Monday, 29 December 2014

Hello Neverland: Hello.


This morning was the first time I felt like I needed to wear gloves, the chill attacks you to somewhere under your skin. There's a keen awareness that comes with the ache of cold, like you suddenly look down and realise you have legs, and they are taking you to the places you need to go. In this hyper-realism of below freezing temperatures, the autopilot is not on. The morning does not feel sleepy, cosy or quaint. If not for the cold and the pavement's dead leaves, it would be indistinguishable from a spring day. The days are longer now, the sun is up earlier. I'm sure this may not happen seven days after the longest night of the year but that is my perception, that even in the dead of winter the world is waking up again.

 The Underground lines spin on a curious shift. The Victoria Line is normally bursting at the seams, making the platform at Pimlico station feel like the bottom of the screen on an 80's arcade game. Commuters rushing from left to right, trying to find a carriage they can cram into and defiantly make a space for themselves with other people who would happily elbow them back out. Today the line is hardly full, and I can rush from escalator steps right into an open door, with no-one to glare at me or give me an armpit of disdain. I am rushed today, like awoken from sleep, a sleep of four days steeped in food, gin, books and blankets.

The reverse today comes on the Piccadilly line, which on other days is much clearer. Only clogged in the circular path towards the line itself, changing from Victoria to Piccadilly, blue to darker still. It is the train to Heathrow and tourists lack a spatial awareness that is magnified by the ridiculously gargantuan baggage on wheels they use to block any available means of overtaking. Today however, the platform too is jammed, animal tensions abound to make sure everyone is first onto the train, like the promise of two minutes of another train will never come.

So I take a step back, and I am rushed on either side by a pack of faceless people, their features barely comprehended before they disappear into the sea of London crowds above.

London has a new smell today, and more sunglasses than are necessary for a day in mid-winter. There have been parties, and gifts that call for a shading of the eyes and the sharp wafts of sandalwood, the sting of amber and crushed flowers. Everyone is sporting their new favourite scents.

I was going to write about death today, however Christmassy it may not sound. You can wake up on a Sunday morning with the lights still glowing softly on the tree, a small ache of the belly from too much food, how much more alive and dreamy could you feel? Yet an entire passenger plane disappears, four hundred people are fighting for their lives on a ship, a homeless man is left outside to freeze. Then there are the stories we left behind a month ago, no longer sexy. Children shot by trigger-happy policemen, a Middle East that Europeans only seem to know as broken, bloody and bombed. There are those who do not even make the news, fighting for their lives on Christmas day from cancer or starvation.

Yet here, "on the pulse of this fine day" to steal from Maya Angelou, I see Christmas lights and warmth exuded from people I know and the grandest pleasure of being alive with legs to feel cold with while browsing for books with no particular time to be anywhere. How are we not gods?

I think of the rush of people on the Underground, and how my brain cannot cope with each person as a singular human life so I shut everything down in order to cope with them as just a sweaty mass of limbs fighting for my space. Things become easier, a little larger and smaller in scope from my living room window, with the filter of glass and the peace that comes in the evening, high above everyone on a ninth floor, where the noise and the dirt and the streets of London look like a picture of light hardly moving.

I see high rise buildings, every light the possibility of at least one human life in each window, in towers costing millions living narratives I could never hope to even understand. Closer still, the building opposite ours offers mini movies at each light, the outlines of figures watching television, smoking, arguing, eating and going along with the choices they have made and the choices that have been made for them. How can I not feel connected, and at the same time, how can I not feel so completely outside the life of everyone else?

The writer in me feels greedy, wanting to capture through my, ironically self-absorbed filter, the people that pass me by every day. I would probably break inside, to hear the thousands of stories that deserve telling. Imagine a season of Serial for each human life you passed by in this city just for an hour, you would have an entirety of library beyond your own mortality.

People drive me crazy, yet they are all I can think about. I pass the flowers on the lamp-post on our street where a teenage boy was stabbed to death by a gang of teenage boys. I always wonder what was missing in the lives of people getting caught up in drugs and vice and violence. Beyond food and shelter and the comfort of a book or film. I don't know if I'm being wise or incredibly naive and stupid. Plane lights flicker above my head, another hundred stories.

Hello Neverland, I'm home.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Where I Am


I've been busy working, but most of all probably treating writing like some sort of precious jewel. In that regard, I miss writing for an online magazine, where I was kind of forced to write about things to a weekly deadline. What surprised me most about these articles was that the ones I thought would be completely ignored or not terribly well-received turned out to be the better ones. In other words, kill your darlings.

Maybe this is my hundredth attempt to say I will write on this blog more. Maybe. Maybe I'm just going to use this the way a blog was intended to be used, writing about everything and anything from fragments of my work to the city I live in and love, my relationship, friends, thought and what the hell, what I had for breakfast.

I intended to create an entirely new blog to talk about comic books. I feel like there's this niche where very few people seem to talk about comic books out of sheer enjoyment. It's all about the writer's intentions and somehow they all seem to know what's going on at the Marvel or DC offices. In other words, they speculate as to what is going on. It also surprises me to know a large portion of people spend a lot of money each money buying a ton of comics that they don't read, but keep in a pile and spend the rest of the year trying to catch up  on.

Each to their own, from my own perspective I come to comics for the sheer enjoyment of the story. As a writer, I always have my writer head on, much to the annoyance of those around me and even myself, by thinking "oh this is going to happen next" or "that could have worked better this way". What I am trying to say though, is that I am not a collector. I like having books in the home because they make the house feel more homely, and there are books I will read again and again that look much better in hardcover. I don't need to read a story, or own an issue in its original form. Given the choice between one issue with a variant cover that costs the same as ten phone-book sized volumes, I will go for quantity every time.

I am digressing. My point being I was going to make a blog about comics, without thinking I can just write about comics on here too. Perhaps not the painful minutiae, but the story. Everyone knows who Iron Man is, and everyone knows a good story. So no specific comics blog. Just misterpalazzo.com.

I've been working a lot lately, in a very nice way, just settling into my job which I love and I will probably never write about for the sake of being professional. I have also been studying for an English Literature degree with the Open University and I just ended my first year, and started my second. I just got my mark back for my first essay, and my tutor ripped it to shreds. In a way that I hate and enjoy at the same time. I don't think anyone likes having their work critiqued, but I also enjoy the fact I can now improve. Who knew "direspecting" was a colloquial term that shouldn't be used in essays! I don't think winging it is going to be the case anymore, and I feel that reading for pleasure may take a serious backseat to set texts and books on writing better essays. Somehow, I feel that buying a pinboard will also make my work better. It makes sense in my head.

I have a lot of ideas for books and I feel like I have no time for them, but I found a Meetup group where you go on a Tuesday night and write solidly for two hours with people around you and no talking. The feeling of having people watching me write while I write may help my procrastinating streak, even if I do dislike "people". As in, I am perfectly fine in a social situation but I somehow have a thing against groups of others. Specifically other students and writers. I'm sure there's a deep self loathing going on there.

Lots of cooking too. I am currently making a meatloaf for the first time, and I've just made cornbread which is my favourite thing to cook at the moment. I made cupcakes for the first time the other day.

There's a lot more, all of which probably deserve their own blog posts. My growing old(er), completely ridiculous fear of death, falling out of love with the fashion industry, and never seeming to have the patience to sit down and watch a film like I used to. Also, yoga. That thing I always want to do that never happens.

Should I put a picture into each blog post or not?




Saturday, 4 October 2014

Opening Credits - America Part 8

Penn Station is not the most fabulous introduction to the world's capital, which is a shame as the train from Washington DC to New York City is the most luxurious mode of transport I have ever been on. The station at Washington DC was opulent in mahogany panels and ferns. Screaming child aside, the train to New York had spacious seats and footrests. Wi-fi, air conditioning and little tables for your computer. I can't imagine anyone else saying passing through Baltimore is picturesque but it was, looking at times like the south coast of Britain and others like sets from House Of Cards.



Penn Station is tiled in 80's despair and cramped full of clawing visitors pushing those blue Ikea bags around like refugee discount shoppers. John points out we're under Madison Square Garden and I suddenly feel like that scene in Godzilla with the eggs and the destruction and the end of Matthew Broderick's career.



The escalators push me out onto the street like a messy birth, and here we are. In the oppressive heat and crowded sidewalk, with the billboards promising iPhones and Guardians Of The Galaxy like some sci-fi city of future wonder. The skyscrapers really do go on forever, and I feel equally like the smallest dot of dust in the universe, and the star of my own movie. Here I am, with the synth-heavy power pop anthem and my bag, making my way to the big city to seek my fortune. I am James Dean, I am Madonna, with barely a dollar in my pocket looking for the middle of everything.

This is how the rest of our trip goes. I look out of the window of our hotel at the skyline and see Spider-Man swinging through the sky. We are at a rooftop bar next to the Empire State Building when a thunderstorn hits, and the vision of Thor across the night sky is in my brain.

