Along with my other recent publications and current projects, of which I have said nothing in this journal, Immaterial Culture has long kept me from materializing here. No doubt, I could have made more effective use of broadcastellan as a promotional vehicle. And yet, writing, like listening to radio plays, is a solitary experience; at least it is so for me.
Like the performers behind the microphone, writers are generally removed from the audience for whom their performance is presumably intended, an audience that often seems so abstract as to be no more than a construct. The writer, script reader and listener may be sitting in a crowded room, and that crowd may well matter; but what matters more is the immateriality of the words once they are read or spoken. Words that create images or match stored ones. Words that evoke and awake feelings, stimulate thought. Words that, uttered though they are to the multitude, begin to matter personally and take on a multitude of new lives.
That Immaterial Culture is a profoundly personal book will not be readily apparent to anyone reading it. After all, I have refrained from using the first person singular to refer to myself as the reader or interpreter of the plays I discuss. I thought I’d leave the privilege to say “I” to that “obedient servant” of the Mercury Theatre, the orotund Orson Welles. Instead, I decided to disappear and let the play scripts and productions I audition take center stage, a prominent position they are often denied.
Talking about old radio plays as if they have no presence, as if they are chiefly of interest to the (broadcast) historian, only makes matters worse. Immaterial Culture, then, is an invitation to listen along, an invitation to talk about American radio plays of the past as one still discusses the material culture of books, motion pictures, theater, and television programs …
The sight was monstrous. There was shouting. They were shooting. Someone stood guard to keep strollers from trespassing while the action went on undisturbed. Few folks seemed to care, though, so familiar had such sights become in New York City. One could always catch up with it later, on television. Besides, this wasn’t a crime scene. It sure wasn’t Needle Park or Fort Apache, The Bronx. This was the peaceful, upmarket Upper East Side, for crying out not too loudly, and the wildly gesticulating savage in furs was of the Cookie Monster sort. Sesame Street was being filmed on location—and the location, on that May day, was Carl-Schurz Park in my old neighborhood of Yorkville.
It seemed fitting that the beloved children’s television series should be shot here, right in front of Peter Pan, the bronze statue that, some fifteen years earlier—when the park had gone to seed other than Sesame—was violently uprooted and tossed into the nearby East River like an innocent bystander who, some thugs decided, had seen too much. It seemed fitting because Carl-Schurz Park is a tribute to German-American relations—and, in a long and roundabout way, I came to New York City from Germany by way of Sesame Street.
As a prepubescent, I spent a great deal of time in front of the television, a shortage of viewing choices notwithstanding. My parents were both working and I turned to the tube for company, comfort and the kind of guidance that didn’t come in the form of a command or a slap. West German television had only three channels until well into the 1980s, and the third one, back in the early 1970s, was still experimental, reserved mainly for educational programs aired at odd hours. Odd hours would have been anything before mid-afternoon, when regular programming commenced on weekdays.
So, there was literally nothing else on when I pushed the knob of our black-and-white set (a stylishly futuristic Wega) to come across Ernie, Bert, Oscar and the Cookie Monster—and they all spoke, growled or squeaked English. That is how I heard them first and how, several years before I was taught English at school, I got my first lessons in a foreign language.
I had just gotten through the alphabet and the numbers from one to ten when, without “Warnung,” Sesame Street turned into Sesamstrasse and the felty, fluffy foreigners became German, even though they changed neither looks nor scenery. Being beyond pre-schooling, I now tuned in chiefly for the puppetry and the antics of the Krümelmonster. That is the way the Cookie Monster crumbled. “Krümel” literally means “crumb,” suggestive of the state to which something solid could be reduced in the process of translation.
Educationally, the early dubbed version of Sesame Street was dubious, to say the least. Spoken and written words and images did not always match. Sure, “A” is for “apple” as well as “Apfel,” and “B” for “banana” and, well, “Banana.” But there was little use for “C,” since few words in the German language begin with that letter; at least they didn’t during those days before Computers. I remember watching a lesson on “A” that ended in “Alles am Arsch,” an expression only a tad short of the exclamation summed up in the last three letters of “snafu.” For once, even my parents took note.
