America Day 41 – Washington DC

Two consecutive days off. We all bundled into the car to go to Washington DC. The drive is just under an hour from our hotel in Annapolis. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Hundreds of movies and TV shows had given me some idea, but nothing competes with the reality. The layout took me by surprise. It’s really very nicely thought through and executed. I guess they had the money and the time. It is the capital of this nation, after all.

We started with The White House, experienced as is traditional – by looking over the garden, past the fountain. Just a few meters from where we were all taking selfies two uniformed young men with about three guns each were laughing in conversation.

Without coffee we wandered to the Washington monument – an obelisk that’s definitely taller than you’d think. The hub of a wheel of monuments and civic buildings. You’ve got an eye to all these huge stone homages to leaders and warriors. Segway tours are popular here, as there’s a lot of stuff to cover, but we wanted to pound the ground.

It’s the 244th anniversary of the US Navy today. We were walking the trail with lots of veterans in matching T-shirts. At the Vietnam memorial one of them was studying the wall at a particular spot very closely. I saw him find the name he was looking for and spend a moment in the past. Strange to see his haunted eyes. I gave him some space. Too much space. I stepped over the fence to take a call I’d been expecting and got shouted at for being on the grass.

We had a huge amount to consume though and nothing like enough time so we were pushing ourselves forwards. I was hoping for a coffee, but all the vans were either selling bad street food or “MAGA” hats that were (genuinely) made in Vietnam – I checked the label.

There’s artistry here. The Korean War monument is strange and evocative. The relatively new one to WW2 is strong as well. And of course Lincoln, iconic with the long rectangular pond, the huge steps and the man himself, vast and towering above us, fasces on his armrests, his hands spelling out my name in sign language. “A L”

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We broke off to find a museum. We walked down Pennsylvania Avenue past all the vast stone museums and libraries. We stumbled on a little urban garden with hidden benches and sat for a while. We ran in horror, much as Descartes did at the Eiffel Tower, but not from any of the edifices. We ran from the ice cream vans. They are a plague, and each of them has a different version of auditory hell to offer you. One had five hideous electronic seconds of “chopsticks” playing on an eternal loop. The guys working the van next to it must feel like they’re in Guantanamo. Another was playing Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls on the 12th October. Thank God I didn’t happen to be carrying a sledgehammer. I would have done the USA a service by destroying all of their speakers and probably earning a monument all of my own for services to the people.

We went into the Museum of Native American History. It was depressing to contemplate the extent of betrayal perpetrated. Educational, but less story than I had hoped. I was glad they acknowledged the evils we can do. I had hoped for a bit more folklore. I love a good myth. There was some satisfying stuff though, particularly around astronomy. But it was conflicting to engage.

We are driving back to Annapolis now. Kaffe just yawned hugely and said “I wanna beer”. I’m in full agreement. We packed it in today, but we barely stopped. A good meal. And a beer…

America Day 40 – Last day USNA

This has been a great week, again. Annapolis is small but excellent. It’s the first new place that I’ve visited. There are a few more coming up. The unfamiliarity has augmented my enjoyment. Even though I’ve spent a single busy week in most of the previous stops, it’s noticeable how my brain packages them as “known places” and doesn’t give me the little chemical hit that we get in entirely new places, to make sure the caveman version of us doesn’t get jumped by unknown hostile things. I was constantly surfing on unfamiliarjuice here. All the midshipmen, being so regimented but individual within the regime. All the officers so varied in their approach. Ex servicemen highly ranked and yet enjoying and understanding the work we were doing.

We are here because of a grant from a remarkable woman and her husband – an alumni now deceased. We met her – in her eighties and authentically full forward. We had lunch with her on the first day. The grant – The Brady Series – lets them have people like us come in. I spoke to one of the teachers after we were done. She was thrilled with the work we brought. It’s always good to get feedback you can trust – this lady would’ve told us if it hadn’t landed. “The midshipmen disengage if they want to. And they disengage totally.”

One time they had a pacifist quaker running workshops – it’s meant to be things that challenge the midshipmen. Five British actors doing Shakespeare fits the bill. If we were anything like as alien to them as they were to us then we would certainly be challenging to their normal expectation of people.