We visit places I never dreamed I would see in my lifetime. The Chelsea Hotel is on the street behind ours, the place where Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001, Dylan Thomas frequented and Sid killed Nancy. My beloved Patti Smith walked these streets in a leather jacket. We visit St. Mark's Place where Ginsberg and Yoko Ono and Patti Smith gave poetry readings.

In Central Park we sit on a bench and eat lunch and imagine Carrie and Samantha talking about their sex lives. Fifth Avenue looks like an enormous film set. We go inside the New York Public Library where the Ghostbusters captured Slimer. We snatch a kiss at the Stonewall Inn where history was made when a bunch of queens decided enough was enough.

I'm amused at MOMA where dozens of teenage girls queue up to take selfies next to works by Frida Kahlo, and angered at Ground Zero where tourists pose sexily next to the names of 9/11 victims, when they should be peering down into the nothingness of the foundations, where water pours into the black and we reflect on things that should never happen again.

New York is a fever dream of all my cultural desire. It is where I see myself complete as a writer, as an artist, like Ginsberg opening the curtains to look out of the buildings and seeing Moloch towering over the city like a sickness. On my feet the pavements, where the small windows of the basements are where Walt Whitman gathers in secret with gentlemen of his kind and look at my ankles. From the crowded brownhouses, I see a young Jack Kirby, hanging out of a window dreaming of the superhero.



Thursday, 25 September 2014

Mister Palazzo Goes To Washington - America Part 7

There was a moment when I was visiting Rome and walked into the ancient forum. Less than a sense of history, in the sense of "this is the way people lived then", I caught a powerful feeling of the man who had walked into this building, sat down and made the world what it is today. I had the same feeling at the Coliseum, a structure that above all others has shaped the way we see the world in term of real life and entertainment. So basically, you do have the Romans to thank for the Kardhashians.

It is a cliche to compare America to the Roman empire, but that doesn't mean that it is not an accurate depiction. Moreover, Washington DC as a city structure reminds me far more of large European cities than it does of other American cities. If you want to see the modern world as it put one hand in front of the other and pushed itself out of the mud, there is a walk you can take around Washington DC. If Virginia had the pioneering spirit, this city is what happened after the land was tamed.

The European influence is interesting, and I guess unavoidable. The city builders of the 18th and 19th century have a tremendous boner for classical architecture. It seems the height of intellectual and cultural advance is an ionic column.

After visiting the outside of the White House, I am at first shocked at how close the gates are to the front door (the movies make it look so far away) and then amused at how European the architecture of the leader of a people so proud to break away from Europe is. We see the roads closing to allow cars to pass into the building, as helicopters whizz around the river, a sense that Washington DC is not based around some stately home granted token power, but a city functioning fully to keep the cogs turning. If Virginia is perhaps the heart of America, then Washington DC is definitely the brain.

The White House is the full stop in our day's journey, by which point we have weary feet and educated minds. We start our day in the heat, grateful for the air conditioning prevalent in every building. A brief highlighted tour of the Guggenheim art museum and Air & Space museum. How about that, a brief tour of some of the world's greatest breakthroughs and milestones.

The National Mall is indescribable. A stretch from Congress to the Lincoln Memorial, punctuated by the Washington monument and the reflecting pool. John's mother later tells us it gives her chills whenever she visits Washington DC, and I get exactly what she means.

There are memorials for practically everyone, and they are all beautiful. We visit the Jefferson Memorial, a Pantheon tribute by the river overshadowed by the more popular Lincoln memorial but possibly more beautiful. President Franklin Roosevelt had all the trees cut down between the White House and the Jefferson Memorial so he could look at it every night. How could you not? All of America's ideals and reasons for existing encapsulated in under one dome. There are large stone enravings on the wall, underneath those are stone benches, where I sit and John takes a photo. It is possibly my favourite photo of myself, beneath the powerful words commanding "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

Onwards to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial, a pretty and expansive series of walls and statues showing a man who lived through the Depression and led America through a world war. There is even a statue dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt, with rays of sunshine bursting through the branches overhead, the memorial feels entirely utopian.

The next memorial is dedicated to Martin Luther King, one of my childhood heroes, and it feels entirely fitting to see some highlights of his powerful words carved into rock while a statue of Dr. King appears to be carved out of a stone and pushed forwards, propelling him towards the bright future he bestowed upon everyone.

The Vietnam memorial is sombre, a long row of names on black marble. I even find a couple of Pizarros, with a phonebook sized guide helping to identify loved ones. To attach a life to each of those names, with the endless possibilites that are cut short by bullets and bombs. To delve further into that thought would be paralysing.

The Einstein memorial is infinitely more joyous, a burst of constellations at his feet, the smallest dot depicting Earth's place in our vast universe. It is a warm tribute to discovery and intelligence.

The Lincoln Memorial is busy and chaotic, as with most popular attractions there is little respect placed to the intention of the memorial by its visitors. There are signs calling for respect and silence, but they are ignored. Children are screaming, people are taking selfies by the oversized seat of the President.

We find a quiet-ish spot on the steps and look out to Congress, where we started the day. These steps, the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech. Looking out onto the National Mall where thousands of people flooded to hear him speak and change the world. Overlooked by the President who abolished slavery. Chills, there is no other way to describe it.


- Jonathan Pizarro.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Blue Ridges & White Houses - America Part Six

John's father lives in Virginia, so we drive from state to state in a way that would get you halfway across Europe. The scale of things is something I have not yet grasped, as an eight hour drive where I grew up could leave you in another country, with another language and completely different way of life. In fact, if you are willing to get on a ferry you can be on another continent.

To drive and drive and still see the same stores, the same culture is astounding. As we make our way to John Sr.'s house we are greeted with such a beautiful view we stop the car to take the look. The mountains are sweeping and sparsely inhabited. You could get lost in them forever and that is something equally terrifying and tempting.

There's this idea of sanctuary, and one of those places for me is now Virginia. You almost don't want to live there, because if you do there would be nowhere to escape to in your mind when daily life gets too much. Or perhaps living there means daily life won't get too much, maybe one day I'll find out.

John Sr.'s house is almost a secret, surrounded by trees so green there's nothing to compare them to but themselves. The home itself is the way Tolkien described hobbit homes, warm and dry and intensely comforting. Maybe it's the tiredeness from the travelling, but I can melt into the sofa and feel entirely at home.

The back of the house opens out into a porch on a hill, looking out onto a pond, vegetable patches and sweeping up into the Blue Ridge mountains, which look very blue against the sky as we drink wine all evening, and I am fed chocolate by John Sr., who has discovered my sweet tooth weakness. John's brother Matt joins us for dinner and tells us about his farm. If he lived in London he'd have hipster girls queuing up to date him, it delights me to be presented with the real thing, and not some moustached graduate drinking out of mason jars and keeping a patch of organic sustainable pop-up artisanal potatoes in Hackney.

The next morning we head out through very winding roads to Chateau Morrisette, where Matt works and we are to have brunch. The place is a solid building reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel, providing a restaurant and winery. I'm glad to have dressed up a little, it's the type of place you'd have a fancy and expensive wedding. The brunch is exquisite, and I am sure that if we ever move to Virginia I will get very, very fat.

Later, Matt shows us his work-in-progress farm in Meadows Of Dan, which sounds like the name of a 90's alternative rock band. There's a sense of pioneering and possibility here like nowhere else I've been. When we arrived, we presented John Sr. with a woodcut print of St. Paul's Cathedral from the 1800's, and he was blown away by something from such a long time ago. IN context, The United States was barely a century old. Yet, for all it's sense of newness, there's something else in the air that anywhere else seems worn. I don't know that there are very many people in the United Kingdom in their 30's who are buying a piece of land and putting a farm together bit by bit. There are pipe dreams, and then the people who work hard and literally rub the sweat from their brows to make dreams reality, without the aid of a dozen Polish workers to renovate the farmhouse and build a koi pond to look exotic. It makes me realise I should give my own dreams a little kick up the rear.

We stop by what used to be a mill, and there are a few people walking around the stunningly green grass and admiring the tools workers used to use to make flour and to farm the land. In a clearing, what looks like an amateur bluegrass group have joined together to play some music, while families sit around on blankets and eat their lunch. After the nightmarish music patriotism rally at Dollywood, I am delighted to hear some real bluegrass. It feels like cotton sheets and woven blankets, sweet tea and fireflies. I'm glad that on a Sunday afternoon, a handful of people can get together and make some wonderful music.

We leave the next morning, and I am sad to not be staying longer. This is the last stretch in our silver Mustang, and on the last leg into Washington DC we are jolted harshly back into city life, with lanes and lanes and traffic jams. We pass Arlington Cemetery and The Pentagon. By the time I see the Washington Monument I am ready to get out of the car and explore this city.

