Friday, 5 November 2010

12. The Cultural Politics of Halloween

Halloween last weekend – lots of residential fronts and condo foyers decorated with pumpkins and vampires, bats and Hitchcockian crows, spiders’ webs and skeletons. In the foyer of our block, along with the plastic pumpkins and the odd witch nailed to the wall, was a notice inviting volunteers to give their flat numbers to allow children to come and call for trick-or-treat. I did notice the one or two with their plastic goodie bag in the lift from time to time.

On the night of 31st there was a big parade in The Village (Greenwich village) – I preferred to watch it on TV. It was cold. Halloween now seems less and less about ghosts and ghoulies and more about people just going out in fancy dress to celebrate "the imagination". I saw two groups (mostly white) dancing like Michael Jackson (not very imaginative, but at least he is dead), a blonde (of course) as a Barbie doll in a box, another guy managing to look like someone on an outside toilet – think of Bernie Clifton riding his puppet ostrich (called Oswald, by the way) and then overlay it with the wooden lavie we used to have at the bottom of the garden. Other promenaders were 33 people trying to look like Chilean miners (practically the only Latino input that I saw), not many African-Americans (except for a High School marching band), a couple of Caribbean girls ‘dressed’ in a few feathers, as if it were Carnival, overall it looked very white and middle class. Oh, also some Adams Family look-alikes, including the TV commentators and interviewers. There is a Broadway version of the old TV show at the moment.

It was also mid-term election week, the big coverage being for the race for the NY State Governorship: so, of course, we were treated to the response of the two main candidates to trick-or-treaters knocking on their doors: Andrew Cuomo, smooth politician that he is, answered the door himself (unusual enough to be commented upon, as well as “wearing a crisp white shirt and blood-red tie, smiling and holding a large bowl of candy”). The independent Republican Carl Paladino seemed not to be in, but then he appears to live in a parallel universe anyway - perhaps he was in the parade and was not noticed among the other zombies. The door was opened successively by his wife, the dog, and his aide. Cuomo was elected, by the way, and since he has no wife but a girl friend, there is now discussion in the news as to whether she qualifies to be his official First Lady as State Governor. And talking of gender issues, there is also news of some politician, South Carolina Senator, Jim DeMint, declaring that unmarried women who are sleeping with their boyfriends should be not teaching in the classroom (nor should anyone who is openly gay, but unmarried straight male teachers sleeping around are presumably OK - see

Coming back to what the trick-or-treaters got out of the would-be governors, the goodies given out were apparently “non-partisan”, whatever that means: Cuomo: Laffy Taffy, Butterfinger, Kit Kat and Three Musketeers; Paladino: Junior Mints, Dots, Kit Kat and Tootsie Rolls. I can see Kit-Kat qualifies as non-partisan since both gave it, and is the only one I have eaten, or even come across, although Laffy Taffy does ring a vague bell, from Guy Fawkes nights gone by in the 1980s. But going further back, whatever happened to sherbet lemons, dolly mixtures, spangles, blackcurrant fruit gums, and Pontefract cakes? Not to mention raspberry ruffles! Actually we only got those at Christmas. They probably never reached New York of course, especially not Pontefract cakes, which I hope you can still buy.

And while we are at it, what about Smith's crisps? with a choice between salted and unsalted, because you got that little blue bag of salt in the packet which you could use or not, and in whatever proportions you cared to. Now they are all salty. I can still remember when a second type of crisp came onto the market or at least into our local fen-land village shop - Golden Wonder - ready salted.

Things started going down-hill when ready-salted came in. They are slightly further down the hill here, I reckon. Today there was a report that someone has marketed a bacon-flavoured soda, not ‘crispy’ bacon, note, but it is kosher and vegetarian friendly, honest (all chemical in other words). It is a company called Jones Soda, apparently. See half-way through the New York 1 local news TV channel Review of the Papers. It may be a hoax to get Jones drinks into the news, but I would not bank on that. Some (unspecified) “European” wannabee early-adopters who presumably could not get hold of it tried putting raw bacon into a can of diet coke - see the Halloweenesque result on

Whatever next? Jimde Mints to be handed out with the after-dinner coffee at Tea Party fundraisers?