On my first day I had two back to back groups of 40 midshipmen in the most awkward room you can imagine, all in their matching uniforms, throwing balls around with “I see you what you are, you are too proud.” It was brilliant and bonkers and put them in an unfamiliar physical place. A good portion of them came in injured, with crutches or slings or the aftermath of concussion. Despite my telling them they could rest if they needed, they got stuck in, breathed with us, meant things with us.

I was getting them to pass the word “yes” at the start, just to wake them up really. It’s often important with civilian workshops, to wake them up. But this lot was wide awake. They went straight into “hell yeah!” and the room felt so energised and American by the time forty people had said it that I figured I’d make them all say “Jolly good”. It was disproportionately delightful to hear these huge earnest young men and women committing to “jolly good” with all sorts of different intentions, long before I got them onto Shakespeare’s text, which they tackled with the same attack.

After my class the instructor took me aside and shook my hand. There was a coin in his hand. It’s a challenge coin. It’s something of an honour to receive one, and the rank of the giver affects the rank of the coin. As it turns out, Phil Garrow is a Lieutenant Commander. That was my grandfather’s rank. Amazing.

The coin already means so much to me. I’m feeling emotional writing about it. As a young contrarian, I refused to join the navy at Harrow for CCF. I chose “Community Service” as an act of rebellion and because I wanted to be an actor. My grandfather was upset even if he never showed it. He died shortly after the decision and I never spoke with him about it. But his theatres of war with the RN were The Russian Convoys and The South China Sea. He worked very closely with the US Navy in those theatres. I wish he could know that my work in my very different type of theatre led me to working in small groups here to try to get the USNA scholarship students to be more confident in their interviews to go to Oxford and Cambridge for a year. For him to know that my acting, that was so frowned upon when I was a kid, has obliquely helped deepen the upcoming officers in the US Navy. And that a man of equivalent rank to him saw fit to give this wild haired bearded fool a challenge coin in recognition of my positive work.

Life is strange and varied. Long may it continue to be. You’re dead a long time.

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America Day 39 – Flags and idiots

The bay in Annapolis is full of boats. All of them flying pennants. “What the hell is going on? I’m new in town,” I ask the man with the badge. Behind me a DJ cranks up the volume on “Uptown Funk,” even though the average age of the crowd here is 70. “It’s the boat show, man! This is the biggest event of the year here.” “All weekend? Do I have to pay?” “Yep. But it’s cheaper tomorrow. Twenty bucks.” It might be interesting if I was in the market for a boat…

I just spent nine on a cocktail. A Painkiller 2 from the delightfully named “Pussers.” I’m sitting here looking at the boats. It’s like watching “remember the good times” day at the old folks home. Hawaiian shirts and baseball caps and sunglasses and grey hair and smiles. These people have pain, in that they just can’t decide which boat to buy next. Still they’re making the best of the decision making process. Happy old people, rich old people. I can’t afford a boat dammit. Been working hard for years now. A boat or two of my own would be nice, sure. And a house by a lake to sail it by. But it might be a few more years before I can afford such madness.

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I was recommended this establishment by my ensign, Sam. We have a Second Lieutenant and an ensign assigned to us here. Desiree and Sam. They are incredible. Recent graduates. Calm kind thoughtful and driven. Desiree is going to be a marine, but she is injured right now and looking after us. I got to know Sam a bit today as he drove Katherine to the urgent care to get a $200 prescription for antibiotics. Thankfully we have health insurance. But yeah. $130 for the doctor. $70 for the medicine. Her tonsillitis is amoxicillin resistant. This is her second course of antibiotics. Fuck knows what she’s on now. Scary to think how we are passing the point of no return with these lifesavers, mostly because of the meat industry. Both of her courses have been shorter than I would have expected. I suspect another week of the amoxicillin would’ve finished it. She only had a week. Is this habit of only giving one week of prescription in the US part of the problem?