Travelling is exhausting, and I have no idea why because all I am doing is sitting in a car and watching scenery. I don't know how John does it, driving and focusing for hours on end, but we get into the city and find our hotel then take our car to the airport and ride the subway, by which point I am ready to drop Washington DC into a box and leave it until the next day.

Everywhere we walk feels like forever, and although it's not as hot as Atlanta the air is still like inhaling steam. We walk to to John's old neighbourhood and I am suddenly very much in love with this city. Our hotel is next to tall buildings and busy traffic, more than America it reminds me very much of Spain. The only other American city I've seen is Atlanta, which has no soul, but John mentions that Washington DC always reminds him of European cities. The tall buildings lead into smaller brownstones, a neighbourhood that looks like Frank Underwood's from House Of Cards. It stands to reason that at the seat of government, this would be an opulent town, although we already passed all the homeless by a square next to the hotel.

We go to what John refers to as the Social Safeway, a supermarket notable for being a place where people went to chat and hook up, of course it's at the heart of Washington's gaybourhood, and it reminds me of the supermarket in San Francisco that Armistead Maupin uses in Tales Of The City. Or Allen Ginsberg's poem A Supermarket In California, with the pervy old bard sneaking a peek of the teenage grocery boys behind the fruit. When I worked in Brighton for a few weeks I frequented a supermarket in Brighton's gay village. It amused me greatly to see leather daddies with their pug doing something as mundane as choosing between cornflakes and Frosties. There's more of the same here, and the last thing I remember is we are served by the hipster staff, who bag our groceries.

I guess we must have gotten back to the hotel, had a hotel room picnic and fallen asleep, with the First Family doing much of the same (minus the hotel picnic I am sure) only a few miles from our room.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

In My Tennessee Mountain Homo - America Part Five


The rain hasn't stopped all day and we've been moving at a slow, painful rate on the way into Pigeon Forge. It looks like Dolly came to stay and everyone moved in too. We are surrounded by what feels like every car in America, on a four-lane highway to nowhere. My only source of amusement is reading the anti-Obama and Tea Party stickers on the back of all the pick-up trucks, and correctly guessing that the driver will be wearing a vest, baseball cap and Oakley sunglasses. Extra points if he has a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and there's a dog beside him. Amusement turns bleak when the reality sets in that these people lead lives with the views they so proudly display on their bumpers.

I am hungry, travel-weary and bored. I am stropping while John keeps the windscreen clear of rain and we work our way through the pack of Lifesavers, our only food source in the car. Then, the road turns flat and a beautiful, tacky, orgy of consumerism opens up before us. Welcome to Pigeon Forge!

On each side of the road are shopping emporiums devoted to summer tourists, promising live sharks, t-shirts and Christian books. There's a knife museum, cramped motels with pools and enormous billboards competing for the main attractions, dinner theatre. This isn't just a case of Medieval Times. We have Lumberjack Wars, Hatfields Vs. McCoys, Biblical Times, Motown and Dolly Parton's very own Dixie Stampede. That's right, you can eat chicken wings while watching Jesus Of Nazareth sing his way through life, death and resurrection.

We begin to pass the buildings devoted to these shows, enormous theme-park structures that are meant to entice you and drop $50 a head. Lumberjack Wars is a giant barn, Hatfields Vs. McCoys looks like a wooden house, with entrances for each warring side and laundry hanging out to dry.

There's not just dinner theatre, but all sorts of museums, rides and attractions. Giant gates lead to a Jurassic Park style adventure. There's an upside down mansion, towering King Kong, and even an enormous replica of the Titanic, complete with iceberg poking out of the side. A Titanic museum in Tennessee. I wonder if years from now we'll have an MH370 plane themed museum.

I guess what's bizarre is that this place was so intent on selling an idea of Americana to Americans who lived in the authentic, and drove up to Pigeon Forge for a slice of history that wasn't really history at all. There was a yearning for mythology, a piece of something that had been brought along on the ships to this new land, and the people who decided not to share in the actual legends that grew from the land many years before they ever settled here. Instead they chose Superman, and Coca-Cola, and reached back further to create entertainment out of a ship disaster, an overblown family feud and a whitewashed Middle Eastern man who walked on water.

Yet I found it all terrific, despite my yearning to simply return to the porch in Jonesville and eat meatloaf until I was sick. The shining beacon in this dreary day came beyond the hotel room, the journey through the drizzle up the mountain, and came with the shiny, effervescent sign that promised a "Welcome To Dollywood". I jumped for joy and raced for the entrance, twelve years old like I'd never been twelve years old in my life. Through the faux Malibu pastels and into the kingdom of Dolly Parton.

The rain did us a favour, and we spent the afternoon walking around, the park practically to ourselves. The Dolly Parton museum is tucked away in a corner, and there was evidence of how busy it can get when signs stated to queue beyond points and form orderly lines. Except we had Dolly Parton and her life story all for us, and I wandered fascinated through photos and costumes and Grammies, finding moment after moment for a kitch yet loving photo, which encapsulates Dolly Parton in her entirety and ampleness.

What struck us was the cheeriness and warmth exuding from the staff. I had only been privy to British theme park staff, normally sullen teenagers at a summer job. As we exited the museum, a female staff member cheerily struck up a conversation with us, asking if we'd loved it. She explained Dolly had come to visit about a month before, and that she had been so gracious and lovely. She looked thrilled to be working there, and she bounded off on her way, a rainbow stream practically emitting from her rear.

Part of the park used to be a Silver Dollar theme park, a Western-style park that John had visited various times during his childhood. It was great to see him reminisce about how the park had expanded, and see how things had just been thinly veiled and renamed to fit into Dollywood. We rode the authentic steam train around the park, and he braved the rollercoaster solo while I hid under my Dollywood umbrella, with no desire to be shot out of anything. We rode a Pirates Of The Caribbean style gold rush ride which John confirmed hadn't been renovated since the 80's, and the sudden dips were enough for me.

Not wanting to miss out on at least a little Pigeon Forge entertainment, we went to watch a show I was expecting to just be a sullen girl on a banjo or some sort of bluegrass quartet. It ended up being a foursome of Broadway rejects high-fiving and whooping their way through a selection of hymns and country music covers. In an effort to appear an America united, the two sassy Aryan chicks were joined by a beefy country dude, a black guy in a cowboy hat, and a man in a wheelchair who the crowd went crazy for. I swear the man in front of me wet his seat. Halfway through, the torture was softened by an upcoming Nashville music star, who was very lovely, until the big finale rolled around and the American flag were paraded around, just in case you missed the point. I decided there and then to lead a better life, because Hell is surely these four singing their Hunger Games national pride anthems for all eternity while I am stuck to a chair.

The evening ended with a spectacular fireworks display fired from those famous Tennessee mountains, with inspirational words from Dolly Parton about looking out at the stars when she was a poor mountain girl. If you can't grasp the point, there is a replica of the house she grew up in, and I use the term house loosely. I cannot fault any earnestness she may continue to display when talking about her life, after seeing what essentially amounts to a hallway as a space to live for about five people. Coupled with the great work she does for charity, and her genuine talent, there's nothing to dislike. I was taken away by the Parton fairies, wrapped up in John's arms watching the sky lit up in Tennessee.



Thursday, 28 August 2014

Doctor Who And The Lonesome Pine - America Part Four


"And this is where they filmed the wedding..."

Carlene, John's mother, is showing us around Big Stone Gap. A small mountain town about forty-five minutes drive away from Jonesville, it is steeped in literary and cultural history. Like the particular vision of my life, everything seems to draw parallel with a book, which is essentially what art is for. The wonder being that while staring at the art is observed, the art staring back at you is often overlooked.

Carlene was an extra in the movie adaptation of a book, Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani. The book tells of life in Big Stone Gap during the 1970's, and is in turn an adaptation of a proposal for a television series Trigiani wrote and then turned into a book. The story also revolves around the staging of a real-life play, The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine, which the townsfolk perform every year and is one of the longest-running plays in the United States. The play is based on a book by John Fox Jr of the same name, who lived in Big Stone Gap and whose home is now a museum. So the cultural snake eats its own tail. Keep up.

Months previously, Carlene had spent a few days a week driving up to Big Stone Gap and taking part in crowd scenes for the upcoming movie. She'd got to meet Whoopi Goldberg, Jenna Elfman, Patrick Wilson, Ashley Judd and Adriana Trigiani herself. The movie is out next year. I had taken to reading the book on the porch each evening, so there was a bizarre reflection between the places I was visiting and the locations in the book, unravelling themselves in turn.

It was a brilliantly sunny afternoon, which makes the trees turn a shade of green I couldn't even begin to describe. We drove past The Patio, a drive-in restaurant that asked you to flash your lights if you wanted someone to come outside and take your order. Days later we would visit and have milkshakes. Mine was a peanut butter variety that consisted of soft ice cream and a scoop of peanut butter, so thick it barely came out of the straw.

