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A Sojourn in Britain: Thoughts on London

August 2, 2013 1 comment

Like every great metropolis (and there fewer than you might think), London, England has a terrible inevitability about it. It’s enormous, sprawling, thronging with millions of residents and a few million more visitors at any given time. It overwhelms with its culture, cuisine, official institutions, and historic sites. Samuel Johnson said, “There is in London all that life can afford,” and it may be a truer aphorism now than it was in the 18th Century. London, as a city, is entirely too much, but that feels like just enough.

A scant few days is hardly enough to get London’s full measure, of course, but it will do for a rough sketch of an impression of this very old and richly-detailed civic experiment. Like many great old cities, London has both preserved and obliterated the physical traces of its centuries of historical change and upheaval. Much of the lost architectural heritage was not due to intentional planning, granted; the twin cataclysms of the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz during WWII wreaked havoc on the established edifices of the old City of London (the capitalization denotes the designation for the old walled medieval city alone, rather than the larger metropolitan area) three centuries apart.

But then again, much of the erasure was purposeful, from the dissolution of the monasteries and whitewashing iconoclasm of church interiors during the Reformation to the furious post-war building boom of the 20th and early 21st centuries that has filled the City and its suburbs (the Docklands in particular) with glass-fronted towers as monuments to the ravenous British mercantile spirit. Plenty has survived, from architect Christopher Wren’s great post-fire projects (St. Paul’s Cathedral chief among them) to medieval-derived national landmarks like Westminster Abbey (with its flying buttresses, royal tombs, and clustered monuments) and the Tower of London (once a prison for high-profile treason cases, now inhabited by gigantic, hoary ravens and the famous Beefeaters, who are now glorified tour guides). But London has always been a town of inexorable progress, and that means that buildings don’t always stay up for long, no matter their historical value.

This is not to suggest that only that which is old is good and that which is new is not. Relatively new institutions like the Underground, its lines spider-webbing ever further into the suburbs (though not as much south of the Thames, for whatever reason), or the massive British Museum have become staples alongside the older national monuments, as have 21st Century additions like the popular London Eye ferris wheel or the sleek “Gherkin” skyscraper at 30 St. Mary Axe. And although the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ascendancy holds stubborn sway in the City and Westminster, the muticultural stew of the metropolis asserts itself more and more with each passing year.

The new visitor is understandably consumed by the keenly-felt obligation to tick the major, must-see sights off the list, to make secular pilgrimages to the travellers’ beacons. One must photograph Big Ben, peek through the gilded gates of Buckingham Palace, ride the red double-decker buses, pose at the iconic (but still active and thus dangerous) Abbey Road zebra crossing made famous by the Beatles; surely enough (with the exception of the last activity), I dutifully fulfilled all of these obligations.

Hyde ParkBut travel, one must hope, ought to be more than doing what millions have done before, in the same spot, in the same way. London affords ample opportunity for such off-the-beaten path experiences, though you might need to veer from the comfort of the tourist circuit to find them. A stroll or even guided tour of one of the Magnificent Seven Victorian-era cemeteries might do the trick; we opted for Highgate, the most famed and oft-atmospheric of these sylvan necropolises. Rather than indulging in luxury accessories at Harrod’s department store, why not grab takeaway from its sparkling (and surprisingly non-dear) food hall and take a seat by the Serpentine pond in Hyde Park for a picnic (just keep an eye on those swans)? Skip the massive block of inferior art that is the Tate Modern and try out the Tate Britain instead, with its encyclopedic collection of paintings by the country’s greatest artist, J.M.W. Turner. Wander the Temple and the Inns of Court, once the stronghold of the Knights Templar and long the domain of the equally-sinister practitioners of the legal profession. Give the South Bank of the Thames a chance, too; it’s got some wonderful hidden gems.