Thursday, 29 July 2010

11: Is cheerleading a sport? Are saggy baggies just a fashion item?

The question of the day would appear to be: Is cheerleading a sport? This is such a difficult question that a federal judge had to brought in to resolve it. Yes, fellers, I did say Cheerleading. You know, that all-American thing that has never quite made it across the pond except for the odd American football game in Edinburgh or London: pom-pom girls, baton twirlers, touch-line and half-time entertainment, admittedly very energetic and colourful – synchronized swimming for non-swimmers, and they can shout and don’t have to wear those nose clips. In summer they probably do beach volleyball.

The question demanded some research. The search engine threw up an interesting title:

“UK Dance Team Finishes Fifth in National Pom Category.”

That can’t be relevant surely? It must be Australian sarcasm. No, the site address is On the same page is:

“UK Cheerleading Claims Unprecedented 18th National Championship”

Can it be that ...? No. UK turns out to be the University of Kentucky. [1] The Pom category or Pom-Pom category is indeed within “competitive cheerleading”. It seems quite organized in US colleges. They do things like the pyramid double-flip dismounts. That sounds more dangerous than beach volleyball.

The New York Times usually gives a serious analysis. I turn to ‘Letter from America’.[2] “... here in the United States of litigation, there’s a serious case under way on the matter, involving a Connecticut university, a federal district court, two lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the contradictory opinions of various experts — with laws governing gender equality in collegiate athletics at issue.” Serious stuff indeed.

It appears a small college, to save money, wanted to replace its women’s volleyball team with a cheerleading team. “But who will the cheerleaders cheer for, I hear you ask, if there is no volleyball team?” No, cheerleading is a competitive sport in its own right. “But do they have cheerleaders to cheer for them during competitions, or are they all too busy competing. Or perhaps the ex-volleyball players turn themselves into cheerleaders?” It poses so many questions. Let’s read on.

Ah, no, it is the volley-ball team and coach, or some of them, who seem to be taking the college to court under sexual discrimination legislation. So they have a men’s volleyball team then? Err, no. Hmm?

So what does the judge say? Well, it will have to be a summary - the ruling is 95 pages long. Basically, he is sitting on the fence. The law of 1972, in trying to gain equal treatment for women’s participation in sport and equal subsidies, left the judge in a quandary, since volleyball is a recognised sport in colleges, but cheerleading isn’t, yet. The Times says he granted a temporary injunction preventing the university from dismantling its women’s volleyball program, but also suggested that competitive cheerleading, although not presently an official nationally recognized college sport, has “all the necessary characteristics of a potentially valid competitive sport.” Potentially. Next stop the London Olympics? [3]

Another judge has made the news for having to make another unusual judgement. We have all heard the term fashion police, and we have all seen in Noo Yoik the fashion, common from my own observations among young men from certain ethnic groups, two of whom shared our bus the other night. They were code-switching between English and Spanish, while consuming pizza and diet coke – a curious combination, you might think, high cal and low cal, so not a choice made on dietary grounds, purely on taste, not entirely irrelevant as you will see. One of them was wearing his shorts down below his knees, nothing unusual in that, except they started only a few inches above his crotch, thus he was sitting not on his shorts, but on his underpants – boxers – we noticed. Well, in April of last year, some policeman in the Bronx took it upon himself to become literally the fashion police and clean up this town. He gave a guy, not our guy presumably, another guy, a Hispanic from his name, a ticket for disorderly conduct.

