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On The Road ( American Style).

28 Oct

We’ve just been on an epic American road trip — over 3000 miles in 15 days. OK, I admit it, we cheated and went by coach. But it still counts doesn’t it? We crossed the Great Plains, meandered through the towering mountain ranges and traversed the High Desert country of western USA. We were driving along the routes of the settlers and pioneers of previous centuries, who travelled ever westwards in search of a new life. It was fabulous- for us that is, not for them. Thinking back on it now, I can conjure up vivid images of endless landscapes, huge skies and constantly receding horizons. Despite the cop-out of going on a guided tour, it was still a fabulous, mind-expanding experience I feel.
Road trips and America seem to go hand in hand. This country/continent is so vast and, outside the big cities, so empty, that the traveller is liable to be overwhelmed and swallowed-up by it all. It’s almost as if one becomes part of the landscape. One gets a great sense of one’s own insignificance in the great scheme of things. The feeling can be powerful. I felt it even though I was sharing the experience with 40 other travellers. We were a large group and had a large coach which ate up the miles, but we were still easily consumed by the vastness of the lands that we were passing through. Somehow, one never gets that feeling in Britain, a crowded island with equally crowded roads. The M1, M25 or the A1 just bring up images of: roadworks, congestion, accidents and traffic jams. I dread having to drive along them. Instead of being a means of escape, they are something I want to escape from. I imagine it’s like that in America’s big cities — all those 6 lane highways filled with constant streams of traffic.( I had a brief experience of that in Miami and Orlando, on an earlier trip.) However, in the wide open spaces of Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and Utah it is a completely different story. The empty highway, stretching to a distant horizon, represents freedom rather than captivity.
Sometimes as I gazed at the never-ending prairies or got a crick in my neck trying to see the tops of mountain peaks, I had to pinch myself just to check that it was real. You see, I had done this American road trip many times before in my imagination. Countless films, songs and books had taken me on vicarious journeys through this same epic countryside. The classic “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac or, on a lighter note, Bill Bryson’s humorous “The Lost Continent”, both, in their different ways, take the reader on great journeys across the length and breadth of the USA. The road movie is a major film genre, from “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Easy Rider” in the 60’s, “Paper Moon” and “Five Easy Pieces” in the 70’s, to films like: “Thelma and Louise”, David Lynch’s “The Straight Story”, “Sideways” and “Little Miss Sunshine” in more recent decades. The genre typically has the main character(s) travelling from place to place and the experience giving them a different perspective on life from that of their everyday existence. The film is about the journey rather than the destination. The time taken on the road places the traveller in a sort of vacuum. It’s a no-man’s land, situated in-between two worlds. The miles that have to be covered allow ample time for reflection such that it becomes an emotional as well as a geographical journey.
A lot of popular music, especially from America, covers much of the same territory. I have been taken on countless journeys courtesy of my radio or stereo speakers. Songs about hobos and about life on the open road. Songs about travelling but never quite getting there, or about returning home but not getting the anticipated reception. Then there are the restless songs about constant wandering or songs about escape, with the road representing freedom and the hope of a better future. If I listed all the titles, we would be here all day. Just off the top of my head I think of : “24 Hours to Tulsa” ( Gene Pitney), “Hit the Road Jack” ( Percy Mayfield), “On the Road Again” ( Canned Heat), “Route 66″ ( The Rolling Stones), ” Fast Car” ( Tracey Chapman), “Ramblin’ Man” ( The Allman Brothers) and “Me and Bobby McGhee” ( Kris Kristofferson). Then of course there is Bruce Springsteen’s most loved song ( at least by me) “Born to Run” or, on the same album: “Thunder Road” — “–roll down the window
And let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere.”
Sometimes it seems as if I’ve always been on the road in America, travelling the wide-open highways that are such a contrast from the often crowded roads of England. Maybe reading those books, listening to those songs and watching those road movies had a lot to do with my constant yearning to travel, ( apart from my dad being a railway- engine driver that is.) In one way or other I have been journeying through America for most of my life, despite only actually ever been there in the flesh twice. I clearly remember one night in the mid 1970’s, just after I had purchased my first pair of headphones, staying up late and unwinding by listening to Joni Mitchell’s latest offering “Hejira.” I soon left my everyday world of school- teaching and family- life to enter the alternative world of the American highway. Wikipedia tells me that the title is a transliteration of the Arabic word “Hijra”, which means “journey”. I didn’t know that at the time. What I did know was that it was a wonderfully restless album full of road- trip imagery such as: highways, small towns, motels, cafes, skies and deserts. I got sucked into that world and temporarily forgot that I was actually sitting still in a semi-detached house in north-west Sheffield. The album was largely written by Joni while on a long trip by car from Maine to California. She explained that the album has “this restless feeling throughout it. The sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” Thus I listened to lines such as :”A prisoner of the white lines of the freeway”, “I’m driving in some vehicle, I’m sitting in some café” or on the last track ” You couldn’t see these coldwater restrooms, Or this baggage overload, Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads.”
