Returning for the Endgame

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Any resemblance to Michael D. Higgins in terms of baldness or stature are entirely coincidental but hopefully amusing.

Around the time I was setting off on my round-the-world jaunt, the race for the Irish presidency had yet to kick into high gear. David Norris’s candidacy had sparked some life into the proceedings, but all the drama was revolving around his campaign and his past statements. Well, while I was gone, the drama levels hit the roof and the media wailed about negative campaigning while happily enabling it.

Until Mary Robinson took the ball and ran with it, the presidency was mostly viewed as a meaningless sinecure, but it has since become a more visible post, in which the occupant is expected to represent Ireland both at home and abroad. As the first count draws to a close, the winner seems likely to be the veteran Labour politician Michael D. Higgins, who remained more or less aloof from a vicious fray.

With the caveat that I’ve been aware of the race in the last few months only in a distant, Internet-enabled way, here’s how it seemed to turn out for the various candidates, ranked by their current standing in the polls.

Mary Davis: When she entered the race, there were more than a few references to a third Mary in a row holding the presidency. While she came across as fairly competent and seemed to suit the independent, anti-party mood, Mary Davis never really stood out, and to finish last behind Dana will hurt a lot.

Dana Rosemary Scallon: She’s done this before, back in 1997, but she still seemed to be running the same 14-year-old campaign this time around. And Ireland is not the same place it was 14 years ago. Weird outbursts about media harassment and veiled claims of vehicular sabotage probably didn’t convince anyone who wasn’t already on her side.

David Norris: The early front-runner in the race, it was his entry that sparked the whole thing into life, generating excitement among many and anger among more than a few. The Daily Mail in particular laid into Norris with great glee, digging up some questionable comments and actions, but as with another candidate, Norris sabotaged himself with his inability to cope with the pressure in a “presidential” manner. It will be a great day when Ireland elects a president regardless of their sexual orientation, but Norris won’t be that president, at least this time around.

Gay Mitchell: The government’s candidate never seemed too enthused with the notion of being president, and the apathy of the rest of the country matched that. It was Fianna Fáil that was kicked out of office earlier in the year, but Fine Gael is the other half of the duopoly that’s run Ireland for most of its independent history, and such is the distrust of politics as usual that being the government candidate was as much a hindrance as a help.

Martin McGuinness: If Norris’s entry kicked the race into life, the entry of Martin McGuinness took it to another level. The most visible and divisive political figure among the candidates, he also generated plenty of excitement and plenty of anger. The question is whether he actually expected to win and take up a post that offers mostly symbolic power instead of his current position as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. As it is, he’s done Sinn Fein’s cause no harm, performed well enough to avoid negative comments, and played a key role in deciding the outcome of the race to boot. Speaking of which…

Seán Gallagher: The man who almost won it, until Sinn Fein took him off at the knees. A businessman and a television celebrity, he played the independent card hard and won a lot of support on that basis until it came to light that he was a lot deeper in the old Fianna Fáil culture than he claimed to be. He might even have survived that had he been able to deal with the pressure better than he did. As it was, he dodged, dissembled and complained, handing victory to the one competitor who maintained a statesmanlike demeanour throughout the whole thing.

Michael D. Higgins: Old age and guile will defeat youth and energy. Michael D. Higgins may lack stature and look older than his 70 years, but he has experience to burn and a long and varied career in politics and public service on which to base his claim for the presidency. The rise of Seán Gallagher as the alternative candidate almost overthrew him, but with the help of Sinn Fein and ultimately of Gallagher himself, he sailed over the finishing line well in front.

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Focus and Inspiration

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Iron and Weeds

I’m counting down the hours to my return at the moment.* One last long transit will take me back to Ireland, via Heathrow. Hopefully the place will have dried out a bit by the time I get there. Should I be worried about my ground floor apartment?

I’ve been in New York for the last few days, stomping out familiar territory as I prepare to return. Although I’ve been here several times in the past, this time around I’ve tried to concentrate on doing things that I’ve never done before. Some are a little obvious, such as going to the top of the Empire State Building. Some are reminders of home, such as cosy pints in the Gingerman Pub. And some are things that I wasn’t even aware of last time I was here, such as walking the High Line.