Never mind, I remained loyal to Ernie and Bert, whose odd coupling I envied; and once the magazine accompanying the series was launched, with images of the puppets as centerfolds, the pair became my first pinups. If only Sesame Street (a pun that, too, is lost in German translation) had remained on the air in its original language. By the time high school started, and with it lessons in English—British, if you please—I had all but lost the enthusiasm; for the next nine years, I learned reluctantly and none too well, being that we were forced to go through joyless Grammar drills to arrive at the point of meaningful self-expression.
As a child, I never associated Sesame Street with any real place, let alone New York City, the seedy ways of which, back then, conjured scenes of violence and decay: the turf of gangs, the marketplace for drugs, and the inspiration for nothing except TV cop shows. It was just as difficult to get that image out of my head as it had been to get English into it.
Indeed, my first exposure to the Big Apfel demonstrated that image to be truer than the pictures of it in glossy travel brochures; no doubt, I had spent too much time eyeing the Carringtons of Denver, Colorado. That I fell in love with old, crime-ridden Gotham all the same had more to do with hormones than with anything we traditionally understand to be “tourist attractions.”
Since the mid-1990s, Manhattan has cleaned up its act, even though it wiped out much of the city’s character along with the crime—so successfully, in fact, that I once was slapped with a fine for dozing off on a bench opposite Peter Pan because I felt safe enough to rest my eyes.
Sesamstrasse, Carl-Schurz Park, and the old Wega set (images of which I had to google to remind myself): the neighborhood of memory sure gets crowded as you travel ever further down the road . . .
There I stood, in the shimmering sands of Coronado Beach, California. I had come, of course, to see the famous Hotel—and to share the views once taken in by Marilyn Monroe during the filming of Some Like It Hot. Marilyn was here. Now I was.
Footsteps. Sand. The old hourglass. I won’t indulge in such clichés here; but there is something pathetic about this kind of out-of-sightseeing, this belated catching up and impossible reaching out to which I am prone. The inclination to seek out what is long gone is more than morbid curiosity: it is an approach to life as a retreat from living in which even the here-and-now becomes dreamlike and chimerical. How did this get to be my way of not facing the world?
Marilyn Monroe died before I was born; yet her life and times became a fascination of my teenage years. Mine were not erotic fantasies. I did not long for her body. Nor did I think of her as being gone. She was never absent for long from the television screen, ever present on the iconic posters I pinned onto the wall above my bed. Records spinning on the old turntable, her voice filled my room. I had no regrets about never being able to meet her in the flesh; rather, it was a relief.
The wonder of her incorporeal existence made living in the body I loathed more tolerable; and it made the physical relationships I dreaded easier to contemplate in the abstract. Marilyn—and we call her by her first name because she is more familiar than famous, more girl than goddess—was not some facile paradox: “I Wanna Be Loved by You” and “I’m Through with Love” she sings in the same movie, expressing the hurt and hunger that are far from mutually exclusive.
Our teenage selves are preoccupied with the demands that both nature and society make on us, propositions and impositions captured in that horrible phrase haunting and taunting us until death: “grown up.” As a response to and rejection of the implied threat—the finality and premature stunting of our infinite potentialities—Marilyn’s afterlife was as much a reproof of society as it was a society-proof alternative: a twilight life, expired and undying, bright though snuffed out, a fragile, indomitable spirit-presence in whose shadowy glow I could luxuriate, just as many a young person nowadays revels in the gothic gloom inhabited by zombies and vampires, except that my imaginings transported rather than dispirited me.
No doubt, this twisted bent of casting myself into times preceding my birth is born of a desire to bring forth alternate selves of mine without having to bear the vagaries of the present or the uncertainties of the future. Like a life presumably squandered in reverie, bending the past to our will is a testament to a vestigial will power—or would-be power—in which the retrospective becomes invested with the prospect of an ever glimmering what if . . .
So, there I was, at my grandmother’s side—a reunion twenty-one years in the making—when the phone atop the slippery hospital bed table rang us right out of our reminiscences. I reached over, handed Ella the receiver and, in an impulse of synesthetic kindness, turned to look out of the window, as if our ears could be as easily averted as our eyes. Unable to listen away, I could readily deduce the identity of the caller, both from my grandmother’s tone of voice and from the nature of her greeting. It was her daughter, my mother, on the line; and being so close to the phone made me wriggle in the chair I wished I had vacated instead of deputizing my eyes to take a hike.