Rewinding nearly two decades, back to when I was a child in the very early 60’s, I was already fascinated by travel across the great expanses of the North American continent. I distinctly remember one Monday evening when my sister and I were excitedly waiting for the TV engineer to arrive and put up our ITV aerial. We already had BBC but we were now desperate to acquire the Independent Television channel because it had exciting American programmes such as “Wagon Train”. This was a popular western series about the adventures of settlers heading west in covered wagons to start new lives as farmers, ranchers or prospectors. “Wagon Train” was screened on a Monday evening so it was a race against time. In those days of only 2 channels and no recording or playback facilities, you had to catch a show when it was screened or miss it for good. (We didn’t then realise that there would be endless repeats on daytime TV at a future date.) Would the engineer get the new TV aerial up before that night’s episode? He did, thank goodness! We kids were given special permission to stay up late to see “Wagon Train even though it was a school night. It didn’t finish until 9-30pm, half an hour past our usual deadline!
“Wagon Train” which screened from 1957 to 1965 told the stories of travellers heading west in covered wagons from post Civil War Missouri to California or Oregon. It was set in the 1870s. The wagons travelled through the plains, deserts and Rocky Mountains led by the gruff, but good at heart Major Seth Adams ( Ward Bond) and guided by the dashing, buckskin-clad frontier scout Flint McCullough ( Robert Horton). For some reason, Robert Horton was one of my earliest heroes, beating even Cliff Richard into second place! I was only 10/11 at the time — that’s my excuse. The series also featured comedy turns from a grizzled old cook called Charlie B Wooster ( Frank McGrath.) Each episode concentrated on the characters on one particular wagon. The wagons were pulled by teams of horses and met many dangers on the way including: dust storms, drought, hunger, disease and attacks from bandits or “Indians.” In the latter instance the wagons would go into a defensive circle to fight the attackers off. For some of the travellers there was a happy ending, but for others there was not. It was all extremely exciting in the context of my short, sheltered life and maybe planted some early seeds that eventually resulted in me making that recent North American road trip.
In reality, the pioneers heading west had to endure much tougher conditions than those depicted on that early TV series. I found this out on my trip. We seemed to constantly criss-cross the Oregon/California Trail. First of all we visited Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming, an important staging post on the settlers’ journey, as well as being a cavalry fort and a Pony Express station. Later we came across the historic trail again as we passed through part of Idaho and stopped at the National Oregon/California Trail centre in the tiny town of Montpelier. I found out that the TV myths didn’t always match reality.
For a start most settlers purchased 4 to 6 oxen rather than horses to pull their wagons. Oxen were stronger and cheaper although a lot slower than horses. Also, they were less likely to be stolen by “Indians” or bandits. Oxen could easily feed off the prairie grasses. In fact the slowness of these beasts suited the pioneers as they invariably walked beside the wagon which was filled with their essential possessions and provisions. Many walked barefoot. Only the old and sick would get a ride. Between 1841 and 1900, over 300,000 Americans of all ages and types sold most of their possessions, purchased wagons and headed west on an epic 2000 mile journey. The journey took 5 to 6 months. The Rockies had to be crossed before the winter set in otherwise disaster loomed. Many didn’t make it. 1 in 10 died on the way — from cholera, poor sanitation, starvation, exposure or accidents. Many were buried on the trail to protect their bodies from scavenging wild animals. “Indian” attacks were fairly rare and in fact, in many cases, especially in the early days, the native Americans helped the white settlers travelling across their land.
At the Oregon/California Trail Centre there was a lovely exhibition of beautiful hand-made quilts. We learnt about the importance of quilts on the treks. What would you say the 4 main uses were? Well, first of all they kept the travellers warm. Secondly they provided privacy as they could be turned into screens. Thirdly they could be traded with the Native tribes. Lastly they were used as burial shrouds when someone perished on the trek. All of this sort of information made us feel very humbled as we re-boarded our luxury coach to be transported effortlessly on to our next comfortable hotel.
It was a great road trip. Thank you to Travelsphere, our tour guide Dean, and our driver Ching for organising it all and making it so memorable. We saw lots of stupendous scenery, met kind and interesting people and learnt heaps of fascinating history. In a way this trip joined up lots of different episodes in my life and made sense of them. All those travel books, songs and movies now got recalibrated in my mind. The experience was no longer a second hand one. I have now gained my own personal memories and photos. Like all great road trips it taught me a lot and helped to put my everyday life at home into sharper perspective. That’s what all good travel is about. It wasn’t always relaxing and it certainly wasn’t a holiday in the “resting by the pool” or the “lying on a beach” sense, but it was a truly fulfilling experience.