An elevated railway converted to a linear wildflower garden that offers a unique vantage point over southwestern Manhattan, the High Line is an example of a community project that took a crumbling eyesore and turned it into something that’s not only an asset to the local communities but also a tourist attraction, luring in people who might not otherwise be inclined to visit these parts of New York. I first read about it in a National Geographic article, and that was enough to make me determined to see it and to walk it as I passed through the city.

The High Line is an example of community activism that has had a positive outcome far beyond what the threatened demolition of the line would have provided. Up in the air for the moment is the outcome of a rather more well known outburst of activism: the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ve been coming across the offshoots of this movement as I’ve passed through the U.S., and I’ve been hearing about its spread across the wider world, but even here in New York it’s hard to say exactly what it’s achieved, or will achieve, beyond attracting attention to itself and drawing the occasional incident of police brutality.

There are a lot of theories in the media about the Occupy Wall Street movement at the moment. Many of them tend to focus on the fact that beyond protesting about the state of things, there’s little sense among the activists of a clear view of what needs to be done. It’s a fair criticism, but also inevitable: this isn’t a protest about something as simple as ending a war or preventing job losses. Ultimately, it’s about changing the way a small but very influential sector of our society works, and societal engineering is a difficult thing to plan, let alone to carry out.

I’ll be interested to see what comes of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Any number of commentators will tell you that something needs to be done if our notions of liberty and justice in society are going to be preserved in the face of an unbalanced distribution of wealth and influence, especially when those with all the money and the weight to throw around are fighting to retain what they have and perhaps gather more as the system creaks beneath them.

Occupy Wall Street may not have the answers. They’re unlikely to ever have as much focus as those who created the High Line. But they are at least asking questions and drawing attention to the need for someone in a position of power to take a longer-term view of where we’re heading. If nothing else, what they’ve done so far has reminded those with a knowledge of history that inequality tends to lead inexorably to unrest and revolution if not dealt with in a serious manner.

*Well, I was when I started this. I’m safely home now, and this is being posted late due to the habit of JFK and Heathrow airports of not avoiding gouging their customers for Internet access if they can possibly avoid it.

The Backward Track

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Walden Pond: where crowds come to get away from it all.

Scientific impossibility though it may be (apart from for the occasional stray neutrino), time travel has always been a dream of mine. Not so much to see the future, which happens so fast these days that all we have to do is live through it, as to explore the past. Well, my journey from west to east across the U.S. is probably as close as I’m ever going to get to travelling back in time.

I started off in Los Angeles, which was the cultural heart of the world for much of the 20th century and still bears the traces of its 80s heyday, before that hegemony started to splinter. Further north still, I spent time in the palace of one of the barons of early Hollywood, W.R. Hearst, who partied with Flynn and Chaplin and was the thinly disguised subject of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

I dropped in on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row on the way to San Francisco, which still has the antique feel of the late 19th century around various districts, perhaps a reminder of the days when people from all nations travelled there in search of gold and opportunity.

Across the mountains to the east lay two pioneer cities, born from rather different origins: Salt Lake City, built around a core of Mormon settlers escaping persecution/the rule of law (take your pick), and Denver, another gold rush city, proud of its status as the “Mile High City” and its cowboy heritage.

I skipped through Chicago and landed in Washington, D.C., smoothing my path through time a bit. Born in the aftermath of the American Revolution, Washington has the look of a designed city: glance down any of those long boulevards and the chances are that you’ll see some imposing edifice framed at the end of it. Celebrating American Independence, it sets aside a large part of its heart to memorialising the figures who played notable parts in the nation’s history.

Another skip through New York landed me in Boston, keeping that retrograde progress smooth. From this point, I was in the land where the nation was born: the original thirteen colonies that became states in the War of Independence. Washington may enshrine that memory, but these are the places where the action happened.

One side trip brought me face to face with another person who sought to retreat to a simpler time. Henry David Thoreau, whose book Walden recounts his efforts to live simply and at peace with nature by the pond of that name. His legacy attracts plenty of crowds to Walden now, but it’s not hard to walk the path along the water’s edge and suddenly find yourself alone for a moment or two, with just the trees and the water for company.