A year later the case comes to court and the New York Post headline sums up the decision succinctly enough: “Saggy pants are butt-ugly but legal: judge”. The basis of this judgement was the American Constitution itself. Now, I have Googled the Constitution adding words such as ‘pants’, ‘shorts’, even ‘trousers’, but found nothing specific, but anyway the judge reckons “the Constitution still leaves some opportunity for people to be foolish if they so desire. ... While most of us may consider it distasteful, and indeed foolish, to wear one’s pants so low as to expose the underwear ... people can dress as they please, wear anything, so long as they do not offend public order and decency”. So that thin and fluid line between bad taste and indecency is obviously lower than the policeman’s description of his offender as wearing “his pants down below his buttocks exposing underwear [and] potentially showing private parts.” ‘Potentially’ – there’s that word again. I reckon the Legal Aid defence lawyer probably didn’t let this pass without comment.

A mere one-off you might think, but apparently not. Other people have been expressing their distaste, from comedian Bill Cosby to President Obama, says the Post. There have been attempts to legislate on it. In a mid-term election year the issue is apparently a vote winner – or a vote loser. A Brooklyn Senator has even been putting up posters urging young men to “Stop the Sag” (See his Youtube video ) I was surprised, even shocked to find – and I have to point out – that his video contains historical images portraying ethnic and religious minorities in distasteful and offensive lights. The Senator – who is himself African-American – appears to be equating the wearing of saggy pants to these stereotypical racist images. You might think the video either bad judgment or bad taste. I don’t think it is a spoof. There is something I have not yet understood about American political culture.

I mentioned Cosby. I would have thought he should know better than to draw attention to a fashion in clothing by criticising it. I say that having watched last night an exceedingly funny compilation of clips of Cosby at his best, managing even, in a chat show, to make Jack Benny fall off his chair with uncontrollable laughter. Or was it that Benny did not like being so seriously upstaged? Anyway, it was a recording of the 2009 presentation to Cosby of the Mark Twain prize for humor (humour). [4] Among the guests was his friend Len Chandler, the protest-songwriter and prominent activist in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and later. Chandler is the creator of the delightful and simple song “Beans in my ears”, which he performed in its original version. It later became a chart hit for the white mainstream group The Serendipity Singers. Watch Chandler’s 1964 performance with Pete Seeger on Youtube here [5] .

I say a simple song, but deceptively so. It is in fact very clever. The message is apparently in the last verse: “I think that all grown-ups have beans in their ears”. The generation-gap metaphor should not be too difficult to unpick, and is from the same era and arguably from the same stand-point as Bob Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin’”. There is another message though, in the first half of the song: The first lines of each verse follow each other thus:

My mommy said not to put beans in my ears
Now why would I want to put beans in my ears
You can't hear the teacher with beans in your ears
Maybe it’s fun to have beans in your ears.
Hey, Charley, let’s go and put beans in our ears ...

It is an old cliché, but carries a lot of truth. If you tell the younger generation not to do something, they are all the more likely to do it. And the irony is they might never have thought about doing it if you hadn’t warned them off it in the first place. Understood on a wider level the song has a message for repressive authority and attitudes in general. But irony, I have noticed, does not travel well.



2. Richard Bernstein ‘Sport or Not? A Question for the Courts’, NY Times, 14 July 2010.

3. Another piece worth reading is by Gregg Easterbrook of the ESPN network, the biggest sports TV network in the US. It has pics of cheerleaders performing. He argues the 1972 civil rights legislation is out of date in its application to sport in colleges and concludes that courts have no business sticking their noses into deciding what is and isn't sport. A federal court ruling that favors volleyball over cheerleading is just plain wrong, 27 July 2010

4. See Cosby and Mark Twain prize

5. For more on Len Chandler see HREF="
The Serendipity Singers’ version has amended lyrics and is thus less subversive. Ironically, Chandler’s song was banned in some places s when doctors protested that many children were actually putting beans in their ears! It was also covered by Lonnie Donegan in Britain.