I’d hate to entirely privilege the mainstream vs. alternative dichotomy that characterizes travel just as surely as it does other sectors of our culture, mind you. The top sights more than earn their tour-book stripes, despite the lengthy queues and clustering tour groups. But the plethora of options and ease of public transporation in London means that you can freely choose which top sights are of greatest interest, and maybe, if you’re lucky, discover a few of your own.

London is, above all, the world’s great hybridized city. It has nearly the history of Rome, most of the culture of Paris, the modern economic thrust of New York or Chicago, a entertainment-world glamour that approximates that of a toned-down, humbler Los Angeles, and the idiosyncratic sensibility of the dozens of English villages that its ravenous expansion has swallowed and from which it has attracted countless ambitious new residents. The phrase has tended to take on fundamentally ironic usage of late, but one can say with sincere honesty that London contains multitudes. Though it may be a bit early to map out another pass, it’s quite clear that the city would richly reward return visits.

Categories: Culture, History, Travel

PopMatters Television Review – Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan

January 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.

Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan

 

Categories: Reviews, Science, Television, Travel

A Sojourn in California: Thoughts on San Diego

January 6, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s not so much that San Diego gets a bum rap as it gets not too much of a rap at all. Coming in a distant third amongst California urban centres after Los Angeles (the sprawling western balancing load of American ideology, its entertainment complex countering and modifying that of New York City) and San Francisco (one of the nation’s aesthetic jewels as well as its open-minded Left Coast progressive conscience), San Diego is a distinctly second-tier American metropolis in terms of national recognition as well as population and cultural influence (although it has given the world Cameron Crowe, Tony Hawk, and Dr. Seuss, among other prominent names).

A longtime military town with multiple naval and armed forces bases, San Diego has often been considered the conservative counterweight to the dominant liberalism of the state’s northerly cities, its mild and consistent climate attracting more set-in-their-ways retirees as well. Dotted with family-friendly resorts and attractions like SeaWorld, Legoland and the San Diego Zoo, it has always seemed more staid and laid-back than most of its already legendarily laid-back state, which for all of its cliches is as relentlessly self-improving as any other wealthy and competitive part of the country.

IMG_1316If all of this is, generally speaking, accurate enough, then none of it terribly diminishes the city’s appeal as a travel destination. San Diego has more than its fair share of physical beauty (a measure by which it outstrips L.A. and contends with S.F.), from its pristine beaches (Mission and Pacific Beaches, hubs of the city’s considerable surf culture, are especially notable) to the high desert-scrub headlands at Point Loma and Torrey Pines State Reserve. The favourable climate is a horticulturist’s dream, and the rich variation of vegetation is a revelation to a visitor accustomed to seasonal bareness in the dead of winter.

The area’s real gem is a man-made one, however. The lustrous Balboa Park north of downtown may just be the most beautiful public green space in the United States, if not on the whole continent. Mostly set out, built, and landscaped for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 and continued for the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935, the park’s edifices saw the forging of the distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival style that predominates in much of the city to this day. It also left one of the finest and most user-friendly urban cultural spaces ever created, consisting of a series of museums (including the San Diego Museum of Art, the Timken Museum of Art and the San Diego Museum of Man, with its distinctive dome and tower), theatres, thematic gardens (the redwood-slatted Botanical Building and lush Palm Canyon are the highlights), and that world-class zoo as well (which lives up to its hype, after all). Out-prettying even (the admittedly overrated) Central Park in New York, Balboa Park is reason enough to make at least one visit to the city.

San Diego also has a rich history, tracing its roots back to the era of European exploration and Spanish colonization. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator sailing under the Spanish flag, was the first European to set foot in Southern California when he landed on Point Loma and explored the bay in 1542. A national monument at the pinnacle of this promontory, overlooking the whole of the city as well as the open ocean, commemorates his landing. A Spanish mission and the establishment of the settlement now called Old Town followed, as well as the gamut of American annexation, civic expansion, and repeated renewal that characterizes the march of the historical record across the American Southwest.

