Wednesday, June 02, 2004
The Liberty Bell Centre and the Independence Park area are staffed by people who don't look as embarrassed as people wearing period costume really should. The Bell itself is an important piece of American cultural ephemera, if only for it's engraving regarding liberty existing throughout the land, as there's no actual evidence that it actually rang when the Declaration of Independence was signed, but why let facts get in the way of a good story?
Of more interest, and of more historical accuracy, is Independence Hall, where the Declaration was signed, although obviously it wasn't called that back then, as that would have required remarkable foresight from the founding fathers of Philly. No, it's original name was The Can't Wait Until We're Free of the Bloody Brits and their Taxes Tower, which might have been what started all the trouble between us and them in the first place. The hall, as well as containing the courtroom, also had a room which was available to be booked and used for meetings by local groups and other interested committees. It was being used for this purpose when the constitution was being hammered out. Getting agreement between the States wasn't easy, compromise was seen as an ugly word and there were major splits on many issues between the Northern and Southern states, most notably about whether slavery was a bad thing or not. We'd have thought this would have been quite easy to resolve, what with the apparently self evident truth that all men were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but no matter. Eventually, the Constitution was signed, partly because had the discussions, by which they mean arguments, gone on for any longer the fledgling country would have dissolved before it had a chance to develop, but mainly because the bowling club had booked the hall for their AGM and they were getting a bit uppity.
The Hall itself, and the other associated buildings, are pretty well preserved; George Washington's chair is still intact, as is the original Senate and House of Representatives, but the usual American vagueness with regards to the actual details and historical accuracy is still very much in evidence. For example, on display is an inkwell which might possibly have been used by Washington during one of the signings, but it's still quite awe-inspiring to be in a place of such history, even if it is a history which says that we're a bunch of bastards.
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
Philly, though, lacks these creatures, thankfully, so it should hopefully be a good place to reside for the next few days.
Monday, May 31, 2004
While that may not have been quite the amazing experience we'd been hoping for, it did help split up our visit to the Smithsonian American History Museum. The Smithsonians are a rather impressive feat, founded in 1846 thanks to a bequest by James Smithson, they own 16 museums and galleries in the city of Washington, all world leaders in their various fields, an have a collection so vast that only 1% of it is on display at any one time. What is most interesting about it is that James Smithson had never even visited the US, but made his donation for the betterment of the country anyway, clearly in a "Let's smarten up the dumb Yanks" kinda way. No matter what his motivation was, the results made it more than worthwhile as, other than our trip to the monument, we spent all day in just one of their museums and only just managed to see all that was on offer.
Sunday, May 30, 2004
Once we did finally decide that it's probably not the best idea to spend the better part of the trip of a lifetime in bed, we went back down towards the Lincoln Memorial, this time with the intention of visiting the Vietnam Memorial. We don't recommend you do the same as it's rubbish; a massive 'V' of black marble cut into the land bearing the names of all those who died during the conflict. It's a blot on the landscape, really, which is quite appropriate given the stain the conflict itself has left behind on American History.
From there we continued, in an admittedly slightly morbid vein, to Arlington Cemetery where the majority of America's war dead are buried. It's also home to the third most visited tomb in the country, JFK's, but, to be honest, while people who go there will visit it, it's not why they go there. Wandering through the cemetery is a very sobering, though not depressing, experience. It's possible to head towards one of the high points of the cemetery - in a literal, not a figurative sense - look down, and all you can see is row after row of uniform white crosses stretching out as far as the eye can see. As it's Memorial Day weekend, in addition all the graves have the flag of the soldier's birth country. Many of the people we saw there were there with a purpose, visiting the grave of a lost loved one. As Arlington is still an active cemetery, the age range of visitors stretched from the unexpectedly old to the depressingly young. Surely no more pressing argument for the futility of war exists than this place?
As we, thankfully, lacked purpose for our visit, we went to pay our respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We arrived in time for the Changing of the Guard ceremony and despite, or more likely because of, the solemnity of the occasion, we found the whole thing inwardly hilarious, though weren't quite stupid enough to let our amusement show. The reason for our hidden laughter is this:- the ceremony essentially involves the replacement guards weapon being checked for cleanliness by the Sergeant. It's all done in a number of fluid, slow movements in a very machine-like fashion, which was the problem for us. With the shades and fixed, unsmiling expression that the Sergeant was wearing, we were immediately put in mind of extremely dodgy eighties style robotic dancing and, once that thought had entered our head nothing was able to shake it and, with hindsight, mentally singing Kraftwerk songs to ourselves probably didn't help matters.
