Monday, 23 February 2009

The Om in Obama

Oh dear - the media is gorging itself on Obama. The slimier publications have already started to spit him out. No mind, we knew that would happen. In the meantime here are links to a couple of more thoughtful posts on the President Elect: One, gently humorous, from Garrison Keillor:
And another, wise and warm and moving, from Alice Walker:

Life has hurtled on so rapidly and so gloomily in these dark autumn days. Can one be gloomy and still hurtle? As the BBC keeps braying at me: "We are in uncharted territory" so I must assume that anything is possible.
That wonderful early November night is starting to fade into the dusk of this 2008. Just before that night, I found myself tossing restlessly on an angry, unhappy night. The reasons are unimportant. But my instinctive solution made me sit up in bed and smile. Monkey brain was babbling, ANTs - Automatic Negative Thoughts - had run amok when I said to myself: "I bet Obama wouldn't panic. Obama wouldn't lie in bed with the cat on his stomach, reliving an argument that he's never actually dared to have (Obama not the cat) with that miserable woman in the sub post-office on the Green. Obama wouldn't console himself with two slices of marmite on toast. "
I should have stopped there but it was 2 am and the monkey brain had jumped its leash. The cat shifted on to my chest, purred and stared into my eyes. I stared back but my mind was on Obama - on his self-containment, the sense of an inner calm that he carries within him. I gazed into Blueberry's golden eyes and meditated on the President Elect - the big smile, the big ears - it's all good. I drifted off, my anger evaporated - a middle-aged English woman in an Oxfordshire cottage, pacified by the Om in Obama

Out of Africa - Obama - President-Elect

Sat up til 4am here in London. Still it wasn't definitively called. Eyes popped open at 7- had to turn on BBC Radio to hear that proper English voice announce: "Barack Obama is the new President Elect of the United States of America." Yes, yes, yes. So many wonderful moments, so moving to witness the joy of Afro-Americans, of black people everywhere and to realize that in a world where we have been talking about the ascension of China, of India... Africa was always eclipsed, forgotten and seemed hopeless. And here he is - an African-American (Kenyan/Indonesian/Hawaiian all there in the mix....) man who has the grace, the dignity, the intelligence and the forgiving heart that can start to bring our foolish little planet together. Have gone through a box of Kleenex watching old black men talk of the long, long unimaginably hard road that this has been, and watching young people everywhere get back their hope.

I once lived in Chicago - and to see Grant Park become the temporary centre of the Universe last night was thrilling. Grant Park was one the scene of vicious riots during a long distant Democratic Convention. Who could have imagined? Who could ever have imagined? Most moving moment - watching that old road warrior Jesse Jackson, not always a loveable or laudable man, tears streaming down his face during Barack's acceptance speech. A morning in millions...

Waiting for Obama

Even in Ealing, the tension is palpable; the wait is excruciating. Larry David described the unbearable last days of the election on the Huffington Post. Lady Antonia Fraser confessed to her own obsession on BBC Radio last week. Friends in Canada, Italy and Paris scour the internet for the smallest scrap of new news on Obama and send it along. If, two days from now, a victory is declared for John McCain, I believe that the whole planet will have such an enormous hissy fit, that you will be able to see the steam rising off Earth from the moon.

Just over a year ago I was on assignment in Scotland - at a glossy new spa on the banks of Loch Lomond. I'd sampled the massage, lolled in the sauna and, as bilious grey clouds settled over the loch, I wandered down to the dining room for dinner. At the table across from me were about 30 or so men with southern accents. They were about to eat when one of their number stood up and proposed a toast to "our president and our troops for the fine work they are doing in I-raq."

Every one of them stood up and raised his glass. As they were about to sit down, a lone Scot's voice at the table piped up: "But isn't there a wee coloured chappie trying to be president." The Americans roared with laughter and then the laughter changed and within seconds they were chanting: "Obama, Osama. Obama, Osama."

I wonder where that Scotsman is today, and if he has any sense of shock, surprise (we can't hope for shame) at where that 'wee coloured chappie' is today. Has he, like me, and like millions of people all over the world watched, mesmerized at the centre of calm that Obama has become in the electoral storms?

Watching the news reports of the final hours of campaigning today, I gazed at those slim shoulders - and thought of all the hopes and dreams that are being placed on them. Never has a candidate symbolized so much to so many people. He cannot possibly live up to our expectations but I pray tonight to the god I don't believe in that he will get a chance even to disappoint me a little. May the Great Mystery protect you Obama. And, when you take office on some snowy day next January may the world prove more mysterious and wonderful than all the cynics and pundits could ever have imagined.

Stephen King's Maine

The American day begins in Maine –mossy, moosey Maine – that rugged, empty,most northeastern state. Maine is first with the dawn but it is a writer of our darkest nights that is one of Maine’s most famous sons. Stephen King, the world’s bestselling novelist and recent recipient of the National Book Foundation Medalwas born in Portland Maine and has spent most of his adult life in Bangor, Maine.