I knew that, in a conciliatory gesture, grandmother would eventually pass the phone to me, and with it the onus to act polite in the absence of the kindness such an imposition was unlikely to inspire. You see, the last word exchanged between mother and myself had been a reference to the very spot of my anatomy I was now itching to shift.
During that fateful call, the relationship terminating vocable formed part of an expletive suggesting the inconceivable meeting of the listener’s glossa and the speaker’s gluteus maximus, as if what escapes us in our often less than choice utterances did not suffice to render the propinquity of kisser and keister conspicuous.
The posterior in question had been mine, or rather the figurative proffering of same. Thereafter, a silence lasting a quarter century, not counting the telling incommuniqués that are the occasional scratches on the surface of glossy picture postcards—those ocular proofs of our inability or unwillingness to hear out whatever say others might still be having it in them to impart.
My gut feeling was to sit still, now that the time to steal away had passed; but Oma had gone through enough, especially of late, to be made to endure such a display of filial disaffection. So, there in the impersonality of a hospital room, I talked to my mother for the first time in what amounted to nearly half of my father’s lifetime—except that the voice I heard did not sound like the one I thought of as my mother’s.
The momentary lack of recognition bespoke our estrangement. Now, I hardly expected the phone cord to reach right down into my navel; but, as it turns out, there is nothing intrinsically umbilical about a mother’s vocal cords, either. That I might one day struggle to match my aural memory of mother with the vocal presence of her had, barring dementia, never occurred to me before.
The regional Rhineland accent seemed far more pronounced to me who had been brought up by her speaking High German. The timbre, too, was altered. The voice was lower now, as if to compensate for the robustness that had once been wanting in the listener, her only son, whose androgynous adolescence had called traditional definitions of manhood into question years ago. The tone was as jovial as a pat on the back, a nudge, a kick in the ribs or some such gesture standing in for an embrace. The sense of the words I scarcely took in, so taken aback was I by their sound.
Had I really crawled that far from my cradle no longer to know by ear the woman who bore me? What was that, triumph? A validation of selfhood? Or was it an indictment? The conceit of “mother tongue” never sounded more foreign to me.
I have said nothing yet about my trip to Germany. It was not any old sightseeing tour, mind; nor was it a carefully mapped out homecoming, which makes it all the more difficult to capture in a few indifferent words. The thing is, I had not been to my native country in over two decades; and, during that time, not going back to what folks presume to be my home evolved into a programmatic, defining rejection of the notion that home equals country of origin. I vowed never to return, except in a pine box.
That I did go back at last, in the similarly confining encasement that is the cabin of a budget airline craft, required a great deal of preliminary introspection—and a leap over the shadow to which I had tried to relegate my past.
The department at the university where I teach was taking students to Berlin for its annual outing. Previously, I had been on the departmental trip to Budapest; and while that adventure was an adulterated delight, owing to transportation problems in the form of a broken bus and a missed flight, I thought that it would be petty to stick to my principles and stay put while my partner, as head of the School, was joining our students and colleagues for a week in the town known for Cabaret, communism, and Currywurst. Besides, Berlin is too far from my native Rhineland to be thought of as “home” or trigger unwanted back-where-I-come-from reminiscences. So, to Berlin I agreed to go . . .
Now, a few days before we were scheduled to depart for the German capital—which hadn’t been capital at the time I left former West Germany for the East Coast of the United States—I received one of those infrequent e-missives from the fatherland that are reserved mainly for anniversaries, holidays, and assorted disasters. My sister’s message read that my grandmother had contracted a virus while hospitalized for a fracture—her first hospitalization in well over half a century—and that, unless I acted posthaste, I might never see her alive again.
Unlike the mater of my father (both deceased), my maternal grandmother had kept in touch with me during my years abroad. She had learned, decided—or perhaps never thought twice—to accept me, which, given her youth in fascist Germany, is a triumph of spirit over doctrine. For years, she had been sending her regards to my same-sex partners, companions my other grandmother thought best accommodated behind barbed wire, if they were to be granted living space at all.
So, a few days before I was scheduled to depart for Berlin, I booked a flight to Düsseldorf to see Oma. I suffered a great deal of anxiety going by myself, going to see relatives I had abandoned years ago and walking down streets I had known during what, not in retrospect only, was an unhappy youth.
