Born in Kansas City and raised in Midland, Michigan, Dan has also lived in Myrtle Beach, Vail, Martha’s Vineyard, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Taos, Durham, New York, Albuquerque and Denver in the US. He taught English in Seoul for three years, moved furniture in Barcelona for two and, for five years now, has been miserably ensconced in Brighton, England.
Dan, “People here can be very nasty, and in general are very unfriendly compared to the US. This is the only country on earth that hates children, and this shows in the behavior of an often mean-spirited populace. It hasn’t been the most welcoming of countries for me, though my serious depression problems haven’t helped. In short, the upper classes, as Oscar Wilde noted, are unspeakably vile, and would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerous, nasty to the core and the very opposite of life-affirming. The middle classes, like their counterparts everywhere, buy the government line unquestioningly and are dangerously stupid. The lower classes are down to earth and friendly.”
At 48-years-old and with a wife and two kids, Dan’s unchecked days are over. No more motorbike ride through Spain and France, serial girlfriends or coital vacations in the Philippines and Thailand. Marriage is gravity and kids mean both joyous, most profound life and dragging your own coffin to the grave.
Though we had been communicating for years, we only shook hands for the first time before my reading at the ICA in London. The next day, we prowled around the Ecuadorian embassy, de facto jail of Julian Assange for 41 months and counting. Costing more than £11.1m, half a dozen cops had been kept outside 24/7, but they had been removed just days earlier. On the next block was Harrods. To celebrate Christmas, larger than life-sized puppets jerked in huge windows. Like a dangled being herself, a cleaner glided among them. On the ground floor was the shrine to Lady Di and Dodi, complete with a bronze statue of the chased-to-death couple dancing. Dodi had his shirt open to show off his hairy chest. From their grasped hands, a seagull was about to take off. It was kitsch meets outraged grief.
I had visited Brighton three years earlier. When it comes to any distant place, it’s always safe to assume you’ve seen it for the last time, so it was good to be back. Anywhere you’ve been has become a part of you, so a return is not just a homecoming but a completion of self. A man who travels too much misses the entire world. There wasn’t much to look at on the train ride from London. English houses tend to be brown or gray. Brighton’s, though, deploy more colors to cheer up the soul.
Ah, nothing beats having your face pelted nonstop by a cold drizzle as you lean into a stiff wind while walking along a pebbled beach! In Norfolk and Suffolk, I had had this pleasure many times. In Cromer, I nearly fell down an embankment. During my two days in Brighton, Dan and I would just roam and talk. Tired, we would pop into a pub.
“This is very rare for me,” Dan confided. “I usually just drink at home. It’s too expensive to go out.”
“These pubs are too nice, Dan. Where are the crappy bars for old men?”
“There aren’t any.”
“Every society, every community, must have crappy bars where old guys can just sit for hours.”
“Guys in their fifties should be seen as elders and be treasured for their wisdom. They shouldn’t have to work. They should only be consulted.”
“They should get all the virgins.”
“That too.” More seriously, Dan pointed out, “Just about everyone I know here only works part-time, maybe fifteen hours a week. A friend of mine, my age, is a baby sitter. She also has a radio show, but isn’t paid for it. Another woman I know is a sex therapist. She’s forty. I live in a bubble here and know little of the decadent pleasures of rich London transplants. Many people I’ve befriended, I met at the unemployed center. They’re all on the dole, very politically astute, my types.”
Mostly unemployed for five years, Dan is taking classes to become a gardener. He slung beer and served curry dishes during two brief stretches of work. He has also shoveled and pushed wheel barrows at a community garden. Being a father is also a full time job. “This is not only incredibly hard work, but literally the most important on earth. All dads should have a free pass till their kids are at least five. So yes, I do work. I’m just not paid for it.”
He also wasn’t paid for three articles published at a high profile American political webzine. “I was so naïve. I thought they were going to send me a check!” He, Rachel, four-year-old Ralph (named after Nader) and one-and-a-half-year-old Freddy occupy a two-room flat owned by Rachel’s mom. Their rent is way below market price. A rich man’s playground, Brighton is super expensive. “Many people complain how much it has changed for the worse. Not so long ago, it had a much more carefree, edge of the earth, radical feel. It was much more fun.” Brighton is England’s version of San Francisco, but with far fewer homeless. By the Marina, there’s a nudist beach that’s almost entirely gay.
In the States, Dan worked as a furniture mover, line cook, waiter, bartender, bag boy, copyeditor, secretary, bank clerk, whitewater guide, lumber yard grunt, assistant manager in a Ralph Nader organization’s office, magazine room attendant at a library, childcare worker in a shelter for teenagers and bell hop.
Dan received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Temple University. He taught himself Spanish and is reasonably fluent. He can get by in Korean. Once a week, a Spanish woman comes by to teach Dan’s kids Spanish for an hour and, in exchange, gets an hour of English lesson from Rachel. Before five years old, a child shouldn’t be exposed to any image or even mention of violence or death, Dan believes, and no one of any age should be lured into the adulation of absolute power, so no fairy tales involving kings, queens, princes or princesses for Ralph and Freddy.
