Culture vulture

Master of Kitsch shows an unexpectedly refined side

Elton John – pardon, Sir Elton John – is, for better or worse, a national treasure and global celebrity. We are used to seeing him on stage, sweating over his piano in the limelight, alternating between belting out soulful anthems or cooing sensitive ballads. We take part – no, look up to – his impossibly glamorous social life, epitomised by his annual charity ball. And we follow, sometimes with schadenfreude, the tabloid fodder that is his marriage to David Furnish and his adopted children. But we don’t usually think of Elton as an intellectual of true artistic discernment. And yet that is the side which is on display at an exhibition entitled Radical Eye, at Tate Modern until 7 May 2017.


It all started, as Elton explains in a video interview shown at the exhibition, when he got sober in 1990. In 1989, Elton has sold almost all his possessions, as if to make way for a new life. Within the year, he was paid a visit by art dealer David Fahey, who brought with him a selection of modernist photographs. Elton was immediately enchanted and bought six of them on the spot. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for the genre, building a collection of such importance that it has been brought all the way from Sir Elton’s Atlanta home to the Switch House at Tate Modern.

Many of the photographs on display, such as Man Ray’s Tears, are iconic, and seeing them in the original is like meeting a celebrity up close. All of the photos shown convey the excitement of a technology in its infancy, an art form that was new and continuously evolving, as cameras and films offered new opportunities to make us see reality in different ways or – in some cases – see a reality that otherwise we could not have witnessed. We observe children playing in the streets of 1920s Harlem and visit impoverished tenant farmers of Alabama, wracked with bitter deprivation. Of all these socially aware images, I found Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother the most captivating of. It shows the face of a woman who is careworn and tired, and yet alert with apprehension. But what is  even more moving is how her children have turned their little faces away, either in shame or in fear, or both – burying them in their mother’s hair as if they could find protection and refuge there.


These pictures are works of art very much of their time, yet like all enduring art, they have something to tell us even now. They are able to move and excite an audience almost a century later, able to tell us something vivid, fresh and new despite their age. What is perhaps most striking about them is their economy: these photographs are simple, often tiny in size, and yet have an instant and powerful impact on the viewer.

We live in an age saturated by photography. What used to be the province of professional photographers – people able to afford a Leica – is now a medium of expression open to billions of people around the world. Social media, that content-hungry monster, continuously encourages us to snap and share our own lives, our experiences. But they are more than mere depictions of a moment: they’re stories. As Snapchat chief Evan Spiegel, explains: “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”And yet, how may of these stories stick? Apart from our friends and followers, who really cares about them? Do we do art a favour when we measure the quality of photograph by the number of likes it attracts on Insta?
The modernist photography on show makes us think again what a photography is for, and what a considered, well-thought out photograph can be. How far it can be pushed, defamiliarised, distorted, how it can be made more powerful: by consciously thinking about process and technique, framing, perspective, choice of subject and even processing and printing itself. There’s no reason why the same questions could not be applied to smartphone photography. To achieve this, however, takes time, and in a world where sharing is instant, the desire to be ever-present on social media becomes a distraction; the enemy of art.

A final thought the exhibition prompted in me was the connection between photography and writing. In my own writing, I almost always draw on my own life – so much so, that some of my stories are really just a form of reportage, a stylised journal. Sometimes I give myself a hard time that the world about which I write, with its people and places and things, aren’t invented; that I didn’t imagine them. Looking at great photography today gave me the comforting reassurance that an art form that takes reality as its subject need not be mundane: that in artfully reflecting that which already exists, we can create an expression that’s radically new.

On reflection

Guns for longboards

The United States is awash with guns. In 2008, as Barack Obama took the presidential oath, firearms outnumbered people for the first time – now the ratio stands at an estimated 357 to 317 million. Every year, over 32,000 Americans die by the gun, making the US by far the most violent developed country. Gun deaths have become so routine that an under-26 is now more likely to be killed by a bullet than in a car crash. And while mass shootings grab the headlines, it’s everyday killings that silently pile up the bodycount. In San Diego, churches, the police and skaters have come together to tackle the problem: drop a gun, no questions asked, and get a gift card or longboard in return.

It’s a chilly December morning in Southeastern San Diego. Once, this part of town was a byword for deprivation and violence. But things are changing: a modern tram whizzes past affordable houses being built, and where once booze shops dispensed liquid amnesia from behind iron bars, a community centre has risen, complete with a parade of family restaurants and a Starbucks.

gun with cop being taken

Police keep notes on guns but ask no questions. Photo: Larry Johnson

Despite the ungodly hour, the Bryco Center – a brownfield site outside a warehouse – is humming with activity. On the parking lot, a local TV transmission van marks the spot like a beacon; nearby a journalist (pretty blonde, tight jeans) is already interviewing the assembled notables. At the moment, she’s talking to the imposing figure of the Reverend Gerald Brown – a US marine-turned-pastor, he speaks on behalf of the United African-American Ministerial Action Council.

The San Diego Gun Buyback started with a tragic killing, recalls Brown, and even as he recalls the bloody event, his baritone soothes the soul: “In 2008, two of our kids, Monique Palmer and Mike Taylor, got shot in a random act of gang violence. They were just fifteen. Now sadly, this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. So usually, the community comes together and collects money to help with the funeral. But my predecessor came up with a new idea. He said, let’s do something constructive with all that money: let’s use it to get rid of some of those guns that kill our children. He put a call in to the District Attorney and asked if he would match the amount raised by the community. The DA agreed, and so we had our first Gun Buyback. Since then, we’ve had one every year – and so far we’ve taken around 1,450 firearms out of circulation – and today we want to add to that number.”

So, what’s the connection with skateboarding?

