Avenue Q - a review

A great show I was laughing from beginning to end - well except for that one bit.

From the opening sequence in Avenue Q where a man walks onto the stage carrying a muppet-like puppet in his hands I began laughing. "Princeton" has just graduated from college and is flung out into the world wondering "what do you do with a BA in English?", I couldn't but empathise as he opined "Four years of college and plenty of knowledge / Have earned me this useless degree" how else do you imagine I found myself an English teacher (in England of all places)?

The show delights in being able to be negative - the chorus of the opening song is "it sucks to be me" and all of the characters in the fictional New York neighbourhood that the story is set in compete with each other over whose life is worse. Former child superstar Gary Coleman of "Different Strokes" fame takes the cake with his life over before he even reached puberty. During a conversation about acheiving your "purpose" in life, Gary admits that his greatest fear is that he's already achieved his purpose in life.

The one song that I didn't care for was titled "Everyone's a little bit racist" and seemed to try to conflate the more or less harmless national stereotypes that people keep about different cultures and especially neighbouring cultures with "racism". I can't help feeling that racism is rightly reviled by most working people as an ideology that justifies cruelty, violence and exploitation towards certain ethnic or racial backgrounds based upon their supposed inferiority. To then try to conflate racism with the much more benign national stereotypes about French people and the German word "schadenfreude" for example is somewhat disturbing and certainly not amusing. This whole song jumps from false preachiness to shock-value humour from line to line and I couldn't help but feel awkward as I sat through it. After an awkward sermon where Princeton sings that people who are a "little bit racist" don't go around committing hate crimes, an attempt at livening the mood is made through the outrageous "Mexican busboys should learn to speak goddamn English!", afterwards the preaching is taken up again when Princeton continues that "uncouth" ethnic jokes are "based on truth".

Happily that particular song came to end. And thanks to the hilariously cute "bad idea bears" it was all but forgotten by the time Trekkie Monster began his own song "The Internet is for Porn."

It was in fact, a clever and entertaining show. Taking a light-hearted look at the angst of growing old and the desire to accomplish things in life. It is therefore such a shame that it was ruined by the bitter aftertaste of one poorly conceived song. 3 and a half stars.

Image courtesy: Michael Schamis (Creative Commons License via Flickr)

Drunken John

My first encounter with the town's "Drunken John" was on the first night when we moved into our flat on the Close. He was hanging around outside on the corner of old Icknield Way near the railway bridge. Apparently he'd lost his cat - or his dog, or something. Foolishly we stopped and listened to his garbled story. The dog never existed; he forgot about his dog-ploy in ten seconds. Esther apparently "looks beautiful", although too bad for John, because as he stated himself she "belongs" to me (quote unquote). He was wearing jeans I think, and a crusty old jacket under which he clutched onto a clear plastic bottle without any label - just water he claimed. And on top he wore an equally crusty old hat with a creased and broken peak which he repeatedly took off and put back on.

He introduced himself as "John", but apparently he's a well-known personality because a passer-by who was witness to the difficulty we had trying to politely tell John to go away informed us that the kids call him "Drunken John". As it happened she was a parent to one of my pupils at school so it was a happy coincidence bumping into her and having a ready-made conversation starter - even if the conversation starter cost us twenty minutes in the freezing cold with a crazy man of dubious personal hygiene.

The following day at school:

"Hi Oliver, I spoke to your mum last night."
"Yeah, she told me at dinner - you were being harassed by drunken John."
A student asks incredulously "You've met drunken John?" and then all of a sudden, "Hey, sir knows drunken John."
"Yes, I've had the misfortune of bumping into drunken John - I met him last night with my girlfriend."

Apparently John is well-known personality in this corner of Hertfordshire. He used to get in trouble hanging around outside the local Morrisons supermarket. In fact, as we were talking to him, every passing car made him nervously check if it was a police car. So I'm not sure just how appreciative all of the Letchworth locals are towards the aimiable town drunkard. Back in school one of my year 11's sagely informed me:

"The thing to do when you meet drunken John is take his hat."
"Yeah, take his hat. He gets really angry and comes running after you. Jack and I did that one week it was really funny.""Just for laughs hey?"
"Yeah exactly, it's really funny."