Native Americans-Myths, Memories and Questions.

9 Oct

I got a big surprise when I arrived at Denver International Airport on a recent trip to the USA. The corridor and entrance area were decorated with large photographic portraits of Native Americans ( formerly known as Red Indians), and in the background played Native American traditional music. It reminded me of the “Sacred Spirit ” albums I used to listen to in the 90’s. It was all very confusing. Wasn’t this the same country that less than 150 years before had practised a policy of near genocide against the Native American tribes, taken over their lands and attempted to wipe out their way of life? Wasn’t this the same country that had forced the surviving Native Americans to live on reservations as if they were animals in a zoo? It was all very mysterious. Had modern Americans experienced a massive change of heart and developed a new found respect for the first inhabitants of their continent? Did they regret the atrocities and injustices of the recent past and now want to make amends?
A visit of just over 2 weeks and a bit of background reading cannot provide pat answers to these difficult questions. All I can do is throw a few observations and opinions into the mix. All I can do is raise a few points to consider.
I’ve always been interested in American history and the stories of the so-called “Wild West”. Many of them are myths of course and it is difficult trying to untangle fact from fiction. As I kid I was given a “Billy the Kid” album every Christmas. It didn’t occur to me for a long while that this publication was actually glamorising the exploits of a cold-blooded murderer. Being just a child I eagerly lapped up the exciting adventures from a time and place so different to my own. As well as cowboys, I also learnt about famous “Indian” chiefs such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise and Geronimo. I didn’t at first think about the morality of it all. I never stopped to think why the “white men” and “red men” were fighting or about who was “right” and who was “wrong”. I just loved the adventure and the exoticism of these larger than life characters. All this was reinforced by television and the cinema. The first programme I ever saw was “The Lone Ranger”, the adventures of a masked cowboy tackling the bad guys with the help of his faithful “Indian” friend, Tonto. There followed other TV westerns such as :”The Range Rider”, “Rawhide”, “Wagon Train” and “Bonanza” to name but a few. Westerns were a very popular genre. Movie films such as “Stage Coach”, “High Noon” and “How the West Was Won” greatly reinforced this Hollywood idea of the “Wild West” and 19th century American history. The bad guys were often : bank robbers, cattle rustlers or murderers but when “Indians” appeared they were often portrayed as “baddies” too. Whooping “Indians” in fearsome war-paint would swarm down off a ridge to attack a wagon train or a stage coach, threatening the lives of innocent white men, women and children. Native Americans were depicted as wild, murderous fiends who posed a serious threat to peace and civilisation. The U.S. Cavalry was shown as a force for the good, trying to bring the “savages” to heal and restore law and order to the west.
This view of the American west persisted for a long time, until in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, revisionist historians, authors and film makers started to challenge the accepted notions. They began to look at the story from the Native American point of view. Films such a “Little Big Man ” ( based on the Thomas Berger novel), “Soldier Blue” and Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” started to present a very different picture of events and the actions of cowboys, “Indians” and cavalry soldiers. Native Americans were now depicted as victims rather than perpetrators of aggression. They all told heart-wrenching stories of atrocities and massacres directed against the native people. The Sioux (or Lakotas), Cheyenne, Apaches and the rest, were now presented as dignified people with sophisticated cultures rather than as sub-human savages. It was an important sea-change in attitude. A new perspective had emerged at last. The story of the American West, it seemed. was much more complicated than previously thought. It presented many subtle shades of grey rather than simplistic black and white. It was an emotional journey for me, leaving behind my childish notions and realising the terrible truth. I remember crying at the end of “Little Big Man” and I am not often prone to tears.
The clincher for me was reading Dee Brown’s history of the American West from the “Indian” point of view: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It’s a very difficult but very important read in my opinion. People have asked me why I choose to read about deeply upsetting things that have happened in the past which I can do nothing about. I know I cannot change history, but perhaps by learning about the mistakes and tragedies of the past I can make a small contribution to trying to prevent them from being repeated in the future. Also, I feel it is a sign of respect for all the people who have struggled and suffered, to learn about and acknowledge their lives. I think it’s important to remember people even though I have never met them. That’s why I feel compelled to read about the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Middle East crisis, The Cold War and so on. Lots of people seem to agree with me. Why else are the First World War battlefields and cemeteries places of “pilgrimage” for many? Why is there invariably a queue outside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam or crowds of people wanting to see the 9/11 monument in New York? Dee Brown details in eloquent, heart-rending prose the full tragic fate of the Native American tribes — the theft of their lands, the murders and massacres, the constantly broken treaties, the death marches, the poverty and starvation, the slaughter of the buffalo ( depended upon by the plains “Indians”) the destruction of their culture and their whole way of life. It finishes with the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29th, 1890, when a band of Minneconjou Sioux, including women and children, were gunned down by the 7th cavalry while taking part in a religious ceremony known as a ghost dance. It’s a very sobering read.
So I got to learn about and understand a much fuller picture of the history of the American West than I had gleaned from childhood comics, annuals and TV shows. It has been one of the reasons why I have been reluctant to visit modern USA although I know its present citizens cannot be held responsible for what happened in their country’s past. I remember being made to feel very uncomfortable at a concert in Manchester by Buffy St Marie around the year 1970. It was at a time when I was really getting into American popular music and was looking forward to experiencing a performance by an artist with such a thrilling voice and such powerful songs.( e.g. “The Universal Soldier.) However, many of the audience, including my girlfriend and I, ended up squirming in our seats when we were subjected to a sustained lecture on racism, prejudice, discrimination and injustice aimed at the Native Americans. I think Buffy St Marie is a Cree.
I know this story of the persecution of a minority by a more powerful majority has been repeated throughout the world and across the centuries. It is not just an American thing. The treatment of the Aborigines in Australia has been abominable and racist attitudes still persist today, I believe. Going back in time, the English have not exactly been peaceful towards the Welsh, Scots and Irish. Atrocities and injustices litter the history of the British Isles. I have just finished watching a TV history of the reign of King Edward 1 — the “Hammer of the Scots” ( and the Welsh). It didn’t make for easy viewing even though it was about events way back in medieval times. Then there are all the abominations of the British Empire, the French Empire, the earlier Spanish Empire and all the other Empires one can think of. Empire building gets across the message that “Might is Right”. It’s the politics of the school- yard bully and is sadly a common occurrence all over the world today. Tragically, when wave after wave of European settlers followed in the wake of Columbus and came to colonise the “New World”, the writing was on the wall for all the native inhabitants who had been living relatively peacefully there for many centuries.