We stop to look at The Great Stone Face at Pennington Gap, a mountainside resembling a profile looking out into the distance of the snaking river. I later find out there's another awful name for the formation, a reminder that this land may have seen great moments but also had its share of pain.

It's interesting to see that most people in the area essentially look to be of Scandinavian, Germanic or British/Irish ancestry. There was an entire culture formed around "melungeons", the origin of the word allegedly being that of the french "melange" or mixture. They are now seen as a tri-racial group of people, a mix of African, Iberian and Native American who for the longest time were segregated in their own communities. Legends and rumour abounded of their origins, from the lost tribe of Roanoke to extraterrestials. Completely ignoring of course, the entire conceit of the United States as a country of immigrants.

I am always fascinated by the other, or what is seen as exotic. That people with the same mix of blood running through them as me (although granted, my mother's French ancestry makes me a little less swarthy and in my travels I've been able to fit into the box of non-descript European) would be given a status of mistrust, legend and segregation is a powerful idea, and one that in the area seems to be for the most part over.

We arrive at Big Stone Gap and visit the state-run liquor store. The alcohol laws here are strict, and it amuses me that bullets are more readily available in supermarkets than alcohol. Although John wisely points out, alcohol and ammunition are not a great mix. I am carded and denied wine in a restaurant due to forgetting my passport, and a few days later we are told that although we can buy beer and alcopops, wine is only available via a four mile drive into the next state. A juxtaposition to our travels through Morocco, where alcohol is prohibited but more than readily available to tourists with money. At least America seems to be sticking to its bizarre principles.

Our tour of Big Stone Gap would put any Hollywood tour to shame, and my ego cannot wait for the movie to be released so I can show off to anyone who cares to listen. Carlene shows us the pharmacy, church and baseball field, all locations in the play. Just to make your head spin even further, the book dramatises a real account of Elizabeth Taylor choking on a chicken bone while visiting Big Stone Gap, and the baseball field is used as the setting for the fictional parade in her honour.

The best part of our visit is peering through the gates of the June Tolliver Playhouse, an open-air theatre where The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine is staged each season. As Carlene explains the part of the film where the location is used, the woman in charge of the place happens to walk in and invites us to look around. The playhouse is spectacular in its simplicity, with a large painted backdrop of what is the real mountain view behind it, and planety of trees to capture the mountain feel of the play.

A couple of days later we are sat in the audience to watch the play, and as the person who has travelled the furthest to see it, I am called up to the stage and given a gift. It is a fairy stone, a natural phenomenon of a cross-shaped piece of rock with bearing the legend that when the fairies heard that Jesus had died, they wept, and their tears turned into these stones. In yet another moment of synchronicity, the woods where this supposedly happen and the fairy stones belong is close to John's father's home, which we will be visiting in a few days.

For being an amateur local production, the play is excellently acted and a lot of fun. It borrows from the Pygmalion myth (AKA My Fair Lady), with an educated man from the city falling for a young mountain girl and educating her so she can seek a better life. It has action, drama, comedy and great music. A teenaged girl with a banjo sings during the interlude, and I can only think that if she was transported to London and sang in cafes, the hipsters would eat her up and she'd be on the main stage at Reading festival by the time the year was out.

I'm invited back on stage, along with John, during the court scene, where we act as members of the jury. It's great fun to be up there and afterwards we receive a certificate for taking part. When the play is over, a little girl who was part of the runs up to me and asks if I am really from London. She squeals with delight and asks if I watch Doctor Who. Her bag is emblazoned with TARDIS and Adventure Time badges. Another little boy tells me the cast can sign my programme, which is a thinly veiled way of telling me he wants to sign it. I tell him he was the best thing in the play, and he tells me he dreams of living in London.

At some point I forgot what it meant to have been in a small town, away from the rest of the world, with only the television and books showing me a greater world outside, where men who flew and time travelled symbolised an escape, a place where dreams happened and there was infinite possibility. I watch the bare twinkling lights of sparsely placed houses on the way home through the darkness, and smile at the bow that has looped around the ribbon that is my life.

- Jonathan Pizarro.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Virginia Is For Lovers - America Part 3

I had been hesitantly expecting six foot drops and rapids, especially after the rain. We'd sat on the porch the previous evening, watching the rain come down while I rocked in a chair with dogs at my feet. This was a dream I had somewhere, some literary fever where all I'd ever wanted was a house in the mountains and endless whispering trees.

Now we are drifting down a river in a canoe, in a valley practically untouched by history. It was easy to throw a thread out to the past and see those that came before transported down the river. There is no sound but the Earth itself, practically the slow turn of it, while the birds call out in the trees and the water carries us down. I do not want to be anywhere else, and there is nothing else. There is no London, no traffic, no deadlines or triple shot caramel skinny machiattos.

We'd travelled up from Atlanta and watched the landscape turn greener, the roads smaller. From time to time we stopped to put the top on the car up or down dependent on the intensity of the summer showers or the sunshine. We pass signs promising mythology, a half hope we could turn left towards Nashville, or Memphis. We save it for another trip.

We pass Knoxville and its fabled Sun Sphere, a remnant from the World's Fair known mostly to global consciousness as a beaten-up relic in The Simpsons. The reality being it gleams on the Knoxville skyline as we glide past it in our silver Mustang.

We stop at a Food City just outside Knoxville and John comments that small-town supermarkets won't have too much stuff, so if we want to we can go to the Walmart closer to his family's home. I walk into a fairly large supermarket which has a fruit and vegetable selection that would put any British megamarket's to shame. The gluten-free section takes up an entire aisle. Compared to our local supermarket, which may I point out is in one of the world's busiest rail stations, this is heaven. Victoria Station's supermarket has four gluten-free shelves, hidden away and embarassed, offering two packs of gluten-free biscuits and a white gluten-free loaf the size of a normal sized slice.

Had I been in a less disciplined part of my life, I can see how I would have gone crazy with want in America. Once we head to the Walmart, towering above a hill with nothing else in sight, my brain practically splits in half. Here is a supermarket that would comfortably house the entire population of Gibraltar (or as John points out, Lee County), open 24 hours and offering basically everything you could ever want or need at any hour of the day or night. What's more, it is basically situated in what could be constituted as the middle of nowhere.

Days later, on the way back from Big Stone Gap, we test out the theory and visit the store at 11pm to purchase an electric sharpener, a pack of pencils, a bottle of wine and a bag of salad. Don't ask.

To romanticise, we do pass Jonesville (which I continue to call Jonestown by mistake, my childhood submerged in reading about religious genocide) and John gives me the tour of the little Appalachian town. Population approximately 900. It practically hits the beats of my own childhood, and I feel heartened that a little Mediterranean boy and a little Virginian boy can share a similar experience. There's the house that caused Satanic panic in the 80's, the school, the church. Life seems far more peaceful here, we hardly see a person outside, compared to the sardine tin chatter and navigation that Gibraltar presents.

The path to the family home is pure Superman Kansas. A small winding road leads to a sudden burst of infinite blue sky, a large wooden house towering above cornfields giving way to the breeze. (Days later we'll see a deer peer out from the stalks and bounce along the road.)Then a tilting gravel path down the valley to a barn that would be comfortable in any 70's rural horror movie and a drive leading up to a beautiful home.

John's mother, Carlene, and her partner Vera sit on the porch I will be so enamoured of in the next few days, while four dogs bark and jump and bound towards our car. Three statuesque weimeraners and a little beagle-dachshund doing her best to catch up behind. Despite the towering authority of the three other dogs, Sissy is the boss. She is also my favourite, Bette Midler in dog form.

Carlene and Vera's home is everything every luxury holiday company and mouse-eared theme park has tried their best to market as a real American South and miserably failed to do, because what they always miss is the warmth, honesty and lack of stereotype that this entails. It reminds me of Southern Spain, and the fact that everyone thinks I take siestas, eat paella and go to see a bullfight every afternoon. That everyone who speaks with the Spanish accent I share is an uneducated farmer with missing teeth. Nevermind that Andalucia is a hub of culture and history. Nevermind Lorca, Manuel De Falla or Picasso. Likewise here. Nevermind The Carter Family, Daniel Boone or John Fox Jr.

The kitchen is expansive, and I am jealous. I covet it. The walls are dotted by Picassos and Dalis. The mounted deer heads remind me of holidays up in the mountains in Spain, where the reality of hunting is not what PETA would have you believe, and something that has happened since time immemorial until such a point when meat was consumed from little plastic trays and everyone forgot what it means to connect to the land.

I am at home. I feel wrapped up in a quilt, like the seconds on my watch tick a little slower, if at all. I am dispelled of the myth that there is not much to do, and the promise of canoeing, visits to Big Stone Gap and drive-ins peak my interest.

