, and where the mining village of Lumphinnans has a street named Gagarin Way. Nor is it because of the First Spaceman’s mysterious early death. No; I think it’s because he came from the Dark Side. 

Freedom of Speech and Cosmic Stupidity

One thing I truly love about America is the First Amendment- you know, the one about Congress making no law ‘…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’ and all that.

Just think about it: a group of revolutionaries had just seized control of a British colony, and one of the first things they did was grant everybody the right to abuse them. It’s astonishing: probably the first time in human history people in power willingly granted the lower orders free license to say whatever they wanted.
Indeed, it’s so radical that I don’t think any government has gone as far since. When I was a boy in the UK I assumed we had freedom of speech, even though we don’t have a written constitution. In fact there were blasphemy laws and bans on ‘nasty’ videos imposed by a cabal of invisible censors.

Why I Am Immune to Royal Wedding Fever

The other day I spotted a postcard of a familiar-looking palace on my desk. Is that Peterhof? I wondered. But it wasn’t kitsch enough- this was a simple, big gray shoebox with columns on. Suddenly I recognized it: Buckingham Palace, dreary residence of my gracious Queen. Then I spotted the text, written in swirly gold lettering:


My Life of Crime

Some time ago I got heavily into crime. Not big or interesting crime mind you, like serial murder or death camps, but rather tiny crime, rubbish crime - the kind of thing unusual enough to fill 150 words in a newspaper, and then disappear forever.
My interest in this inglorious subgenre started in Russia, where the mind-bendingly dull Moscow Times would very occasionally publish something readable, strange one- or two-paragraph stories from around Russia, often featuring an element of crime. I vividly recall the tale of some kids who were found playing soccer with a human head near Smolensk. 

The Ballad of Boris Grebenschikov

Last weekend, I was looking for interesting music to (legally) download when I found myself thinking about Boris Grebenschikov. For those who don’t know, Grebenschikov is a Legend of Russian Rock, the ‘Russian Bob Dylan,’ a mega hippy who got his start playing underground concerts in 1970s Leningrad and was the first Russian rock star to release an album in the West- 1989’s long forgotten Radio Silence.

Now, as that execrable LP demonstrates, not everything Grebenschikov does is good, or even listenable, but if you were to pick the best songs he has recorded over his 30+ year career you could make at least one decent album. The site I was looking at had two records- an experimental duet released on an obscure Russian label, and the other a ‘best of’ compilation put out by Naxos.
It was surprising to see Grebenschikov on a Western label again- Naxos is German- since his first experience was so disastrous. Radio Silence was released in 1989 during the heady days of perestroika, when soviet culture was fashionable.

Overnight Sensations

Five years ago I flew into Texas, not knowing how long I would be here. Although I am generally bad with dates, I remember my arrival in the Lone Star state because it coincided with Austin’s South by South West music/media/film festival, which is running this week.

And I recall that on that fateful plane journey I met a woman who was chaperoning a teenage rock band from Wales. They hoped to be “discovered” at the festival; their parents were concerned that their ambitious offspring would self destruct in a maelstrom of coke-snorting and whoring.