“Right now, skateboarding is the thing for kids”, Brown smiles. “Back when I was young, we used to have bikes, but now kids use skateboards to get around – you see them everywhere. Skateboards are light, they’re easy to carry, you can take them on the bus or the trolley. So by offering skateboards as well as gift vouchers, we hope that kids will bug their parents to come here and trade in an unwanted gun for a longboard. It makes a great present too, with Christmas just around the corner.”

As Brown speaks, a police SUV swoops by and parks emphatically like an automotive exclamation mark. The legend “CHIEF 1” on its bonnet proclaims that the wiry woman behind the wheel is San Diego’s top cop, Shelley Zimmermann. She high-fives the Reverend, as if merely arriving on the scene were an occasion to be celebrated. If she’s worried about an ongoing controversy over the shooting an unarmed, mentally-ill man by one of her officers, she’s not showing it today.

Dennis David and Shelley

Shelley Zimmermann thinks the Gun Buyback is a great example of community policing. Photo: Larry Johnson

“This event is a great example of community policing”, explains the Chief, who – despite her sweet and winning smile – has been far quicker to fire police officers than her predecessor.

“What you see here is different sections of the community coming together to tackle gun crime – the local church, anti-crime initiatives and the skater community. We, the police, are only here to facilitate the event, making sure it is secure and that the guns are kept and destroyed safely. We ask no questions, we’re not interested where a gun came from, whether it’s legal or not, who’s turning it in.”

What if one of the guns was used in a crime? Wouldn’t your no-questions-asked-approach mean that you’re effectively destroying evidence?

Zimmermann is unperturbed. “We don’t run any tests on the guns we collect – all we do is note down registration numbers. So yes, if a number is flagged on the system, we take another look at that gun. If it’s not flagged or the serial number has been removed, we destroy the gun. Even if it was in fact used in a gun crime, at least now it will be out of circulation.”

I’d love to talk more to Shelley, to find out what it was like when she infiltrated drug cartels and prostitution rings in her nine years as undercover agent. But there’s no time, the TV journalist is already hovering and I move on.

Stacking box-fresh longboards onto a display  is Dennis Martinez, a fifty-something tough guy who, with his imperial beard, looks like Napoleon III in streetwear. Once a champion skater, he turned addict and troublemaker, then kicked the habit. A pastor now, he ministers to the imprisoned, runs a faith-based rehab and orchestrates “Off the Streets”, a youth diversion programme designed to discourage kids from pursuing a delinquent life.

Dennis is hard to pin down; for days, I’ve hunted and harried him without success, always a step behind. His phone is ringing all the time – one minute he dashes off to watch his 13-year-old daughter’s school play, the next he’s troubleshooting at his sober house (a client doesn’t want to take his drugs test), then he’s rushing to hear the deathbed confession of a man succumbing to his gunshot wounds.

Dennis Harvey Neil

From left to right: Prison pastor Dennis Martinez, Harvey Hawks and Neil Carver.            Photo: Ariana Drehsler

“I’m not against the Second Amendment Right to bear arms”, says Martinez, “especially with what happened in San Bernardino. But we want to get unsecured, unwanted firearms off the streets so they don’t fall into the wrong hands. Gangsters target the homes of old people for burglaries, they follow unsuspecting victims home from shooting ranges, and that’s how a lot of guns that are later used in crimes get into circulation. An event like this really helps to make the community safer.”

That is Lisa Ortiz’s hope too. Clutching her lapdog, Lisa has come along to watch the gun buyback on behalf of Mothers with a Message – a tragic club uniting mums whose kids have killed or been killed. Their mission is to speak to at-risk youth and prisoners of the grief a mother feels when a child is murdered or locked up. As a result, they hope, young people will make better choices for their lives.

“Chico was my daughter’s dog, and now she’s gone, I carry him wherever I go”, says Lisa.  “He’s all I have left. He makes me feel closer to her.” The snaggletoothed pet looks contented in Ms Ortiz’ arms, exuding a cheerfulness at odds with his owner’s forlorn air. Ms Ortiz’ daughter, Marcella Peraza, was killed at a birthday party six and a half years ago – by Christoper Sanchez, the young man who had taken her there. According to police, Sanchez had left the party after getting into a fight, then returned around 2:30am and began shooting into a crowd of guests outside the house. A stray bullet ricocheted off a car’s windscreen wiper and hit Marcella, who was running for her life, in the back.

“Marcella was my only daughter”, said Ms Ortiz in court at the time. “Before her life was taken, she gave me so much love and happiness. She had grown from my daughter to my companion. Marcella was young, charismatic and beautiful  Without Marcella, life is empty, confusing and I look forward to nothing, except being with her when I die.”


Liza Ortiz lost her daughter Marcella to a shooting. Photo: Ariana Drehsler

The judge convicted Sanchez of first degree murder, sentencing him to 85 years to life. To add to the tragedy, Sanchez was later shot dead by prison guards during a riot. His head was so badly injured the undertakers had to remodel his skull, his mother, Sonya Veregas, tells me, her ears tearing up.

“And so I had to bury my son in a beanie.”

Six years on, there has been some healing. Through Mothers with a Message, Lisa and Sonya – who used to fight each other in court – have built a friendship based on their shared pain and hope for the future. Where once they cried in their own separate pain, they share laughter together.

While we speak, Martinez’ fellow pastor Larry Johnson – tall, bespectacled, white beard, of austere bearing  – is tirelessly filming. Now he’s trained his lens onto two men exchanging jokes: the taller one in the ponytail and baseball cap is Neil Carver, the other – short, innocuous-looking – is 70s skating legend Harvey Hawks – a man whose life illustrates how an outing with a gun can turn into a tragedy at the twitch of a finger.

On a summer’s afternoon in 1986, the smiling chap before me was a dangerous man: drunk, angry, and in possession of a shotgun. He came from a massive row with his ex; driving down the highway, he got into an altercation with a van. The family in the van were rushing their son to hospital, who had had a motorbike accident – Hawks may well have misinterpreted their hurry for aggression. He pulled his weapon, which was on the backseat, and fired it whilst still driving. The shotgun slug – a single bullet devastating at short range – killed off-duty policewoman Patricia Faye Dwyer and gravely injured her friend, Wendy Varga.