Luckily, I had friends on whom I could count: a cousin came to collect me from the rather remote airport and old friends offered quarters and shoulders should my visit prove overwhelming . . . or my arrival too late. Such comforts notwithstanding, it was disconcerting to visit Ella at the hospital, especially since it involved having to wear a protective mask that obscured my face so that she did not recognize me. I had not announced my visit lest she might think that, if even the prodigal grandson was coming to see her, her condition must truly be touch-and-go. It was sobering to be greeted like a stranger, but also deserved, I thought—until at last there was a look of recognition in her eyes and a warm smile radiating from her lips.
Not having booked a hotel room, I stayed in grandmother’s apartment that night. There I was, sleeping in the bed of a woman who might not see another morning and who, as it turned out, would never sleep in it again, though live she did.
We all have our security blankets, I suppose. Mine is made out of immaterial stuff, a fabric as gossamer and yet as tangible as the air on a sultry summer’s evening as I had known it well to the west of Wales. Lying there, alone in Ella’s bed, I surrounded myself with voices at once strange and familiar; voices of a safe, distant past—a past that was none of mine.
On a night rendered restless by thoughts of loss and futility—a life in danger and a life wasted in the refusal to be faced—I belatedly tuned in The Couple Next Door, a late-1950s serialized radio sitcom. Written by and starring Peg Lynch, whom I had once seen performing one of her husband-and-wife sketches during an old-time radio convention, The Couple controlled the crowds with which my thoughts were teeming. It comforted like no cotton coverlet could, warmed like no drop of Scotch. Though not soundly, I did sleep that night, wrapped up as I was in a cocoon of sound . . . a quilt to muffle the guilt I felt for not returning sooner and for being defined instead by a quarter century of negation . . .
While not entirely lacking in fancy or imagination, I generally avoid speculating about roads not taken, avoid taking in prospects retrospectively by asking “What if . . . ?” What if I had never gone to America? What if I had not left again some fifteen years later? What if what I had left had not been a country whose majority had just re-elected George W. Bush? While I would not go so far or sink so low as to substitute that “What if” with a nonchalant “So what,” I much rather ask “What now?” or justify whatever decision I made with a defiant “So there!”
I suppose dismissing the value of such speculations by arguing that any alternate of myself would not be myself at all is a way to avoid accusing myself of not always having chosen the best or most sensible path. Perhaps, a little foresight might have worked wonders greater than could ever be performed by getting myself worked up wondering, in hindsight, what I might have been; but to compound the failure to see the future with the failure of facing up to the past as is strikes me as perversely self-destructive . . .
Now, this is not about me sighing for what might have been. Since I don’t ask “What if,” such regrets rarely present themselves—itself ample justification for not indulging in morosely remorseful constructions of alternate biographies. This is about the alternate history I took with me on that trip back in early November 2004, when I left America for a new life in a part of the old world I had never seen let alone set foot on. The book in my hand luggage was Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—which, I thought, was just the volume for the occasion, just right for the moment of leaving behind what had been home to me and what, owing to the hysterical war-on-terror politics in the shaping of which I had no right to take part, had felt increasingly less like the freest, the friendliest, much less the only place to be.
In The Plot Against America, Roth considers what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to become President, largely on the strength of a persuasive if false—and unfulfillable—promise of “an independent destiny for America.”
Roth conceives of an alternate 22 June 1941, five months after Lindbergh’s inauguration, while yet adhering to the historical fact that it was the day on which the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union was broken when the former nation embarked upon Operation Barbarossa in an attempt to conquer the latter.
On that 22 June in AR (Anno Roth) 1941, Lindbergh, as President, addresses his countrymen and women by expressing himself “grateful” that Hitler was waging a war against “Soviet Bolshevism,” a war that “would otherwise have had to be fought by American troops.” Listening with dread to that address over the radio are the central characters of Roth’s nightmarish revision, a Jewish family from New Jersey who are terrorized by the thought that the pursuit of an ostensibly “independent destiny for America” means the alignment with a regime engaged in the Holocaust, that putting America first means putting an end to their civil liberties, which means “destroying everything that America stands for.”
“The terror of the unforeseen,” Roth writes, “is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” Good histories, including alternate ones, may yet provoke terror by not swaddling in the paper logic of hindsight causalities what, however palpable, is yet uncertain and unascertainable as events unfold, and by reminding us not to mistake the unforeseen with the unforeseeable.