IMG_1397Although the Spanish-Mexican history (and continued demographic and cultural reality) of San Diego remains a key feature of the city’s profile as well as one of its main touristic marketing ploys, the discomfort and dissonance of these features when faced with the homogenizing imperatives of modern American capitalism and nationalism is also evident. The Old Town State Historic Park is an uneasy hybrid of a very American character, its historic reconstructions and museums operating alongside overpriced shops and boutiques selling everything from quasi-Mexican handmade gifts and crafts to artisanal salsas, candies, and root beer. This commodified Latino-ness extends to the rest of the region, sprinkled with elements of dubiously-dubbed “authentic” Mexican culture (one might reply that “authentic” Mexico is but a few miles to the south in the infamous Tijuana and need not be approximated in a mere cross-border taco shop). This uncertainty is emblematic of the unsettled imperial status of all parts of America that were formerly parts of Mexico, an inheritance of the forcible, unresolved annexation of these rich, highly-exploitable lands that cannot simply be sated in the citizen’s psyche by any number of adopted place names and hand-tossed tortillas.

Despite these nagging feelings and a measure of confirmation of the conservative stereotypes initially mentioned, San Diego actually surprises with its tendency to emphasize the more positive features of the American character while subsuming the negative ones. It’s a lovely town and a relaxing place to find one’s self, and the hectic upwards straining for material gain and economic survival that has long characterized the nation is mostly hidden behind sun-drenched patios and sunset surf. San Diego is not so exciting, but it is universally, thoroughly pleasant. Travel ought to be a big enough tent to accommodate both of these types of experience.

Categories: Travel

A Sojourn in Continental Europe, Part 2: Thoughts on Belgium

August 21, 2012 5 comments

At the close of my previous post musing on visiting Paris, I wrote of the often-unnoticed ways that the City of Lights has seen its medieval historical heritage preserved down to the present day. If this can be noticed to some extent in Paris, then it’s nigh-on impossible to avoid in the small, often-maligned country bordering France: Belgium. For all of its mercantile history and contemporary participation in modernity, the great cities of Belgium (or, rather, of its Dutch-speaking northern portion, Flanders) are haunted by a past that had left behind it both aesthetic loveliness and troubling cultural implications.

Belgium has managed to cultivate a bit of an inferiority complex in European relations that doesn’t really befit it in cultural, economic, or political terms. It boasts an artistic timeline progressing from the Flemish Primitives to Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck (though not to my taste, both major artists) to Art Nouveau to Rene Magritte’s Surrealism to… well, I dunno where it ends, Gotye? It has often been an economic and therefore political powerhouse as well, from the thriving late-medieval port cities of Ghent and Bruges to the diamond trade of Antwerp to King Leopold II’s colonial exploitation of the rubber trees of the Congo to today’s membership (and, with its Brussels headquarters, leadership) in the European Union. Still, jammed only half-comfortably between two continental powers (France and Germany) that have often coveted, fought over, and indeed conquered it, and overshadowed even by the country of origin for its linguistic majority (Holland), Belgium is rarely afforded the respect that the unique history of its region, culture, and people have earned.

The aforementioned “Big Four” Belgian cities, all of which were ports of call on my holiday, typify different and even divisive aspects of Belgium even while also accenting the similarities throughout the nation. Brussels is the bustling capital of government, national and continental, dotted with the sort of bulky Neoclassical official institutions that often threaten to swallow other great capitals like Washington D.C. and the aforementioned Paris. French, the prestige language of the country’s elite, has not relinquished its central position in Brussels despite its geographic location in Flanders and increasing progressive concessions to the country’s Dutch-speaking majority. If anything, it’s easier for a visitor speaking French as a second language to survive with only the language in Brussels than it is to do so anywhere in France. In Belgium, no matter what the historical privileged class liked to pretend, French is always a second language anyway.