“I didn’t know what had happened until four days later, when the police came to arrest me and told me I had killed someone. When they did, I had a bottle of Coors in my hand. I knew that moment that I would have to change my life.” Hawks sobered up, served 26 years in prison (nine years in excess of his sentence), and reformed. Now Hawks works with Johnson and Martinez, and puts his freedom to good use by fighting gun crime.

“Every day, I regret what happened”, explains Hawks, “I always think of the wonderful woman whose life I took. Its something I can never undo, but every day, I can at least do something to make amends. I do it by being part of this project. We can all be emotionally off-balance at times. But if people didn’t have access to a firearm when they’re angry, they wouldn’t use it. So anything we can do to get a firearm off the streets, that’s our goal.”


Hawks signs a longboard. Photo” Ariana Drehsler

Unlike Martinez, Hawks thinks the Second Amendment right to bear arms is outdated.

“The Second Amendment was written when people used to hunt for food, when we had no standing army, and when we’d just fought a war against a foreign force. Not only that, weapons were so much more primitive. Now the situation has completely changed. The assault weapons we have today or so powerful, it would have been unthinkable back then.”

Neil Carver – surfer dude, designer, accidental activist – agrees. He’s lived in Venice, LA, since it was a grotty slum where gunpowder mingled with the sea breeze in the air. When primary school children and their teachers were massacred at Sandy Hook, Carver felt he had to act.


“When I saw these primary school kids being shot, my wife and I were horrified. I was  wondering, what could I do to make a difference? Then I thought, maybe I can turn guns into longboards. To give a kid in a household that had a gun before a skateboard is to plant a seed that offers meaning during those difficult years of adolescence.”

For Neil, skateboarding isn’t just a sport, or a way to get around: it’s a way of life, a mindset.

“I’ve heard from skaters over and over again how skateboarding saved them from their circumstances. At the most basic level, a skateboard is a form of transportation. This idea, to ‘transport oneself’ is not only a literal way to get some distance from your immediate surroundings, but a metaphor for how a skater can immerse themselves in a different reality while they focus on the act of skating. Since so much of the pressure and danger of gun violence is geographic, it’s an empowering act to create a different context, one that we make for ourselves. So, like swords to ploughshares, we should turn guns into skateboards. Even if one skateboard helped prevent just one act of violence, it would be worth the effort.”

Getting the first longboard exchange off the ground wasn’t easy, but after doggedly pursuing the LAPD, Carver took part in a gun buyback in San Pedro. After that, Neil contacted Michael Brooke, who runs Longboarding for Peace, an international movement of skater activists fighting for peace and justice as far afield as Palestine. It was Brooke who got Neil in touch with the Hawks and Martinez – now they all work together, hoping to take the concept to other troubled spots in California, and to encourage people all over the US to follow suit.


Photo: Larry Johnson

By now, the exchange is underway. There’s a fascinating array of rides – from bog-standard family carriers to Harleys and vintage cars. Not everybody wants to give their name, but most are happy to talk. It quickly turns out that turning up here is a convenience and an act of prudence, not necessarily an anti-gun statement. Jeffrey, astride on a gleaming silver Vespa, brings a gun from the Korean war. Having inherited it from an uncle, he’s long wondered how he could get rid of it – this event was the perfect opportunity. Jen, a bubbly Chinese-American, winds down the window of her SUV and tells me she’s dropping off an old gun she’s just replaced with a new and better one. A pensioner tells me he has cancer and doesn’t want to leave a gun behind when he’s gone. Then there’s an old black lady in her Sunday best and a white, immaculately-kept 1970’s Cadillac. Aged 91, she too thinks the time has come to dispose of her gun. Abraham, 21, came in a beat-up sports car with his mate, dropping off an old “Jack Sparrow gun”, but Harvey tells me that people get killed by antique guns all the time. “From the day a gun is manufactured, it’s lethal even after a hundred years”, he says – a sobering thought. Listening to people, it seems guns are everywhere: one man has found his in a car park, another in flat after a tenant had moved out. Most people opt for the gift vouchers (amounting to $100 or $50, depending on the gun). The longboards (which cost $220 each) usually go to parents and grandparents. José Abados is one of them.

“As a landlord, I have a special permit to carry a gun. But now my son is getting older, I’m really worried that he’s going to find it and hurt himself, or us. So it’s much better to give him a longboard instead.”

At the end of the event, forty longboards have been given away, in addition to $200,000 worth of gift vouchers donated by the County Sheriff. The Gun Buyback has taken 240 guns, among them two AK47’s, two Uzis and a .410 shotgun, which is now illegal. A handsome loot, but still a drop in the ocean: in 2012, one million prospective gun-buyers applied for criminal background in California alone – and every time there’s a mass shooting, there’s a new rush for firearms.

loot impressive close-up

242 firearms destined for the smelter. Photo: Larry Johnson

As we wrap up, I ask Reverend Brown for his verdict. He says he’s happy, but when he thinks of the bigger picture, doesn’t he lose faith at what seems a losing struggle?

“Not at all”, he says, examining the stack of doomed weapons piled up in a police van. “Each one of these does a lot of damage, and though we’ll never know, I’m sure we’ve saved some lives today.”


On reflection

While you looked to Brussels, you were being conned at home


A recent poll on the EU referendum shows that the fight between in and out is a struggle between the generations. If the old had their way, we’ll be out – let the young decide, and we stay in.  “Outers” would have as believe that the EU is is a relic past its sell-by date, but the young, who have the future ahead of them – and have to live the longest with the consequences of the referendum –   do not agree. Perhaps they sense instinctively that when we debate the EU, we’re debating the wrong thing.