I remember opening The Plot sitting at a New York airport named after another American president and finding myself distracted by a German family visibly disquieted by the book’s cover art. There, staring at them was a swastika, the symbol of the terror that could have been foreseen. I was so self-conscious of this act of provocation that I was unable to read on; and once I had arrived in Wales, I was too absorbed in my own altered state—the detachment from what I had known and been—to have much use for any engagement with any alternate past one.
This week, for no particular reason, I picked up the book anew, and I read it as a commentary on two historical pasts—1941 and a 2004 (mis)informed by 11 September 2001—that somehow seems too comfortably remote, the anxieties that had given rise to its creation and my purchase of it being past as well. I can now amuse myself by pointing out that the day I read the abovementioned passage in Roth’s book coincided not only with the anniversary of that imaginary radio address but also with the birthday of Lindbergh’s spouse Anne; I can appreciate references to popular radio programs (“You should be on Information Please”) and personalities like Walter Winchell that render The Plot verisimilitudinous, conveniently to extract them for the sake of yet another cursory entry into this essentially escapist journal whose raison d’être was the sense of homelessness and estrangement I felt when I arrived in Britain on the eve of Guy Fawkes, that celebrated plot against King and Parliament.
What if I had not mislaid—and not even missed—The Plot all these years? What if I had avoided the impulse of discontinuity, of creating for myself a virtual space and time capsule of extra-historic hence fictitious isolation and had made more of an effort instead to participate in the real debates that are shaping my future? By refusing to ask myself “What if . . .?” as I belatedly re-enter The Plot I seem to be defusing Roth’s argument, fully aware that, by doing so, I may well expose myself to—rather than becoming exempt from—that certain “terror” of not foreseeing.
This is not going to be one of those “the dog ate my homework” sort of posts, which are as much an excuse for not writing as they are a woeful excuse for writing anything at all. Besides, I could hardly blame Montague, our terrier, for keeping me from keeping my journal. Rather, it is the home work that has done the biting, gnawing and tearing at the hours I would otherwise earmark for sinking my incisors into stale pop-tarts—you know, those cultural marginalia with which I am wont to occupy my mind.
While I have rarely been all at sea when it comes to the leisurely pursuit of gathering and examining pop-cultural jetsam, my mind does not take to creative recycling when my limbs are aching after having performed some burdensome chore; and these past three months, my limbs have had quite a workout. We have been readying our late-Victorian house in the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth for its present trio of occupants, only the four-legged one of whom appears to be as blithe and sprightly as of old, albeit saltier.
We have moved in at last; and even though much remains to be done to make and keep the place shipshape, especially now that the house guests are checking in and up on our work, the sofas and easy chairs are in place from which to let out a defiant “Later!” and take off instead in further explorations of the airwaves or some such neglected channel.
The waves! Even though you would have to climb to the top floor of our house to get a glimpse of the bay, the surf and the seagulls are very much part of the enveloping soundscape. I suspect that the sights and sounds of the sea are going to feature prominently in subsequent—and decidedly more frequent—entries. It was not quite so easy for me to work the business of scraping wallpaper into my reflections; but the sea is another kettle of fish altogether.
So, “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America, from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea,” as famed newscaster and lexicon-artist Walter Winchell used to say—and which greeting I extend to Mr., Mrs., and Ms. Internet surfer the world over—“Let’s go to press . . .”
“Look, sonny, we’re up here for work. We’ve put this attic off, and put this attic off. Now that we’re here, let’s make every minute count.” That was the voice of reason Rush Gook—and several million radio listeners besides—heard on the day (18 August 1942, to be precise) that mom Sade decided it was time to tackle that stuffy space under the roof of the “small house half-way up in the next block.”
As anyone familiar with Paul Rhymer’s Vic and Sade could guess right off, there was more room for doubt than reason that the task would be accomplished, and that, when the brief visit with the home folks was over, said space would be any more disorganized than it was before the job got underway. You could expect more order, method and sanity sticking your head into Fibber McGee’s closet.
Now, I’m not being etymologically sound here, but it is probably no coincidence that attics are just a single consonant removed from antics—and that is just what you should expect to find while up there, even if it is antiques you’re after.