Dan, “I’m against all forms of authoritarianism. I have many strong ideas about how to try to bring children up in this nightmarish world. First, give them all your love, AND ATTENTION. Next, try to learn from them: they’re not screwed up (like you) yet, at least little babies aren’t. Try to get back on their wavelength, then RIDE IT. Have no preconceptions, e.g. that boys shouldn’t wear dresses or especially that they should be doing this or that at any given time. In short, it’s best to be an open-minded, free-thinking, creative, loving philosopher. And, of course, don’t let them watch TV.”
Strolling through the car-free lanes of downtown Brighton, we noticed many images of skulls and skeletons in shop windows. “They’re everywhere,” Dan scowled. “It’s a death worshipping culture.”
“But it’s death glamorized. These skulls are made to look cool.”
“Here’s a skull cracked in half, a half-eaten skull. That’s cool!”
“And look at these games. Almost all of them feature zombies!”
“I worry about my boys, what they will be exposed to.”
“Even this sign has a skull, and this one, too!”
“Like I said, man, it’s a death worshipping culture. Being here, I can see what makes up America. Much of it came from here. On bad days, I sometimes think these are the most vicious people on earth. They don’t just want to see you die, they want to kill you themselves!”
“Oh come on, man! I think the English are lovely. They do say lovely a lot.”
“I used to be charmed by them too.”
Nine years earlier in Diss, I visited the church where John Skelton had been a rector. In Ipswich, I chanced upon John Clare’s snuff box, displayed in a glass case. “I am—yet what I am none cares or knows.” Though he may be a black, keffiyeh or turban headed bastard, each English speaker is a child of England. It is remarkable, the hegemony of the Anglosphere. It has gone on for so long, many people consider it natural or even eternal, but it is certainly winding down. We’ve reached peak English.
Last week, a Malaysian newspaper wanted my take on the relative obscurity of Asian literatures. I opined, “International authors crave recognition in the English language, because that is seen as dominant. They want to be read by Americans and praised by American and British critics. They also want to be translated into the main European languages. Given the dominant position of the West in contemporary culture, this is understandable, but I think it’s time Asia started to pay more attention to itself, without caring too much about what white readers and critics thought. The Asian countries should translate and read each other.”
The sweetest part of my Brighton visit was simply goofing around with Ralph and Freddy. Well loved, they were joyous and loving, like all kids should be. In modern societies, too many children are raised and indoctrinated en masse, practically straight out of the womb, by indifferent strangers, and the tremendous harms from this neglect and abuse regiment have been ignored by nearly all.
Another pleasure was eating Rachel’s food. She is a sublime cook. “It’s like having a gourmet meal three times a day,” Dan admitted. One morning, we had a breakfast of egg, black pudding, cheese covered hash browns, creamed spinach and pancakes with fresh, just picked blueberries. Another night, though, we opted for some take out fish and chips.
Nearly all of the Brighton fish and chip joints are run by Chinese and double as Chinese restaurants. We were at Cod Father. The menu was huge and had golf bulbs all around, a giant makeup mirror featuring various stir fries and fish and chips instead of your glammed up face. In the glass case, pickled eggs and kimchi were offered. A poster pitched pukka pies. Waiting for food, Dan and Ralph sank into a maroon couch.
“Are you going to have the deep fried Mars bar with me, Ralph?” I asked.
“What is it?”
“It’s the worst thing ever, Ralph.”
“So why are you eating it?”
“Because I’ve never had it. Will you split it with me?”
Normally very talkative, Ralph was stumped. He looked at his dad. Dan smiled.
“It is so bad, Ralph, that as soon as you bite into one, you die!”
“So will you die then?”
“Most likely, but it will be worth it, since I’ve never had a deep fried Mars bar.”
At this point, I hadn’t known about Dan’s avoidance of mentioning death in front of his young kids. Still alarmed, Ralph asked the lady behind the counter as we were leaving, “Is he going to die from the Mars bar?”
“What?!” She looked insulted.
The night before I left, we went down to J. W. Lennon’s for its weekly Irish music session. There were a dozen musicians, but no more than six listeners at any one time, not counting us. One woman had been the top box accordionist in all of Ireland. I buy no CDs and avoid recorded music whenever possible, so this was wonderful. “In Toronto, Dan, I saw a band of four guys who might have been plumbers during the day. They weren’t singing covers but original songs. I’d prefer that to anything recorded. I don’t care if it’s Billie Holliday. If I want to hear Billie Holliday again, I can hear her in my head!”
As if enjoying a meal together, the musicians sat shoulder to shoulder around a large table. Moving back and forth from the bar, the waitress had a serene, blessed face and, soon enough, sat down to sing a beautiful version of “Factory Girl.” She smiled through the entire song. “Oh young man, have manners and do not insult me / For although I’m a poor girl I think it no shame.” Dan wiped his eyes, and so did I. Sharing stories and songs is such a basic need, yet many of us would rather be isolated, as much as possible, to enjoy our private song list and/or stare at a lit screen.
