I was in reminiscent mode over the weekend. Not just about the American humourist and writer Garrison Keeler but he did figure quite strongly in my thoughts.He is so good at taking a wry look at the world, especially his world.
I think it was a number of things that did it.
Last week I wrote about my very first visit to America and how I had met the poet Allen Ginsberg. This starting me thinking about my relationship with the United States and the good and bad times I have had there.
I went first of all thinking it would be an adventure for sure but just like you think all Japanese people have cameras fixed to their faces, I did suffer from having met, apart from American sight-seeing tourists, two of the loudest people I have ever known. It was at University and lovely though they were, I did doubt if I would survive a whole nation of them.
It was, of course, a totally different experience, that first trip and the many others that I have been fortunate to make ever since.
Anyway, Garrison Keeler, a giant of a man and a giant of a wit, was the reason for my trip to Minneapolis fifteen years ago and, whilst I was up in my loft this weekend, I uncovered some photographs that I had taken at the time but not, of course the ones I was looking for…they will have to wait for another blog.
Minneapolis is a wonderful place, OK.
My memories are of as civilized a city I have ever visited. Florence, Paris and Rome may have more art galleries and much older buildings but nowhere that I know has such a sense of art and design worn lightly and enjoyed wherever you go. It is also refreshingly modern – well to my eyes anyway.
I know Chicago is possibly the greatest city in the world for its downtown collection of fine 20th. century buildings and New York is, well, New York, but Minneapolis is so laid back about it all and its fine buildings are gentle and, like Garrison Keeler, ever so slightly mocking.
It is also full of sculpture, not just in its art galleries either. Art is for the people in Minneapolis and, of course, its twin city, Saint Paul’s. I have never seen people so at ease, frolicsome even around pieces of world famous art.
I have a book on Pop Art somewhere which has Claes Oldenburg’s Spoonbridge and Cherry as it front cover and I had always loved it. It is firstly a thing of real beauty but it also has wonderful powers of incongruity in its giant proportions and its joyful plasticity.
I had come to Minneapolis to meet someone and I had no previous knowledge of the city at all. Before meeting Garrison Keeler though, on a crystalline clear Sunday in Summer, I went for a walk round town and found myself in a park. I saw some roller-bladers for the first time, something that was to become a bit of an obsession when I returned to England. Mostly I was just having fun in the sun like all the others, people who smiled when I walked by, I don’t know why. That was a joyful enough experience but then, out of nowhere, came this wonderful object. Now that is what art should be all about.
Making its point even clearer, this icon of modern art had become a playground for people just there, out for the afternoon, celebrating life. Sitting around, playing around, they had become part of the exhibition.
It set the tone for my visit and wonderful and memorable as my time with Mr. Keeler certainly was, my principal memory is of that walk in the park. Incidently, I asked Garrison why everyone smiled at me when I saw them. I assumed it was because they were all so friendly. He said it was because I looked people straight in the eye and that was not a Minneapolis tradition. As with many of his remarks, its ambiguity has stayed with me.
I have now run out of time to tell you about how he drove me round the city showing me the Scott Fitzgerald sites, this is Fitzgeralds’s birthplace and where he wrote The Great Gatsby, or how I made a live appearance with a chicken on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion.And I didnt even mention the fact that I steered a tug boat down the Mississippi. Another time maybe.
In case I paint too pretty a picture though, this was also the city where I was attacked by crack dealing Native Americans and where, on returning to my hotel, I witnessed this rather hysterical car crash.
And now, as they say, time for a poem.
This is the last in the series of poems which were a test I set for myself. I wrote 12 poems in 12 days. I did it because I am obsessive, OK.
It is called America but it is really about England.
Poor old England,
Got at, shot at, down at heel.
The scruffy remains of another time.
Grimy, resentful, depressed,
What an age to live in,
To be young was very bliss.
Then that Summer of Discontent,
Harsh words, harsher thoughts,
Rich young financiers,
Suits are cool,
Wine the new beer,
Cash the new dream.
Young idealists learning to sneer.
Aggression is sexy
Climb up just to look down,
Splash on the cologne,
Block poverty’s stink.
Everything sent to your personal account,
Society’s army of one-man bands.
A world fit for heroes,
Eyes on their balls,
Under-invested in all the big things:
Hospitals, humanity, hope.
It was, they said, the American Dream,
Thatcherism meets Reaganomics,
A special relationship,
Changing the World.
Just a nice guy and an iron maid,
Having the time of their lives.
Then that first trip to American soil,
Big buildings, big hearts, and, yes, dreams.
America, Tower of Babel rebuilt,
Everything you want it to be.
Don’t blame it old England for the things that went wrong,
Just be wiser in what you admire.