“King fans come to Bangor from as far away as Moscow,” says Stu Tinker who presides over Betts Books in a small parade of shops on Hammond Street. The bookstore is a virtual King museum; it carries copies of all his works,first editions, foreign language editions, t-shirts and other memorabilia. Tinker even has an address in Beijing on his mailing list. How could someone in Beijing relate to King’s Bangor or those Maine woods? How much of King’s tenebrous world can we even hope to find in Maine? Surely the journey we need to make is inside the man’s teeming brain? Since that is not an option, I rent a car and head for Bangor on a grey autumn day. Bangor looks to this English writer’s eyes, a lot like a northern English industrial town – oppressive dark red brick buildings –a chimney stack or two. For Europeans whose fantasy New England is one of white clapboard villages, the industrial red brick is always a surprise.King’s birthplace of Portland is these days a politely bustling port town of art galleries, coffee shops, fine restaurants and elegant brownstone houses on cobbled streets. But he has chosen to live in Bangor – a bleaker, more northern place a quintessentially America small town whose heart has evidently been ripped out and transplanted to the local strip mall where it now beats weakly if at all.

But of course King is bound to be more redbrick than white clapboard, more Bangor than Portland. And Bangor looms over his work. King’s fictional town of Derry is Bangor, the setting for “It” the 1981 novel that many feel is King’s finest work.Stu Tinker is happy to provide a map that allows King pilgrims to make their way to many Bangor literary locations that feature in “It” and other novels and films.

The gateway to “It’s” lair was through a sewer pipe in a swampy woodland by the Kenduskeag stream on the edge of town. Just a few minutes away is the Thomas Hill standpipe, an immense, white fortress-like structure that contained the dead children’s souls in “IT” and, when the evil erupted out of the earth, toppled and flooded Derry. The standpipe is still functioning – there is an enormous cistern inside. At night it takes on an eerie beauty when it is crowned with lights. The canal where “It’s” unfortunate gay victim is thrown to his death still runs just behind City Hall. “Graveyard Shift” was filmed at the waterworks. The narrator’s beloved wife in “Bag of Bones” dies just outside the pharmacy a few blocks up from Betts Books on Hammond. A lot of “Insomnia” is set around that same humble block of shops on Hammond. King often hides his monsters right there in the utilities - in those mundane, ignored places that hold our lives together – and often it seems the connection is water – the canal, the standpipe and, of course, the sewer. Like so many masters of horror, he knows that the ordinary become extraordinary is the most horrifying of all.

But, of course, he also takes us to the cemetery. Pet Sematary was inspired by a mispelt sign on a real pet cemetery out near Orrington where the Kings once lived. The film used Bangor’slovely Mount Hope cemetery as a location and King himself in a cameo as a preacher.. King’s Bangor home is easy to distinguish even though it is not marked on any of the maps. The neo-gothic structure stands behind a wrought-iron fence on one of the city’s most elegant boulevards where the lumber barons once built their mansions. Spider’s webs are woven into the wrought-iron fence, bat wings adorn the rim – a three-headed griffon rises out of one corner. King has also used the celebrated Maine coast as a setting – most recently in the tv screenplay “Storm of the Century” where tiny Southwest Harbor became the blizzard-bound and blighted Little Tall Island of the Story.

I spend a sunny day in pursuit of King locations at Southwest and neighbouring Bar Harbor. I find instead lovely late summer villages with not a hint of evil. But the woods are all around – those Maine woods so celebrated of Thoreau and transformed into the primeval forest in Pet Sematary. I stop the car on the road and wonder if I should find a trail and walk in. But dusk will fall soon. And anyway King’s universe is elsewhere – in the world of every child who still fears the bogeyman, the child that everyone of us on the planet once was, who knows that the thing that made the twig snap in the woods is real. And is looking for us. And those primeval woods are the same for all of us because they come not from external geography but from some mysterious cellular memory that we all carry whether, in our daily existence, we look upon Red Square, the Forbidden City or Hammond Street in Bangor, Maine.

Steinbeck Country - Salinas California

John Steinbeck called books: “One of the few authentic magics our species has created.” He wrote 32 of them. And in masterpieces such as East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, the Nobel Prize winning novelist harvested his birthplace, Salinas, California and its surrounding valleys and nearby Monterey Coast as thoroughly and intensely as any local farmer.

When I travelled to Salinas in search of Steinbeck country, I also revisited his books. They are still immensely readable. I almost didn’t write this article because I couldn’t break away from the story of “East of Eden’s” beautiful “monster”, Cathy Eames and the feuding brothers, Adam and Charles Trask. In The Grapes of Wrath he told the world one of the most serious tales of our time. With this story of a family’s desperate flight to an unwelcoming California from the Oklahoma dust bowl Steinbeck shattered the American dream. Then, in Cannery Row Steinbeck reminds us that life is sometimes good when with warmth and humour he celebrates the lives of the people and marine life along the Pacific Shore in Monterey just a few miles west. A reader of East of Eden will know the town of Salinas and the Salinas Valley even if they have never been to America.

