Sunday, 23 December 2012

You say Merry, I say Christmas.

When I was but a wee bairn, at the tender age of six (or possibly seven), I was in my first play. If I ever become a famous actor, I'd like it to become common knowledge that I popped my theatrical cherry at Juniper Hill Elementary School, in that seminal production, "Santa and the Dragon". You know, that famous Christmas tale. About Santa Claus. And a fucking dragon.

Fa la la la la, la la la la!

And yes, I played the dragon, because I am awesome.

I was very "method". I did the Daniel Day-Lewis thing of living as a dragon for weeks. I took up smoking two packs a day so I could feel what it was like to breathe fire, and for the duration I lived in the cupboard under the stairs, which I referred to as my "lair". Family members and friends were to refer to me only as "Dragon".

It seems a little strange to me that this school play was done in England, in the village of Flackwell Heath (which I agree sounds like something Tolkien might have invented for a joke), rather than America. It's one of the little, ironic quirks of the Western world that Britain -- a predominantly secular society -- likes its Christmasses just as Christian as can be, whereas the US -- where you can't spit out your chewing tobacco without hitting a church (and making that little "pting!" noise) -- tends to treat Christmas more as an all-you-can-shop buffet of commercial largesse.

Admittedly, I'm generalising, and there's a lot of crossover. In Britain, Christmas (along with everything else) is becoming more and more Americanised. Soon we'll have "Boxing Day, brought to you by Starbucks". And in the US, I'm sure there are plenty of places that I simply haven't visited where the term "Baby Jesus" is on the tips of everyone's lips. Or at very least, the tips of everyone's guns. That's how people communicate with each other down South right? They just fire off Morse code into the sky. If I had my own personal arsenal of guns, that's what I'd do.

Anyway, I'm surprised that my school play wasn't "Baby Jesus and the Dragon", at very least, or a Nativity scene with a few wise men and a herd of dragons standing about. What is the collective noun for a group of dragons? A platoon? A cavalcade? A thunder? Holy shit, a thunder of dragons. That sounds amazing. My point is...the Brits love their Christian iconography at Christmas. They love hymns about King Wenceslas looking out of a window (or something like that) and hymns about Baby Jesus getting presents. I mean, sure, their favourite Christmas song literally has the word "faggot" in it, but they like hymns too.

No good pictures of hymns or school nativity plays, so here's another sick picture of a dragon, just because...

In the UK, Christianity is kind of the default setting. The Church of England is the official church. I vividly recall having the Bible read to us in school assemblies, and to this day I remember getting excited when we started the "New Testament", which I assumed had just come out. "The new, updated testament!" I thought. "Finally, we can move on from those boring stories about olden-timey Jews in the desert and have some modern stories about God battling robots or teaming up with Batman." Needless to say, I was disappointed.

This collusion of church and state, rare in the US if you don't live in one of the more nutjobby parts of the country and generally frowned upon, has the opposite effect of what you might expect. Religion is watered down. When it's something you're forced to sit through in school, like everything else it becomes pretty boring. Not once did I ever feel like I was hearing the word of God; I thought I was listening to a series of mostly boring stories droned at us by our headmistress. I only perked up when she mentioned anything about "locusts", which always sounded epic.

Fa la la la la, la la la locusts!

At Christmas, this stuff was ramped up to 11, and we all had to sing boring songs about some fucking baby. Who was this baby, I thought, and what made him so bloody special? I'm not sure people realise that when you say the phrase "died for your sins" to a young boy, his first thought is, "What the hell is a sin?" and his second thought is, "AWESOME. DEATH." A child has no concept of sin; that's something adults invent and impose on them.

When I moved to San Francisco, all that stopped. My parents aren't religious, and the only time I even saw a Bible was in hotel rooms. Christmas lost all its Christian edge. People seemed less interested in singing hymns and more interested in trampling each other to death outside of Walmarts.  If Bill O'Reilly really wants to preach some bollocks about a "War on Christmas", he should look no further than the rapacious capitalism and commercialism he no doubt loves. It's not true that Coca-Cola invented the modern image of Santa Claus, but the fact that so many Americans believe it says something about the faith they have in the power of their own advertising.

Which brings me full circle. A few years ago, there was a national outcry when Madame Tussaud's created a nativity scene featuring the Beckham family.  It also featured Kylie Minogue as the Angel, Tony Blair, George W Bush,  as the Magi while Hugh Grant, Samuel L Jackson, and comedian Graham Norton were cast as shepherds. They missed a trick by not having a button on the Samuel L. Jackson waxwork that you could press to make him do THIS. "And you will know...MY NAME IS THE LORD..." etc. Oh, well.

Man, Samuel L. Jackson really is in everything, isn't he?

Anyway, there was an outcry. A teacher from Coventry even went so far as to travel down to London and personally deface it. However, the Beckham scene didn't generally offend people (mostly, we laughed), and certainly not on a religious level (yes, Church leaders complained, but whatever). It felt more like an affront on our childhoods. See, the nativity scene isn't so much about religion in the UK as it is an image from our collective youths.  That was Christmas to us. Sure, we don't believe any of that horseshit, but who doesn't like the baby Jesus? He is, after all, the best Jesus. 

