BOSTON, Mass – 1997
It was simply the fall of the dice that while the Oscar tours took me to some odd spots, I somehow missed the countries that, in language, culture, and ease of travel, should have been the most obvious in which to perform: Australia, New Zealand – and Canada only came much later. The exception was the USA. For once, it looked fairly simple. Although I’d never been there, I thought I knew the States. Like 99.9% of the British population, I had been bombarded by Soft Power since infancy. From my first Davy Crockett coonskin cap to Tarantino’s blood-fests, from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain, from Kennedy to Dubya, it was familiar territory. I’d even read American Studies at college.
Not only that but for the first time ever, I could follow a path that had been blazed by Oscar Wilde himself. In 1882, he had toured the USA from coast to coast, had met many of the celebs of the day and by declaring nothing but his genius at their customs post, had left his verbal mark on the country.
I also had a couple of contacts, one in Boston, the other in California – not exactly adjacent admittedly but at least a couple of footholds on the continent. However, my first attempt – the one on Boston – seemed doomed from the start. Originally I had received an unconfirmed invitation to perform at M.I.T in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Thursday, November 27, 1997. A week prior to my departure, with the flights and hotel booked, I received notice of cancellation. In a near panic, I flung myself into a flurry of transatlantic phone calls trying to establish a replacement venue. Having rung fourteen theatres, seven hotels, eight colleges, four comedy clubs, the Boston Public Library, and Dooley’s Irish Bar, I had come up with nothing except a horrendous phone bill. The problem, as I suppose any American would have known, was that the Nov 27 weekend was Thanksgiving.
My last hope was Bob and Betsy. Although we had never met, they were friends of an old friend of mine. And they turned out to be friends indeed. Yet another phone call established that I was welcome and that they would ‘work something out’. The only drawback was that Bob worked in the coastguard and would be at sea till the Saturday – then we could all meet up. As I was due to fly back on the Monday, this was going to be one hell of a tight squeeze.
1997 November: Thursday
The flight across the Atlantic was as uneventful as Wilde’s voyage had been 115 years previously. Oscar had commented that he was ‘disappointed in the Atlantic Ocean’. (Shortly afterwards, the Pall Mall Gazette in London had printed a letter: ‘I am disappointed with Mr Oscar Wilde. Signed, the Atlantic Ocean’.)
There was a further echo of the past as I stood in the Immigration queue at Logan Airport. I was summoned over to a side desk, where two customs-men stood beside a scanner with my hand luggage in front of them. One of them stared accusingly:
“Have you got food in there?”
The case was opened and a bag of half-eaten Marmite sandwiches was extracted. One of them dissected the bread, gave a grimace of annoyance, and handed the remains back to me.
“We’re looking for salami.”
This was not quite on the same level of repartee as Oscar’s famous encounter with US customs, but at least in that prelapsarian world before 9/11, I was not deported.
It was 6pm when I took a cab from the airport, through the tunnel under the Charles River, and out into the main streets of Central Boston. It was obviously a cold evening – a few flakes of snow fluttered through the dusk – but what I found extraordinary was that in the whole drive I saw only three pedestrians. It seemed they took Thanksgiving really seriously here. We passed what I assumed to be Boston Common and drew up at the Tremont House Hotel.
The lobby, although large, was gloomy. I’ve always found Art Deco to be depressing; its aggressive modernism seems hollow and sad – the Ozymandias of architecture. As Oscar said: ‘One should never try to be modern – one becomes outdated so rapidly’. A sullen receptionist rattled through the ‘welcome’ spiel in an impenetrable New England accent. I couldn’t understand a word except ‘credit card’ was in there somewhere.
Later, I sat in the dingy hotel piano bar. Four TVs blazed away in the semi-darkness – one at each point of the compass so that it was impossible to avoid looking at them. It was a sports channel – and bloody basketball to boot! To me, one of the most boring sports on earth! If it were being played by dwarfs it might have had some point and suspense; however, it was being played by bald black lamp standards who popped the ball in the basket with brain-dulling ease.
Feeling the call of nature, I started to ask the barmaid directions to the…. Gents?….. the toilet?…… the loo? No.
“Where’s the rest room, please?”
Within three hours of arrival, I was using an expression I’d only heard on TV before. The cultural intimidation had started that fast.
Half an hour later, my first classic American stereotype walked in. He was a sheriff wearing a black leather jacket with an emblazoned police shield, his large gut and holster hanging over his belt, his potato head bisected by dark shades – an obese Roy Orbison. He rested his stomach on the bar counter and chatted familiarly to the barmaid.
Wrecked by jet lag, I returned to the bedroom, lay back on the bed, and flicked promiscuously through the 60 odd TV channels, (at that time Britain had five.). One channel was hosting a Thanksgiving showbiz family get-together – various comics, then two politicians, the Democrat Geraldine Ferraro and the Republican James Baker, stood by a piano and forced out scripted chuckles before duetting on ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’.
PBS – the Public Broadcasting Service and the only US channel committed to serious arts coverage – had a programme about how to build a shed.
I turned the TV off and listened to the honking of the ships’ horns on the Charles River.