Of course, you can’t live in the past forever. I’m on my way to New York now, and even if it’s a long-settled city, once the Dutch port of New Amsterdam, there’s probably no more modern place in the U.S. Washington may be the nation’s capital, but it’s New York that the world thinks of as the exemplar of the American city, or perhaps even the nation as a whole. A fitting place to wrap up this trip, perhaps.

The Memorial Tour

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Quite a man. Quite a way with words. Quite a lot of marble.

Washington, D.C.’s main attractions are mostly crowded into a relatively small area around the National Mall, easily walkable over the course of a day (though if you keep getting distracted by museums, it will take a lot longer than that). At the east end of the Mall is the creamy white bulk of the Capitol, with the Library of Congress behind it, and at the west end lies the Washington Monument, with the White House a short distance to the north. Scattered in between are the many Smithsonian institutes, most of which rank among the best museums in the world, at least in terms of their specific collections.

The Smithsonian’s many free offerings are the most likely causes of delays, though tours through the Capitol, wherein the Senate and House have been bickering for a few centuries, are another appealing option. If you can resist though, there’s a second section of D.C.’s appeal to the west of the Washington Monument: the memorial tour. First up is the grandiose World War II monument, covering the nations and theatres of war in one circular confection of marble and waterworks. Beyond lies a long reflecting pool (dug up and under reconstruction as of October 2011) that leads to the temple-like environs wherein the famous statue of Lincoln sits enthroned.

On either side of the Lincoln Memorial are two sombre reminders of less popular wars: Korea and Vietnam. Stroll a short way south from the Korean monument and you find yourself at the margins of the Tidal Basin, where three more memorials await you. First up is the brand new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, where the famous civil rights activist is embodied in stone, gazing out over the waters and surrounded by some of his more famous sayings.

A short walk anti clockwise around the edge of the basin brings you to the most singular of the monuments, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Instead of a single oversized statue surrounded by classic white stone, FDR is depicted life-size surrounded by red granite, in a setting that invites the visitor to wander through areas that depict his four terms in office. Peaceful rather than grandiose, it’s perhaps the most appealing of the memorials in the heart of Washington.

A lack of pomp can’t be ascribed to the last of the monuments, on the southern edge of the basin. Dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most complex president of the U.S., it’s even more temple-like than Lincoln’s monument, a circular array of columns surrounding an oversized statue of the man himself, as seen above, under a domed roof, surrounded by some of his best-remembered words. While undoubtedly fitting to his stature as one of the U.S.’s founding fathers, it feels a little too straightforward to match the character described in the title of a book on sale in the shop downstairs as the “American Sphinx.”

If it’s fitting you’re looking for, the place to go is the river to the west, where Theodore Roosevelt Island hides a difficult-to-reach memorial to a president whose love of nature is probably unmatched among his fellow office holders. Surrounded by trees on an island inhabited by deer and squirrels (to be fair, part of his love of nature involved shooting certain elements of it), it’s a far cry from the manicured lawns of the Washington Monument and all the better for it.

Mile High Club Sandwich

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A Denver breakfast. There is actually fruit in there, under the English muffin…

Sadly, no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find a sandwich joint in Denver that used this particular play on words. Not that I would have eaten said sandwich—I just wanted some proof that there are people out there who are as easily pleased by cheap humour as I am. I’m still looking…

Of all the U.S. cities that I’ve been to so far, Denver feels closest to a place I’d want to live in. It’s wide open without trying as hard to impress as Salt Lake City does or being as pedestrian-unfriendly as Los Angeles. It’s also laid back without being as touristy as San Francisco. One thing that I would miss is the sea. Or, more broadly, moisture in general. I don’t know whether it was the altitude or the sunny weather or some combination of the two, but I spent most of my 24 hours there gasping for a drink.

As much as I might wish to have had a little more time in Denver, my whistle-stop tour of the U.S. is working out well so far. After lurking around LA for a few days, I’ve spent no more than a night in any place since then, confining myself to 24 hours each in Denver and Salt Lake City, 20 hours in San Francisco, and a mere hour and a half in Chicago. I’d originally planned for a whole day there, but with accommodation being scarce and expensive this weekend and myself having visited there a mere six months ago, it was easier just to skip it and head for Washington, D.C.