And so, plenty of secular, liberal-minded people who would think nothing of an octopus and a lobster in a school nativity play somehow felt that this was a step too far down the avenue of tackiness. It just seemed a little too...well...American.

Ironically, it also seemed too American to get offended by it and start talking about a "War on Christmas". So we laughed instead.

In the end, something about the dysfunction of the whole thing felt just like Christmas after all.

Friday, 14 December 2012

You say 2nd Amendment, I say, "Where's your well-regulated militia"?

The other week, New York City went over twenty-four hours without a serious violent crime happening, until someone was inevitably shot in Brooklyn. It was a momentous occasion. Much celebration ensued. Apparently. There was a brief moment when a 16-year-old Bronx resident shot himself in the thigh, but I guess that doesn't count.

I saw the whole thing as a metaphor for the entire country. A man shoots himself in the leg while the rest of the city ignores him and celebrates a lack of crime. And then a fatal shooting happens anyway. Someone, somewhere, is massively missing the point.

Then this happened. Every time a violent shooting happens in America, every time an innocent child is shot by a lunatic with a rifle powerful enough to bring down an armour-plated rhinoceros, there is exactly the same response: nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. What the rest of the developed world wants to know is, honestly, how many more times does this have to happen for the US to wake the hell up?

A few months ago, and tonight as well in fact, I got into rather heated debates on Facebook (the best place for a reasonable, balanced debate, I find) about gun control laws. Specifically, I drew comparisons between the US and the UK.

The UK has some of the strictest gun control laws around. All firearms must be licensed. The only kind of weapon you may carry is a rifle, and that is only if you belong to a recognised shooting club (or, presumably, if you're the Queen. I bet she keeps a rifle strapped to her back at all times). All assault weapons are illegal. You need a valid license to buy a gun, and you are questioned continually during the purchase to confirm your intent, your background, and your criminal record. It's also illegal to bring weapons into the country (duh).

On the other hand, there's this attitude to gun good, too.

The US has the highest gun ownership in the world, an average of 88.8 guns per 100 people. Yemen is ranked second with 54.8. With less that 5% of the world's population, the US manages to own 35-50% of the world's civilian-owned guns. Let's think about that the next time someone argues that the answer to the problem is "more guns".

In fairness, the US is ranked a lowly 28th when it comes to gun-related homicides per 100,000 people. Then again, when you compare the US rate (2.97 per 100,000 people) to the England & Wales rate (0.07 per 100,000 people), that doesn't look so good. That means that the US has a gun homicide rate over 42 times that of England (and Wales...but seriously, who cares about Wales?)

60% of all US homicides are firearm-related. 6% of all England/Wales homicides are firearm-related.

Annual total of firearms offences in England and Wales, falling thanks to gun control laws

The argument I inevitably encounter now is one I've heard many times before. I volunteered for the Obama presidential campaign in 2008 and wound up in Indiana, in a hellaciously Republican neighbourhood outside Indianapolis. "People are getting stabbed in England, though," gun enthusiasts would argue. "Yes," I'd counter, "but they aren't getting shot."

Firstly, I challenge anyone to waltz into a cinema, or a school, and try to murder 20 people using only a knife. I mean, I don't actually challenge you to do that (Note: PLEASE DO NOT ACCEPT THIS CHALLENGE). My point, though, stands. You couldn't. Not unless the movie were so good that everyone in the movie theatre just sat there, gripped, in a catatonic stupor. Even then, I think your stabbing arm would get a bit tired.

Secondly, I've been mugged in London. Well, let me rephrase that. I've watched my friend get mugged. Three "youths", as I believe they're called, confronted us in a park, held a knife to my friend's stomach, took his wallet and phone, and ran away. I think I was deemed too pathetic to bother with, or something. I try to imagine that same scenario but with guns. It would have been mind-bendingly terrifying, especially as there's one thing a gun can do that a knife can't: it can just GO OFF. This is also the point in the story where I admit that, yes, one of them came toward me with a knife, and...I ran. I mean, just a bit, but I ran all the same. He lost interest relatively quickly, as I said, and fled. If he'd had a gun, running wouldn't have been much of an option. You can't long-distance stab someone (unless you're an Olympic javelin thrower).

Thirdly, yes, the most common method of killing in the UK is "by a sharp instrument". In 2009/10, 210 such homicides occurred (compared with the 9,146 annual firearm homicides in the US, which puts them fifth in the world). That year, the proportion of such homicides decreased, from 40% to 34% (let's remember that firearms account for 60% of US homicides). I direct you to this UK Home Office study, which has all the information I just quoted and also notes a general decrease in violent crime after the year of the UK's latest gun control reform (which was notable for banning handguns). You'll note that handgun crime fell 12% from 2008/9 to 2009/10. Also check out Figure 2.4.

Fourthly, it's true that the UK does have a higher "violent crime" rate than the US. Four times higher, apparently. You got us. Fair play. However, murders with weapons are much higher in the US, 4.8 compared to the UK's 1.23. In the UK and EU, violent crime is also counted differently. All assaults here count as violent crime, but in the US only serious, aggravated assaults do. Would you rather be punched by a drunken soccer hooligan know...shot?