Anyway, I was writing about Sam. Sam has nailed it. He leaves Annapolis next week to go to Florida and be a pilot. “I don’t know what I’ll be flying,” he says. “But I’ll be flying. That’s what matters.” He’s 21, maybe. Little moustache. Short and compact. He’ll do well. He wonders what his callsign will be. He thinks it might be to do with hats, as there’s the word “hat” in his surname. He hopes it will be, anyway. “There’s a guy who’s callsign is poopy. He pooped himself on a long flight. Only piddle packs are provided.” Imagine being callsign Poopy. “I’M A PILOT I’M FLYING FIGHTER JETS OH MY GOD ALL MY DREAMS ARE COMING TRUE”. “For the rest of your working life and even into retirement no matter what degree of heroism you attain you will always respond immediately and firmly to the name “Poopy”.

Sam won’t get a duff callsign. He’ll be flying over us tomorrow as he works, just by chance. This is his goodbye week to Annapolis, and he spent time helping a sick actor get antibiotics.

Still, these two highly evolved human beings, and the five of us with all of our professional empathy – none of us could overcome the civilians whose job it is to organise the parking passes for USNA.

My dears, we have all experienced blind idiotic bureaucrats. We have all experienced fuckwits with no capacity to tell the difference between theory and reality. We have all experienced human beings who take strange pleasure in obstructing other human beings. We have all had the computer say “no”, heard that the simple thing is “more than my job’s worth.” We have all been dehumanised. We’ve been overlooked, ignored and demoted. This all fades into insignificance compared to what the indifferent, unhelpful and actively disruptive humans at gate one of the USNA are capable of with smiles when they set their minds to it.

They had to do an unusual thing, to let UK actors drive rented cars onto the campus. They literally couldn’t handle it despite the forms all being filled out. Everything that could be blocked was blocked. It was almost childish in how pathetically transparent it was. The navy can roll with it, and worked it out by just sending ensigns and second lieutenants to drive us. The civilians in the accreditation office though – they are constipated minds.

As we walked away after we had been blocked enough that it wasn’t worth our time, I looked back, and our final obstructive human happened to be looking back at I turned. We made eye contact, and I saw nothing in that face but the satisfaction of triumph.

Dear USNA gate 1 civilian staff: please look at yourselves a bit. It’s almost funny how incredibly obstructive you are. You’re making work for the brilliant lieutenants and ensigns assigned to guests like us, and you are doing it by literally being the shittest humans you are capable of being. Grow up. Learn that unfamiliar things are not always bad. Expand just a bit. Don’t set yourself in opposition to these amazing humans you are trying to be gatekeepers for – they have all the empathy you lack. See what you can learn from them. The navy are great. You suck. I judge you by your actions. Go hide under a rock. I have no further interest in you.

America Day 38 – Top Fun

It’s very interesting and very odd here at the USNA. I’m sitting on a wall. Below me, between me and the sea, young men and women run in squads. Their voices carry on the wind. Beyond them someone is laying on the horn in one of their torpedo boats. I think it might be an alert practice but it makes me think of London in rush hour.

The voices, the bells, the wind in the trees, shouts of numbers, of instructions, screams of frustration and celebration and under it all the birds. And song.

They sing a lot here. They sing about goats and guns and the sea. And they learn things. Their brains are getting well exercised. If any of the freshmen gets asked “How long have you been in the navy?” they will respond with this:

“All me bloomin’ life, sir!
Me mother was a mermaid, me father was King Neptune.
I was born on the crest of a wave and rocked in the cradle of the deep.
Seaweed and barnacles are me clothes.
Every tooth in me head s a marlinspike; the hair on me head is hemp.
Every bone in me body is a spar, and when I spits, I spits tar!
I’se hard, I is, I am, I are”

They learn it by heart. They’re all expanding their memories and their possibilities. Learning, cross disciplinary. The humanities students still all study differential calculus and engineering. They are going to be sending a bunch of extremely fit curious polymaths into service on these boats and subs and helicopters. Polymaths trained to kill. And I can’t help but admire them. I’ve often found it to be the case that the officers I’ve got to know from the armed forces have had poetic souls. My dad’s great friend was a submariner and a glorious kind man to boot.