Antwerp, like Brussels, is both a historic centre and a modern city. The architecture of each is that much more festooned, the famous stepped-gable peaks of Flemish architecture graced with the supplemental gilding that copious profitable commerce affords. Antwerp has long been the town of flash and bang, overflowing with glittering diamonds, an astonishing railroad station, and cutting edge fashion design. The style-over-substance feeling of the place is embodied by its most famous son, the aforementioned Rubens. With his preference for towering canvases, clumsily indistinct lines, sweeping gestures, and rippling cellulite, Rubens is an artist for Antwerp: impressive, showy, and opulent, but largely without a sense of proportion or a soul-like core.

Ghent and Bruges, on the other hand, trade lucratively on their exquisite atmosphere of late-medieval and early-modern urban preservation. Though their aesthetic pleasures are undeniable and therefore quite hard to be critical about, ultimately, both cities present their canals and churches, their wedding-cake market squares and cobblestoned side-lanes, and their profusion of historical fine art for maximum touristic consumption. Ghent manages to escape a more cynical assessment by virtue of being slightly less popular with foreigners as well as slightly more ragged and liberal as a longtime university town. Its main museum to medieval life is the none-too-rose-tinted Gravesteen, an honest-to-god castle in the centre of town that quite openly acknowledges the quotidian brutality of the Middle Ages with its torture exhibits. It also doesn’t hurt that Ghent boasts a dynamic central skyline, one of the continent’s most welcoming cores (the beautiful, homey Graslei), and the Van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the true historic knockouts of European art that also has a fascinating history.

Bruges, on the other hand, although undeniably romantic and beguiling, works a bit too hard to construct itself to visitors as a living museum while simultaneously capitulating to modern tastes and capitalist ambition. As pretty as the Markt square is, only a few steps down any of its connecting straats will lead you into a Body Shop or a Zara or a Pizza Hut, and the city’s amalgamated museum bureaucracy, with its standardized pricing and plexiglass booths, drains the character of many a historical landmark (it doesn’t help, either, that the queue for an attraction like the Belfry is a major timesuck). It’s hardly much of a fairytale, though still pretty fine for all that.

Ironically, the cultural product currently most associated with Bruges, Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh’s rough and hilarious moral-comic gangster escapade In Bruges, subtly participated in the town’s self-romanticization as much as it overtly sent it up. The Bruges in the film is a “fuckin’ fairytale”, as a couple of characters put it, although another is less complimentary, repeatedly dubbing it a “shithole”. We laugh dismissively at the latter assessment because McDonagh constructs Bruges as a romantic Belgian burg indeed, albeit one with a subtle dark side. He has sound thematic reasons to do this, invoking the town as a simultaneous Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory where the moral actions of his characters meet with the variant sentences of a fickle, unseen judge. But it’s still a bit too perfect, so much so that it isn’t perfect at all.

And this is Belgium, too: kind of perfect but really much more imperfect. “Nothing works here, and still it works,” goes a local saying, and it speaks volumes about this small but vibrant and fascinating country’s self-image. In a global order of constricting capitalized ambition with consequences both wonderful and terrible, Belgium finds a way to embrace both possibilities and still seem like a land set snugly before the time of unrestricted consumption. This is why it’s such a great place to travel, and will continue to be.

Categories: Art, Culture, Film, History, Travel

A Sojourn in Continental Europe, Part 1: Thoughts on Paris

August 19, 2012 4 comments

Returning from my first vacation jaunt to Europe for over a decade, there are a profusion of thoughts on the arts, architecture, history and still-living culture of the rich and often-tumultuous continent that have been sparked by my travels, and seem worth sharing in one form or another. I begin with the town where so many continental travellers likewise commence: Paris.

