Sunday, June 30, 2013

Free At Last

July the 1st is Keti Koti. Maybe you knew this, but I didn’t until last year. Keti Koti is the Surinamese day of emancipation. In Amsterdam it is celebrated with a festival in the park near me. I presume it’s a lot bigger in Suriname.

Keti Koti means something like “chain cutting” and celebrates the day that slavery was officially abolished. At least that’s what gives it the date. What people are actually celebrating is the slaves being freed. Now in your naivety, you might be thinking, as I once did, “surely the day these things are declared is the day they happen.” *pats self on head.*

In the US a big day of celebration is Juneteenth (June 19th). This celebrates not the actual day that slavery was declared to be abolished and not the date it was enacted as a law, but it celebrates the day the slaves in Texas were told about the abolition.

Abraham Lincoln declared slavery illegal on September 22, 1862, but the law only came into effect on January 1, 1863, which itself seems a long time to wait. But it was only after military action two and a half years later this got announced to the citizens of Texas.

In Suriname (a Dutch colony), slavery was abolished also in 1863 (on July 1st), but it would take ten years for it to come into full effect. Ten years! That’s a crazy long time. It was hailed as a ‘transition period’ which seems a very Dutch response to a problem. Namely, “We’re going to ban slavery but tolerate it.”

It’s no wonder people want to celebrate it finally coming about. Even 140 years later, in a cold, wet land far, far away. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Travel: 18/6/11 (part 1) Texas: Family Tour – Segregation and Assassination

Hotel breakfast buffets look the same wherever you are in the world. If you were beamed into the middle of one you could tell instantly that you were in a hotel restaurant at breakfast time. Where you were in the world... that might be harder. You will have to look at the guy cooking the eggs to get some sort of clue. Or for those subtle regional variations that are slipped in amongst the typical English, American and "Continental" breakfast faire. 

Two flags over Texas

After breakfast, it was time for a tour of Texas attractions especially those related to my girlfriend's family (or as they are now known, my wife’s family). We started with the Elementary School named after her grandfather. The head and some of the staff even took time off their weekend to show us their school. It's a very impressive school with a computer lab full of Macs and an electronic whiteboard which incorporates a projector so teachers never need to get dirty fingers again. It does mean there's nothing to throw at pupils, but I doubt that's allowed any more.

The school services poor areas and even provides breakfast and lunch on non school days for those people whose families who have trouble providing nutritional meals.

This is not what the tour looked like.
We then drove to the sites of other schools in the area, ones where the grandparents and parents were educated. One school no longer exists, the other is still there. It should be noted that these were times of segregation when, if you weren’t white, an education was not something you just came by. People had to fight to make it happen. The grandparents were educated because of programmes instigated by the black community to send kids to school. Often private schools because they were the only ones that would take them. Later special schools were built and these are what the next generation went to.

The grandparents had a firm belief that through education the fortunes of the community could be improved. It led them to become teachers and to make sure their children were well educated.

This is a fascinating story for me as it's very different from my family history. From my understanding, the grandparents of my wife’s grandparents were freed slaves. And at least one of them had been alive when some of Cath's parent's generation were born. For me this always clashes with my European notion that slavery was a sad, but distant part of history. For people I have met to have known someone who had actually been a slave makes me realise how much closer it had been. Plus there are so many people in the US who lived through the segregation era, which really was the son of slavery. The echoes of slavery and segregation still reverberate through America.

Some of these purpose-built schools still exist but are no longer blacks-only, of course, and now part of the regular US education system.

Six Flags Over Texas
Unfortunately our bus was too big to get down the street to see the house of the grandparents, so we headed back to Dallas to get another part of Dallas history. One that's a bit better known.

Book repository
On November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald in conjunction with the CIA, Cuban exiles, the Mafia, Aliens from Roswell and Oliver Stone leant out of a book repository window and shot John F Kennedy from a grassy knoll. At least that’s my understanding of it all.

I shouldn't joke, really. It seems like a long time ago to me, but it still looms large in many people's lives. To me it is a remote historical event, usually brought up to make a conspiracy joke. But in Texas, for people a little older than me, it was and is very real. One of Cath's uncles was actually on the way to see the cavalcade when he people heading the other way told him of the shooting.

