Thursday, June 25, 2009

A sad end to the freak show

There's nothing like a celebrity death to bring out the worst in journalists.
And there are few celebrities bigger than Michael Jackson.
So when news of Jackson's death started to filter through, the usual newsroom antics weren't far behind.
Bets were discussed on whether Patrick Swayze would also die on Thursday making it a trio of Farrah Fawcett, Jacko and Swayze in one day.
There was consternation that Jacko's white gloved supporters would be out moonwalking en masse on the streets, or that there would be a tsunami of wailing in Japan.
The usual puns on Jackson's songs were soon up on Facebook - Beat it, Killer, 20 percent off the Jackson Five etc, while one writer was taking odds on Madonna also shuffling off her mortal coil.
It didn't take long for the first Jacko jokes to follow.
There was so much tweeting on Twitter it apparently ground to a halt.
Nobody seemed to be sad about Jacko's death, except perhaps greedy plastic surgeons and a man famous for bending spoons.
I'd like to say I didn't join in and was above it all but, you know how it goes.
But now that it's all over Jacko's death has left a queazy feeling in the pit of my stomach because it casts an unpleasant hue on our sickly celebrity-obsessed society.
Long before his untimely death Jackson had ceased to become the kind of celebrity anyone aspired to be.
He wasn't like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean who were still uber cool when they died. He was a grotesque corruption of one of the most talented artists of the 20th century. He didn't seem to be black or white; male or female, man or boy. In his later years he appeared to have dropped in from Mars.
Nobody who shed a tear to the melodies of Ben at a school disco could ever equate the prodigious talent that was the teenage Jackson with the porcelain freak show who slept in an oxygen cylinder and dangled a baby from a hotel window.
But surely it's an indictment on us all that instead of caring about putting together the tortured pieces, we bought the popcorn and sat down hungrily waiting for the the final chapter of the macabre show to unfold like the crowds who came to see the hangings at Tyburn.
Martin Bashir's famous interviews brought home to us how disturbed and out of touch with reality Jackson really was.
But they also shed light on something else; the sinister nature of Jackson's relationship with his father Joe who thought little of beating, intimidating and bullying his kids towards perfection, sacrificing Michael's childhood for fame and fortune.
By the time Michael Jackson brought out the album Thriller in the 1980s, the perfection blueprint seemed to have worked. Jackson could sing, dance and perform like no other artist in the short history of pop.
Pity it was exactly what dad ordered; an act.
And when the cracks began to show they weren't just in the face Jackson tried to create to look less like his father.
They were to split a brittle human being into a million pieces, all of them hurtling groundwards toward a gaudy Neverland where child abusers stalked the Carousels.
Not that anyone cared. The intervention strategies we see every day on reality TV don't seem to apply to the famous. We watched appalled as Jacko's kids were paraded round with their faces covered. And nobody did a thing about it.
The Jackson tragedy should be a lesson to all of us who push and punish our kids into being the superstars we never were.
It should bring it home to us that being ordinary is nothing to be ashamed of and everything to aspire to.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