Friday, 23 July 2010

10. The Lance Armstrong Channel

There are TV channels for everything when you subscribe to Time Warner cable, including what appears to be the Lance Armstrong Channel. Even in World Cup years July is pretty thin on sport over here. OK, there’s Nathan’s hotdog eating contest, but that is only one day, and, well, yes, there’s the homerun slugfest, part of baseball’s All Stars weekend, but in the last few years there has been growing American interest in the Tour. “The Tour” is of course world professional cycling’s premier event. Its main drawback in terms of interest in the US of A is that it is always held in France. The main reason it has raised its profile ever since 1999, is that an American has won it “most every year” since then. Lance Armstrong has become indeed the “winningest” rider in the history of the Tour, despite, so you will hear over here, Frenchy French attempts to get him banned for alleged drug use. After seven wins he retired, came back again, without winning, and is now riding as leader of the Radio Shack team, who may win the Team Prize. And if there is anything Americans love more than an American winner it is an American winningest winner ... on a comeback ... against foreigners wanting to knock him off his perch, or, in this case, his bike.

“Soccer” is not suited to American television, which thrives on commercial breaks every ten minutes or less thus allowing viewers to recharge their coffee cups, pizza plates and their concentration. It does not have timeouts, breaks in play, but pretty much constant action, unless it is a match like the World Cup Final , which is far too important for players to try to win in case, by doing so, they lose. But that’s an issue for another day. Cycle racing on roads on the other hand takes a long time, nearly as long as cricket, proper cricket anyway, maybe five, six hours a day over three weeks. For the average viewer even if there doesn’t seem to be much happening for long parts of the race, there is beautiful countryside to admire, mountains, rivers, national parks, chateaux, pretty villages and the vestiges of a thousand or two years of History for cameras to linger lovingly over, as the pack winds its way through France, sometimes even popping over the frontier to Belgium, Italy, Spain, even Ireland. If you don’t have a passport, as most Americans don’t, what better way to see Europe than on a 46-inch HD plasma screen TV? Other than going to Las Vegas, of course. So I’m told.

For English viewers it is a pleasure to see the main commentators on the Lance Armstrong channel are the incomparable Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (former pro cyclists). Liggett does his best with the French names, but one thing jars: his awful, Anglified pronunciation of the key technical term my-or jhorn, when he might as well just say the leader's yellow jersey, sorry Phil [1]. Paul Sherwen usually opts for translation, but ‘escapade’ is not quite the same as ‘échappée’, more usually called ‘escape’ by British cycling fans. Perhaps Paul was trying to be witty, but irony, I find, does not work over here. Paul's Spanish, by the way, is pretty fluent.

I ought to make it clear the Versus channel is not actually called the Lance Armstrong channel – it just seems like it. All the commentators today seem ostentatiously to be wearing Lance Armstrong yellow rubber wristbands for his Nike-sponsored cancer foundation [2]. Versus shows lots of commercial breaks for Jeeps and Cadillacs, Burger King,, followed by David I. Pankin Debt Lawyer (for whom the best way out of debt is via bankruptcy), Geico Insurance (the most entertaining [3]) and loads of adverts featuring Lance, including him biking through mountain scenery in Nike sports gear, and another promoting his team’s sponsor Radio Shack, even promoting beer, Ultra lite. Lance also gets many mentions from the commentators (“The old man of the Tour is still in the bunch of elite riders.”). He often gives a live interview immediately he gets off the bike at the stage finish.

The commentators make a big thing about coverage being commercial free for the last half-hour of the stage. We learn it is commercial free thanks to Nissan Shift, the official car of Lance Armstrong and team Radio Shack. Lest we forget, a Nissan badge is shown permanently in top left hand corner of the screen during the commercial free period, so we are all grateful to ... which car company was it again? oh yes, Nissan, for this commercial free time. I mean what kind of a creative mind had the idea of the commercial sponsoring of a commercial free period on TV. Instead of having a 30-second advert you have 30 minute advert. Just brilliant!

Let us not forget either that every cyclist’s bum (or ‘ass’ for our American friends) is plastered with ads for their team sponsor, and cyclists' bums are often focused on by the cameramen riding behind or beside them on the back of motorbikes, so they don’t act as wind shields. If what I have just described makes you think that the rest of the cyclist’s tightly lycra-clad body is free of ads, then think again. Think thighs, shoulders, chest, back, helmet, gloves, shoes and bike frame as targets for every conceivable angle of shot producer and cameramen can muster. Nor do they ignore the roadside signs for companies such as Brandt (who gives a daily prize for the most combative rider) or Digital, or the blow-up Vittel signs spanning the road telling riders and viewers how many kilometres (kilometers?) to go (1 km = five-eighths of a mile, for our American readers).