Which is where we are days later, after the rain. Floating down a river looking at a landscape of pioneering. This is the first state after all, a land of promise and discovery and secrets. Our journey downstream is celebrated on a wooden deck, looking out at the river and mountains while we eat catfish and salad with my beloved ranch dressing, served by incredibly well-mannered young girls, a world away from the sour faces of London restaurant service. The sweet tea in enormous tumblers instantly refilled, making me vow to never touch another bottle of Nestea again.

- Jonathan Pizarro.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Where For Art Thou Rick Grimes? America Part 2

Atlanta feels like the end of the world.

It's almost eleven at night by the time the taxi winds its way through Atlanta. After an airport that feels more like a bus station and the immense orange glow darkness of the stretching freeway, the city appears like a constellation of glass and steel.

The air is thick, like the sun stored itself up in everything and is now escaping through the pavement. There's a tension I can see through the window as the car speeds its way through the centre. It adds to my disorentation, my fever dream of a place that is more foreign than anything I have ever seen, yet intimately familiar. My mind and reality are at battle in my head, and I am also weary from travel.

The city from afar looks like Gotham, a testament to industry. The streets feel like Gotham too, everything filtered through my mind on a screen or a page. I have spent my life studying America, it is the structure of all my creative notion. Or maybe I've just watched too much Walking Dead, the series Atlanta is now famous for.

Have you ever felt an entire city's tension? We step out of the car to people hanging on street corners, jumping on walls and generally looking like they're about to cause trouble. John assures me it's not normally like this, there must be some event going on. We find out the next morning it was the Car & Bike Show, notorious for always causing the city to pour over. The tension is even palpable in our hotel, in the elevator a woman screams at a member of staff as they threaten to call security.

Maybe 2001 really affected me, but I feel hermetically sealed inside the hotel and I never want to leave. It's close to freezing with the air conditioning on everywhere, and the darkness outside seems like a smoke monster, hitting the floor to ceiling windows and sliding down in oppressive humidity.

I taste my first ranch salad, served in a bowl the size of a satellite dish, and experience Southern hospitality. Everyone is attentive, polite and missing that invisible barrier that keeps you from talking to strangers. In London you keep your head down and acknowledge people only with a breathless "sorry" if the smallest part of your fabric touches theirs. American openness may be mocked elsewhere, but it seems genuine and lovely to me.

The next morning we walk down what feel like secret stairs, from reception to CNN Center, which is connected to the hotel. The hallway opens up into the courtyard of a thriving business hub and testament to all things Turner. A practically infinite elevator leads up to an enormous globe, like a set piece from Journey To The Moon. This is where the constantly busy CNN Inside Tours start. Next to it is an Orwellian television screen tuned into CNN. Right next to what is labelled as the CNN Store but is really the Time Warner emporium, a giant statue of Finn from Adventure Time looms over visitors.

Choice is practically infinite, from the rows of fast food establishments offering breakfasts that are deep fried, breaded or covered in chocolate. Not so infinite for a gluten-free diet, which is also part of the reason I am probably the only person who went to America for two weeks and came back thinner. We choose a restaurant that promises fresh and healthy breakfast, and I am awed when I am returned change from $20 after paying for two omelettes, an orange juice and coffee. The omelettes are mountains, and the coffee is unlimited. I can't remember the last time this Mediterranean boy left food on a plate.

It's still hot outside, but that cloying sense of danger has disappeared to make way for a bright, sunny and generally quiet day. Atlanta is mostly a centre for business it seems, with no real heart of the city in which to shop or socialise. We walk to the Coca Cola museum, which once we have arrived seemed like a better idea than the reality. WIth no pressing desire to queue amidst screaming children to be sold a corporate dream, we head to the airport to pick up our rental car.

Surely the entire principle of the American dream is to travel the country in a convertible. John has chosen a sleek little Mustang, and I made a dozen mixtapes full of the perfect music to speed along the highways of the American South. With the sun beaming on us and Dolly Parton singing about home, we travel outside Atlanta to visit our friends in their beautiful home, and my first taste of a Wal-Mart.

- Jonathan Pizarro.

Friday, 1 August 2014

On The Run: America Part One.

I am carrying my belt and bag in one hand, with the other clutched desperately to my iPad and a clear bag of toiletries. I tear through the seeming narrow expanse of Philadelphia airport with an inability to process the fact I am now in America.

My flight was delayed by two hours, prompting my connecting flight from Philadelphia to Atlanta to be at the bottom of an hourglass I am desperately trying to swim through. I spent the entire flight from London to Philadelphia concerned with both my hydration and the fact I am probably going to miss my flight to Atlanta.

Going through immigration angry is not ideal. I step from foot to foot, gingerly offering my digits and my whereabouts for the next two weeks. I am offered an alternative route by a sassy Southern belle sat at a makeshift plastic table where everyone is groping for their rerouted flight tickets with all the zeal of the Hunger Games. Mine says I can go to Charlotte, and then catch another flight to Atlanta, arriving shortly before midnight. The time between those flights is about twenty minutes. No, thank you.

"Can I still make the flight to Atlanta?", I breathlessly implore of a check-in attendant at what is possibly the most mercifully empty check-in desk I have ever seen. Either Philadelphia is being used for the next 28 Days Later film or the universe really loves me.
"Honey", she raises her eyebrow at me, "you better run".
I give her my bag and another woman sat on a chair motions for me to run in the right direction. I wave my thank yous as they holler at me to go.
My God, I have turned into Hugh Grant.

I don't even remember getting through security. I don't even know if I did for sure. All I know is that it has taken me half an hour to get from one plane to the next, and I am now on board a flight to Atlanta. I am too tired and overwrought to think, move or fall asleep. I spend the entirety of the flight sat bolt upright, wondering if what just happened actually happened.

To add to the surreal absurdity of the situation, I am sat next to a man who in my daze I am convinced is Cee-Lo Green. I don't think it helped that I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey on the plane from London (followed by Julie And Julia. To this moment, I am equally obsessed with Julia Child and haunted by black monoliths on Jupiter).

He makes very extroverted talk about his nightmare day (he was stranded in Philadelphia airport for a few hours) and I offer him my story. This is my first culture shock. Why is this man talking to me? In London people sit next to you and offer a polite breathy "sorry" every time you hit their elbow by accident.
"Man, you're from London! Is that England, right? It's not in France?"
I smile, the view from this side of the world is charming for the Euro-centric traveller. After all, to his credit, how many Europeans could point out Atlanta on a map?

We talk about Kim and Kanye's wedding in Paris and he tells me I should visit New York, amused that he feels the need to point out the sights, like I haven't been raised on a steady diet of Sex And The City and Spider-Man. ("There's this street called Fifth Avenue" he explains, "very good for shopping").

It turns out he's obsessed with European fashion, as evidenced by his enormous red PVC Versace trainers. His equally large gold Jesus face on a cross would make the Pope cry with jealousy. It turns out he's going to Atlanta for a family reunion, and to organise some work.
"I'm a tour manager, for some rappers".
I don't think he expects the rap conversation to go any further with a little Mediterranean boy and his messed up accent on the way to Atlanta.
"What rappers?" I ask.
"Oh" he says, "They're American rappers. They're called 2 Chainz and French Montana".
My eyes almost burst out of their sockets. "I love them!"
He seems amused. "You know them in London? Cool!", and he contentedly settles to nap.

I lean back into my chair and beam. I am definitely in America now.

- Jonathan Pizarro.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Let Us Be Lovers




At ten years of age, I took no greater delight than telling my mother I would be running off to America one day. Other children pulled out the "I didn't ask to be born" trope, but mine was much more sincere and less calculating, being more devastating for it.

All the small-town boy stereotypes rang true with me. I felt intensely disconnected in a place that was geographically cut off from the rest of the world, but also, in a perverse sense, connected through media.

I could sit in the car and listen to Whitney Houston's album (albeit six months after everyone else) but Whitney would never grace Gibraltar with her presence. Yet more torture, the big stars would possibly play in Marbella and Malaga, a couple of hours up the coast via an international border, it might as well have been another planet.

I watched movie after movie, and every movie that shone through my eyes would sing in the backdrop of New York. I devoured biographies of Motown stars my grandmother would let me borrow, and developed an altogether unhealthy obsession with Diana Ross and Detroit, Michigan. The romance of the city was too much, and nothing like the reality. But still, the birthplace of modern pop music, of Madonna and Aretha Franklin, it sounded like heaven.

The rise of twenty-four hour news channels brought us closer to our obsession with reality. OJ Simpson and Louise Woodward faced trials that were heavily painted in glamour and danger and the sprawling mansions of Beverly Hills. Growing up in a town where NOTHING HAPPENED, murder was almost an intense antithesis to borderline antipathy.