Borges joked that there is a type of English friendship that begins by avoiding intimacy then, soon enough, dispenses with conversations altogether. [“una de esas amistades inglesas que empiezan por excluir la confidencia y que muy pronto omiten el diálogo” from “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”]. He also thought the English suffer from “unreality.” I’d say that avoidance of intimacy and alienation have become practically universal, and it’s not because so many of us are bastards of England.
Since one should never withhold praise, I made my way to the waitress to tell her how much her singing had moved me and Dan. Later, we also made a few more friends, including the excellent guitarist who turned out to be the pub owner. Knowing I was American, he even sang two John Denver numbers and a Glenn Campbell. I couldn’t stop him. “Country roads, take me home to the place I belong. West Virginia, mountain mamma, take me home, country roads.”
Unprompted, a morbidly obese man laughingly said to Dan, “You know we hate you Yanks, don’t you?
In Brighton, there’s an American Diner that’s swarming with Americana, including images of Mickey Mouse, Statue of Liberty, Elvis, Jaws, Ghostbusters, Johnny Cash, ET and Uncle Sam, etc. Shadowed by a condor, a California motor cop stands next to a Harley Davison and, everywhere you look, there’s Marilyn Monroe. This president’s plaything with dyed blonde hair, dead of a drug overdose, has become our most enduring symbol. Menu items include a Norma Jean Salad, Windy City Dog, Little Italy Bagel, fried chicken strips, Buffalo wings and chili con carne, but, unforgivably, no meatloaf or chicken fried steak. Placemats feature the stars and stripes, and most dishes arrive with a small flag.
Dan has gone back and forth about returning to the US. “Until I read your Postcards, which quickly bring me back to grim reality, I miss many things, though admittedly after five years I’m finally starting to accept England: we have friends now and it’s familiar, though it will never be true home for me. As for America, I miss my family first. I love the geography, the wildness of many parts (and people), the friendliness and genuineness of many Americans, also their idealism (this is mainly before the Great Brainwashing/Dumbing Down/ Final Destruction of the Family during the last 30 years). It seems to get worse and worse. Now, all TV is shit, for example, and the people are dumber and nastier than ever. No traces remain of the beautiful, hopeful, intelligent world of the 60’s and early 70’s. It often seems like a great trauma has befallen the populace–and it has, deliberately and systematically, e.g. with prescribed drugs, TV and education, etc.”
As for England, “Lots of little things get to me and often make me miserable or throw me into a rage: countenances on ‘superior’ faces (it would be impossible to be more supercilious than many middle to upper middle class English), little comments, cold people… Also, despite the generally unquestioning hyper-competitive, uber capitalist mindset, I think Britain is light years behind America in essentially everything. Does the loutish, boozed up culture contribute to this? Yes. Does being stuck in the past? Yes—not to say that I think EVERYTHING is wrong with preserving cultural continuity, or that new means good necessarily, but people seem generally so set in their ways here that there’s not the remotest chance of really inventive, outside-the-box thought occurring. Related to this is the lack of true joy in living. It is killed very, very early here as a general rule, though at least many people we know here is wacky, out there old Brighton. They’re trying their best to change this. Joy, love, purity of heart—these are what lead to ‘progress,’ which is probably nothing more than going back to a long forgotten natural state of happiness. Life shouldn’t be miserable!”
While I’m no progressive, I agree with Dan that we’ve lost a huge part of our core humanity and capacity for basic pleasures. In the name of progress, human nature has been deformed and beauty shattered, burnt or bombed into oblivion. It’s as if we can’t stand our magnificent heritage. Just look at what Europe did to itself in the 20th century. Visiting Prague for the first time, I was astounded to see what an intact, major European city should look like. As Lewis Mumford pointed out, man should study his entire past, even the most distant, for lessons on how to move forward. Instead of lunging ahead, he should walk backward as much as possible.
After Brighton, I returned to my teaching job in Leipzig, Germany. Each Monday, opposing camps in the refugee, immigration debate have to be kept apart by hundreds of black clad cops. Businesses suffer. The Christmas Market has just opened, however, so downtown is even more lively and charming than usual. Each day, thousands of people browse 250 stalls for sausages, gluhwein, chocolate, cheese, artisan soap, jewelries, candles or winter clothes, etc. There are two Ferris wheels and several merry go rounds. Here come giddy children riding a lion, a tiger, a camel. As in the Brighton pub, happiness is mingling with other people in a serene setting. Not everything is so idyllic. Beggars, most of them Eastern European, are scattered about. A shabbily dressed old German woman digs through a trash can for recyclable bottles.
With Turkey downing a Russian plane, we move one step closer to a global war. Turkey did not act alone. The US must prevent, at any cost, the economic integration of Eurasia, for should this happen, it would be the odd man out, an irrelevant sulk standing all alone in an Arctic of his own making. With 19 US military bases, Germany would be a missile magnet. Along with the erosion of their identity, already welcomed by many Germans, they risk being pulverized. A sticker in downtown Leipzig, “You say Deutschland, we say die!” The US Empire looted and slaughtered its way to the top. In its death throes, I fear it will unleash unprecedented mayhem.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.