As I watch today, the fate of this year’s Tour can be decided: the two leading riders in the overall standings are only 8 seconds apart after 17 days of racing, and today’s stage will end with a nine percent climb ten miles (eighteen kilometres for our European readers) up a Pyrenean mountain. The young Luxemburger Andy Schleck is going head to head with the leader, last year’s winner from Spain Alberto Contador. Such is the digitisation of the Tour we are shown the heart rate of different riders - 156 bpm - and the wattage they produce - 500 watts for 8 kilometres, etc. I am sure that was sponsored by some wireless phone company but I had lost concentration in the commercial free period. They should wire themselves up to fog lights today, they going up the Tourmalet through low cloud.

“Remember today's commercial free period is brought to you by Nissan, the official car of the Tour de France.” Phil manages to announce this dead-pan every time. What a pro!

But Phil’s voice suddenly finds another octave: “And there goes Schleck with Contador sitting on his wheel” [a bit unfair that, you might feel], “which puts pressure on Armstrong who drops off the back.” Ouch! More and more Basque flags are waving the closer Contador gets to the Spanish frontier. Contador attacks having been towed up the mountain by Schleck. Schleck catches him and gives him a grim, black stare - if looks could kill! “Contador wants the stage win, yellow jerseys are supposed to win stages and he hasn't got one yet this year”, yells Phil, or was it Paul? All the spectators seem to be running beside and behind the two leaders, in the fog, threatening to knock them off. Individually each spectator usually manages about ten yards, or nine metres (meters), but the impression is of a whole crowd in pursuit, with occasionally ones in fancy dress or even naked. The commentators have been promising us sun at the top, but the fog or cloud just gets thicker. “They start the sprint side by side and ... Schleck gets it”. He punches the air with a rather powder-puff gesture. He wins the stage, but still lies second overall. “They have dug so deep into their souls [or did he mean ‘soles’] to get this victory today” – the founder of the Tour, Henri Desgrange, did after all describe road racing as depending on both Head and Legs. Nissan, Festina and Vittel adverts are prominent on the screen at the finish. “And here comes Armstrong four minutes ten seconds behind.” We see a little man in a dark blue suit and tie shaking Contador’s hand.

The commercial free period (thanks, Nissan) comes to an end and we go to ... a commercial break.

Then, interviews with a Canadian called Ryder (yes, really his first name) Hesjedal (yes, his accent proves he is really Canadian) who finished a very creditable fourth today – watch out for him next year, then with American Chris Horner, of Radio-Shack, who seems out of breath (well, wouldn't you be?). Then the podium, and Contador again pulls on the my-or jhorn, I think it must be Basque for yellow jersey. Schleck still remains eight seconds behind overall. Can he catch them up in the Bordeaux time-trial through the vineyards? Can Phil and Paul stay sober? Can we stay sober?

You have been reading a commercial-free text, sponsored by my wife, who wishes to remain anonymous.


1. Phil Liggett had some very kind words about our book on the Tour de France:

2. Lance Armstrong, in partnership with Nike, developed the yellow LIVESTRONG wristband as a message of support for cancer-sufferers. He recovered from testicular cancer in the 1990s. See and

3. See the current sports-related Geico ad with baseball-pitching great Randy Johnson on YouTube:

See David I. Pankin details at


Team Radio Shack did win the team prize. The final day's coverage - Lance's last ever day in the Tour apparently - concentrated on Livestrong, including the team's foiled attempt to wear new black jerseys promoting Livestrong. They managed to wear them on the podium for the presentation of the prize, if not in the race itself.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

9. T-shirts, political culture and cultural politics

Well, here I am back in Noo Yoik in the cafe (Starbucks) of the big Barnes and Noble bookshop - bookstore I mean - on Third avenue and 54th. There was this guy, balding but with a slim moustache, around 50, sporting a bright red T-shirt and light-coloured shorts, sitting at a table, engrossed in a book. Most people who come into the café in the bookstore do take magazines or books off the shelf and browse through them or indeed spend an hour or so reading them, before generally putting them back on the shelf, hopefully without added coffee stains.