I saved up all my pocket money when I was eight years old and bought Mariah Carey's Music Box album on cassette tape. I drove my parents to the brink of despair with my bedroom renditions. Yet it wasn't my bedroom at all, it was Madison Square Garden.

Little did my parents know that my passion would stretch further and deeper when I discovered an animated television show about a rag-tag band of misunderstood mutants and their pledge to protect a world that hated and feared them. It was almost too perfect. I fell hard and fast for the X-Men and longed to go to Xavier's, a school where I would be loved and respected instead of disliked and ignored.

I'd been given a copy of a Batman comic one Christmas at school, and I read it until it very literally fell apart in my hands. On a summer holiday to Portugal, I found a copy of X-Men on a spinner rack, and after much pleading, it was finally mine. I read that until it fell apart too, and eventually my sister's friend would lend me his copies in Spanish, and a whole new level of excitement every time we shopped for food in Spain was born.

American comics, however, were the holy grail. Not just because spanish comics ran a year behind, but because American comics came with letters from readers as far away as Philadelphia. They were also replete with adverts for candy and movies I would never have a hope of tasting or seeing. One day I would live there, in this land of opportunity, of plenty, and nothing would be denied.

Interestingly, my obsession with the greater world, and in particular with America, shaped and sharpened my mind. Reading translated comics improved my spanish, and all the facts and figures stowed into those comic books, as well as the penchant for larger words, probably educated me better than the school system ever hoped to.

The epitome of my cultural learning came when God appeared on the television, or rather, Oprah WInfrey started being shown on satellite television every afternoon. My evenings after school were punctuated by X-Men (which I had already watched that morning before school, but I watched again) then Oprah, followed by The Simpsons and Disney Channel sitcoms until bedtime.

Oprah took me by the hand towards Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and above all others, Toni Morrison. I became best friends with the local librarians, in a library that spewed tumbleweeds for all the natives read.

I would wake up around 6am and eat my cereal (wishing it was Lucky Charms) while watching some bizarre Spanish variety channel that programmed hip-hop videos all through the night until 7am. I fell hard for TLC, Toni Braxton, Missy Elliott and L'il Kim. Fulfilling my request one Christmas for CrazySexyCool, and awkwardly listening to the grinding sex groans in the car with the entire family, my dad informed that had he known about the album's filth, he wouldn't have bought it. It was too late though, I knew the entire rap from Waterfalls.

Now I am here. In the reality of America as opposed to the intense consumption of its artistic vision thrown at the rest of the world. The world backlashed and I cared little for the dislike. I still don't understand this expression of "oh how American" filled with disdain, when there is space enough for yourself and what is essentially a modern Rome.

I don't know why it has taken me twenty-nine years to get here, but I am more appreciative to be seeing a truer America and not the Disneyland package trip tourism of mass appetite that so many Europeans adore. Traveller, not tourist. It is possibly my most overwhelming unashamed snobbery, and I am unapologetic.

So we are on a trip through Atlanta, to Virginia and Tennessee, then Washington DC and ending in New York City.

I am hurtling through Jupiter in a Mustang convertible.



- Jonathan Pizarro.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

No Jackson Either.

When we were on holiday in Santorini just before Easter, when the season begins and the trampling visitors arrive. There was still a laziness to the island, the sound of hammers and the smell of paint prompting the locals to action in anticipation of the money of strangers.



Feeling like the only outsiders to touch down in Oia, it was a shock to turn a corner and see throngs of Chinese people clad in tourist gear, followed by an immaculately dressed bride and groom having their photos taken amidst the stark white and blue the island is so famous for.

Where were these weddings taking place? It is usual to see not just a wedding couple but the veritable army of loved ones crowding around them. The restaurants were barely open, there were no churches ringing bells. Yet here they were, with glowing gowns and smartly pressed tuxedos, brides and grooms having their photos taken overlooking volcanoes and horizons.

A quick Google search later, I learned that it is traditional for couples in China who are due to be wed to take a pre-wedding holiday to places like Santorini, and have photos taken in their wedding attire. During the reception party, these photos are then projected onto the walls so everyone can marvel at the happy couple looking beautiful in a beautiful, mythic place.

Back home, I was amused to see a van with tinted windows pull up outside of my workplace, and another Chinese bride and groom come tumbling out to have their photos taken around Covent Garden. They posed, they paused, they turned this way and that way and held each other in staged tender moments that required them to hold still for minutes on end. The whole thing was exacted with military precision and little humour or self-awareness.

They looked determined, stoic and resolved to take that perfect intimate portrait with no sense of honesty. Just as quickly, they were practically pushed back into the van and sped off, a drive-by shooting if you will, off to another London location for another tender moment held together for minutes so the light could be just right.

I remember a local magazine in Gibraltar that you could pick up for free in any supermarket. It was essentially full of adverts and sponsored completely by businesses. In order to showcase a photographer, there was a section on weddings. Weddings are a big business in Gibraltar, as they are anywhere else, but the laws are somehow a little more relaxed and the paperwork can be pushed through in a matter of hours. Call it Vegas without the showgirls, it has enticed the likes of John Lennon, Sean Connery and Roger Moore to say "I do" (sometimes even twice).

So there's all the traditional ones, because that's the way it goes. You live at home, you meet your boo to be out and about and hope he hasn't already slept with half of your friends. You get engaged on a Caribbean cruise and announce it in the local paper. You get married in church even though the last time you went there you were twelve years old, and have your wedding photos taken in the local botanical gardens.

Every month the magazine was out, more botanical gardens photos. Until the picture of a couple running around on the beach, her dressed in a black lace gown and him with stylised devil horns made from his hair. Pure joy on their faces. In the second photo they're pulling faces, completely enjoying the world and each other. There was honesty there, and something different. This wasn't the "different" I keep seeing now, where everyone tries to outdo each other with "Oh at my wedding we had organic ice cream from a vintage ice cream van" but a genuine desire to be married, outside of expectation.

So really, I wanted to write about expectations. I wanted to write about exhaustion. And freedom. People have the freedom to be exhausted if they choose, and maybe those posing mannequins in Covent Garden are having the time of their life, I just felt exhausted looking at them. Pre-wedding photographs. Bridal gowns. Manicures. The expense alone seems so trapping, I'm not surprised at the lack of laughter.

I like that everyone in Britain now has the basic human right to be united in matrimony now, I don't see it as a patriarchal, outmoded institution and the matter of choice is what above all reigns supreme.

I just stand there, happy that I don't have to live up to any expectation that involves a £5000 dress and a trip to London before a ceremony. That I don't have to choose between beef and pork for 200 people, 150 of whom I don't particularly hold the strongest of warm feelings for, yet here I am trying to impress them, because it's my day damn it.

I like this freedom, this choice. Maybe one day I'll get married in blue jeans and make faces on the beach. Hand in hand. Laughing.


- Jonathan Pizarro.

Friday, 11 July 2014

My Headphones

I left my headphones at work the other day, and it meant going for a run in the morning with no music. It also meant walking around on a day off without any music, or podcasts. If you think this is one of those cliche posts about how great we all are without social media and technology, think again.

I love social media, and the fact I have the entire world in the palm of my hand. I don't believe there was a golden age where everyone used to talk to each other and suddenly that's disappeared. In fact, I think people are more honest in the way they approach relationsips these days. You no longer have to suffer through making polite conversation, and can instead be on your phone connecting with the people and things you actually wish for.

The key is in not letting that get out of head, and really finding purpose in what you are doing. If you're sat on the phone surfing Facebook over dinner, that's a bit much. Similarly, I sometimes find myself scrolling Twitter before bedtime and an hour of what was meant to be reading time has passed. This makes me feel bad, that I haven't done anything productive or in any way stimulating.

Back to my headphones. I was in a bad mood about having to run without my headphones. I really didn't think I could run as fast or as far without music to keep me from getting bored or unmotivated. I still had a good run though. I was more aware of my breathing, and the sounds of the park. I felt more involved in the world I lived in, I paid more attention to the smells and sights. I don't think I would do it all the time, but it was still a positive experience.

Walking to and from work, however, was a revelation. I did feel more connected, funnily enough my brain was more stimulated. Although I always listen to a podcast, which in turn can be food for my brain, not having anything to listen to made me more aware of myself and the way I go through life.

I've always had this battle with myself, where I think of myself of nosy. I have no greater pleasure than looking through windows into people's homes. I enjoy hearing conversations on other tables, and where I used to think it was just people being loud and not letting me read in peace, I realise now it's just my brain wired into getting those nuggets of curiousity for myself. I saw it as a weakness that I can't multi-task in that way. I can't read if I have the television on, or music, or someone is talking next to me.

Now I see, that people are simply stories to me. That I am obsessed with secrets and what people do in their lives, because that is essentially what makes a story. Rather than give you some story about how I found inner peace on the tube without my headphones, this is about my brain exploding at the sheer overload of people's lives around me. I saw threads before me that needed to be written, situations to make future scenes in novels, characters bursting fully-formed into little boxes I keep in my mind.