trapped in the past


It occured to me the other day that I am sinking into yesterday.
I only need to say "yesterday" and I think of the sad chords of the Beatles song. And when I think of sinking, I imagine the fabled bogs on Dartmoor and the tales my parents used to tell me when I was on holiday there about Old Uncle Tom Cobley who loaded his friends on the back of a gray mare cum makeshift taxi service on the way to Widecombe Fair.
Widecombe Fair was one of those jolly japes that ends in tears. All the people on the mare mysteriously disappeared - my parents speculated they were sucked up in a bog - but on a ghostly night out on the moor you can still hear the "old mare in her rattling bones."
Dartmoor can be a bleak and windswept place but I miss it to bits.
I have fond thoughts of the weak sunlight on the day I followed a flint strewn path by a clear stream up the escarpment into trees that radiated the reds, oranges and yellows of fall. And the pictures I took of the gnarled trees that had bowed to the wind on the edge of the bare moor.
We stood there smugly in our fake Barbours admiring a distant church tower and heard the peal of bells carried by a hestitant wind on one of those timeless afternoons.
The girl I was with then drifted away later like one of the grey tinged clouds that race across the rocky tors and are a distant memory 20 minutes later.
I don't think about her much now and when I do my thoughts are most pervese.
I find myself wondering what happened to the Italian-bound leather wedding album that cost about $3,000. I mean what good are such fragmented memories to anyone?
Is there a day of the year when someone somewhere brings it out and lights candles for all the failed marriages since Adam and Eve started bickering over fruit?
And how could all those weeks of agonizing about cake colors and who to invite have ended more than seven years later with a phone call that went something like: "How's the cat?"
"He's dead."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I didn't."
And the line went deader than a feline for ever. Just like that. And now I can never think of the conversation without conjuring up an image of Paul Daniels in his faux magician weaseldom.
"You'll like it. Not a lot but you'll like it."
- I'll like it about as much as a dead cat but what is dead can't be made undead nor said unsaid. I think that's my problem.
Dartmoor on the other hand is less easy to erase. It has a lowering presence and majesty.
Back in the day when I was consumed with enthusiam about journalism and its infinite possibilities I went up to Princetown to take pictures of the hulking great Victorian prison whose granite walls cast a shadow that even a sunny day can't dispell.
The jail, like the prison project I labored on at journalism college, speaks to my past but says little of the future.
Back in the 19th century desperate prisoners would attempt to flee the prison's damp and cavernous spaces in ankle chains only to be cut down by the wind on the moor, flurries of snow and those lurking bogs.
I fear the past is becoming my ankle chain too.
I have worked at places where young reporters have looked at me blankly if I've mentioned Duran Duran. When the Reflex was number one in the charts, the only reflex they were aware of was a twitch in the birth canal.
And to the Ipod generation, the charts are a meaningless concept as alien as a granite prison anchored to a moor.
It used to matter to be Number One; but then I suppose it used to matter if your suit of armor was properly oiled.
Mention Top of the Pops and Pan's People - the dance group my father used to be overly attentive to in the five minutes before he was slapped by my mother - today and you might as well say: "I went to school with Emily Bronte - nice girl, a bit gloomy, though."
I'd like to say I'll get over my obsession with the past but it seems to be getting worse.
Today in 7-Eleven I found myself muttering the words of a Doors song and I can't get enough of the Stones every time they are played on the radio; I end up thrashing my arms around in my car, gathering more strange looks as I veer across the Interstate.
The Stones aren't even my generation but I think I need to buy their cassette.
And every time someone talks about Jon and Kate, Kirstie's weight or Cher's daughter's sex change, I alternately want to disappear into my shell or scream.
Then my mind goes into overdrive. I want to find a way I can turn the conversation to Napoleon's ill fated retreat from Moscow but start talking about 1812 at a party and everyone looks at you like you're a freak.
It's worth persevering to my mind. The next time you are wedged in a kitchen sipping watery Millers between two crushing bores in baseball caps who are jumping up and down about the Steelers' latest win, try loudly interjecting with an observation about how Hannibal made a key strategic error in the Second Punic War. It's worth it for the reaction.
Because let's face it - the past beats the present hands down. There were great movements, ideas and thinkers all cast in the foundry of constant fear and the spectre of suffering.
Today's generation has it all at the push of a button. But by being visually richer we are spiritually poorer. Somebody else has given us the imagination thing and we have burned our own imagination out on the X-box.
Meanwhile the answer lies unopened on the library shelf.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cruel Summer

It's been a June of bouts of unremitting heat and leaden skies split apart by thunder here in Virginia.

During such months you have to wonder about those madcap adventurers who made the trip across the Atlantic more than 400 years ago to simmer in a mosquito-infested swamp at Jamestown and to freeze and starve in between unedifying episodes of cannibalism.

To me the New World remains a bewildering and unforgiving place at times. Away from the cities the trees seem taller and more savage than in Europe, the brackish waterways darker, more mirky and muddled. I feel if I look over my shoulder I will glimpse heavily tattooed people flitting through the half light of the forest and spirit demons exorcised with their drums.

Where man has left his mark the cities of Virginia can also be unforgiving on the eye, sliced up by hulking, concrete freeways that divide rich from poor and strip malls that are vast Saharas of cracked concrete and testaments to prosperity lost.

Faced with the slabs of downtown Newport News and the sickly, sulphorous residue of the coal dumps at the shipyard that linger in the nostrils for half a mile up the Interstate, it can be easy to lose hope like the souls in the ghetto to the east, who live and die prematurely on the wrong side of the tracks.

Sorrow lingers down here in the streets with numbers but no names. My landmarks are the half remembered scenes in the half light where the only color is the yellow of incident scene tape and the blue lights piercing the gloom. I measure the distance of the blocks by the footfalls of the marchers who come to remember the prematurely dead.

The candles and makeshift photographs taped to cardboard are a world away from the solid war memorials that occupy pride of place in every English town but they share a common heritage that seeped into the bloody ground.

Many a time on a homicidal intersection I have yearned for a peaceful stream and an English meadow. Grantchester with its sleepy homes and bunched willows draped over the flowers of the water meadow, seldom seemed so alluring. The Old Vicarage where Rupert Brooke wrote of the lilacs in bloom, never so unattainable.

Brooke, the flowering of English youth, died on a Greek Island, in some corner of a foreign field that is forever England, on the way to one of the bloodiest theaters of World War I.

The longer I am away the more easily I slip into the Arcadian/American view of England as a place of antique steam trains, Shakespearean theaters, old maids riding through the mist and sleepy afternoons caressed by the sound of leather on willow.

It becomes more convenient by the day to airbrush from my mind the ugly asphalt of the A12 and the tower blocks of Barking, of walking the gum strewn gauntlet to Blockbuster past the crack addicts and hustlers and the schools of the East End with their grubby walls and high steel fences.

But for an island so densely populated England is yet to give up its gentle charm and the countryside is seldom further than an hour away.

On the days when the storms muscle their way up the James River, sucking the oxygen from the sky, I am increasingly far away recalling the gentle contours of Wenlock Edge and the clouds that rise like pleasure balloons over the escarpments on a Sunday afternoon.

It's becoming increasingly hard to forget about those blue remembered hills.