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Splitters like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are like the conman who points to the sky telling you to look at the bird while using the distraction to pickpocket your wallet. Take accountability. Tory has-beens (and never-weres) like Michael Howard rail about the EU’s unelected Eurocrats and civil servants. At the same time, they fawn before the monarchy and support an unelected House of Lords: where is their thirst for democracy at home? The EU has its flaws – but with this referendum, electors get their say. That’s accountability.

The EU is a nanny state determining the curvature of our bananas and banning prawn cocktail crisps, claims Boris Johnson. And yet, we drive on the left, have funny, three-pronged plugs, and are free to munch prawn cocktail crisps to our hearts’ content. The most widely spoken language in the EU isn’t French or German, but English. We have – and will keep – our own currency. Britain is still gloriously, sometimes incomprehensibly, different.

prawn cocktail

Sometimes fact-checking is just as easy as walking into a cornershop

Which is not to say that we aren’t oppressed by countless rules, sometimes petty, sometimes draconian. Recently, a school in Lancashire has banned birthday cakes, to avoid children suffering from allergies feeling left out. Anybody going out for a drink on a Friday night has to comply to a plethora of licensing rules enforced by grumpy bouncers: stand behind the rope, leave drinks inside when going for a smoke, take off hats, show ID, have pictures taken – the list goes on. We have more CCTV cameras per man, woman and child than any other country on earth, making us the most spied-on people on the planet. A motorist whose car tax is just one day overdue may have their car towed and crushed at once. David Cameron reserves the right to execute Britons by drone without a trial. These are all home-made impositions and infringements, yet you will wait in vain to hear Boris and Nigel complain.

The sovereignty argument is equally feeble. Neither the EU nor the United Nations nor even the will of its own population have stopped Britain from going to war in Iraq. British sovereignty is exercised more freely than that of most countries in the world. At the same time, our government is compromising control over strategically important industries and functions: nuclear power stations are built by the Chinese and GCHQ, our spying apparatus, has been at the beck and call of America’s NSA – without Parliament ever debating the issue. Still, Boris and Nigel don’t care. A 1984-style superstate is all right by them, as long as it’s homemade.


“Yo, Blair!” – Britain exercises its sovereignty

Finally, immigration. Yes, we have seen an influx of European citizens, just like the Costa del Sol has become a British retirement home. We are near full employment. Wages in some sectors are low, but our government does nothing to enforce, let alone raise, the minimum wage, nor does it do anything to help employees better their conditions through collective bargaining. Writing from London, as I do, I am not so much exercised by Polish labourers sleeping three to a room but Russian and Chinese plutocrats who buy up every morsel of the capital, making it impossible to rent or even own a home here. There is a housing shortage, we hear, and yet we see before our own eyes luxury apartments being built – condominiums which are bought off-plan by foreign tycoons and then left empty as investments.


No housing crisis there: Boris Johnson’s New London.

What about terrorists sneaking into the country on EU passports, though? Other European countries have at least just as much to fear from terrorists with British passports (Jihadi John, “The Beatles”) as we have from Euro-Bombers. Home-grown terrorism is a shared problem, why not tackle it with our allies, sharing intelligence across borders? And if the existing passport controls are not enough, if we want to deny EU citizens entry, then we must also expect to have the very same rules applied to us as we fly to Prague, Paris or Berlin.

All over Europe there is concern about fugitives “invading” the continent. There are many arguments to be had on this question. Angela Merkel’s approach – to seek peace in Syria and come to an agreement with Turkey, paying Istanbul to prevent refugees from crossing into Greece – requires every bit of statecraft she can muster. It may or may not succeed. But no country has yet been forced to accept refugees against their will – even though an equitable distribution would make sense. Austria has unilaterally imposed of maximum quota of 80 asylum seekers per day. Hungary and other Balkan states have closed their borders. These are all controversial moves. But none of them required these countries to leave the Union. It shows that the anti-refugee rhetoric is baseless: Britain can protect its borders from war refugees. After all, Britain is still polishing its Second World War-halo, absolving the current generation, living in unprecedented wealth, from any moral imperative to help those who have lost all.


A seld-obsessed Britain has excused itself from the arduous slog of leadership in a complicated, fast-moving world


Now on the economy. Outers dream of free trade agreements with India and China. Would this help British workers, or merely see their jobs outsourced to Bangalore at an even faster rate than today. We already trade with the world outside Europe, and very successfully so. Take a look at the automotive industry: Britain in the EU now produces more cars than ever. Indian-owned Jaguar Land Rove sells record numbers in China, as do German-owned Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Equally, Dyson (which moved production from Wiltshire to Malaysia) is doing a roaring global trade – as is our aerospace and arms industry, our academic sector and our creative industries – not to mention our financial services sector. Britain as a member of the EU has built a competitive economy of truly global reach. There is no economic case for leaving, but every reason to stay.


Besties: Nigel and Vlad

Finally, a word on geo-politics. Vladimir Putin must be cackling into his tea every time a Tory blowhard agitates against Brussels. More and more, the US expects that Europe – the EU – grapple with the problems on its doorsteps. Russia already has Britain in her sights – for harbouring anti-Putin exiles, and pointing the finger of blame at the Kremlin for the Litvinenko murder. If Britain were on its own, Putin would let his thirst for vengeance free rein. Not only that, in leaving the EU, we would weaken Europe just at a time when it is one of the few powers standing up to Russia’s imperialist drive.We’d not only backstab Europe in its hour of need, but also betray our own national interest.

Not everything in the EU is perfect. But whatever weaknesses the Union has, they are all fixable. The US, China, Russia and India are all set to shape the 21st century to their advantage. Unified, Europe can be an equal player. If we break away now, future generations will not forgive us.