So I'm not off to join some Buddhist retreat, I'm just realising every day that what I was born for is to write. It is not a case of enjoyment, or a hobby, and whether I make a career out of it is a matter to which I am kind of indifferent (other than it meaning I could write all day and not have to worry about a day job). I just have a head of voices ready to spill out, and after taking a break it feels like not doing it makes me feel ill.

-



Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Hello Neverland: White Knights

I saw a man stand up from his seat on the tube the other evening, and walk towards a woman who looked at him nervously. He was dressed a little scruffily but nothing that suggested he was destitute. As she cowered during that anxious moment, he motioned to his own seat and said:

"Would you like to sit down?"

The carriage was full and everyone in London keeps their heads down once they have secured a seat. However, she still cowered and shook her head, refusing to sit down. He smiled and shrugged, and went back to his seat.

I'll admit to having had my own preconceptions about him, and thinking he would maybe harrass her for change or who knows what else. I did not expect a moment of chivalry. I feel we have been conditioned to not expect moments of chivalry anymore.

It is a hard and touchy subject to write about, because hashtag activism abounds and I am told I am not allowed to speak from a position of "privilege". I am however, not writing about the experience of women faced with men. I am writing from the position of a man who I feel does not deal very much with being a man.



I have the least masculine job going, and I doubt I look like any sort of threat to anyone who would care to look at me. I've dealt with men my entire life like someone who is somehow looking over the fence, like a donkey would to a horse. I see a biological similiarity and that's where my similarities end.

My entire life has been in the presence and influence of women. I have worked almost exclusively alongside women, I have been drawn to books by female writers (Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy are my favourite authors) and music by female artists. I like fashion, art, baking and cosmetics. I am left cold by football, beer and progressive rock music.

This may seem stereotypical, and I understand that many people of many genders are either way inclined, but in my daily life I am empathised and relating to women more than men. The male to me is the "other", someone I find hard to understand. Watching Disney movies growing up, I wanted to be Pochontas, not John Smith. I felt an affinity with Clarice Starling, Catwoman and Alanis Morissette.

Moreover, straight men were to be viewed with suspicion and a certain distance. It is something I have mostly managed to shake off growing up. Mostly. There is still a hesitation, a sense of being an outsider, of watching my step.

"Typical man", I can't imagine how many times I've said that. "Men are pigs". They are not to be trusted. They will attack you, hurt you, they have ulterior motives. It's hard not to get caught up in that way of thinking.

Yet I've travelled a little bit in life, I've been privy to plenty of conversations and moments in the lives of straight men, and men in general. I have been let behind a rope made entirely of steel and motor oil.

Now I know that men want love, that they cry, that they can be frustrated by all the same wants and desires as everyone else. That they have just as many issues with the way they look, and will go to just as many extreme lengths to attain that. They are just much better at hiding it, or sadly, it's seen perfectly acceptable to be doing these things. Nobody wants to be the chubby, lazy, funny guy in the room with a beer gut who loves to eat pizza.

I find it strange, this mentality of "nobody knows what I've been through, how dare you". There is a certain element of people being condescending, but shutting the gate on everyone, even those who genuinely want to share their own experience of discrimination and hurt, no matter their gender or skin colour or age, is not helping.

We all need to come to the table as people, there can't be a "you can't sit with us" moment, because all you are doing is excluding, that very thing you complain is being done to you.

White knights exist. There are many men out there who are good, hard-working and lovely men. Not every man is a walking erection set to "rape". I don't see the point of Blurred Lines parodies with men on leashes wearing nothing but their boxers. If all you're seeking is a revenge fantasy on an entire gender then when you're the one holding the leash, how are you any different?

Of course we need to higlight and talk about discrimination. Yet I also think we need to look at the men in our lives who are amazing, who have a little more integrity and intelligence than to stray just because the right piece of meat comes their way. That want to engage with their families and be honest and open and make something of themselves.

We are all guilty. We all say "typical man". We all contribute to handing a blue blanket and a toy gun as their first experience into the world. Of the ideal man being Channing Tatum in Magic Mike but also hoping he'll be sensitive, and pay our bills. We need to keep talking about the good men too.


I know good men exist because my father is a kind, generous, loving man. I know good men exist because my grandfathers were both great men in their own ways. I know because I have wonderful male friends and family members.

I know good men exist because I am in love with one of them, and I could think of nothing worse than to browbeat him every day as a lazy typical man because he doesn't do what I want at every moment. That's what pets are for.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Headlights

I went to visit my family in Spain, and we're all sat in the car at night from the airport to home. In the back of the car are the three most important females in my life. My sister, my baby niece and my mother. My father is driving, we are listening to a mix of female empowerment beats. From Mariah to Whitney and Beyonce, amidst the chatter in the car we have soundbites about being sexy and believing in yourself.

The roads are dark along the coast, curved and beckoning caution. On the left is the sea, and all the developments for rich tourists and ex-pats. The right side is much more rugged, giving way to mountains and no lighting whatsoever. There could be anything happening on those hills, there probably is.

We turn a corner and in a slow-motion instant I look into the eyes of a woman, sitting right by the road in thigh-high heels looking the most miserable I have ever seen a person look. Beside her, another woman stalks a space of gravel, dressed in leopardskin, lips clenched with a fight at the end of them.

Another corner, more women. My mother mentions those poor women, brought over from other countries with the promise of something akin to freedom. I can't get that woman's eyes out of my head, staring right at me through the glass. Me, in my comfort and warmth, with enough money for airline travel and presents and the luxury of having had time to find a job I really want.

I think about Beyonce and her promise of feminism, at how much her new album bothers me. All those body-positive lyrics juxtaposed with lines about diamonds and being smacked around by her husband. I think of all these foundations they set up, about Madonna photoshopped with the glow of the Virgin Mary in Malawi, who then flies back to one of her five mansions.

I wonder if they stand in their walk-in dressing rooms thinking, "do I really need another Louis Vuitton bag? Do I need to spend five million dollars on my wedding? What if I spent four million dollars and then gave one million to someone?".




I think of the reality of the situation, beyond all the advertising and charity singles, there is still a woman sat by a road in Spain waiting for a man to toss her 20 euros and do what he likes with her, again and again for every night. Or worse, for this woman to disappear into the darkness and for nobody to miss her. A comodity, a piece of meat, a walking ghost.

I am frustrated by the line between choice and enslavement. When is Beyonce submitting to patriarchal views on women in order to sell records, and when is she empowered to use her body as a tool to her own advantage? Then there are these women, who don't even have a choice.

What is Beyonce doing for this woman on the road? Then a thought hits me right across the face and I sink into my chair.

What exactly are you doing, Jonathan?

The answer is simple, I am not doing a thing. The harder question follows, what can I do? Right now, I don't have a clue. Yet nothing doesn't seem like an option anymore.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

P...P...Promise

This is one of those piece of crap promise blog entries where I promise to write at least once a week on here and begin doing this by writing about the fact I'm going to be writing. Then embarrass myself terribly by finding this post two months later as the latest post on the blog. I think I've said "post" too many times.

Someone once told me Sylvia Plath would wake up at 5am to write before the children woke up for school. Sylvia Plath also stuck her head in the oven, so you know, fuck you.


I bet a lot of people who watch Girls though Hannah was a lazy piece of crap for getting a book deal and trying to write the thing the day it was due, only to end up suffering some bizarre nervous breakdown. Oh I've been there, I've been there and the stakes weren't even that high. I've begun to accept that maybe this is just the way I am and the way I write and unless I end up in some ashram that teaches me discipline and organization it's the way things are going to be.

I can, however, focus on some positives and give myself a kick up the arse on other things too. The positive being I can write like a mother and throw up an 1000 word article in about 45 minutes. The kick up the arse being I can always be a better writer and practice makes perfect.

So here I am, ready to shame myself terribly in a couple or months, or hopefully not. Taking myself a little less seriously too, that needs to happen. Not everything needs to elevate the tribe, really. We can have fun.

No matter how contrite it is, it's coming on here. Unedited, unashamed, unapologetic or whatever the hell Rihanna declares herself on her statement of intent albums written by other people.

Yeah.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Who Weeps For Gertrude Stein?

I spent the morning of my birthday in a cemetery. By my own choice, with my boyfriend on a brilliantly sunny day in Paris. We took to wandering around Pére Lachaise with a map bought from a street vendor who asked if I wanted it in American English or British English. He then produced a map with a grid and names, how one was different to the other I'll never know.

Pére Lachaise is larger and more rambling than you can begin to imagine. It is still a functioning cemetery, it is only a tourist attraction by default. There is no gift shop, no entrance fee, no handy signs to direct you towards the famous dead while you trample upon the other ones. We picked four names out of the list of hundreds, and much like our venture through the Louvre, conducted our hour-long masterpiece tour through the necropolis.

