In pursuit of happiness part 2

I’ve just finished reading David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’ which I liked a lot. It didn’t look quite as good on the tube as, say, Satre or Proust, but it did look a lot more believable. It’s full of humour, pathos, emotion and class-related awkwardness. I really liked the book, and it was about as British as ‘Friends’ is American. I think that the ‘cleverness’ of the format (catching up with the main protagonists on the same day over a twenty year period) is actually a bit limiting, and I don’t think that this gimick is necessary, but I can’t remember the last time that I read a book quite so quickly, and felt as though I knew (and cared about) the characters quite so much. It’s a bit disappointing that the book has to be turned into a film; the film serves little purpose, save to pander to those with little or no imagination. If the characters are as you imagined, it’s just like reading the book again, and if they’re nothing like you imagined, well that’s just irritating.

It’s the characters in any book or film that make it stand out. Getting you to care about these fictional people is a large part of the battle. The characters in ‘One Day’ were drawn in 3D, and when they weren’t, that was clearly deliberate, almost as a way of making the key characters stand out. One of the reasons that I dislike soaps so much is that every character exists completely in 2D, and displays such a limited range of emotions at any one time as to represent nothing but cariacature. ‘One Day’ is about life, chance, fate, friendship and love, and despite the condensing of a year into a day in every chapter, it’s clear that all of these occur in parallel, not in series.

One of the overriding thoughts I had upon finishing the book was about how unhappy the characters seemed for much of the time, and how surface happiness often masked some kind of inner turmoil. I’m sure this isn’t what I was supposed to be left with, but there you go: lots of money or too little money, hectic social life or no social life, relationship or single life, unrealised ambition or unfulfilling present: it didn’t seem to matter which stage we were at, there was always something gnawing away at our heroes, making sure that true happiness remained just out of reach. And maybe this is true to life; maybe we can’t ever be 100% blissfully happy at any one time; there’s always things going that worry us, things that could be better, and even if it were possible to attain a state of happy nirvana, wouldn’t that just make us all too aware that we were at the top of the mountain, with only one way to go?

I actually find this thought that unobtainable (complete) happiness rather comforting, and it does take the pressure off somewhat. If it’s never possible to be 100% happy, it should never be possible to be 100% sad: they’re just opposite sides of the same coin, and there’s no one without the other. No matter how rough things get, you can always grab hold of lots of happy thoughts, of things that are going well, just like golden tickets (I’m thinking more Crystal Dome than Wonka here). Each day should be a nice mix of sad and happy thoughts, of moments of elation and moments of despair (ok, maybe that’s a bit strong for every day, but you get the idea). It’s these extremes of emotion that remind us that we’re human, that remind us that we’re alive. No-one wants to hang around the person who’s a perpetual misery, whose glass is always half-empty, but there’s a reason why the word ‘grinning’ is often followed by the word ‘idiot’, and anyone who claims to be happy all the time maybe just hasn’t got a particularly well developed sense of emotion.

So go forth, rejoice and be happy. Or sad. Just try and make sure they exist in approximately equal measure.

What lies beneath

I watched Louis Theroux’s programme on TV last night. It once again involved the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, or ‘America’s most hated family’ if you believed the tag-line that accompanied the show. It was essentially a repeat of his 2007 show, which also involved the WBC, and saw Louis do what he does best: giving his subjects a sizeable length of rope with which to hang themselves, all through a mixture of gentle questioning and subtle coercing. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before from him, and he really is the master of this particular style of Gonzo journalism. His naive and comforting manner belies a keenness to expose, and the fact that he never lets down his front means that people are only too keen to allow their prejudices to shine forth.

I’m all in favour of this kind of expose, but I also think that subjects like the WBC or American neo-Nazi groups are simply not the sort of targets on which a skillfull practitioner such as Theroux should be concentrating. Firstly, the WBC have only 71 members, so they’re hardly a serious threat to America, or anywhere else for that matter. Secondly, and perhaps of more relevance, they do not represent a group that need to be ‘exposed’. In fact, more ‘exposure’ is exactly what they are keen to gain. They are not a group that hides extreme beliefs behind a public facade, and hence one could argue that in this case that exposure = publicity.

I checked twitter straight after the programme to see what viewers had made of the it. Predictably, there was a lot of bile being chucked around, much of it directed straight at members of the Phelps family, who are at the very centre of the WBC and are also on twitter themselves. Most of the abuse was little to do with their extreme beliefs or despicable behaviour, but concentrated on violent sexual threats to the Phelps women. I’m pretty sure that this will have little effect on the Phelps family, save perhaps to strengthen their own radical beliefs. It’s also clear that two wrongs don’t make a right, and the fact that all members of the family are well into 4 (or 5) figures for ‘followers’ does add weight to the ‘publicity’ argument. It would be terrible to think that even one viewer was tempted to side with these lunatics after such a programme.

Last night’s documentary once again focussed mainly on their picketing of US servicemens’ funerals, which they claim is just retribution by an vengeful God for America’s toleration of homosexuality. Now this is such a mental claim that it hardly needs a journalist of Theroux’s skill to extract it from them. The WBC are happy to attempt to justify this lunacy to anyone who challenges them (as we saw last night). The fact that they disrupt and pour scorn on the funerals of servicemen is disgusting, but surely this is a matter for the police? I actually found it rather difficult to get angry at last night’s programme (unlike most of twitter) which is undoubtedly not the reaction that the film’s makers would have wanted. This was partly because it’s exactly the reaction you feel that the members of the WBC would have wanted. In addition, their behaviour is so appauling and their logic so distorted that you feel almost totally disconnected from their arguments and the need to argue back. Trying to reason with these people would be pointless, bearing in mind that their reasoning is so deluded in the first place.