The fascinating French capital bookended the trip itinerary, and while a couple of days was hardly enough to soak in enough of one of the world’s great cities, it was enough to get a feel for the character of the place. Seemingly equal amounts of righteous blood and inked superlatives have been spilled over Paris, amounts that feel both excessive and insufficient, given the city’s bizarre power. This shall not be an essay on the benefits of central urban planning, or a treatise on how Paris’ beguiling romanticism has survived revolutions, wars, gilded ages, and the influx of corporate culture (McDonald’s across from Jardins de Luxembourg, fashion chain stores dotting the Champs-Élysées, etc.). And certainly there are elements of the French civic culture that are less than praise-worthy, in particular the harsh ethnic, cultural and economic divisions between the dwellers and workers of central, historic Paris and the sprawling banlieues on its periphery, which occasionally erupt in violent, frustrated rebellion at the obvious network of persistent inequalities (and Torontonians like to think there’s a downtown/suburbs split in their city!).

One cannot ignore how the firm wall between the 20 arrondisements agglomerated in 1860 and the wider Île-de-France region has constructed the core of the modern Paris into a tourist powerhouse. The charming, romantic destination of legend (and largely, it must be acknowledged, reality) has always been a playground for the 1% and therefore a monument to inequality. Still, the centuries-long series of massive public works, monuments, and cheap, easily-accessible cultural institutions, from former royal palaces that are now public gardens (Tuileries, Luxembourg) or national museums (Versailles, the spectacularly comprehensive art museum the Louvre) to industrial- or corporate-age developments like the Eiffel Tower site, Pompidou Centre or the skyscraper city of La Défense has extended the glories to the people in a manner befitting a country whose modern history is still very much defined by a mass uprising against the assumptions of aristocratic privilege.

But it’s worth remembering that Paris’ history goes back further than the ancien régime, and that was what much of this visit was spent confirming. The city has done a fine job preserving hints of its deeper past in key places, in particular at the Musée National du Moyen Âge at L’Hôtel Cluny, with its treasure trove of medieval art, and at the city’s oldest standing monument, the cathedral of Notre Dame. The literal centre of France (kilometre zero for all distances in the country is the star in the paving stones on the square outside the church), the inspiring Gothic bulk of Notre Dame may well embody spiritual aspirations that the thoroughly secularized republic no longer shares, even if Victor Hugo contributed to its Romanticist re-casting with his seminal novel largely set in its environs.

But the exquisite stone sculptures adorning its towering facade, the famous twisted gargoyles (actually added in the 19th century restoration), pious knights, bishops and kings, and demonic fiends tormenting sinners at the Last Judgment, speak non-verbal multitudes about the nature of official power in the Middle Ages and today. In a vivid visual illustration for a mostly non-literate society, these depictions of the terrifying fate of sinners carried a clear message from the clerical (and, by extension, secular) authorities to their afeared parishioners: do exactly what we say, or be prepared for nasty beings to put the hurt on you for eternity. It’s a deeply medieval conception of Catholic morality, predicated on punitive assumptions, and it’s reflected strongly in the modern France’s civic order in which obedience to established power in which obedience is compelled by the threat of withering social disdain and bureaucratic sarcasm more so than by clumsy state-imposed force (although the paramilitary security forces patrolling the public squares that front on Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower suggest otherwise with an uncharacteristic lack of subtlety).

Similar ideas spring to mind, albeit in a divergent manner, in the other main location of travel on this trip, the oft-misunderstood but lovely nation of Belgium. Some related thoughts on these travels are to follow soon. Stay tuned.

Categories: Art, Culture, History, Travel

Myriad Americas: A Sojourn in Massachusetts

September 26, 2011 5 comments

The recent radio silence at Random Dangling Mystery has a simple explanation: I was on vacation. Such a limpid term, I know, but then tourism can be a limpid experience if one is not careful, or rather if one is too careful. I make no claim to either, but my latest flurry of travel, the first in quite a while, was not unrewarding. Spending close to a week in Boston and its environs, wandering the city until my feet were sore with the effort of enjoying as much of this unique and resonant city as possible, I was struck anew by the strange stew that is America, as I always am when I find myself in that country.