On reflection

Why David Bowie is like cocaine to me

While I’d never wish to disparage all of my lovely, intelligent, creative and cultured friends for whom Bowie was an inspiration, both artistically and personally, I am glad to find at least one writer who seems composed in the face of the great man’s passing. It’s no disrespect, just that Bowie was like cocaine to me. I know the funny white granules must be amazing, because everybody tells me so, but the stimulant never really set my brain on fire. Just like I could never imagine purchasing the drug from a dealer, but snort a line out of courtesy, finding it amusing and sociable, I’d never put up a Bowie poster on my bedroom wall, but still love singing along to Major Tom, Starman and Heroes when someone else played them.


Note: wearing exuberant clothes as a man doesn’t make you gay. Conversely, being gay doesn’t mean wearing exuberant clothes, or even being having a sense of style.

I accept this numbness as a comgenital condition, for better or worse.
In similar fashion, I have never felt Bowie somehow gave me permission to be gay, because I never remembered him demonstrating his love to another man, or even his delight in the male physique. My heroes at the time were Tchaikovsky, Baldwin, Mercury, Mapplethorpe and Wilde, who were true to themselves in much less forgiving times than the sexually liberated space Bowie inhabited, or, in the case of Mercury, were really properly out there.

All of this means no disrespect, I hasten to add.

I’ll try and listen to all the Bowie songs my lovely friends have posted and hopefully gain an education and a deeper appreciation in the process – perhaps it’s not too late for my heart to be truly moved.

By the way, I do think it’s impossible for any recently departed to get any decent shuteye in the afterlife when people shout RIP every five minutes, which I imagine is like annoyingly your coffin being nudged by excitable mourners. If you want the dead to rest in peace, will ya stop crying RIP the whole bloody time?

So, farewell then,
David B,
You were loved by many
Maggie Thatcher must be spinning in her outsourced grave
Ha, ha.
Maybe you are smiling too, up above –
Eternal Starman in the sky.

On reflection, Reportage

AA celebrates its 80th birthday in Atlanta

by Alfred Rinaldi

additional interviews by Rhett Palmer

Downtown Atlanta is crowded today, so crowded that traffic is coming to a standstill. Blinking in the July sun, a never-ending steam of people is heading towards the concrete complex of the Georgia World Congress Center, ambling past a three-piece band playing jaunty N’awlins jazz. Everyone in the throng seems to wear a lanyard and a smile. In bold letters, their name tags read Jane M., Tim B., Brandy R., Renata H., but nowhere is there any indication what they’re here for.


Most of them are white, plenty are older. There are veteran bikers with straggly beards, parading years of rebellion in faded body art, and college kids in trendy clothes, the hopeful glow of youth on their faces. And everywhere, volunteer stewards – whose neon-green vests read “Happy, Joyous, Free” – welcome the crowds. For the uninitiated, it’s impossible to guess that the 60,000 people gathered here have come celebrate the 80th birthday of Alcoholics Anonymoys, the Twelve Step fellowship that has helped them to stop drinking.


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Selfie magnet: a bagpiper underlines AA’s international reach

The International Convention – AA’s fourteenth since 1950 – kicks off with a giant meeting at the Georgia Dome football stadium. The packed audience eagerly awaits the moment when an African-American woman in her fifties steps in front of the microphone, her image beamed onto giant screens. “My name is Stefanie M”, she exclaims, “and I’m an alcoholic.” It’s not a confession – it’s a declaration. The crowd greets with cheers, whooping and applause. For twenty minutes, the trade unionist, who has been sober since 1990, tells the story of her life, or – in AA parlance, “shares her experience, strength and hope”. Like all AA-“shares”, it follows the same format: the build-up of addiction (“what we were like”), turning point (“what happened” – usually a low point AA’s call “bottom”),  and a new, sober life (“what we’re like now”).

Today, stories like this are told in meetings all over the world, from Iran to Malaysia, from Honduras to China. AA counts approximately two million members, is present in 173 countries, and has translated its basic text “Alcoholics Anonymous” into 69 languages (the latest being Twi for Uganda). It’s a remarkable success for a formula that was stitched together by two barely sober alcoholics with an eclecticism fans call inspired genius, and its opponents unscientific quackery.


Bill W

Bill Wilson co-wrote “Alcoholics Anonymous”, also known as “the Big Book”

William Griffith Wilson – known as Bill W – was a stockbrocker who had tried time and again to stop drinking, never with any lasting success. During the dying days of prohibition, Wilson was necking three-and-a-half pints of cheap moonshine a day, living off the meagre earnings of his wife Lois, who worked at a department store. Time and again, Wilson solemnly resolved to stop drinking, and yet, he always fell off the wagon sooner or later. Baffled and demoralised, Wilson checked himself into Towns Hospital, an upscale clinic catering to New York’s upper crust inebriates (his well-off brother-in-law footed the bill: in today’s money, Towns charged around £750 per day).

There, Wilson met Dr Silkworth, a neurologist who had become convinced that alcoholism was not rooted in a moral failing or weakness of character, but a physical illness that’s triggered by the ingestion of alcohol in any quantity, no matter how small. Control was impossible, said Silkworth; only complete abstinence could arrest the progression of what he termed a disease. In his definition, alcoholism was “an obsession of the mind that condemns one to drink, and an allergy of the body that condemns one to die.” To Wilson, Silkworth’s ideas were revelatory. They made perfect sense to him, but even though Wilson took on board the mantra that “the first drink does the damage”, he could not resist his cravings for long.

The second element came in the unlikely shape of an old drinking buddy, Ebby Thacher, who called on Wilson out of the blue. Getting ready for a booze-up, Wilson was surprised to hear instead that Thacher had “got religion” and stopped drinking – a joyful message Thacher was passing on to his old friend. Wilson was enthused. Could this be the cure? Apparently not, because soon afterwards, he embarked on yet another alcoholic spree, ending up in Towns for the fourth time. Then, the legendary AA miracle occurred. Drying out in his hospital bed, Wilson reported an ecstatic, “white light” spiritual experience during which he felt the presence of God quite clearly. “Then”, he recounted, “came the blazing thought ‘You are a free man’”. This astonishing supernatural event not only left Wilson utterly convinced of God’s existence. It also gave him a profound sense and knowledge that he needed never drink again, that he was truly cured.