I was in three big rooms surrounded by freshmen – midshipmen – getting them to engage with Shakespearean text, getting them to have an effect on each other with words, obliquely teaching another aspect of leadership through just an hour long class on Twelfth Night. At one point, laughing in a circle of them, I noticed how hard these young men and women were. They are all in peak fitness. I can barely drag myself to a yoga class once a month. I would lose to every single one of them in a fight. Surrounded by forty of them, they’d crush my bones to make their bread, although they all are so incredibly nice as well so that’d never happen. If I attacked them they’d probably efficiently and effortlessly restrain me and then sing songs until I calmed down.

I can’t catch up with their fitness but it makes me want to get fitter, just becoming aware of the distance between me, all wild hair and beard and words and ideas, and these lean streamlined beings with their discipline and their responsibility. I think I decided as a young man that fitness and intelligence were mutually exclusive, and since I aspired to the latter, I avoided the former. It’s to my detriment. I need to start getting into the gyms in these hotels I’m staying in across the states. And drink a bit less. Ha. Chance’d be a fine thing…

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America Day 37 – The navy

Through the high security gates we go, and past a field of old fighter planes sitting by the road. As we stroll between the buildings we are hit with a solid shot of adrenaline just at the strangeness of it all. This is a world my grandfather would have understood, but a world that feels very unusual to me. We are the only people not in uniform. We are surrounded by extremely capable looking young men and women, making their families proud back home, gaining an extraordinary education within the rigour of the US Navy. They’re gonna be Seals and submariners, but right now we’re bringing them Shakespeare.

“In another life I might’ve followed my grandfather into the navy,” I muse to Claire. “How would you have coped with the discipline?” she responds. “Yeah I think that’s the reason I didn’t.”

Nevertheless here I am now at the USNA in Annapolis Maryland. It’s technical rehearsal and they’re focusing the lights so I’m snatching a chance to write this. The days will be a very different shape here. Very high security, early morning classes, most working days finished by lunchtime apart from the shows in the evening. At 7pm, in about three hours, 600 of these young men and women in uniform will file into the theatre and watch the five of us in our little circle of light for a few hours. There are Union flags in the walls above our stage, stained with time and use and gunpowder smoke and salt damp. I went and looked at the plaques and they were all captured from British ships in “the 1812 war”. Outside our stage-right door is a wooden “British lion” captured alongside a royal standard during “the occupation of York”.

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This marbled hall where we will tell our story is rank with pillage from the dying days of empire. I had to Google the occupation of York. It was when America was at war with England and considering expansion northwards to Canada, and there was a fair amount of looting, burning and general sacking going on which catalysed some anti-American sentiment among Canadians which probably worked to the advantage of the British. Nevertheless the pillage means that we’ve got these lovely old flags around us as we work reminding us of home. “I like the flags,” I remark to one of the young men in uniform who is helping with the lights. “You know how we got them off you, right?” He asks. “Well, yes. But it’s good to see them.”


Lovely show tonight to a sea of brown uniforms. Every venue Kaffe sings a song about the town at the end of the interval. The one he’s got this week is one the midshipmen all sing while they’re training. He had it reflected back in a wall of sound that was quite extraordinary to feel – 600 voices tunefully bellowing back at him as he stood alone in our little square of light whilst we sat behind him thrilled. It propelled us into a very connected and enjoyable second half. Semper fi…

 

America Day 36 – Maryland

You can tell we are near to the heart of bureaucracy in this country. Everybody that has sat on the other side of a counter we’ve stood at has made life as difficult as humanly possible. Those endless jousts at the counter. They somehow do get worse the closer you get to the administrative centre. Mister Enterprise was a total twerp. So was miss Marriott. But despite their obstructive and ultimately completely pointless fuckery we are still all checked in and sitting out on a balmy evening. It’s only about an hour in the plane from Boston but it’s noticeably warmer here, and chances are we’ll get to go to DC on the weekend.

