I realised after I’d posted yesterday that I’d missed out perhaps the most powerful intrusion of the War On Terror (TM) into my life, the liquid explosives plot of August 2006 which happened the same week I flew to Chicago. It also happens to be the funniest, in a maudlin kind of way.
It was 14th August 2006, three days since three men attempted to smuggle liquid explosives onto airliners. Flights were cancelled, and whilst everything was now in theory back to normal, the backlog of flights and the lengthy security checks means the reality couldn’t be further from that. Check-in times were extended, which for a flight which left before 8am now meant a 4am checkin time, which meant a National Express coach at 12.10am.
I have certainly said before now that Friends Don’t Let Friends Take the National Express, a mantra I stick to so strongly that I once drove to Heathrow (a round trip of 250-odd miles) to pick up an American friend to spare her that fate. This attitude was forged that night, principally because it was a perfect illustration of Trains Good, Coaches Bad. Trains are long. This gives trains the crucial advatage that should you find yourself near someone or something noisy/scary/unpleasant, you can pretty much rely on being able to stand up, wander along and pick a new place to sit. Trains have also worked out that whilst toilets are useful and neccesary things, they are best positioned between carriages where you can ignore them until such time as you wish to use one. The humble coach, however, has no such luxury. No-one should have to witness the terror of a toddler who is convinced the bus toilet is going to swallow him up, or the stuggles of his mother trying to convince him otherwise, or indeed the smell that results because she is crouching in the doorway trying to reassure him and thus cannot close said door. Sleep? Nothing could have seemed more distant and unattainable. I arrived at Heathrow in the middle of the night, bleary-eyed and promising never to travel on one of these infernal vehicles ever again.
That morning, Heathrow was like a warzone; policemen with machine guns, kids wrapped in space blankets, families who had been stranded for three days trying to get home, backpackers camped out on their rolled-out foam mats by check-in desks. I had my shoes sniffed for explosives, we checked in all our hand luggage and carried passport and boarding pass in a clear plastic bag. No inflight movies, nothing to read, no-one really in a talking mood either, strangely enough. There was an exception to that rule in the shape of a tall, 50-something, extravagantly camp American Airlines steward with a DeVito-esque Noo Yoik accent who wandered down the aisle of the 767 exclaiming, “Would ya like the calzone or the folded pizza?” The children, of course, were seriously considering this non-choice. Every so often an adult with a working knowledge of what a calzone was would make eye contact with him, and he would return their gaze with an imploring look that said “Please don’t ruin this for them, we could all use a laugh this morning.” He was right about that.
As the first flight to O’Hare that day, we managed to get take-off and landing slots. I learned later that the next two were cancelled. I came very close to joining the ranks of the space-blanketed, kipping on a bench and living off fried chicken in Terminal 3 to await a seat.
Border control at O’Hare were jumpy, perhaps understandably, and lone male travellers aren’t exactly their favourite thing anyway, but after a brief, intense set of rapid-fire questions about whether or not I could prove I had a return ticket (difficult without my luggage, but I eventually found a print-out of my Travelocity receipt; what might have happened if I hadn’t bothered putting that in my see-through plastic bag we will never know), I was admitted to the Land of the Free, Home of the Preternaturally Suspicious.
By that afternoon I was, admittedly in a somewhat jetlagged state, looking out over Lake Michigan from a tiny beach by the north shore suburb of Winnetka IL. Lucky doesn’t begin to cover it.
A little something I wrote for Folktales on LSRfm, Sunday 6th February 2011, 3pm. It belongs next to this track. If you tuned in as you were encouraged to a couple of hours ago, you’ll understand how it works. If you didn’t/couldn’t, you should be able to listen to the show here when it’s available. Enjoy.
He opened his eyes. Everything was rotated, out of place. Lying on his side, sofa cushion forcing his neck into painful contortions. The ceiling flashing blue, white, blue, reflecting the light of the TV, left on all night. He looked up at the window; dark, the sodium glow of the streetlight turning the window frame amber. He glanced down at his watch. A little after 5pm. Wednesday had slipped by unnoticed.