There are tour guides, and punctured along the silence and birdsong they arrived like, well, herds of farm animals with a man much too loud for the sombre beauty of a cemetery walk. I had already learnt more from people's reactions to art than the art itself when we visited the Louvre.

The front of the Venus De Milo is almost impossible to see from close-up, there is a constant stream of tourists taking photos, five people deep. The sides and back are completely tourist free, although they amusingly offer just as good a view, if not a different and possibly more beautiful perspective altogether. Yet that is not the case when visiting the Venus De Milo, it is not about taking a moment to reflect on the intention and the craft. From the back of the Venus De Milo, I spot a woman holding up her tablet to take a grinning photo of herself in front of the statue. Except the photo is about 90% tourist head and 10% Venus De Milo. The woman looks triumphantly at her photo, there she is. Herself.

The audio tour mocks the goat rodeo in front of the Mona Lisa in a tone that is unashamedly French. This somewhat small portrait is now behind a large sheet of glass, a wooden barrier, and a velvet rope. About fifty arms are outstretched at all times, madly taking photos of a quality that would be best served by a postcard in the gift shop. I take a photo of the crowd, it interests me more than trying to scramble to the front of the mass. At the very front however, is another tourist taking a selfie, grinning wildly while the Mona Lisa looks on in amused disapproval.

We picked four names to visit in Pére Lachaise, and while I am making my way through the cobbled pathway I am wondering at my insistence in coming here at all. I hate cemeteries. I hate death. I hate the glorification of celebrity. Why am I here?

Maybe because I have a profound literary infatuation with Paris that started when I was about ten years old. More so than London's Bloomsbury and New York's St. Mark's and Chelsea Hotel, I have been aching to see the streets where Hemingway ran to, where Rimbaud destroyed himself. The day before we had visited Coco Chanel's apartment, or at least the facade of it, with no desire to enter the very first Chanel store and see the hordes of wild-eyed tourists pushing their way towards this season's bag.

I don't know what I hope to connect to wandering around this cemetery, except it always looked like one of the more interesting and offbeat things to do in Paris. There is a great amount of legend attached to this place, both in the form of significant people buried here and otherwise. Oscar Wilde died broke and alone in Paris, a ruined man who now has an impressive tomb in the form of a modernist angel. It says everything you need to know about this man's life and death, in a way.

Famous for its lipstick marks left by visitors, it has since been cleaned up and surrounded by glass panels, with a sign urging for people to not continue defacing the monument with lipstick that has eaten into the structure and is causing it to erode. Not that anyone listens, and it is obvious that many have climbed onto the next grave to get kisses onto the stone. The epitaph is a verse from The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, the angel's genitalia have long since been chipped away by some vandal. Here lies Oscar Wilde, covered in women's lips and missing a penis.

I am surprised by the relative emptiness of the place, until we reach Edith Piaf's grave. This one is simpler, a family site in a traditional tomb on top of which lies a crucifix. Piaf's name on the side of the tomb, every other grave in the vicinity stepped on, leaned on, disregarded by a dozen tourists taking photos of themselves smiling proudly at a dead woman's site. More lessons on the living in a place of the dead, it is too much to bear and we leave feeling somewhat confused and saddened at the lack of respect. The large crucifix morbidly amuses me though, as Piaf was denied a Catholic mass by the archbishop of Paris due to her "lifestyle".

The third name on the list was Maria Callas, but we learn that her ashes were taken from here and scattered on the Aegean Sea. Only the urn remains.

The last person on our list is Jim Morrison, and his grave proves hard to get to. There are now barriers completely surrounding the discreet site, the bust of the singer having been stolen years ago. The barriers themselves are covered in graffiti, the trees nearby have been wrapped in bamboo to keep anyone from carving their name on them. Instead, they carve their name on to the bamboo. This is it really, this is humanity. There lies James Douglas Morrison, side by side with opulent Frenchmen with tombstones the size of houses.

Gertrude Stein's name was not on the list, but we pass her on the way. A simple tomb, with nobody standing or leaning or taking photos with beaming smiles. One of the most influential voices in literature, the strange, imposing woman from Hemingway's A Moveable Feast which made such an impression on my teenage years. Her grave is covered in rocks, it is plain and simple and completely disregarded. In the same site, is her lifelong companion and lover, Alice B. Toklas. Could you ask for anything more?

Maybe it doesn't matter though, this is the lesson that is so cliché but so pressing and effective. When you're dead, you are dead. You are no longer able to reap benefits of your influence or celebrity. You could have been one of the richest men in France with instructions for the largest grave, but everyone will come to see the showgirl, the heroin addict, the faggot poet. You could have been the greatest rock star in the world but you still died alone in your bathtub from a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-seven, and you're buried James Douglas Morrison and everyone just writes all over your tomb. You can have not even been given the grace of a Catholic service but they'll still put a great big cross on the top of you.

To live, and live well is the lesson. That the money you amass will only help your family entomb you in a larger piece of stone, but a piece of stone in the dirt it remains. The only comfort I can glean from death is that the influence you leave behind may shape the people of tomorrow. That you can be loved, that you can spend your life loving someone, being a better person for them, them being a better person for you. On my journey through Pére Lachaise, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas' simple tombstone was the greatest one there.


Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Cake


I went running during my premiere listen of Beyoncé's new album. I don't seem to have the patience to sit still and listen to an entire album on repeat while doing anything else other than running these days. I was pleasantly surprised by the progression from her last album, there didn't seem to be a desire to get herself back to the booty bouncing mainstream, or calling it totally quits and working with David Guetta.

This makes me smile. Good for her, I think while I run. Here's an artist with nothing to lose, releasing an album with no fanfare because she pleases it that way. I used to have a poster up in my office that stated “You have the same hours in the day as Beyoncé”. When people criticise her as vapid, I counteract with my opinion that I feel she is hardworking, relatively scandal free and not busting out of cars with no underwear.

Even professing to be a feminist, I do my best to defend. Can you not be a feminist and pose in a bikini because you damn well want to? I think you can. The album continues, with its bonkers samples and more than a little Janelle Monae. She's clearly been leaning more towards Prince than Tina Turner, more on her later.
So we get to Drunk On Love, a particularly stand-out track. Last summer I was completely obsessed with Jay-Z's Magna Carta album, and in particular Beyoncé's collaboration, On The Run. There's no denying Jay-Z has been an influence in her life and given her the opportunity to go beyond whatever Destiny's Child comfort zone was. I've been to see her twice, I sat jaw-dropped when she won over Glastonbury. There's a hell of a role model, for reaching towards what you want and just working hard to get it.

Hang on, why is Jay-Z comparing himself to Ike Turner? That's a little weird. I can't quite hear the words to the rest of his rap, and listen to the album three times all the way home. I am hooked.

The come the Grammys, and despite Pharell's best-hatted intentions, the power couple stole the show. Except the words were a little bit clearer now....because she sung along with him.

I am Ike Turner, Baby know I don’t play. Now eat the cake, Anna Mae. Said Eat the Cake, Anna Mae.”

When I was about ten, I discovered my father's vinyl copy of Private Dancer, a Tina Turner masterpiece. Finally being a little older, I got the chance to watch the harrowing What's Love Got To Do With It, and found out what it had taken to make that record. I read Ronnie Spector's autobiography, Be My Baby, about the treatment she also received from her spouse. She alluded to Cher being in the same position with Sonny. I read Mary Wilson's autobiography Dream Girl, and found much of the same.

I watched an interview with Tina Turner about the moment she finally escaped from Ike Turner, how she crossed a road in the middle of the night even though she was terrified about all the trucks in oncoming traffic. How she didn't have a penny to her name and had to promise the man at reception, while battered and bruised, that she really was Tina Turner and she would pay him back in the morning, that she just needed to get away. Her struggle to keep her name, to not be washed away as an individual by the intentions of a malicious, disgusting and abusive human being.

Eat the cake Anna Mae” refers to a scene in What's Love Got To Do With It, where Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner psychologically tortures Tina as played by Angela Bassett by smashing a piece of cake into her face.


I've already heard the argument that we shouldn't read so much into music, that the scene in question never happened. Who cares? Would you be so tolerant if he'd recited a line from Precious in relation to their daughter? The fact remains that is a scene depicting domestic violence and an abusive relationship, it is not a joke or something to be celebrated in a sexual or lighthearted way.


The thing is, Jay-Z could have made up a million other rhymes that were dirty, provocative or whatever it is they were trying to describe happens between them in the bedroom. Comparing himself to Ike Turner is just ridiculous at best, and at worst disrespectful and harmful. There is no art there, no point to make, why not just leave it alone? Why lose the respect of everyone in the world who thought you were doing great things when you claimed to be so philanthropic and wanting to elevate the position of women in the world? Who runs the world, whatever.