The only truly tragic part of last night’s story was the interviews that Louis conducted with the children involved with the WBC. These were clearly perfectly reasonable and pleasant kids, who had simply been brainwashed by their parents. It is the job of every parent to instil the right values into their kids; values such as tolerance, generosity, politeness etc. It’s also necessary for kids to be able to challenge the beliefs held by others, but to see a 6 year old being handed a ‘God hates fags’ placcard was distressing. A clear example of how nurture can override nature, for the worse.

Overall, I’m not sure what positive outcome the programme could have hoped to achieve. I’d much rather have seen Louis infiltrate the BNP or EDL. These are organisations with a growing and worryingly high membership. They are organisations who wish to become mainstream, and realise that this is a realistic aim, given the racial tensions that run high in many parts of the country. They also realise (particularly the BNP) that by putting on suits and ties and placing a Cambridge-educated chap at the front of the pile in Nick Griffin, they can bury their racist centre, and create a front of electability. These are the sort of organisations that need to be exposed for the danger that they respresent, not the up-front nutters of the WBC. Louis Theroux is exactly the kind of person that’s needed to prove that the BNP et al are no different from the ‘braces and bovverboots’ thugs that characterised the racism of the 80s. There aren’t any fundamentally reasonable people who believe in the values of the WBC, but there are some misguided people of limited intelligence who can’t see through the veil that the BNP have drawn over themselves.

Time to expose what lies beneath…

The land of the free

I’ve just spent the past two weeks in the States. I love America. So much so, Victoria and I were even discussing yesterday how we might go and live there some day. All of my London friends seem to be decamping to Australia, but much as I love Oz, it doesn’t hold the same fascination for me as the ‘greatest Goddamn democracy in the world, boy…’. America is much more a different Country to the UK than Australia, and Oz still feels almost colonial in places. The American language is totally different from English (or even Aussie English), and they do seem to like the Brits far more than the Aussies do (the lack of sporting rivalry and a greater propensity to forget the colonial past might have something to do with this). Anyway, here’s a few reasons I like it so much:

1. Friendliness: American people are so much more friendly than any other Country I’ve been to. We’ve stayed for free on 89th and Park with the family of a friend (when I’ve never met any of the family before, and said friend was away at the time); we were then invited to stay with members of said family in Baku, Azerbaijan. I’ve been bought drinks all night by a chap I’d met five minutes earlier, ended up as the only non-Mexican people at a Mexican film premiere in Texas, sung karaoke with some chap from a Houston Astros game, been welcomed into an invite-only bar opening night in San Francisco, and been welcomed into a private booth for some Canadian chap’s stag-night in Vegas (and Mike Tyson was in the booth next to ours, I kid you not).

2. Lack of Chavs: I’m sure there is an American equivalent to the English ‘chav’ or the Aussie ‘bogun’, but I’ve yet to locate it, or even to find a term for it. This was emphasised for me this week: I’d met only genuinely nice people for two weeks across the pond, but when it came to the flight back, I found myself sandwiched on the flight between four English Craig David lookalikes, who all sported the same nasty pencil beard and said ‘man’ and ‘innit’ a lot, and three tattooed Northeners, one of which carried a boxing bag, and whose girlfriend sported a rather meaty looking black eye.

3. Food: tricky one this. There are certainly pros and cons to the American love of food, but I think the Country just about comes out on top. Admittedly, just about all the advertising of food comes under the ‘look how much MSG you can stuff in your face for $1.99’, but whether it’s high end or low end you’re after, you can find something to satisfy anywhere. Uchi in Austin, Picasso in Vegas, Salt House in San Francisco, Etais Unis in NYC, Cochon in New Orleans, Artisan in Paso Robles all leave a pretty good high-end taste in the mouth. The peanut butter and bacon burger at ‘Yo Momma’s’ was pretty memorable too, as is the 504 Ferrari pizza in RI. Sadly I can’t remember the name of the Asian fusion place on 82nd street in NY where the conversation made me realise just how much in love I was. We’ll go back there someday. Food, and the memories associated, are a large part of why I like the US.

4. It’s a continent: And in saying this, I mean that there’s something there for everyone. Much as you don’t really need to go outside of France to find any style of wine you want, you don’t have to go outside the US to find pretty much any holiday you want. Whether it’s scenic, hedonistic, cultural or a mixture of all three or beyond, the fun is all there to be found.

5. Bigness: I like the fact that I can order one appetiser, and still the pair of us won’t be able to finish it. One appetiser in Boston ran to four chicken breasts. That’s supposed to be a starter for one person, incidentally. Nothing makes you feel as virtuous greed-wise as watching Americans eat their breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, supper, snack etc. All burgers are half-pound as standard, and the record on the ‘big-boy’ wall at Chunky’s burgers in San Antonio is twelve of these half pound monsters (that’s putting on half a stone in one sitting…). The cars are ridiculous: we drove a 5 litre Mustang last week, and still felt pretty pee-wee on the roads. The people in Texas look like they’ve been gone at pretty hard with a bicycle pump, and then have been melted into their clothes. But hey, if it makes you feel good about your weight, I’m all for it.

So where next? New York, of course, Chicago, Washington, NW Coast and my beloved Green Bay, to see the Packers.