In an era when creative writing teachers often discourage aspiring novelists from too much description, Steinbeck never shrank from describing his landscape. Read the first three pages of East of Eden and it’s all there -the geography, the geology and the history of what he would call the “Valley of the World” Salinas is a hundred miles south of San Francisco. In East of Eden, Steinbeck tells us that Adam Trask travelled here from Connecticut with his treacherous love Cathy, because the Southwestern Pacific Railroad , in its efforts to increase traffic, advertised the area heavily: “Adam had seen and studied a fine color broadside which set forth the valley as that region which heaven unsuccessfully imitated. A train still comes through Salinas stopping a couple of blocks north of the Steinbeck Centre where the great mans’s portrait gazes down Main Street. These days it is Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, the luxury sleeper train that runs along the coast from Seattle to Los Angeles and features observation cars with pivoting armchairs and a restaurant car with the best in Californian food and wine. On the four hour journey from San Francisco (yes four hours - they take their time so that you can savour the scenery), I claimed a seat in one of those armchairs and watched as the golden Salinas Valley approached through the June sunshine.

These days Main Street has that “lost in the thirties” feel of so many American Main Streets - the sense that life was once here but has long since gone elsewhere - probably to a nearby shopping mall. The Victorian house where Steinbeck grew up is just two blocks away from the Centre at 132 Central Avenue and is open to visitors. The decor and furnishings are as they were when a teenage Steinbeck was writing his first stories here and sending them off anonymously to local papers. On Mondays through Saturdays, buoyant American matrons in period costume serve lunch at the house. Lunch is also served at One Main Street, the café inside the Steinbeck Center. The man himself did not always have such a celebrity status in this small town. His portrayal of the hard lives of farm workers ruffled local establishment sensibilities. His books were even burned here. “But it was only a very small pile,” says a lady from the tourist office.

In the Steinbeck Center, Salinas has made up for that earlier, unhappy relationship. I don’t think I have ever come across a museum that so thoroughly celebrates the works of one author. After a brief and excellent introductory film, the visitor literally walks through the world of Steinbeck’s books. Clips from film and stage versions of East of Eden are shown next to a Model T truck that visitors can crank up following instructions from the novel. In The Grapes of Wrath exhibit, there is a row of migrant labourers’ cabins . Just around the corner in Cannery Row, gulls cry, the air smells of brine and the sardines that were the great industry of this coastline when Steinbeck was living there. Finally after a recording of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the last word is a quote from East of Eden - my favourite in a museum and life full of wonderful quotes: “If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.”

Next day in order to learn a little about “the salad bowl of the world” that Steinbeck loved so much, I decide to take a wine tasting and agricultural tour of the Salinas Valley. I never thought I could spend a day visiting vegetables but guide and owner ,Evan Oakes, is passionate about agriculture and on his tour he conveys that passion to his visitors. In his company I travel a good way along the path that food takes from the earth to the Great American stomach. And Oakes’ tour is also through Steinbeck’s world. In Spreckels, the old sugar beet company town where Steinbeck worked in 1921, Oakes points out the old Spreckels company building, a redbrick structure with a ballroom on the first floor, in a row of buildings unchanged since his time.

Less than half an hour away at Cannery Row in Monterey, my first impression is that everything has changed. Steinbeck loved the Pacific Ocean as much as the fertile farmland and when he wrote his story of the sardine fishermen, cannery workers, prostitutes and drifters, this strip of sardine canneries was smelly and noisy and full of working life. In the midst of it all was Doc, a character based on Steinbeck’s beloved marine biologist friend, Ed Ricketts, who worked lovingly at collecting and studying marine life in his wooden laboratory overlooking the ocean.

Today, the magnificent Monterey Aquarium has taken over where Doc left off. At first glance Cannery Row would seem to have been reduced to a collection of souvenir shops and seafood restaurants. But when I start to look for Steinbeck, I find traces of him and his tale everywhere. Kalisa’s café across from the aquarium was the La Ida bordello of the book. The Chinese newspapers that paper the ceiling are still stained yellow from Steinbeck’s and Rickett’s cigarettes. Next door, Lee Chong’s grocery is now a gift store but at the back are some of the original fittings from the Chinese shop. Across the road overlooking the water, Doc’s tiny wooden laboratory still stands. Further along the city of Monterey has preserved examples of immigrant shacks. John Steinbeck was a man of great heart and great wisdom. In writing about small Californian towns and small Californian lives, he keeps our eyes fixed on the big questions of all our lives wherever we are on the planet: love, faith, loss, and the great unfathomable questions of destiny. We should not, therefore be surprised when a quote from Steinbeck’s year researching the King Arthur legend near Glastonbury Somerset, takes us back to England “I felt more at home there than anywhere,” he would say. “There was something there that I understood and that understood me.