On the screen, a young man in a white t-shirt and black leather jacket stepped out of a car, wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead and ran his hands through his slicked-back hair. He stood for a moment then was knocked stumbling back into the side of the car, embraced by a beautiful girl. Detroit perhaps, Motown itself. Dark streets, rain, streetlamps and stop signs, spots of colour reflected on the wet roads. Camaros, Thunderbirds, girls in denim, chrome-plated glory. (more…)
As the Siberian winds dump seemingly infinite amounts of snow on the UK, one tiny shard of light arrived in our living rooms at 10pm on Wednesday night. Alas, that too has now gone out, snuffed out by the cold wind of capitalism in the form of Rupert Murdoch; the last episode of Season Four of Mad Men, and, significantly, the last episode to go out on the BBC. No more uninterrupted, free-of-charge 1960s drama goodness for us. Instead, we will be forced to sign up to Sky Atlantic, and then to sit through ad breaks.
I suppose complaining about advertisements in a show set in an advertising firm is tantamount to irony. All the same, when it comes to watching such an elegant work of television as this without breaks, I fear we won’t know what we had ‘til it’s gone.
We, of course, are few in number; outside of TV critics, MM attracts a tiny audience. Quite why the Beeb never saw fit to reshow it on BBC 2 later in the week (or, to risk setting the cat firmly among the pigeons, just move it there in the first place) is anyone’s guess, but languishing in the rarified backwater that is BBC Four it was never going to pull millions of viewers.
Tonight’s episode was a fine example of why we happy few love Mad Men so. (more…)
Like everyone who passes through and falls in love with the place, I feel a strange pull today, a desire to be there, to stand beside New Yorkers and remember. To stand once again on the perimeter of the chasm left in downtown that they called Ground Zero. To stand beside those who will rally today in support of the Islamic Cultural Centre and all that its construction represents, in the knowledge that tolerance and mutual understanding is the only way out of these dark days.
The experience was instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever had a track break on an electric trainset, except that in the real world trains are heavy and have significant momentum. Thus, deprived of current they don’t skid to a sudden, plasticky halt but rather slide on for half a mile, slowly but inevitably losing speed. Everything bar the fire escape signs suddenly and simultaneously went out, and slowly, deliberately, the whine of the engine dipped and eventually ceased. After an ominous silence, the first of a succession of interruptions began. The hilarious announcements from the man on the tannoy (who probably had a ridiculous job title, but it’s slipped my mind) who seemed to know remarkably little about the man who was apparently trying to “recycle” the engine, let alone whether such a process was wise or likely to succeed. The banter between the passengers was fascinating, and delightfully American in its world-weary but essentially optimistic humour. The English train traveller would have been swearing under his breath at some unseen authority figure responsible for all such disasters, whereas the Americans started sharing anecdotes and advice, calling ahead to their relatives or cracking jokes. At one point we seemed destined to be shunted onto another train in what sounded like a spectacularly dangerous line-up-the-trains-and-jump-across manoeuvre, but then, miraculously, it sprang to life again and we were off, our 45-minute stay in that particular stretch of Rhode Island over with. (more…)
Back in NYC on a whim
Returning to New York was impulsive. Having checked out of my Baltimore B&B, I spent the morning wandering the city, trying and failing to find any internet access; I still had in my mind the idea that I wanted to go to Boston, but in all my searching I had found nowhere to stay. In the end, I gave up and fled back to New York. Nominally, this was because I knew where there was an affordable hotel and plentiful internet, but it was a flight back to familiarity on other levels as well.