In the evening we sat on the steps on the Capitol in the rain and watched the National Memorial Day concert, an evening of music and flagwaving which made us feel proud to be an American, if only for fear of what the audience might do to us if we didn't express such pride. The most striking thing about this event was that there was no way on earth that anything similar would ever take place in the UK as, thankfully, we're not as blinded by an unthinking patriotism in the same way that certain sections of the US public are. This was an event where people turned up wearing jackets covered with stars and stripes and wore them with pride, not with the embarrassment that you'd expect such a fashion faux pas to cause. An event where the singing of the national anthem causes grown men to place one hand on their heart and use the other one to wipe away a tear from their eyes, rather than the self-conscious mumbling and shuffling that would happen and home and which is natural and proper. An event where some country music star performing the worst song which we have ever heard get applauded and cheered, rather than getting booed off. Clearly we still have a lot to learn about American culture.
Saturday, May 29, 2004
But, no matter what the reason, the fact remains that it's a fully observed holiday here and, in Washington, it's even more special than normal as today President Bush is dedicating the World War II Memorial in front of the biggest gathering of veterans since the end of the war, though presumably they were just soldiers then, rather than veterans. This event has not only caused the city to be on a heightened state of security, but also has dramatically increased the sales of Steradent within the local environs.
As well as the dedication itself, the veterans - and interested members of the public - are also able to wander around a WWII festival style thing set up along the National Mall. Kinda like an old person's Glastonbury, or Glastonbury on a Sunday as it's otherwise known. As well as a stage featuring various bands from that era, there were also exhibits of Armed Forces vehicles, a reunion tent, talks and opportunities to share memories. Oh, and a tent where children - and our Travelling Companion - could take part in activities to learn about the war and get awarded a medal for their troubles. We had a quick wander round before heading into the first public building we've been able to visit here - The National Capitol.
For a building it's in remarkably good shape, despite being burned down by the British, undergoing numerous restructuring and rebuilding work and suffering the final indignity - being blown up by the aliens in Independence Day. As befits the political centre of the country, it's asuitably impressive building, even if it is essentially just a bigger version of the State Capitol's we've visited previously, only with stepper security and a greater likelyhood of being shot if you wander away from the designated route. You don't get to see inside the Senate and the House of Representatives, again this is sometihng that needs to be organised in advance, but you do get to see some of the more artistically interesting, if politically irrelevant, sections of the building.
Upon leaving the Capitol, the dedication ceremony was already in full swing, although that may not be the most appropriate description for a rather sombre event being attended by an audience for whom swinging is nought but a distant memory. As we were there, we felt we should get involved, so picked a spot and watched it on a big screen set up in the grounds of the Capitol for the event. We arrived just in time to see Bush give his speech, a speech which, rather surprisingly, was not used to justify the war in Iraw. Or, at least, it dind't as long as you dind't look between the lines. We, being of a somewhat cynical persuasion, did and all we can say is not particularly original or witty, but it's still very apt; "Bush is a war-mongering twat with a small penis".
Friday, May 28, 2004
After checking into the second, slightly more luxurious hostel - 3 normal bunkbeds in a room big enough to accommodate them! - we went for a walk around the nation's capital. It's all rather impressive, lots of white marble and imposing statuery, but we should point out that we were staying not hugely far from the Mall, the government centre and touristy bit. What you see on the telly during the news, basically. We understand that outside of this area, poverty is rife, crime is high and there's a lot less white marble and more graffiti. It's still imposing, we believe, albeit in an entirely different way.
First stop was the White House Visitor Centre, where we had hoped to book a tour around the place which George W Bush calls 'home', if only because he doesn't know what 'domicile' means, but this dream was quickly shattered when we discovered that the only way foreigners, i.e. us, can get a tour is by contacting our embassy, a process which they reckon takes around 6 months. Even if we had been desperate enough to see it and decided to extend our stay in Washington dramatically, our visa wouldn't have lasted out and we're not entirely convinced that the federal centre is the best place to hide out as an illegal immigrant.
So, slightly disappointed that we didn't have the chance to bring down the administration from the inside, we went down to have a brief look at it anyway, though 'brief' is very much the operative term as you can't exactly see a great deal thanks to the size of the grounds and all the trees but this, presumably, is the point.
From there we went to have a quick look at the Washington Monument, before going to visit the recently finished World War II Memorial. We had some trepidation about visiting this as the papers here have been full of criticism about it, describing it as an architectural monstrosity. Having seen it, we must disagree and, of course, our opinion is far more valid than any expert in the field. It's certainly big. You walk into it and you're immediately overwhelmed by the granite pillars towering above you - one for each state and territory that fought - but that's the point. The war was overwhelming and, while we will never be able to fully comprehend what it must have been like to live during that period, we feel it's important, perhaps more so now than ever, to remind people that war is a bloody and horrible think and should only be entered into as a last resort, not as a strategy to get you a second term in office.