So I’m getting ever closer to home in time and space. When I hit D.C., I won’t be far from the Atlantic Ocean, and there are only twelve days left before I have to catch my flight from JFK. These blogs entries have only really scratched the surface of all that I’ve seen and done over the past month and a bit; the places I’ve seen, things I’ve done and people I’ve met. I’ll have plenty of time to reflect and write some notes when I return, but for the moment I’ll keep on exploring.

Oh, and for those of you viewing this on Facebook rather than the main site, I’ve updated my Flickr account with some new photos. They should be visible in the sidebar to the right.

Justified and Ancient

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Not actually made out of Lego.

On the train to Salt Lake City, I had my first Mormon experience a little ahead of schedule, when an elderly gentleman sitting nearby started chatting and soon began to try and persuade myself and another passenger (he’d mistaken us for a couple) that the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints was the be all and end all of the Christian experience. Intent as I was on enjoying the train ride, I limited my responses to nods and making a few historical points, but when he claimed that the temple in Salt Lake City was the most beautiful building in the world, it at least gave me something to add to my sightseeing list.

Well, I’ve seen it (that’s it up above, as seen from the tower-block church headquarters next door). Seen it in the darkness, after my train got in at 3am and I decided to wander around; seen it in the sun, though without being let in, as it’s sacred even among the church members themselves; and seen it at sunset, which was pretty damn magnificent (the sunset, that is), viewed from the State Capitol on the hill above. And, well, it’s . . . nice. Solidly built out of granite, with hints of both Disney and Gothic styles in there. But that’s as far as it goes. Even when judged against other religious edifices, it’s no Hagia Sophia and no Pantheon. It doesn’t even hold a candle to St. Peter’s Basilica, which lacks the purity of form of the first two.

The fact that it was built over the course of 40 years by pioneers carting granite from a quarry a few miles away is impressive, though that point falters a bit when one realizes that most of the building happened after the railroad arrived, allowing rather faster stone deliveries. Ultimately, it’s a solid building with a plain facade, a golden statue on top and an unfortunate resemblance to a build-it-yourself Lego kit. To call it the most beautiful building in the world requires the speaker to invest it with qualities that exist outside its physical proportions.

This is not to knock the Mormons too much (I’m not going to type out the full church name every time, which they seem to prefer). Each and every one of them whom I met was polite, friendly and happy to chat to a visitor from abroad. Then again, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who’ve been out-and-out rude to me over the course of the past two months or so. I just struggled at times to cope with the blurring of the lines between “belief” and “truth”, and eventually I escaped to the pub and then a cinema to see the excellent Ides of March, which is all about how politics and the real world destroy idealism.

Hmm. Maybe blind faith isn’t so bad after all. Where did I put that pamphlet?

(Hopefully some of the above is coherent – I’m in Denver now, and by my reckoning, I’ve had about six hours of sleep in the last 48. Time for the head to hit the pillow at last.)

Moving On

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More comfortable on the inside.

My 20 or so hours in San Francisco marked the first time on this trip since London that I’ve crossed paths with a former journey. Seven and a half years ago I was there with a friend, visiting a friend of ours and his then relatively new girlfriend. They’re now married and living in London, and it was their house I crashed in on the first night of this odyssey. The very first digital photos I ever took were on that trip, and they’re still on my laptop, which is filling up with the photos from this one. Everything circles around eventually.

San Francisco hasn’t changed much, thankfully. I liked it then and I like it now: a city that seems determined to keep the pressures of the everyday world at arm’s length whenever possible. I had as much fun walking around the piers, up Telegraph Hill, through Chinatown and out to Haight-Ashbury as I have on any of my more exotic walking tours on this trip. Plus, the longer I’m in the U.S., the stronger the mental and emotional ties become that will bring me back home in a few weeks. It’s a nice way to be eased into the end of a journey like this.

If there’s any source of melancholy here, it lies in the seven-and-a-half year gap to my former visit: it was a different time and a different journey, and I was a very different person, still in my twenties and with a lot of things to learn. Yet given just how much has happened in all that time – how much has even happened in the past year – I can’t help but be optimistic when I consider just what I might be reminiscing about in another seven-and-a-half years time. I haven’t got the least clue what that might be, but if it’s this trip, then I’ll be smiling when I think of it.