Thursday, 22 January 2009

Stephen Fry: In America (The Book)

I’m fascinated by the sights, sounds, philosophies and cultures of foreign lands. However, like many others, the constraints of time and money severely restrict my ability to witness much of this fascination at first hand. These fascinations and constraints have made me an avid world traveller through the televisual medium of Michael Palin, and fired me with enthusiasm to view one of the worlds most fascinating countries through the witty and informative eyes of Stephen Fry. Although our close Anglo-American ties mean that much of America is familiar to the British, a country so vast and varied invariably has a few wonders and surprises in store for the more intrepid tourist. Unfortunately the TV series did not quite live up to my high expectations, but the book succeeded by providing a more candid interpretation of Fry’s travels, unsweetened for a less generic audience.

Although Fry travels through and writes about each of the 50 States individually, what this book is not, is a travel guide. As the author clearly outlines in the preface, anyone looking for a detailed account and description of the 50 American states will be sorely disappointed. Furthermore, any inhabitant of any specific state may be outraged by the scant and incomplete coverage of his or her homeland. (especially if you home state is Idaho). What the book does provide in abundance, is an overall taste and flavour of the country as a whole by the agglomeration of random vignettes and anecdotes peppered across this vast land. In fact, I think the book provides two levels of insight. Firstly, for the British reader, Fry provides a sympathetic insight into the belief, cultures and traditions that seem alien to us. Secondly, for the American reader, Fry provides a view of the familiar from an unfamiliar and foreign perspective.

Fry rightly refuses to play up to unfounded British stereotypical prejudices and visions of superiority. The vast majority of his travels, interviews and encounters ensure that the inhabitants of this country come across as the genuine, honest, kind and interesting individuals that I know they are. However, whilst unashamedly rejoicing in the landscapes, achievements and cultures, he is not afraid to point out America’s biggest failing, i.e. the inability to understand cheese. As a British person, I may be advised not to throw stones in my own greenhouse when it comes to criticising another countries culinary abilities, but cheese should never be squirted from cans.

I found a couple of interviews on the TV programme a little annoying, In particular, a witch interviewed in Salem, and a Bigfoot tracker interviewed in Oregon. Fry’s inner thoughts on the utter absurdity of beliefs of the Bigfoot tracker in particular where not as apparent until I read in the book. In fact the whole book affords the reader a much deeper insight into Fry’s mind, not only emphasising what is clearly ridiculous but further celebrating what is great and wonderful about the country and its peoples.

Here’s a brief extract from the Massachusetts chapter on Salem:

The shameful, primitive and disgusting events of the 1690’s have receded into jokey folklore and Salem now embraces its position as the Halloween and Olde Puritan capital of America, abounding with Publick Houses and Crafte Shoppes. Indeed there are now real witches in Salem, witches who are out and proud. “Can you feel the positive energy here?” “Er, well, since you mention it, not really…” I meet the High Priestess Laurie Cabot in her occult shop “The Cat, The Crow and the Crown”, the first of its kind, she claims, anywhere in the world. She and her co-religionists have fought long and hard for “the Craft” to be treated as any other faith under the constitution. Laurie is the “official witch of Massachusetts”, a title granted by Governor Dukakis in the seventies. She is not to know that I am entirely allergic to anyone using the word “energy” in a nonsensical, New Age way. A hundred years ago it would have been “vibrations”. I am determined not to be surly and unhelpful, however, so I plough on. “Big Day for you, today, Laurie, Halloween.” “Today is not Halloween.” She says, putting me right, “it is the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Christians took it over, along with so much else.“ There is no black cat perched on her shoulder, but there might as well be. “The Christians went on from persecuting us to scorning us for what they call superstition.” I murmur sympathy, which is genuine. To me, all religions are equally nonsensical and the idea that Christians, with their particular invisible friend, virgin births, immaculate conceptions and bread turning into flesh, could have the cheek to mock people like Laurie for being “superstitious” is appalling humbug.

A very enjoyable read and it has certainly fuelled me with an even stronger desire to tick off a few more States.
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