Seeing John, occasionally under the railway bridge and along Station Way I've never tried my students' advice. Although I can't help feeling that there's something quaintly Anglo-Saxon about "harmless" old drunken John. Under the entry for "Town drunk" Wikipedia authoritatively informs us:

"The town drunk typically dwells in a small enough town that he is the only conspicuous alcoholic. Larger cities may have more than one, but this term appears to come from around the 17th century; in the stereotype, when a city grows large enough to house a sufficient mass of town drunks, the area where they congregate becomes known as Skid Row."

Fortunately Letchworth is sans Skid Row. In fact, if Wikipedia is to be believed English town drunks don't congregate because to my knowledge "Skid Rows" are a purely American phenomenon. In any case Wikipedia continues to inform us that in fiction "the town drunk may serve as a semi-comic proxy for the Wise Old Man. He may disrupt public meetings, either for comic effect, or by dispensing what proves to be wisdom in a garbled and comic form."

So perhaps far from taking ol' drunken John's hat - I should be taking his advice.

"If you need anything, or anyone gives you any trouble, just come and see John. I've forgotten you're name but I know that you've got a heart of gold."
(To Esther): "He's got a heart of gold... And you're beautiful. But even though he's ugly he's got a heart of gold this man."


Image courtesy: Tom Häkkinen

So... did you hear about the Rugby on the weekend?

Some Rugby news: In Perth over the weekend, despite having a half-strength team through injuries, having the side reduced to 14 men and England being awarded two penalty-tries the Wallabies still managed to beat England 27-17.

Over the same weekend, an England squad sans Ferdinand and Beckham managed to throw away a victory over the United States thanks to a costly Robert Green fumble.

But of course, entering the classroom how am I greeted this Monday?

"Four nil!" was the students' reception when I entered my classroom today.
"Sir, when you watch the world cup do you prefer to sit further from the telly or Klose?"
"What's the date today sir? It isn't the FOUR-teenth is it?"
"Sir, how old are you? Not twenty-FOUR?" (actually twenty-six but what the hey?)
etc., etc., etc.

Every conceivable question whose answer might contain a four was asked of me today - just to rub some salt into the wound left by Germany's drilling of Australia on Sunday. Even the other teachers were none too sympathetic when I told them how I was greeted in the classroom.

"Well, one should hope so. The Australians were terrible."

The closest I got to sympathy was one teacher who reminded me of the above-mentioned Rugby result.

Losing to England in the Twenty20 last month didn't help either. And of course, England are currently holding the Ashes and not likely to lose it till Christmas (C'mon you can't expect England to beat Australia in Australia in a game of cricket!). It seems that I've come to England at the perfect time for a great big serving of humble pie and the English aren't losing any opportunities to watch me eat after all the years of being a bigger and richer country than Australia but always losing in sporting competitions.

The last Olympics in Beijing was the firstOlympics since 1988 where Great Britain got higher in the medal tally than Australia. In that same time period Australia won 9 out of the 11 Ashes series played. Over the same period Australia has likewise dominated England in the Rugby - although it has been a lot closer competition Australia beating England 23 times from the two sides' last 38 encounters. So when we finally come to the original football - the World Game - the English are only too happy to gloat whilst watching Australia flounder amongst the big names of Football.

However, if either Germany or England come second in their group (but not both) then we will get an oppurtunity to see how the English fair against this German World Cup squad. So if Australia don't get a chance to play England maybe Germany will - we'll see who gets the last laugh then in this long rivalry between nations.

(C'mon it's football not cricket - it'll probably be England).

Italian wine: "Probably tastes like vinegar" (So what hope for Australian?)

A snippet of French attitudes towards wine: Australian wines are popular in Britain - but in what esteem are they held in France? The opportunity to consult a French waiter presented itself when dining at a restaurant in Nice when we popped over for the February half-term break.

It wasn't one of those jolly little brasseries that have that typical bistro atmosphere so unique to France because Esther wanted to visit an upmarket place to enjoy pretentious French cuisine at it's best. Being Nice, it had a strong Italian influence, and the waiter serving me the Italian wine I ordered (the only wine that I could afford) disdainfully remarked (in English) that it probably tastes like vinegar - 'Italian wine's not that good'.