I boarded a train in Baltimore, bound for Penn Station, New York, NY; does anyone ever get used to that? The immensity of that destination? Can anywhere, except perhaps Grand Central, be so storied, so laden with myth? Even in its current subterranean concrete-bound incarnation, it comes with excitement and anticipation as standard. (more…)
…was an allusion to a couple of songs, namely Mark Erelli’s wonderful “Baltimore”, and Counting Crows’ “Raining in Baltimore.” Erelli’s song I have alluded to before and is one of the great driving-all-night-to-see-my-girl songs, with the twist that on this occasion the girl in question is going to need a lot of convincing when he gets there. Probably best not to look (or smell) like you’ve just driven all night then, really. The latter is an unsung gem from August and Everything After, a paean to the joys and gut-wrenching impossibility of long-distance love. (more…)
It was a powerful transition, from independent young people to an interdependent family, from mountains to plains, cold to warm, MDT to CST.
Still in “big airport” mode from Heathrow and Kennedy, I arrived at LaGuardia spectacularly early, much to the bemusement of the check-in staff. I was expecting the endless conveyor belts and multi-terminal hell of LHR or JFK and instead got a gentle stroll around the corner to security and leisurely amble to my gate, not an escalator or belt in sight. The flipside, I suppose, is that there was no-one trying to sell me discount perfume, no caviar-and-champagne bar (no bar at all, come to think of it), in fact very little do to at all. Therefore, I spent the next two hours drinking orange juice and watching a car chase on CNN. (more…)
…and so it proved, and not just because I would end it 5 time zones to the west of where I began it.
Even the date is exciting today. It’s been on the horizon for so long I feared it might never arrive. On the 1027 EMT service to St Pancras, travelling First Class; this is the way to do it. A whole other world.
Still here. Technical difficulties. What a day for it! Doing my best not to panic, but contingency plans are forming.
After the initial hiccup, all seems to be well now.
The tone of mild dread apparent in the above was because the train was not moving. It was a farcical scene, passengers stood on the platform wondering when the doors were going to open, then giving up and filing through the single set of doors that did open. Once we’d walked the length of the train to get back to our seats, we waited while 10:27 came and went and nothing happened. Somehow, it wasn’t reassuring; just like your temperamental Windows 95 machine (remember those days!), the answer is to turn it off and turn it back on again. Trains can be rebooted apparently, and eventually this seemed to have the desired effect. (more…)
The following is collated and edited correspondence both with my American friends and with friends and relatives at home, emails hurriedly typed in internet cafes in cities, or on borrowed laptops in friends’ houses, journal entries from the time. I have added commentary with the benefit of hindsight, and intercut some of the photographs I took along the way.
The journal in question was a black leather journal cover embossed with a Frank Lloyd Wright design, a present from my mother a couple of years previous, holding 7×5 refills ordered from Barnes & Noble in the USA because Europe doesn’t do 7×5 notebooks. (more…)
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
I’ve gone to look for America
Paul Simon, America
Assume for a minute that the Michigan in question is the lake rather than the state and these words seem almost prophetic, or at the very least like a paraphrasing of the sort of statement I’ve uttered countless times.
This probably doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to most of you. Before I progress any further then, I should at least begin some sort of account of my last (and first, if you’ll excuse the jarring nature of putting those two in close proximity; the English language is a strange and wonderful beast!) trip to the United States.
There is, I’m reasonably convinced, nothing in the experience of the average British 18-year-old that prepares you for your first sight of one of the truly great American cities. No amount of photos or guidebook accounts can prepare you for the first time you approach, at ground level, the sheer cliff face of the metropolis, rising out of a morass of suburbia. (more…)
Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?
Jack Kerouac, On The Road
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The reader will have to excuse a little time travel, or at the very least time-compression, on the part of the author, as he posts from the past gradually catching up with reality. This, of course, means I will have to accelerate my writing if I wish to remain there and not get overtaken…
It is time to begin.
An essay on the USA? A travelogue? An exploration of the rebuilding exercise, the resuscitation of the American Dream. A diary, a prophecy, a statement of intent. The writings of an outsider with a curious but single-minded fascination. Another young man rattling round inside the great, mysterious, mystical America of his mind, determined to chase a few myths and discover a few more in the process. (more…)