So why the possible change of attitude? It’s easier to be magnanimous to one’s enemy after he or she has been crushed. Maybe many American are genuinely sorry for what their ancestors did. Now the Native Americans are no longer a threat to the acquisition of land and resources, their customs, art, religion and culture can be properly appreciated and respected. Was this what was happening at Denver airport? Well to a certain extent the answer is “yes”, I think. Apparently, the site of the airport was originally a native American burial ground. Therefore the Mayor of Denver met with tribal elders to gain permission for the building to go ahead. I don’t know how much choice they really had, but at least they were being respected and their opinions sought. The spirits of the dead were appeased by removing them to another specially consecrated site. The airport was built on a tepee tent design to further placate the spirits. A native American exhibition called “The Spirit of the People” has been installed at the airport. It tells the story of native Americans in the Colorado area. Tribal images and stories are displayed along with 31 large-scale photographs of contemporary American “Indians”. This is what I saw and what surprised me so much as I wended my way to the passport queue.
All through my trip through north-west and south west United States I kept asking the questions -“Are todays Native Americans or First Nation Americans treated fairly and equally?” and “Has history been re-written to tell both sides of the story of the American West and the so called Indian wars?” They are impossible questions to answer fully. But I did notice some encouraging signs that the balance is being redressed. For instance, in South Dakota, the Mount Rushmore Monument to the four white Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln, is now being balanced by an even bigger mountain monument to chief Crazy Horse, just 17 miles away in another part of the Black Hills. The Crazy Horse monument, begun in 1948, is far from finished. When it is completed it will probably be the largest sculpture in the world. It has been created by Korczali Ziolkowski and his family. Korczali himself died in 1982 but the work has been continued by his wife ( now also deceased) and children. When finished it will show the Sioux leader astride his horse, pointing to the horizon, stating:” My lands are where my dead lie buried.” The monument was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, who declared:” My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to now the red man has got heroes too.” The Crazy Horse centre also includes an extensive and impressive native America cultural centre and gift shop.
In fact, everywhere we travelled we came across Native American jewellery, arts and crafts for sale. Much of it is of a high quality. My wife Chris bought a coral necklace and some beautiful earrings. I bought a lovely little badger fetish from a native American crafts shop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The native America arts and crafts were very popular with our group. But this raises another awkward question. ” Have the native American people been rehabilitated to a certain extent because they are good for tourism?” If the horrors of the past can be brushed under the carpet then the native American tribes can present an exotic and fascinating alternative to mainstream USA. Again, the question is impossible to answer but is worth a thought or two. When we visited Monument Valley in southern Utah we went on a spectacular 4×4 ride to see the huge sandstone buttes and mesas at close quarter. Our driver and guide was Mike Chee, a local Navajo “Indian.” This is because the main part of the valley is on Navajo reservation land. Tourism obviously plays a big, important part in the Navajo economy. The place was heaving with visitors, all spending dollars at the Navajo shop and restaurant as well as on the bumpy, dusty guided tours around the iconic monuments. However it was slightly sad, in my opinion, that Mike felt he had to sing us a couple of Navajo chant-like songs. It was interesting and entertaining but I think maybe his main aim was to enhance his tips. The songs had been largely stripped of their cultural context or significance and were now merely novelty entertainment for visitors. It reminded me slightly of Sitting Bull, the great Lakota Sioux leader who, in his later years was reduced to entertaining the crowds in Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West Show. It was a long way from his warriors’ great victory over George Custer’s 7th cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the summer of 1876.
We visited the site of that famous battle. It is now called the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Memorial in southern Montana. For a long time it had been known as the Custer Battlefield National Memorial. This was because the myth of General George Custer’s glorious and heroic Last Stand had been perpetuated by his widow, Libby, the US press, countless paintings and books and many films such as “They Died with their Boots on.” The myth was that Custer and his vastly outnumbered men fought bravely and with total discipline against a savage horde of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho “Indians.” Custer with his long,flowing blond locks was an American hero who fought gallantly to the end against evil redskins who were threatening civilisation. What actually happened however, was that Custer and his 700 men attacked the greatest plains Indian camp in history without bothering to check out the strength of the “enemy” first. The Sioux, Cheyenne and their allies had gathered together in peace for safety and only wanted to be left alone to live their traditional nomadic, hunting lives. Obviously they fought back when the soldiers came charging into their camp intent on killing as many “Indians” as possible. The cavalry had a record of attacking native American camps, killing women, children and old people as well as warriors. when asked why the US soldiers killed little “Indian” children, a common answer was “nits grow into lice.” Custer had gained a reputation as an Indian hunter and was heavily implicated in the massacre of a large village of southern Cheyenne. Now he was attacking another “Indian” camp but had bitten off far more than he could chew. Custer himself and the soldiers under his direct command were wiped out in well under an hour. One native American witness said they were killed in about the time it would take a hungry man to eat his dinner! Other native reports tell of soldiers panicking, taking their own lives or shooting each other in suicide pacts. Another detachment of cavalry under Major Reno was heavily depleted but hung on in a desperate defensive position until rescue eventually came after the great Sioux/Cheyenne camp had moved on.
Thus a more rounded story of Little Big Horn is told these days. Both sides of the story are known. The battlefield site now has a memorial to the native Americans who died as well as the soldiers of the 7th cavalry. Red marker stones now show where Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fell, standing alongside white markers showing where cavalry soldiers perished. The book shop and exhibition also represent both sides of the story.
It is here where the tale of the battle becomes grey rather than convenient black and white. It seems native American warriors fought and died on both sides. Crow and Arikara scouts perished with Custer and his men. Their lands had been taken by the Sioux and they saw cooperating with the white man as the best way of getting it back. In fact, the battlefield site is on the present day Crow Reservation and we were shown around by a female Crow guide. The “Indian” scouts are now honoured in the memorial. So now the full, messy story is told instead of the grossly simplistic myth of “Custer’s Last Stand.” This, more than anything else I saw, persuaded me that native Americans are now being treated with more dignity and respect. It seems they are no longer officially vilified. They are no longer described as “lice”. Similar respect for the native American way of life was shown at “Tatanka” near Deadwood, a visitor’s centre owned by Kevin Costner and dedicated to the days when the plains “Indians” hunted the buffalo in peace. We were given a very interesting talk by Phil Redbird, a Lakota Sioux and we learnt a lot about a way of life which existed before the invasion of the white settlers.
I think attitudes to native America peoples have changed. By how much it is impossible to say. Myths have been busted and a new respect is being shown, at least in official circles. But is this only because the native Indians have mostly given up their old way of life and learnt the ways of the white man? Possibly the surprising display at Denver Airport wasn’t so misleading after-all. Hopefully, modern Native Americans have a better chance of making their way in life although I couldn’t help noticing that the reservation lands we passed through in Utah and Arizona looked arid and of very poor quality. I wonder what the real story is? I cannot help recalling the ironic “joke” that Mike Chee told while showing us around his Navajo land –” Question – How did the Navajo get to live in this place? Answer — They made a reservation!”