So later in the meal I braced myself and asked his opinion of Australian wine. His reply was that he didn't know - he'd never tasted it - but he thought he knew someone who might have tried it before. (Yes thought he knew someone who might have tried it - very re-assuring). Thus although popular with the un-discerning English, it would seem Australian wine has barely made a dent in France. And furthermore, as Australian wine-growing has such a strong Italian heritage, the waiter's disdain for Italian wines wouldn't bode well for the popularity of Australian wine either. But before the end of the meal, the waiter returned, he'd consulted his 'friend' who'd tried Australian wine - apparently "he says it's quite good".

Tentatively I would conclude, the base Australian attitude to winning at everything works. Sure it's crass and vulgar - like Ricky Ponting's team of sore losers and even worse winners. But perhaps through a trophy culture and lots of wine-tastings, Australian wine might surpass it's "humble" Italian origins. Although of course, like cosmopolitan Britain's "food culture" it's not built on a solid foundation of long-standing traditions. Australia doesn't do long-standing traditions; unless you want to count its history of racism or the decrepit old Labor party.

In comparison, I don't think Italian wine-makers would be particularly bothered that a waiter in France doesn't rate their wine; winning trophies isn't the reason why Italians make wine. Likewise although the French are universally acknowledged as the masters of wine-making, they are so not because that's a stated goal of French wine-makers; rather they are so because they have a long infatuation with wine that dates as far back as Julius Caesar's observation that it was known for a Gaul to trade a slave for a single amphora of wine. The French will continue to produce and drink their own wine regardless of how it is perceived by the outside world.

In that case will the "winning" attitude last? Or will Australian wine-making success, built on the shaky foundation of a 1980s fad for 'haute cuisine', fall as meteorically as it has risen?

Only time will tell...

English food deserves its reputation

English food deserves its morbid reputation. Not because England doesn't have any good restaurants or the English landscape doesn't make good quality 'produce' - England has both excellent restaurants and if you go to an English butcher or deli you can find delightful locally produced ingredients. No English food deserves its moribound reputation because of the English spirit towards food.

Nowadays the English believe that their food is quite good; it has 'changed' from the bad old days and their is a real 'food culture' in England. As if an arty-farty interest in food in cultured papers and a few Michelin stars make for good national cuisine. Whilst England has its Heston Blumenthals and its Gordan Ramsays, a small English town like Letchworth is whole-heartedly provided for by Morrisons.

Sainsburys, Tesco, Marks and Spencer and Morrisons ready-meals are the order of the day in most English larders. Green beans are air-lifted from Egypt and Kenya, topped, tailed and wrapped in plastic in single-person portions where they sit on supermarket shelves. Shopping trolleys are filled with fish-fingers, ravioli and 'ready-to-go' vegetables to be steamed. It's hard to find couscous that doesn't have Ainsley Harriot's face on it - and although it's nice the first time, soon the heady smell of artificial stock becomes too much to bear.

Teaching at a local high school, a "healthy" school no less, I am daily offered a new variation on a tried and tested English theme: "goo". Two slices of some roast meat drowned in gravy with mash and two vegetables, even lasagna with mash and two vegetables, shepherd's pie with more mash and two vegetables; an occasional English treat is 'Yorkshire pudding' to be drowned in gravy and had with yet more mash - gravies, mash, stock and stew, the essential elements of English cuisine. Another regular at the school canteen is 'jacket potato with beans' - doesn't sound too bad you think? Well it's not green beans or French beans you know - it's an enormous jacket potato, with a cross cut into the centre, covered in baked beans from a tin and chedder cheese pre-shredded from a packet - mm-mmm!

Add to this cuisine the English climate which maintains a respectable distance between every individual's body-image and actual body through layers of warm woollen clothing, and you find a nation of sallow-skinned, porky, lard-lads. Friendly, good-natured lard-lads, to be sure - solid, hearty food is a joy to eat and an antidote to the cold and gives red-nosed English "old codgers" their happy disposition. But lard-lads nonetheless. My girlfriend uses 'becoming English' now as shorthand for growing man-boobs and a pot-belly; which she threatens me with if I don't remember to exercise every day, push-ups, rows and carrying her up and down the staircase once or twice ;)

Which is why English food deserves its reputation. Hearty food; hearty, goo-ey, thick, stodgy English food.