Well, what caught my eye was the slogan on the red T-shirt: “Unapologetically American”. As I try to deconstruct it, the phrase can only refer defiantly to the USA’s relations with other countries or cultures. Now, without going back as far as, well, ... of course we can’t go back very far into history when talking about the USA, but without going back as far as ‘American relations’ with native Americans in the nineteenth century, let’s assume there is some implied general reference here to Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror and the on-going middle-eastern question. Paradoxically, this apparently bold self-confident phrase does implicitly recall that many people do feel that America has something to apologize for in its recent international relations. Midtown Manhattan, of course, is not really red-neck territory and this is one of the better bookshops in Noo Yoik.

Furthermore, “unapologetically” is an eight-syllable word. Was this a rare sighting of a member of the lesser spotted East Coast conservative Republican patriotic intelligentsia, whether Neocon or Paleocon? My curiosity about what he was reading was stimulated. Maybe it was something like Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat’s lauded Grand New Party (2008)[1], or maybe just a biography of Pat Buchanan. But no. Not even the Sarah Palin biography for 9-12 year olds – not due until September. As I sidled past my reader with my empty paper cup in hand on a circuitous route to the trash can, I could see it was Hollywood Hellraisers by Robert Sellers (Arrow Books, 2010) , featuring the "wild lives and fast times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson". I now know, but didn’t we always know, that it contains “some woeful lapses in taste, [with] all the depth of a paddling pool ... but is great fun” as one reviewer has said [2]. So maybe it all made sense after all. He was up from the Mid West for a coupl’a days on a sales conference and wanted effete New York liberals to know it.

However, on return to my 33rd floor computer, I Googled one or two things and found that the slogan might make much more immediate and national political sense. The mid-term elections are coming up. I know this because I have been stopped a few times on the street by both Republican and Democrat activists trying to sign me up to register as a Republican or Democratic voter. Apparently, if I understand correctly, the only way to be able to vote is to declare yourself a supporter of this or that party beforehand, which would explain how you can vote in Primaries of course, which has always puzzled me. I assume you can buy lists of registered voters too, I mean you can even do that in Britain, although not with voters’ political colour attached. Well, I got tired of being stopped after a while. So now, when asked “Are you a registered Republican voter?”, I can say “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien” without even breaking stride.

Anyway, with elections this fall for all the members of the House of Representatives (two-year terms), for a third of Senators (six-year terms), for some entire state legislatures and for some state governors (including New York State), electioneering has begun in earnest. Narrow majorities are at stake, affecting the President’s ability to govern. Since Obama’s trip abroad in April to Europe and the Middle East, including a meeting of the G20 and the NATO summit, the American conservative media, led by the Fox News channel, have been calling the trip an “apology tour” labelling the President “Apologizer in Chief", “running down his own country”[3]. To give you a flavour, on one Fox News programme, the presenter pours liquid from a petrol can onto an effete, long-haired young man, while claiming, that “Obama is apologizing to the Frenchy French for our arrogance.” I now assume therefore that the T-shirt was produced as part of the Republican, anti-Obama election campaign. So, the guy in the eight-syllable unapologetically American shirt may be a local activist for the Grand Ole Party. Well, we guessed he wasn’t an Obama supporter.

Nor, one might infer from the following, is he likely to be a friend of the French: you can not only buy an Unapologetically American Hoodie [by Ranger Up] at, but also a T-shirt featuring Liberty leading French revolutionaries over the barricades ... with a sting in the tail, or rather in the flag. Check it out [take a look]. (Thanks, David, for the links.) It all goes back to the Iraq War, I assume, when the French have never been forgiven by some for not being four-square behind Bush and Blair, and thereafter portrayed as "Cheese-eating surrender monkeys"[4].