Dr. Bob Smith

But even this miracle seemed to wear off over time, as Wilson started to feel vulnerable. On a failed business trip to Akron, Ohio, he found himself alone and defeated in a strange city with a whole, empty weekend ahead. Bored and restless, he was tempted to go for a ginger ale at the hotel bar. Realising he was heading for a relapse, Wilson had an idea: if only he could only find another alcoholic to talk to – one who wanted to stop, but couldn’t – he might be able to talk himself out of his craving. And who knows, he might even be able to help the other person stop. Instead of heading for the bar, Wilson looked up the church directory hanging in the hotel lobby and called a minister at random, a Reverend Tunks, asking if he knew of any “drunks” he could speak to. The minister, unencumbered by any data protection qualms, readily gave Wilson ten leads to call. Wilson dialled every number until he was put in touch with Henrietta Seiberling, a member of the Goodyear tyre dynasty. And it just so happened that she knew a prospect, local surgeon Dr Robert Smith. “Dr. Bob” reluctantly agreed to meet Wilson, but only to please his wife. Anxious to drink, he gave warning that his meeting with Wilson was only going to last fifteen minutes. But as it turned out, the two men hit it off and spoke into the night, forming a friendship that lasted until Smith’s death of cancer in 1950. Together, Smith and Wilson came up with the idea of starting up a meeting that was exclusively devoted to alcoholics to spread their message. The year was 1935, and this Akron meeting, held in a school hall and still continuing today, was the beginning of AA.
Back at the Georgia Dome, AA’s (anonymous) press officer – who looks so healthy as if he’d never even looked at a shot glass – explains a central AA tenet. “Bill and Dr. Bob discovered that one alcoholic can’t stay sober on his own. But when they shares their experience, strength and hope with one another, they can overcome their disease”.

We are getting for the next speaker, who’s a bit of a surprise. “My name is Michael B and I’m a deaf-mute, gay, Jewish slut”, comes a voice from the speakers as a bald, bespectacled man in his forties signs on screen. “But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because I’m an alcoholic.” Cheering and applause. Peppering his speech with witticisms, aperçus and gags, the writer from California recounts his “journey”; like other speakers he extols the healing medicine of the twelve steps and warns the audience against using poppers, a solvent popular in gay circles. One speakers follows the next: black, white, young, lesbian, straight, the formula remains the same. Time and again at this convention, alcoholics share their drinking and recovery stories. Time and again, they laugh at their most tragic and embarrassing memories only to be hushed by a moving anecdote just a few seconds later. A grey-haired lesbian speaks in memory of those of her AA-friends who died of AIDS in the 1980’s, earning a spontaneous standing ovation. Then there’s a cancer patient who has put off her surgery specially to come to the conference. She finds strength in the fellowship: “You are all miracles”, she tells the audience, “and in the next few weeks, I will need a miracle.”

God dice - 1

AA is big on God. Here: an AA member displays his dice

Buzzwords like “miracle”, “grace” and “gratitude” abound. Then, of course, there’s God – the non-denominational “higher power” which, according to AA, enables even the most inveterate drunkard to leave that can of Diamond White, that bottle of Pinot Grigio, on the shelf – “just for today”.

AA may count atheists and agnostics among its members, but God – which AA says can be anything the individual chooses to conceive – remains the most controversial ingredient of the programme.

Like all questions of belief, there is no way to settle the argument. But according to AA members, a “spiritual awakening” can be experienced, even engineered with the aid of the programme’s twelve steps: spiritual practices inspired by a 1930’s Christian movement, the “Oxford Group”. Whether others believe it or not, to AA’s, their own stories are indisputable testimony.
Carol Lynne, an ex-reservist from Vancouver who has been sober 14 years, hardly comes across as a religious zealot. On the contrary, the 44-year-old speaks about the application of the steps with analytical detachment.

“It’s for me primarily around our First Step. Just coming to terms with the fact that my drinking was completely out of control and that my life was unmanageable, which is in essence our First Step, was the beginning of everything. I thought I had bad luck, I thought I drank because I had problems. I thought if I could solve all my problems, if my life was better organised and less stressful, had less chaos in it, I didn’t need to or want to drink. And through that First Step, I had an opportunity to learn that just possibly it was my drinking that was creating all these problems, and that I didn’t seem very successful in stopping on my own. Like many AA members, I tried alls sorts of methods to stop drinking. Alcoholics Anonymous wasn’t my first choice, but everything failed except Alcoholics Anonymous.”

“I know there’s lots of people who drink safely, who make reckless decisions and grow out of it. I don’t really think that’s what Alcoholics Anonymous is for. I think it’s for people who in their experience, their drinking is creating consequences they’re not prepared to live with. And each one of us need to decide for ourselves if we’ve reached that threshold and want to reach out for help.”

“The other steps”, Carol Lynne continues, “have been critical for me in terms of just changing how I think and how I react to life. And you couple that with the the fellowship, a community of people, who are working towards the same goals, living in a similar way, having support of the fellowship. So for me personally, both of those things have helped me stay sober.”

AA has highly charismatic speakers with devoted followings. One of the biggest – and controversial – names in AA-land is Clancy. Aged 87, he is idolised by his disciples from the “Pacific Group”, which he bills as the largest AA group in the world. At the ornate, 19th century “Tabernacle”, which has played host to Guns N’ Roses, Robbie Williams and Prince, the AA-godfather – who is known as a no-nonsense taskmaster – regales his listeners with vignettes from his misspent youth. Revelling in curses and salty speech, his voice gravelly like that of a white Louis Armstrong, the one-time sailor recounts his misadventures and failings with superb comedic talent. Sober since 1958, he is now in charge of LA’s Midnight Mission, which is dedicated to straightening out “skid row drunks” with a dose of tough AA-love. Clancy hardly needs complain of lacking interest: two hours before he’s due to speak, people are already standing in line. Young people especially seem to really enjoy what the old-timer has to say.