To put it another, more accurate way, though, I am struck not by America, but by Americas, by those myriad versions of the same thing that are nonetheless different. I speak not of the stereotypes of the United States, those crude caricatures of boorish wealth, spontaneous excess, and shoot-from-the-hip credulity, although, admittedly, there were plentiful examples of all of those things on display, should an observer choose to focus on them. The food portions are rather enormous, and the cheerful serving staff often seems greatly concerned that a diner in search of smaller amounts might leave in a state of insufficient satisfaction. The working-class opiniated loudmouth is a well-entrenched type there as well, especially when it comes to sports and/or politics, subjects upon which nearly everyone is much quicker to venture a viewpoint than even your most diehard hockey-loving suburban conservative in these parts. And although centuries of undiminished exploitative capitalism have left a city gloriously strewn with edifying cultural institutions and beautiful public works, there is a bit of a mishmash of styles, to say nothing of evident fondness of generations of American architects for secular temples of Neoclassical grandiosity. These features of the American human landscape are considered prevalent because they are stereotypes, but can it not alternately be argued that they are stereotypes because they are prevalent?

But my choice of reading on the trip, E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 epic of early-20th-century America Ragtime, began to point my perceptions in another direction, or, rather, directions. A rambling novel of stream-of-consciousness Americana, Ragtime argues that there are so many stories to this grand mess of a land, so many competing and cohabitating narratives constituting the nation, that one story, or even three or four, will not suffice. Doctorow gives us stories of opposing sides of the wealth and the racial divide, but they are the stories of strivers, reachers, the masses of the hopeful. And every American dream is unique and singular.

All these different Americas were very much on display in Boston, unquestionably one of the finest urban experiments in a country overflowing with them. We know much of the proud, sophisticated, proper history of the Sons of Liberty and their glorious revolution, as well as the immigrant story implied by the tight-packed stone of the North End and the vaulting glass-and-steel collaborative triumph of business capital and engineering vision trumpeted by a skyscraper like the John Hancock Tower. But there are so many other stories living in the bones of this great old port town, and discovering them was wonderful.

There is, of course, faith, that core element of American identity. Despite Boston’s reputation as a bastion of liberal enlightenment and educated spiritual doubt, it’s hard to miss nearby Salem’s historical example of religious hysteria run rampant; tucked away behind the wax museums and witchy bauble shops is a sober memorial to the very human victims of puritanical excess. The flip side of this is the tremendously impressive Christian Science Plaza, a monument to a perhaps deluded ideal of faith as something that can be reconciled with and even assimilated into the secular capitalist order, rather than something that stands impotently in the way of progress, shouting “Stop!” with all its feeble might. And there is the Old North Church and the haunted burying grounds with their tilted Halloween tombstones, constructions with religious origins that history has transformed into symbols of something more inclusive and secular.

Indeed, there can be something very haunting about New England, especially when the fog rolls in over the towers of the downtown core, turning them into towering iridescent lanterns in the deepening twilight. Indeed, it isn’t hard to see how Eastern Seaboard authors like Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, and Massachusetts’ native son Nathaniel Hawthorne were inspired to craft literary works of gothic resonance by their surroundings, an atmosphere not merely attributable to the foggy indistinctness on the coastline or the stentorian severity of the British colonial architecture. Surely once or twice they must have passed by the wide still marshes and fens north of the city and seen a lonely white crane edging through the reeds like a restless ghost. It isn’t hard to conceive of this America as a shadowy realm of headless horsemen and telltale hearts, where the perpetual golden sunrise of intrepid individualism is preceded and well-tempered by dark midnights of the solitary soul.

There are so many more Americas to be glimpsed in a place like Boston that any summary seems cruelly truncated. There is a considerable, singular artistic heritage to a city that names a square after one of its painters and maintains a major museum based purely on the whims of taste of one of its wealthy connoisseur daughters. This is to say nothing of the town’s mixed but fascinating history of professional sport or its role as the educational centre of America. But really, ultimately, it’s a city that lives, that breathes, that thinks, and that tastes of America, however that proper name is defined at any given time. Most cities in America do that, but it really does feel that Boston does so just a little more deeply. A fine place, then, for a sojourn.