Familiarity and contempt

I’ve used the Stephen Fry expression to describe friendship before. The Nation’s favourite Wildean uncle claimed that he ‘likes to taste his friends, not eat them’. Aside from the obvious innuendo, it’s a sentiment with which I agree. Some of my favourite people are those that I don’t see for a couple of years, and when we do meet up, it’s like we’ve never been apart. I’ve just spent a week in the states with a friend I hadn’t seen for 3 years (we keep up only through twitter) and it led to some of the most enjoyable, entertaining and easiest conversation you could imagine. Some people like to surround themselves with a small group of close friends, and these people act like a kind of social comfort blanket. Friendship lines are drawn, everyone knows which topics are there to be debated and which are off-limits, opinions are generally well-known, and conversation can be dominated with everyday chit-chat.

I’m certainly not saying that the better I know people, the less I like them, or even the less interesting I find them; I do consider however that the friendship of those people that I rarely converse with and meet up with even less often can be just as valuable. It’s like music and books. Some books you are happy to read and re-read, and there’s some music that you never tire of listening to. There are other books that you loved first time around, but you have no desire to read again, at least not in the immediate future. Some music is like this too; I love it, and then I love re-discovering it, but only at a much later date.

As I’m on holiday at the moment, I’ve had the opportunity to do quite a lot of reading. I’ve been reading a couple of authors that I thought I liked a lot: Malcolm Gladwell and Jay McInerney. The more I’ve read of them, the less I like them. Maybe that’s a little strong, but the less interest I have in them; their freshness is notable by its absence. In McInerney’s case, I’ve read him pretty much chronologically, starting with the fantastic ‘Bright lights, Big City’. His later novels (less so the short stories) resemble less good versions of his earlier work. The themes are similar, the humour more forced, the material less fresh. People say that you write about what you know, but he seems to have written about all that he knows in the first couple of books, and has spent much time re-hashing old material after that. Gladwell is more odd, because I read Outliers (2008), then What the dog saw (2009) then his breakthrough novel The Tipping Point (2000). Gladwell certainly has a brilliant easy-reading style, and it has been said of him that he ‘makes you feel as though you are the genuis’. It’s a very leading style though, and many of the conclusions that he comes to, which appear watertight at first, do not stand up to any kind of rigorous scrutiny. His standard technique is to take a one-off event, re-tell it as an incredibly entertaining story, and then to draw far reaching conclusions from this single event that usually challenge general thinking on the subject. Thought and discussion-provoking certainly, but hard evidence? almost certainly not. The more I read, the more I feel that I’m being worked on, albeit very gently, into believing the genius of Gladwell, and I find that irritating, and just a little bit subversive.

This isn’t the case with all authors. If one reads Orwell chronologically, things culminate with 1984, and all of his other writing and experiences feel like a build-up to this. It helped that he died young, and knew that he was dying, and maybe that’s the key: to die before one’s output starts to tail off. Morrison, Dean, Fitzgerald have nothing duff in their back catalogue; they simply didn’t have time. Conversely, the longer that Jagger or McCartney hang on, the more hapless the material they produce has become. This is similar with Dave Grohl, who sounds more like un-edgy bad Nirvana with each album. I used to think that Dali was a genius, until you realise that you’ve seen all the good stuff in the first 10% of his output, and the rest of his career was a re-hash of former ideas.

Perhaps there’s a limit to creativity, and it’s best to stop when you feel genuine creation is harder to come by. Bowie and Picasso manage to stay creative forever by continual re-invention. They are the genuine outliers; these are people with whom one can be fully familiar, and feel nothing but admiration for their genius.

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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.