Right at the end, Clancy gets serious. “You aren’t an alcoholic because alcohol is your problem”, he explains. “You’re an alcoholic because alcohol is your answer.” And then, a striking statement: “The solution lies in one alcoholic talking to another to reduce his feeling of being different enough to take an action he doesn’t yet believe in.”

It’s an assertion that gets one of the loudest claps. AA members swear by memorable phrases, aphorisms and slogans: maxims such as “First things first”, “Easy does it”, “Live and let live” are AA currency. They’re designed to make that which is vague and confusing simple and actionable, providing a manual for AA members to manage their lives on a daily basis. “Early in my AA sobriety”, writes Mel B, who has been sober since 1950, “I thought the slogans were a real turnoff. That’s because I had little confidence in anything that seemed so simple. The moralistic messages of the slogans also seemed trite and impractical (…) I’m happy to report that I stayed sober while something worked to change my views about the slogans. Today, they come across as simple but far-reaching statements of important principles.”

We would not be in America if there weren’t some kind of sell involved: the motion picture “Grace”, in which an attractive brunette overcomes her dipsomania, is hawked at fifteen bucks apiece. Elsewhere, there’s no shortage of merchandise either. Directly across the street from the “Tabernacle” is the “Sober Village”, an open air market where a plethora of mom-and-pop outfits deal in all manner of sobriety-related trinkets.

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The famously hospitable South

For the girls, there are T-shirts with the slogan “Spiritually Intoxicated” and “Sober Princess” (naturally in pink), for the tattooed bikers and grizzled ex-cons “Grateful I’m not Dead” and “Bill Wilson rode a Harley”. Other knick-knacks include sobriety medallions beautified with diamanté, healing and spiritual fridge magnets (“grace”, “wisdom”, “serenity”) and plenty of baubles based on the AA-emblem, an encircled triangle. There are even presentation boxes made of polished wood on offer, so that particularly devotional AA-members may keep their “Big Book” as if it were the Holy Bible. To lighten things up, there’s entertainment, too. The Tabernacle hosts a Sober Comedy Slam, the plays “Bill W and Dr Bob” and “Our Experience has taught us” and a gig by “Reckless in Vegas”. Then there’s Tom Sway, “San Francisco’s celebrated indie singer-songwriter” who “performs an evening of original music inspired by his recovery from alcoholism”. If that is really not enough, the organisers have laid on a Sober-Themed Muppet Show.

No conference would be complete without a night-time knees-up, and AA is no exception. At the gay and lesbian party in a hotel ballroom, the dance floor looks and feels just like that of any other club. The hideous carpet aside, nothing seems amiss: there’s electronic music, flashing lights and bodies writhing. The only difference is that the toilets are being used for their intended purpose and no-one is passing out, or falling over drunk. And that the bar only serves coffee and soft drinks – together with cookies, chocolate bars and pieces of “chicken-fried chicken” (we’re in the South, after all).

I catch up in the staircase with Orlando P, a 34-year-old from Detroit who works at a dental surgeon’s while building his modelling career. Raised by a pastor who condemned homosexuality, Orlando escaped to the gay scene, where he felt accepted. At the bars he visited, he found that alcohol and drugs helped him feel more at ease. After some years, he found he had become “a slave to drink”. Losing his driving licence for the third time, his lawyer warned him that he was a danger to himself. “He said I was going to hurt myself if I didn’t get some help, and I believed him.” The lawyer pointed Orlando to AA.

It was the start of a new, sober life. So, is the party over? What’s sober life like today? Does he still have fun – and how?

“It’s quite simply really. I changed my behaviour patterns and my friends. My friends are in the fellowship now, so I don’t go to places that I used to go, and I don’t do the things I used to do anymore. I go to meetings now. I meet before the meeting with my friends, and have coffee after the meetings. We may have dinner and things like that, so the time that I used to spend going to bars, I now use feeding my recovery, and I really don’t have any interest any more to be in bars.

“My dreams are on the forefront now. They fell by the wayside because alcohol took precedence over those things. And now that has been removed, the focus has shifted again to back onto my goals and the dreams that I had ten, fifteen years ago. And now I’m working on those things again as if I’d never left them. And that’s the beautiful thing about this programme, it’s given me my life back, it’s given me hope back and it’s given me freedom back, most importantly, to do what I want with my life and with my time. I’m not a slave to alcohol any more, I can get off work and do whatever I want to do and be productive.”

Orlando drove to Atlanta from a neighbouring state with five friends, but he knows at least 25 people from meetings at this convention. He and his sober crew love watching TV together at each other’s homes: Ru Paul’s Drag Race is a favourite. Since he gave up drink and drugs 18 months ago, Orlando has done things he never think he’d do. Like wearing a dress. A few months ago, at a gay AA convention in Myrtle Beach, he got dragged up to perform as Whitney Houston.

“The crowd loved it”, he smiles broadly, “they were eating that shit up.”

On the pavement outside, the streets are still thronged with people heading to their downtown hotels. A few yards up from the illuminated ferris wheel, an alcoholic from Scotland drones away on his bagpipe. The passing Americans, who’ll applaud anyone just for being from Idaho, think it’s awesome. Just when it seems that this circus could not get any madder, a Swiss man in a hat and moustache rustles in a bag, producing a variety of tubes which he assembles into a full-length alphorn. Then he plays a gentle tune as if he were on the foothills of the Matterhorn. It’s a sensory overload which must test the serenity of even the most determined water drinker.