WHY IS MURDER SUCH FUN?

25 Sep

Next year, 2014, we will be commemorating the centenary of the First World War. Most commentators agree that it was a terrible waste of millions of lives on both sides of the conflict. It was war on an unprecedented industrial scale. Some claim, with justification that the mass slaughter and destruction that ensued was nothing less than a catastrophe.
One would think that after such a horrific event, lessons would have been learnt and the powers that be would have made sure that it was never repeated. After all, wasn’t this supposed to be “the war to end all wars”? Yet the League of Nations failed in it’s efforts to replace fighting with talking, and just 20 years after the treaty that ended the First World War, the Second World War broke out. It was really the First World War, part 2, as the losers of the first conflict sought to get their own back on the winners and alleviate their grievances. If it had been on the big screen ( as it was many times, later), World War 2 would have had all the ingredients of a classic revenge movie. So, another nightmare ensued with millions more lives wasted in the new slaughter and all that capped by the horrors of the Holocaust, the genocide of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Concentration camps.
Surely this double dose of death and suffering would have put the human race off war for ever? Unfortunately, surprisingly and shockingly, the wars have kept coming. The United Nations has proved just as weak and ineffective as its predecessor the League in preventing conflict and preserving peace. What is wrong with people? Why is brutality and murder still seen as the main “solution” to our problems and disputes, rather than negotiation and arbitration? I hate to suggest this, but could it be that instead of abhorring and denouncing violence, many of us are actually fascinated, or even mesmerised by it?
Even a casual look at our entertainment industry reveals that much of it is steeped in violence. I don’t play video games but cannot help noticing that many of them involve simulated killing. This industry generated sales of £42billion in 2012, and many of its games are based on violent scenarios where one is: at war, committing a crime or hunting down criminals. New releases of such games often attract massive, midnight queues. “Grand Theft Auto V” for instance, sold £500 million worth of copies in one day, vindicating one reviewers confident prediction that ” this game will sell by the blood-filled bucket load.” I don’t know about you, but I find this very depressing. The player, poising as a ruthless criminal, has to execute up to 6 large, armed heists employing: “melee attacks” ( whatever they are), firearms, weapons and explosives to fight enemies. The names of other popular games — “Call of Duty”, “Killzone” and “Battlefield” — reveal their violent and warlike content. Not much recollection of the tragedy of war here. I wonder if any of the players pause, in the midst of their simulated killing spree, to reflect on the mass slaughter and suffering of the two World Wars or their successors in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Congo and the rest?
The American Psychological Association has concluded that violent video games are significantly associated with “increased aggressive behaviour and thoughts.” Critics claim that they desensitise players to violence, reward players for simulating violence and teach children that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict. They seem to have a very strong case. Those who defend the games say they are an important safety valve for natural aggression. However, even this argument seems to admit that violence is an inherent part of human nature and the debate is about how we deal with it.
The video games industry boasts that it is eclipsing the cinema in terms of revenue and participation figures. Cinema in turn seems to be aping the violent nature of its rival. Increasingly we are presented with so-called “Blockbusters.” Plot, proper characterisation, meaningful dialogue and good acting are sacrificed to make way for: fights, battles, murders, car chases and explosions on an increasingly epic scale. Steven Spielberg has recently complained that subtlety and sophistication in film making is giving way to spectacle and action as Hollywood courts the popularity of video games. Modern film makers often present violence as an acceptable and “normal” form of entertainment. The James Bond franchise ( now little to do with Ian Fleming), is a prime example of this trend. I remember one reviewer commenting with apparent approval, that in “Casino Royale”, a film praised for its more gritty realism, Bond ( Daniel Craig) has to change his white tuxedo after the killing spree of the opening scene, because it is drenched in blood. I am repelled by such films especially as they are presented as light, “escapist” entertainment. I don’t mind violence when it is presented in a proper context and in a film trying to get across a serious message such as “Schindler’s List”. However as far as the Bond Films, the “Die-hard” films, the Jack Reacher films and the rest, I am in the minority by a long way, judging by their takings at the box office.
One notable director, famous for his use of violence as entertainment is Quenton Tarantino. His last film ” Django Unchained”, highly praised as presenting a new angle on the subject of slavery in America, is largely about a black, bounty hunter murdering one person after another in graphic detail on the big screen. One reviewer noted that whenever Django had a problem, he solved it by killing someone. What type of message does that give out to impressionable young people? This film was watched and enjoyed by millions and was actually nominated for an Oscar. It seems that acts of violence, so terrible when they occur in real life, are accepted on screen as an entertaining diversion.
I went to see a Tarantino film once. In the 1990’s his “Reservoir Dogs” was regarded as a cult movie, constantly brought back to my local arts cinema in Newcastle by popular request, and playing to packed houses. It’s about an armed bank robbery that goes horribly wrong. I got carried away by all the hype and went along to find out what all the fuss was about. After about half an hour I started to experience an increasingly loud buzzing sound in my ears. I had a dry feeling in the back of my throat and then began to feel nauseous. I could then hear my heart thudding loudly. This was my body’s reaction to the sickening scene of drawn-out sadism that was happening in front of me. Nobody else seemed to be affected — they all carried on eating their crisps or passing around the sweet packets, while at the same time being glued to the screen. I had already endured a robber half bleeding to death but now I was witnessing a tense and nasty torture scene. A policeman had been captured and tied up in a chair. He was now being threatened and taunted by a psychopath wielding a long cut-throat razor, who was apparently preparing to slice off his ear. I never found out what happened, because, unable to stand it any longer, I walked out. I’d decided that such bloodthirsty sadism was not my idea of a Saturday night’s entertainment. However, the rest of the audience remained engrossed and I later got into trouble with my girlfriend for spoiling her evening!