The French are indeed, it has to be admitted, very Frenchy, and this Sunday while eating some French cheese I saw another T-shirt slogan, emblazoned this time in bleu-blanc-rouge (red-white-’n-blue): it read "La Journée de La Bastille". It was indeed on the occasion of a celebration of the French National Day in New York [5], or of Bastille Day as they refer to it here and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. It was organised mainly by the FIAF – French Institute-Alliance Française, – the two institutions having joined forces, overcoming the fact that the one is part of the French state and the Alliance a private, not-for-profit association, although far more important than the Institute in spreading the French language and culture world-wide. A number of French companies sponsor this now annual event, which involves closing East 60th Street between Lexington and Fifth Avenue and inviting the usual stalls one sees at street fairs selling fast food (but some French themed, selling French cheese, macaroons, crêpes and so on). Talking of cheese, indulge me a brief interjection: in a good, up-market food shop on the East Side the head of the cheese counter was grumbling aloud the other day about what to do with these camemberts that had no sell-by date on them and, who knows?, maybe even wondering about the state of public health legislation in France. But can you imagine a French consumer looking for a sell-by-date on a camembert? She would take the top off, smell it and feel its elasticity, but look for a sell-by-date? You can buy camembert too young, but too old?!

Well, anyway, the FIAF building was open for a cheese and wine tasting as part of Bastille Day sauce américaine. Twelve dollars for the chance to taste three half-glasses of good Bordeaux wine while eating as much cheese and bread as you can bear to stand on line for (not in line, I am reliably informed). You could also get bottled beer instead of wine, but practically nobody went for that, despite the fact that there was no one waiting on line for the beer. The air-conditioning could not cope, it was 90 degrees F. outside, so the length of queues should have been a factor, but no.

Now, I don’t remember ever hearing or reading this T-shirt phrase La Journée de La Bastille before. The French refer to their national day as la fête nationale, or le quatorze juillet; they talk about la prise de la Bastille – the taking of the Bastille prison (symbolically liberating a handful of prisoners in 1789). Practically every Google reference, even to la fête de la Bastille, is on an English language site. As for La Journée de La Bastille, trust me, that is just not French. Of course, you will say that the New York fête was not held on the 14th, but on Sunday July 11th, understandable in terms of organization. So, does it matter except for purists, like me, “more royalist than the king”?

Maybe not, but my bigger gripe is that the FIAF is not as French as one might expect. Nowhere on their website could I find a button to get to a French language version [6]. Their e-newsletter is in English too – I have just signed up to find out. They give the titles of their films in English. I also remember a few years ago, in the FIAF, the celebrated Le Monde front-page cartoonist Plantu [7] had to give a talk in English, mainly (it appeared) because his American co-speaker had no French. More significantly perhaps, for visitors, even on the doors to the FIAF restrooms, toilettes to you and me, there were Gentlemen and Men and Ladies and Women, but no Messieurs or Dames to be seen. Perhaps the French have decided they can’t be as Frenchy in America as they are at home. A pity for all concerned.

P.S. In late August I came across on TV another example of the America's curious relationship with French and the French. The New York liberal intelligentsia pay hommage to French culture, especially film, but even they, or many of them, can't cope with the language. But my jaw dropped when on the otherwise excellent Turner Classic Movie channel, during "Lawrence of Arabia", which is so long it needs an intermission, as it would have had originally in cinemas (film theaters), the following came onto the screen: "ENTER'E ACTE", which again, shows scant respect for French or its spelling conventions.

1. See “The next conservative thinkers” by Drake Bennett of the Boston Globe, on

2. Viola Fort, The Observer, Sunday 7 February 2010.

3. See Media matters for America on, critiquing various news reports and comments on the tour with hilarious (or disturbing?) video extracts from Fox News programs and CNN.

4. See Wikipedia; and why not Eddie Izzard's rif on French and monkeys


6. By contrast see the Cervantes Institute site which has English and Spanish versions

7. Plantu's blog