1997 November: Friday
After a full English breakfast of fried bacon and eggs (and, inexplicably, a strawberry?), I set out to explore the city. I found Boston Common two blocks away, and this became my focal point. It was an attractive park adorned by statues – as Wilde said of Washington: ‘Far too many bronze generals’. I watched the skaters circling Frog Pond as Strauss waltzes blared out from a loudspeaker. Through the bare wintry trees it looked rather like a Brueghel painting.
The State House was situated on the north-east corner of the Common – an elegant 18th century-style building with a gold dome. Inside, the main hall was lined with flags, presumably the insignia of the Massachusetts counties, while upstairs each wall was decorated with frescoes of scenes from the Revolutionary War, the First World War, etc. In the circular Senate Room, more statues gazed down sombrely onto the large central table and empty chairs. A bored guard stared idly at the tourists. I walked back down the stairs behind an American family. The father said: “There were twenty seven seats in the Senate Room, Clint. Can you verify that for me?” His eight-year-old son nodded dismally.
Outside, I booked myself on to a coach tour. While being undeniably un-cool, I’ve always found that coach trips, if available, are the best way of orientating oneself to a new city. The tour started off around the Beacon Hill district, an area of Boston that Wilde must have known.
He definitely met the author of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ Julia Ward Howe at her home in Beacon Hill; and his Irish-American friends Dion Boucicault and John Boyle O’Reilly lived around this quarter. He also met but failed to impress the writer Henry James, who was raised in Boston. James himself was not a success in his native town – Mark Twain commented on James’ novels: “Once you put one down, you simply cannot pick it up again” – and soon departed to England.
The Boston that Wilde saw had a unique reputation in the USA as being the capital of snobbery. There was a famous ‘Boston Toast’ that referred to its leading families: ‘And this is good old Boston, The home of the bean and the cod, Where the Lodges talk only to Cabots, And the Cabots speak only to God’. Maurice Barrymore of the famous American acting dynasty called it: “the Malvolio of cities – sick of its own self-conceit”. There was some truth to this accusation; one citizen had declared quite seriously that: ‘Shakespeare is a very fine writer. I doubt that there are ten men in Boston who can write that well’.
From the windows of the coach, Beacon Hill looked fairly subdued – early 19th century streets of three-storey Georgian terraced houses rising to a summit of roughly 150ft. It still looked expensive. Then on through the Back Bay area and Massachusetts Avenue – new skyscrapers and much more bustle. The driver/ guide pointed out Boston ‘Castle’; a brutal looking stone structure in the centre of town built by rich Bostonians about 1850 when the waves of Irish immigrants generated fears of possible insurrection. It had been the rich defending their turf – an early forerunner of the present day gated communities, and an odd slant on American democracy.
The coach continued through Chinatown, along the wharfs of Boston Harbour for a quick glimpse of a replica of the ship involved in the Tea Chest Throwing Incident, and past the pretty 1920s US Customs House.
The driver’s accent was pure New England, from which it seemed that the consonant ‘T’ had vanished – at least when used within a word. Thus, when we reached the part of town called ‘Little Italy’ he pronounced it as an ululating ‘Lillulililee’ – it sounded like an Arab lamentation. Little Italy appeared to be the main restaurant area and also had been home to the 1775 patriot Paul Revere, who famously had ridden to Concord to warn the inhabitants that ‘the British were coming’.
Despite having a famous poem written about the event by the poet Henry Longfellow, there has always been something odd about ‘The Ride’. Revere himself never reached Concord, his companion accidentally rode into a tree, and it was someone else who actually gave the warning. However – poetic licence and all that. Wilde was invited to visit Longfellow and reported: ‘I arrived in a snowstorm and left in a hurricane – quite the right conditions to visit a poet’.
We drove by one graveyard that contained the corpse of Cotton Mather. I’d encountered this gentlemen many years ago while involved in college American Studies. He was a mind-curdlingly dreary 17th century Puritan preacher about whom I had been forced to write several essays and who had been the bane of my life for a month or so. I hated the bastard. I gave the cemetery a covert V-sign as we passed.
The tour continued over the river into the bleak suburb of Charlestown, past the Bunker Hill Monument, and then the wooden warship, the USS Constitution.
As we passed another building, the guide announced:
“That’s our main ice hockey venue. All New Englanders are crazy about ice hockey.”
A flat New England voice grated out from the back of the coach: “No, we ain’t.”
The guide recovered his poise by talking about the Red Sox baseball team. It appeared that the team had not won a World Series for decades, the blame for this being placed on a curse. It seems that many years ago, the owners had sold their star player, the famed Babe Ruth, in order to finance a Broadway show. The gods of baseball were not amused.
An aspect of Boston that I liked was the mixture of skyscraper next to unadorned but pleasant old houses and churches. It looked incongruous but it worked somehow.
As the tour ended back at base, the guide pointed out two statues in front of the State House. One was of John F Kennedy in modern dress, the other an obscure senator dressed in a Roman toga and laurel wreath. The guide drawled: “We call the second statue ‘Teddy Kennedy at a toga party’.”