I remember the uproar caused by the shockingly violent climax of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” in the late 1960’s. The protagonists are strafed with a prolonged burst of machine gun fire. We see bullets ripping into their flesh in horrific slow motion and their bodies contorting into grotesque shapes. Many people walked out, some were sick and many others protested or boycotted it. I watched what was actually a very good film in my opinion, and survived the ending even though it was pretty shocking. Other films of the late 60’s and early 70’s such as “The Wild Bunch”, “Straw Dogs” and “Soldier Blue” all courted controversy because of their scenes of extreme violence. They were generally seen by film critics though, as signs of a welcome relaxation of censorship. This time the reviews were enough to warn me off. It was not my idea of enjoyment. Another famously violent film of that era was Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. It was actually withdrawn from public release by the director himself because of all the controversy. I watched it at the time and stuck it out as I knew it had a serious message to transmit. However, I recall being disturbed by the scene of a violent gang of youths stylistically beating up an old couple in their own home to the music of Beethovan. I also remember a tramp being savagely beaten. I don’t think the more sensitive, older version of myself would enjoy watching such scenes today.
Well, over 50 years has passed since those controversies, and graphic horror and violence on the big screen is now commonplace. It’s almost regarded as “normal”. Audiences don’t walk out. Nobody is sick in the aisle. Violence has now become a staple of mainstream, cinematic entertainment. Describing what he considered to be a funny scene in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” ( Jewish hit men hunting down and killing Nazis), a friend of mine concluded with the phrase:” and then the usual mayhem broke out.” What he meant was a horrifying scene ensued, in which we see people being maimed and murdered. He was so casual about this that I realised that violence is not only accepted but expected these days. Audiences feel short-changed if it doesn’t occur. They should have been pleased with this one as I believe Tarantino appeared in it himself — as a scalped Nazi!
I am not trying to claim that violence on film or in a video game necessarily leads to violent behaviour in real life, although I believe there is a distinct possibility of such a cross-over. All I’m trying to highlight is the massive irony: that society condemns loss of life in wars, terrorist attacks or mass shootings by “lone gunmen”, yet, simultaneously laps- up similar scenes of carnage and brutality as a form of light relief.
In literature and television we get more, much more of the same. The British public seem to have an insatiable desire for murder mysteries both on the page and on the screen. Crime novels, often including gruesome murders, make up a huge and extremely popular genre of literature. Every bookshop has a large dedicated section to it. Writers of murder mysteries such as: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, P D James, Ruth Rendall, Ellery Queen, Ian Rankin and many others, entertain their readers with their idiosyncratic detectives, convoluted plots, lists of colourful suspects, red herrings and puzzling clues. They vary enormously but the one sure thing in all of these novels is that there will be a murder ( or murders) in their early chapters. Imagine how disappointed their fans would be if no character was killed! The message here is that murders are fun, providing a rich source of pleasure and distraction.
TV programmes, such as “Murder She Wrote” and “Midsomer Murders” have capitalised on the popularity of these whodunnits and reproduced them on screen. I have watched some myself such as Peter Falk’s shambling detective “Columbo” and the Danish crime thriller “The Killing”. I’m not trying to claim the moral high ground here. I often get sucked in. But I’m unable to stomach one after the other. There is even a best-selling board game “Cluedo” ( which I have played many times), which is structured around an Agatha Christie-style country house murder. I wonder how many children playing “Cluedo” actually imagine crushing Miss Scarlett’s skull with the lead piping or stabbing Colonel Mustard in the back? It’s all good “fun” but it’s underpinned by the premise of violence.
I’ve lost count of the number of murder mysteries that have appeared on the British TV screens just this year. Some such as “New Tricks” ( currently BBC 1’s most popular programme), are fairly superficial with the actual violence sanitised or edited out. Others make a point of revelling in the horror, the terror and the shocking details of the murder. In recent months, audiences have been treated to: a serial killer in Northern Ireland sadistically taunting his victims as well as the police ( “The Fall”), an investigation into a dead, desiccated woman who had been left mouldering in an attic for 2 years ( “What Remains”), a man stabbed to death in a dark alley outside a Newcastle night club ( “Vera”), another deranged serial killer terrorising a seaside town ( “Whitecliffe”), a town torn apart by the murder of a teenager ( “Broadchurch”) and so on and so forth. The list is endless. There is even a dedicated TV channel to murder mysteries — “Alibi.” It presents around 19 murders a day, 7 days a week. Where has this voracious appetite for death come from? I have no answer, except to say that human beings are clearly a very violent species, much as they pretend not to be. History shows this very clearly.
Our past is dominated by wars, executions, murders and torture. You don’t need me to list them all. Just recently we have all been rightly appalled by : The Boston Marathon Bombing, the American School shootings and the Kenyan shopping- mall massacre. Yet similar violence is endemic in mainstream entertainment. This entertainment factor is not a new phenomenon. Until about 1870, crowds gathered on London’s Tyburn Hill to watch and revel in public executions. It was possibly when state killings stopped taking place in public, that lurid crime stories in pamphlets and novels began to become very popular. People didn’t want to be denied their regular dose of blood and death. In an earlier age King Charles I was beheaded before a vast crowd in front of Whitehall Palace. ( in January, 1649.) As the gory, severed head of the former king was held up, many surged forward to dip their handkerchiefs in royal blood in order to have a souvenir.
Yes, history saturated in blood but so, sadly is our world of entertainment. Watching the occasional good quality crime drama is fine of course, but I think this constant, relentless obsession with violence and death is pretty disturbing. I certainly don’t regard it as normal. Why do so many people regard murder as fun?