Right now it’s just about settling in to a new city after travel day. But tomorrow I’ll have to get up early because everything is on fire back home. My bank has blocked my card and my appliances are flooding copiously into the flat below and we need to sort it out ASAP but I can’t pay for a plumber and I can’t let anybody into my flat and I don’t know anybody’s availability and Brian is about to open a huge show and is working like a train and I’m honestly clueless about how I’m going to get this fixed but I have to and it has likely already cost me loads of money in repairs to the flats below me who will likely insist that their ceiling was made of gold, and it’ll cost me more in bad blood in the block. It’s a fucking shitshow. 7am here is already midday in UK l. It’s hard to organise things.


Meantime we are all bundled into the car and driving to Annapolis for dinner. The hotel has huge rooms but it’s in the middle of nowhere. I’ve never been to this state before. For the first time this tour it’s a new place for me. I want to get to know it…


On a first touch it’s great. We drove in and found little streets that feel like they have actual history. Like Massachusetts, you see “established 1755” on the stone front of the restaurant and you can almost kid yourself that you’re in Whitby. The food is more varied than the UK seaside fayre where the choices are: Fish and Chips, a 200 year old saveloy or “no sorry mate we’ve run out of that but we’ve got this saveloy.”

There are seagulls too, but not so many. This is a country with guns. They still want your food though but that’s what seagulls are. I see them wheeling but perhaps short term evolution has taught them not to try and steal people’s crab cakes.

I think I’m going to be happy here for a week. The sea is home for me. I’m pulled to it. “You’ve got the sea in your blood,” my grandmother used to say as a child, and I ignored her as any normal child will do when somebody older makes an incomprehensible statement. But she might have had a point. I think I do need the sea. I don’t do well if I’m parted from water.

A new city. A new week. I’m looking forward to Annapolis.

Here’s me under the same tree at Wellesley College that I took my Twitter profile underneath more or less exactly five years ago. There’s lots more grey in my beard now. I’m wiser…

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America Day 35 – Boston

I’m in an Uber heading back from Boston. My bank has frozen my account, bless them, fuck them. I’m not stranded. I’ve got an overdraft on my Starling, hence the Uber. Barclays would have me stuck in Boston for my own “protection and safety”. Because, like HSBC, they are trying to shut down competition at the expense of their customers.

Thank God I’ve got accounts with banks that are more evolved than the one I thought might be amusing to go with because of my name. HSBC did the same thing to Katherine a few weeks ago around her new Monzo. It’s the old monoliths deliberately trying to shake faith in the new contenders, by inconveniencing their own customers. I’m trying not to spend from my main account, which is Barclays, because it’s so much cheaper in terms of fees and charges if I go through Monzo or Starling.

Katherine and I hit a train into town from Wellesley. We didn’t have any plans. I thought I might catch a friend in town so I’d left the day pretty loose. We decided breakfast was important so we found South Street Diner and I ordered Eggs Benedict. Great way to start the Boston day. We had no choice, really, but to be tourists. We only had one day in the city, as happens on this tour with too many cities. I’d like to have spent more time in Boston. I was hoping that a friend who lives there might help our haphazard itinerary. But as it turned out it was us vs the city. We got a lot done.

Walking. It’s a good city for walking, Boston. It’s much more organic and walkable than many of the newer cities we have been bouncing around in. Katherine and I pounded the streets a little and it was satisfying to pound streets that are poundable. We had no real destination so we just bounced around. I like pinballing myself around an unfamiliar city and Katherine was a good companion for that. We ended up at the ICA. We wanted to see Yayoi Kusama but she had been booked out months ago. We watched and experienced a bunch of stuff instead.

Whenever I consume somebody else’s art a part of me always wonders where my particular art in that medium lies. It seems my art is twofold at the moment. To live a life. To write about it. But there’s so much more to be made. Of course I make stories with time. Time is my primary medium. Then it’s whatever. My face. My voice. Your head. Hello, I am time face head bazzzzzaaaaaam. The bulk of my art dies the moment it’s created and I don’t give a fuck about it until some tit with a suit on asks me to prove myself.

Words. I just hope that people get something out of this ongoing deluge. I’m tired tonight. Of course I want you to go “I get this” about this human I’ve become and the thoughts I’m expressing. But I’m done now. Night.

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