This hooligan WILL punch you.

The final argument that gun-lovers put forward is that the US is just a more violent continent. Europe sees your supposed predilection for violence and raises you two world wars and a healthy dose of soccer hooliganism.

It still feels odd to me that, even in the SF Bay Area, my local supermarket had a sign on the door saying that firearms aren't allowed inside. Well, Jesus, if they aren't allowed inside, why are they allowed in the parking lot just outside? Why draw the line at an arbitrary barrier? For context, you can't light a cigarette within 20 feet of the door of a public building. Welcome to California: where guns are marginally more tolerated than cigarettes.

Look, I know the UK doesn't have the same gun culture as the US. There's good reason for this. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, I swear a good 90% of Londoners are drunk out of their tiny English minds. We are, if nothing else, a common-sensical people, and we recognise that introducing firearms into that level of unbridled alcoholism is probably unwise. Guns and booze, famously, like milk and whiskey, do not mix well. In certain parts of the US, meanwhile, people seem to be veritably stirring their mint juleps with the butts of their Smith & Wessons.

Just a standard night on the London Underground.

Americans don't want to get rid of their guns. Fine. Let's at least modify them, then. Beyond Chris Rock's expensive bullet idea, I have three other ready-made solutions to the crisis which I'd like Obama to carefully peruse:

1. Affix one of those annoying tiny metal puzzles to every gun, which you have to solve before you take a shot. Seriously, everyone hates those things, and no one can solve them. It takes away any heat-of-the-moment shootings, although some people might become so frustrated that they just beat the nearest person to death with the butt of the gun. Still, it's a small victory.

2.  All guns must be bought from IKEA and assembled at home. I just like the idea of would-be murderers sitting on their bedroom carpet, surrounded by gun parts, wielding a useless electric screwdriver, and trying to read an incomprehensible construction manual through bitter, frustrated tears.

3. Make all guns digital. Install Windows 95 on all guns. Every time someone pulled the trigger, a little message would pop up saying "Error: fatal exception" or "Please install the necessary gun drivers" or, perhaps best of all, "PC Load Letter: the bullet tray is empty".

You're welcome, Obama.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

You say tea, and I say, "No thanks"

“Cup of tea? Do you want a cup of tea? Do you?”

When I moved to San Francisco at the impressionable age of eight, I had little idea of the number of times I would soon be asked, mockingly, whether I wanted a cup of tea. My American peers had never met a “real” Englishman, but their knowledge extended far enough to routinely ask me about if I knew the Queen, in variations on the same ridiculous accent that was like a cross between Basil Fawlty, Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, and someone with Downs Syndrome. When I replied that, no, actually, I didn’t, they all, without fail, first laughed at my accent, and then lifted their pinkie fingers and asked me if I wanted a cup of tea. General mirth inevitably ensued.

To add insult to injury, I didn’t even like tea. The only time I’d tried it, I thought it tasted like someone had stirred some hot water with the world’s rustiest iron pipe and then had a homeless man spit some chewing tobacco into it. 

That unmistakable aroma of stagnant rust

It’s just a stupid stereotype, I thought, until I moved back to London ten years later and found that, indeed, the English were constantly drinking the stuff, to an almost neurotic degree. The only thing they drank more of was alcohol. To this day, it boggles the mind that British people aren’t constantly rushing back and forth to the toilet from the countless pints of diaretic liquids they’re constantly chucking down themselves.

In any case, to this day, I can’t have a cup of tea without thinking, “Look at me. I’m fulfilling their hideous prophecy. I am the Oedipus of tea! I am a walking cliché.” And I’m surrounded by dozens of tiny, mocking, American faces. Trust the Americans to ruin a perfectly decent cup of tea, eh?

You ruined it, you utter utter bastards.

The upshot of all this is that I’m trapped between these two worlds. I have both passports, but this just means I can be a bit of a freak on two different continents instead of just one. As a bisexual friend of mine once said, “You’d think it would mean twice the opportunities, but it just means twice the rejection,” and being a British-American feels similar sometimes.

I know I’ll never convince Brits that baseball is a brilliant sport, any more than I’ll be able to explain the joys (and rules, for that matter) of cricket to Americans.  I’ll always seem a bit over-enthusiastic and loud (to the point of crassness) to my British friends, just as my American friends will always wonder if I’m just a liiiiiiiiittle bit of an alcoholic. I’m perfectly comfortable in both worlds, but to “natives”, as it were, I’ll always be a bit of an oddity, like a zebra with a long neck who’s inadvertently wandered into a herd of giraffes.


However, like the man who will mercilessly mock his brother only to bristle at anyone else who joins in, I find myself criticising my respective countries one moment only to be resolutely defending them the next. I feel uniquely placed to tell Brits and Yanks alike just what their problems are, and also why those weirdos across the pond are so…well, weird…but great, too.

This blog will try to explain you all to each other, and cross that great transatlantic barrier that divides us by a common language.

Now, first thing’s first. You see, the batsman needs to protect his wicket without nicking an outside edge into the slips, and….oh, forget it.