What’s Wrong With Thinking?

14 Oct

Everyone has his or her own opinion about what constitutes “rubbish.” This especially applies to an opinionated person like yours truly. Why do you think I write a blog? We can all more or less agree what to throw in the waste-bin, but viewpoints wildly differ about what is good, bad or indifferent in the world of culture, be it music, literature, drama, art or whatever. One man’s “load of rubbish” is another man’s masterpeice. The Tate Modern’s famous “pile of bricks” or Tracy Emin’s unmade bed with condoms, spring to mind. Yes, it’s simply a matter of personal taste. I love the Impressionists, the Expressionists and the Secessionists — in fact anything ending in “ist” seems to do the trick for me. Just joking of course. I also like the Dutch masters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt.

  When an aquaintance at a party described her experience at a Take That concert as “awesome”, I was convinced that she was  about to say “awful”, which is my opinion of that pathetic, middle-aged, “boy” band. I would reserve the over-used term “awesome” for a 3 hour gig by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band or an evening with the exquisite Mary Chapin Carpenter or any concert by David Byrne, with or without his Talking Heads. We both produced, faint embarrassed smiles to cover the obvious gulf between our musical tastes. It’s just part of being human. We all make our differing choices and clashes of opinions abound. It’s healthy. For instance, phenomenal sales would indicate that E L James’s ” Fifty Shades of Grey” is a great novel, but for many others, including myself, it might as well be called ” Fifty Shades of Cr-p.” What’s wrong with reading something by: David Mitchell, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler or any number of subtle, intelligent modern novelists? Come to think of it why aren’t Tolstoy or Dickens near the top of the best-seller lists?