After spending some time there, we headed towards the Lincoln memorial via the Reflecting Pool. On first encounter you immediately reflect upon how manky the water is, but as you walk along, the stillness and tranquility does help you enter a zen like state which gives you time to think, even if your thoughts do eventually return to reflecting upon the dirtiness of the water and just how the ducks are able to survive in it.
Following our visits to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, both of which feature giant statues of the respective Presidents, at least, we assume they're gigantic. We guess they could be life size, in which case they both governed in a manner that's more like Gulliver in Lilliput than the history books let on, we walked down to the Franklin D Roosevelt memorial, a walled area featuring fountains, statues and quotes carved into the masonry. It's a fitting memorial for a respected president, but we do have to question whether it was really appropriate for his to be in place long before the one for the dead soldiers.
Still trying to overcome our sadness at missing out on the White House, we went down to the FBI headquarters to enquire about their tours, only to discover that they've been cancelled until 2006, which isn't a great deal of use to us. So, crushed in a way we haven't been since we found out that Nicola Roberts didn't even make the top 100, let alone the number one spot, in FHM's sexiest women poll, we instead decided to add to our list of "Places where Presidents have been shot which we've visited" by going to Ford's Theatre where Abraham Lincoln got shot in a quite frankly piss-poor attempt to gain independence for the southern states. The only Presidential assassination more misguided than this was the guy who tried to kill Reagan in a bid to impress Jodie Foster. Still, at least Lincoln's killer was successful and able to sloganeer in Latin straight afterwards, something which is beyond most blood crazed killers.
Thursday, May 27, 2004
In our defence, we weren't quite with it when we got in the taxi, having just spent 17 hours on an overnight bus trip from Nashville, so when we arrived in Washington DC we were about as intellectually sharp as a butter knife wielded by Jenny Frost. As a result of this, when we left the station to try and find a taxi rank, when some random bloke came up to us and asked if we wanted one, we just said "yeah, sure", without thinking about asking how much it was going to cost. Alas, once you arrive at your destination and find out just how much he's doing you by, there's not a great deal you can do given that your luggage is locked up in the boot. Hopefully we'll have learnt an important lesson from this but, given that the only lesson we've ever learnt is that we never learn our lessons, we very much doubt this.
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
Incidentally, to get to the Grand Ole Opry we passed by both the Gaylord Employment Center and the Gaylord University. We don't know why we're mentioning this as, once again, we failed to find anything whatsoever funny about it.
Monday, May 24, 2004
To try and find out more about justy why Country is so popular, admittedly amongst people of a certain age, we took a trip to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, located just down the road from the Gaylord Entertainment Center which we still certainly don't find in any way amusing. It's an excellent place and helped give us a better historical perspective on why this style of music is so popular to so many people, even though we still feel that, ultimately, no matter how many disaffected voices it may be speaking for, the fact that the music is entirely rubbish should really remain a stumbling block for it's success.
Sunday, May 23, 2004
Saturday, May 22, 2004
First up was a short tour around a small museum where we were given a chance to hear some of the recordings which made Sun famous, and not just Elvis stuff, though we did get a chance to hear the very first radio play of his very first single, That's Alright Mama, a play that was so popular with the audience, it was played another 13 times duting the 3 hour long show. This sort of repetition provided the template which commercial radio still follows today.
We were then taken downstairs to the studio itself, which has been fully restored to it's original state with the genuine fixtures and fittings. This includes the very microphone which all the singers of the time, including Elvis, sang into. Unlike similar historical artifacts this was touchable and you were happily encouraged to have your picture taken while holding, strutting behind it and pretty much doing whatever you pleased with it. You couldn't, however, as our tour guide made very clear, lick the microphone. The fact that this warning needed to be given slightly worried us, but then he added, to make us even more scared, "Believe me, you don't want to know where people have wanted to put that microphone.". Instandly we did know and felt very ill indeed.
If you wish to follow in Elvis's footsteps, you're still able to make your own recording for $30, on CD though, in a concession to the modern world, and hope that you'll get discovered. We decided that the world wasn't ready for our unique interpretation of the works of Shampoo, so we decided not to invest our pennies.
We also went to the Rock and Soul Museum. We have nothing amusing to say about this, not that stopped us going on about Sun Studios for 4 paragraphs, but we'll simply say that it's excellent and well worth a visit should you find yourself in this neck of the woods.