In the run up to the Obama election, several people pessimistically hinted at the fact that he might well be shot. I hadn't even thought of it (it's a rarely used political option in Europe), but these were people who grew up at a time when high-profile figures of change WERE shot.

*Rogers Cowboys*
To bring the mood back up we went to see a more upbeat side of Dallas life – its sporting life. Apparently Dallas is very well known for sports. The Dallas Cowboys, The Dallas Stetsons, and The Dallas Lonestar Gunmen are all well respected for their performance in the various derivative sports America is famous for. We saw a few of Dallas’ stadia including the local horseracing track and the Dallas Cowboy stadium where they play American football, which is a cross between rugby and American Gladiator.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Daniel Kitson - Secret Comedian

On Monday night Daniel Kitson performed his latest show to an audience of mostly awed admirers. It certainly included a significant proportion of the Amsterdam stand-up community.

Daniel Kitson is one of those comedians who are talked about in hushed tones. He’s practically a secret due to his studied avoidance of the limelight. He has refused to do TV, doesn’t put much out there on the interweb, and doesn’t do social media. Unlike most comics, youtube isn’t flooded with clips of him. In fact what is out there doesn’t do him justice.

I first saw Daniel Kitson when we were both starting out on our comedy paths. It was at a try-out night in Brixton, South London, I believe. (I mean I believe the gig was in Brixton; I know Brixton is in South London).

He was the first to arrive and I was the second. He looked like he was 17. And may well have been, I don’t have a date for this story. He looked like the nerdiest kid on the block. The kid the kids the bullies beat up beat up. He had glasses so thick it looked like he’d taped magnifying glasses together. And when he spoke, he had one of the worst stutters I’d ever heard.

My thoughts, and I’m so ashamed to type them out loud, were, “You are going to die out there.”

Off stage, back then, pre-gig, this was Daniel Kitson as I knew him in the few minutes I knew him.

On stage he did the very opposite of die. He killed it. He was intensely funny, had a nerdy, shambolic stage persona, that was somehow in control; his poor eyesight was the genesis of a very funny bit about it as a disability; and he did not stutter one bit.

Sometime later, he won the Perrier award (as it was called then), Britain’s most prestigious comedy prize. His Edinburgh show the next year was not stand-up. He refused to cash in on being a prize-winning stand-up (even though it undoubtedly help the shows sell out) and told a story. An entertaining, odd and funny story, but not a story you would expect from a stand-up.

As a performer, he is perceptive, sharp and seems to have an impeccable sense of what’s funny. And he’s clever. And he doesn’t mind that cleverness showing. Many comics hide their cleverness to increase their mass appeal. As Daniel hasn’t gone that route, he is free to be as clever as he likes. This as much as anything makes him a comedian comedians love.

His current show is an hour-and-a-half monologue with its own soundtrack about how faulty human memory is and how we can never really know ourselves. Obviously topics you can write long, dry philosophical textbooks about this, but to create an hour-and-a-half of comedy is definitely a challenge. Daniel likes to challenge himself.

The result is far from dry. It’s an impassioned plea to remind us of human failings we all too eagerly ignore – because basically we are much happier and confident when we think we know who we are and what’s going on. An impassioned, strongly-argued plea, interwoven with sublimely funny examples and incisive observations of us the predominant species on this here planet.

I thoroughly recommend that if you ever get the chance to go see him, do. But not every single one of you interwebbers, we don’t want him to lose his “secret” status.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

More about Standing Up

So as not to start yet another blog (I have a dozen I write or write for), I'm going to be using this one to share things about stand-up, given that this is a thing that once again has entered my life, and I keep finding things to share about it and occasionally things to write about it.

To start with (if I haven't already added any before now) there's this. In between berating and then adoring Michelle Obama, David Mitchell (the comedian not the novellist) has some well-put words about the nature of and dealing with heckling.

Comment is free There's a right way to deal with hecklers. Then there's Michelle Obama's…