I quickly hail a yellow cab and ask my driver what he makes of the whole shebang. “I have nothing but respect for these people”, he says. “All of these alcoholics have stopped denying their problem. You see, there’s a lot of denial out there. I’ve got so many friends and family members who drink too much, and they take drugs, but they won’t admit that it’s a problem. And in my street, there’s a woman living out of the garbage can. I tried to help her once and she got really angry. She doesn’t want anyone to help her, all she wants to drink. Do you know what she used to be? A federal judge.”
According to the 60,000 alcoholics at the Georgia Dome, even hers is not a hopeless case.



An edited version of this reportage was published in Delayed Gratification magazine


Eating and drinking, London, Things to do now

Gelupo: London’s new favourite gelateria

It used to be London’s best-kept secret, but this week, Gelupo – Soho’s celebrated ice-cream parlour – has burst out into the open. Formerly, only the initiated knew of Jacob Kenedy’s gelateria discreetly hidden away in Archer Street. But now that the flagship has opened at Cambridge Circus – where Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue intersect – there’ll be no escaping the sweet temptation.


The secret’s out: Gelupo now occupies a prime location

It’s gelato in the best Italian tradition – authentic, well-made, and laudably free from American-style gimmickry: all you get is straight-up, honest flavours. The chocolate sorbet is so wonderfully soft you want to bathe in it; blood orange has an exciting zest perfect for a hot summer afternoon, and in a nod to English palates, kiwi, elderflower and gin has a gentle zing.

Jacob Kenedy and his business partner Victor Hugo have great plans

Jacob Kenedy and his business partner Victor Hugo have great plans

Combining such culinary mastery with a prime location – who doesn’t pass this junction on their Soho sorties? – Gelupo Cambridge Circus is bound to become a favourite London hangout. And there’s more to come: Kenedy and his business partner Hugo are about to open a brand-new street food restaurant on the same site. It’s a welcome antidote to the new McDonald’s just across the road.

Cliché has it that Soho is losing its soul and falling victim to global forces. That this location has gone to two local lads should give us cause for joy.

On reflection, travel

A simple shrine to a great man

It was the ordinariness that got me. The unremarkable, almost indifferent ‘80s architecture, executed in concrete and red brick. The lack of a grand portal. The absence of ornaments, of gold and marble. Even the central water feature, which invites visitors to sit and reflect, is plain and undramatic.

This is not what I expected. When I headed downtown on the interstate on my way from the airport, the signpost to the Martin Luther King Center was on of my first impressions: this exit for the National Memorial. I imagined a something with a vast statute akin to Lincoln’s, a majestic palace of worship overrun with camera-toting pilgrims enthusiastically buying sentimental kitsch. The more I elaborated on the idea, the less I wanted to go. If America was going to have a National Memorial, I was convinced that it was bound to be in bad taste, disneyfied.


A most humble memorial

I put my visit off. It was on my list but like the Georgia Aquarium, never an urgent priority. More than a week had passed since my arrival when one morning I decided to leave my apartment block on Auburn Avenue, and head towards the Center, which was about ten blocks down the road. Auburn Avenue is a special place, full of atmosphere and history – opposite my block was the Royal Peacock Theater, a nightspot that had been going since 1937 (on the playbill anyone you ay care to mention, from Ray Charles to Marvin Gay to Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight), the Silver Moon barber shop, which announced itself as Atlanta’s oldest black owned business (established 1904), Big Bethel church, which has the legend JESUS SAVES in large blue capitals affixed to its spire, and two murals the size of the house. One is a quote by King: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. The other giant mural depicts a quote by one of King’s lieutenants, John Lewis. “Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and every hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution is complete”. And most importantly of all, this is the street where Martin Luther King was born, where he grew up, and where he served his congregation as a minister.


“Dr King’s plan of action in the Deep South”

I followed the road, which lay peacefully in the sun, past the boarded-up Thelma’s Rib Shack, past Ebenezer, King’s old church, until I reached the Center, which resembled a public library in a provincial town. As I entered, I saw the courtyard with its plain water feature and the Walk of Peace, a prefab esplanade whose greatest luxury was the protection it afforded from the sun.

Inside, there was a monumental plaque with a quote by Coretta Scott King, complete with a portrait of King’s widow, who survived him for 38 years. If I had considered Coretta as a counterpart to Jackie O – a tragic but apolitical widow – the exhibits on display taught me different. Coretta was a campaigner in her own right, with strongly-held convictions. Above all, like her husband, she preached a gospel of love.


Coretta Scott King was a campaigner in her own right

Among the contemporary artwork on the wall, commemorating slavery and condemning its continuation by another name, the exhibits are displayed in plain cases. There’s no Tiffany-style presentation for King’s Nobel Peace Prize medal – it may have pride of place in the modest entrance hall, but the packaging is simple. On the first floor, there’s a room dedicated to Rosa Parks, whose one-woman campaign of civil disobedience preceded that of King. Contemporary clippings of Parks’ court appearances make for fascinating reading: the tone of the newspaper is more factual and detached than I expected. A German mother walks in with her two young children and explains to them what Parks’ campaign was about. It’s touching she made the journey, and how she tries to explain racism in a way a child can understand without making it sound too scary or too sad.


Travelling light: Martin Luther King’s suitcase. To the right, the key to the room on whose balcony King was shot.

There’s a room dedicated to Gandhi, whose teachings King studied and applied. And perhaps most touching of all, there’s King’s travel suitcase, not much larger than an airplane tray and neatly packed with the bare necessities. Beside it is the key to the Memphis hotel room on whose balcony he was shot. The year was 1968. King had achieved his first objective; to smash all the legal structures that held segregation in place. Considering where to go from there, he was thinking about economic rights, economic equality. A bullet ended that.

In the courtyard, King’s voice comes tiny from an outdoor speaker. Sitting at one of the concrete tables and looking to his tomb, the words are chilling.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The following day, King was shot in the face.

Now the man’s body lies but a few yards away, next to that of his wife, in a simple tomb surrounded by pale blue swimming pool water.

Humble in appearances but forceful in spirit, there could be no better memorial to the couple.