  I’m actually pleased that I am judgemental to a certain extent because it means that I am actively employing my brain to form a reasoned judgement about something, rather than just following the tide of hype. I’m proud to be a human-being and not a sheep. In the same vein, I’m not getting excited about J K Rowling’s first “adult” novel. That description gives the game away that her much vaunted Harry Potter series was really just for impressionable kids. I found them : obvious, formulaic, derivative, gimmicky and thus boring. I had to read one in order to “teach” it to my English set. They got bored too, maybe sensing my lack of enthusiasm. I didn’t waste my time with the rest or with the equally gimmick-ridden films with their heavy reliance on special effects to cover up the banality of the plot. Maybe J K’s new work could be re-named ” The Emperor’s New Clothes” as, in my opinion, that would neatly sum up her literary career so far.

  So we all have our opinions about what is good and what is rubbish unless one is merely wanting to go with the crowd and always agree with the majority. However, what really intrigues me is that, particularly in the world of television, increasing numbers of people seem to be deliberately choosing to indulge in “rubbish.” Is this part of the oft quoted “dumbing down” of our society, especially in the world of entertainment?

  One of my Facebook “friends”, a well-respected ex-colleague, actually announced this preference for rubbish on her status update. She wrote — “Well that’s the walk over, now time to watch some rubbish on daytime TV” ( or words to that effect.) When I naively asked her why she deliberately chose to watch rubbish, her reply was brilliantly succinct:- ” Switch brain off!” Is this a different approach to entertainment  ie– allowing it to turn you OFF rather than turn you ON?

  I consider myself entertained if my brain is stimulated and engaged. I like to be presented with something that is: clever, interesting, funny, ironic, thought-provoking, surprising, even challenging. I love nothing better than when someone or something plants a new idea into my mind, something that increases my understanding and appreciation of life and of the world I live in. That’s what entertains and satisfies me — the opportunity to switch my brain on and develop it in some way. If, on the other hand, I was presented with something that was : obvious, trivial, cliched, pedestrian , stilted or unoriginal, then I would feel that my time was being wasted and/or my intelligence insulted! That’s why, for instance, I shall be reading my book tonight instead of watching the contrived, safe and predictable shenanigans at “Downton Abbey” on ITV. My wife Chris ackowledged in series 2 that Downton was mostly rubbish. Some of the plot developments were farcical apparently. Yet she and millions of others are now glued to the screen for series 3. It is one of the most popular dramas on current TV despite being regularly derided by the critics. The Guardian man compared it with Classic FM, probably meaning entertainment that is provided in easily digestible chunks and not presenting much of an intellectual challenge. My daughter Catherine commented that it is a great programme for multi- tasking to. In other words, you don’t have to concentrate very hard to follow it and understand the characters. It seems to be a dramatic equivalent of easy-listening, MOR music. It fills in the background and helps one to relax. The comparison with Classic FM is appropriate as this very popular radio station  just plays digestible extracts from the most popular classical pieces, much easier to cope with than listening to all 4 movements of a symphony or concentrating throughout a whole opera. This in turn may help to explain the decline of the album in favour of the random i-pod shuffle. Could it be that many people are now just not willing to concentrate for very long anymore and are not particularly keen at working their brains? Being an ex school teacher this trend is obviously anathema to me. Watching cardboard-cutout characters( eg The stiff upper lipped, deferential butler, the fiesty Dowager or the headstrung young Lady) and following predictable plotlines is not my notion of entertainment or intellectual stimulation. My idea of a good gripping drama is the Danish thriller ” The Killing ” or the brilliant American series “The Wire”, both of which presented in-depth, multi-dimensional pictures of the societies they were set and lots of food for thought. Now that’s entertainment!

  Perhaps the main attraction of “mediocre” programmes is that they do NOT provide any intellectual challenge, allowing one’s over-active brain to take a break. One can view them with one’s brain largely disengaged. In fact, the very act of watching may well help push the switch into the off position. A younger- generation relative recently announced that she needed to watch some rubbish as she wished to relax before returning to work the next morning. I have also known people who have watched endless repeats of “Come Dine With Me” or “Location, Location” in order to switch off or zone-out. Maybe Reality TV, Daytime TV or  trashy “page-turning” novels ( sometimes known as beach or airport reads), serve the same broad function of alchohol. They help to obliterate the tedium of everyday existance. They also provide a temporary escape from the stresses and pressures of modern life. Post war Hollywood musicals and rom-coms served much the same function in 1940’s and 50’s cinemas, except that Doris Day or Katherine Hepburn had just a touch more class than Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell. ( in my opinion.)

  I know it’s very important to relax or chill, as they say. I usually do so by listening to some soothing music, going for a stroll or having a nap. I have also always wanted to try out meditation or have more than the occasional massage. A relaxed meal with family and/or friends is also very calming. But when it comes to literature, art, TV, film etc , I like to be be stimulated. Just as I avoid junk food I also avoid junk entertainment. I could never deliberately watch ” rubbish” in order to switch my mental faculties off. That would go against the grain. I spent my entire  career encouraging young people to actively exercise their brains! So, for much of my spare time, I prefer to be challenged and stimulated. As another friend commented: ” What’s wrong with thinking?” In my view, life is far too short to consciously waste it on self-acknowledged garbage. But then again — it’s all a matter of opinion!