Our new old house has not one but two attic spaces—and in the smaller of these we found ourselves confronted with some kind of time capsule. Only, it wasn’t quite the right time.
The graffiti on the wall suggests that construction was pretty much completed by September 1896, which was probably the last time the roof space was clutter free. Not that I want it to be barren of memories, mind.
Given the age of the house, I was kind of hoping for a family skeleton. Romantic novels of the Victorian age suggest that the darkest secrets are best kept just below the roof, rather than being crammed into the proverbial closet. Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason comes to mind, and that seminal study on the subject (Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic).
Instead, we were treated to “Benny Hill Sings ‘Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West.’” Not exactly a Victorian treasure—but at least Ernie’s story has the proper romantic ingredients: lust, rivalry, and premature death (a “stale pork pie caught him in the eye and Ernie bit the dust”); there is even revenge from the beyond, as the milkman’s “evil-looking” successor, Two-Ton Ted from Teddington, is denied the pleasures of his wedding night:
Was that the trees a-rustling? Or the hinges of the gate? / Or Ernie’s ghostly gold tops a-rattling in their crate?
The cleanup sure slowed down once I came across that discarded collection of vinyl, the highlight of which, to me, is a curiosity labeled “Memories of Steam.” The locomotives on the cover could not deceive anyone into expecting the tell-all record of an inveterate Lothario; but I was thrilled nonetheless, transported back to the days when, as a boy, I was given an album of collected noises that led me to stage my own audio dramas—signifying nothing to anyone else, but chock-full of sound and fury. Come to think of it, that one record may well have laid the tracks that, long and winding though they were, earned me a doctorate . . . just the kind of certificate to relegate to the space I had just visited.
Yep, even a climb up to an attic filled with the leavings of previous inhabitants leads me no further than some dim corners of my own memory. Unlike Sade and Rush, I do not have to wait for crazy Uncle Fletcher to disrupt the tasks at hand with one of his dubious recollections (“Sadie, do you remember Irma Flo Kessy there in Belvidere?” She was a “peevish woman” who “used to have a little habit of slappin’ her husband’s face in public”). I can count on my own past to traipse close behind and creep up on me.
This time, though, the detour into those mental crevices was a welcome and trouble-free one. Down below, rooms hung with ghastly wallpaper were waiting for a hand attached to my aching body . . .
Perhaps I should call her. We have not talked in over a year. Could I have telephoned tonight, though? Not simply to exchange a few kind words, mind. From her, I would like to learn about the past that shaped our world; and who would not seize the opportunity to grasp that past firsthand? That said, I have never quizzed my German grandmother about life in the Third Reich, never attempted anything amounting to probing inquiry. I am more distressed by my failure to ask than by any responses I might get. Not that any number of answers could make me stop wondering.
Tonight marks the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and I am more keenly aware than usual that the past is not done with, that many of those who threw stones into shop windows or looked on as Jews were hauled off to the concentration camps are still among us. Their ideologies, their hypocrisies, and their indifference are alive as well.
My grandparents were not among those who resisted the Reich and its reign of terror. “Of course, we knew they were being shipped to the camps,” my paternal grandmother once told me. Frank about knowing, she was open rather than open-minded. Third Reich propaganda remained at work throughout her life, even some forty, fifty years after the defeat of the Nazi regime. Once she heard I was schwul (German for gay), she ceased to acknowledge me; not as much as a reply to my Christmas cards. My maternal grandmother, now in her nineties, continued to correspond, though, sending greetings and wishes to me and mine. Is she more open? Or is she, like so many of us, merely permitting her personal feelings for her own kind to gainsay thoughts that would otherwise dominate her mind?
My maternal grandmother worked for one of the leading Nazi families and remained loyal to them decades after the war, introducing me to the heirs when I was a child. My memories are vague. I remember being told about the guilt that made outcasts of the obviously well-to-do family for which grandmother worked as a seamstress. There was a boy, roughly my age, with whom I played while grandmother worked. As much as I would like to fill in the blanks, I cannot bring myself to ask about the past, about grandmother’s connection to the Von Ribbentrops.
On this Remembrance Sunday, as Britain commemorates the 90th anniversary of the 1918 armistice and those killed in war, I drift in and out of consciousness, sick with the commonest of colds. Swirling in the thick of my head are thoughts that just the right word cannot put into any conclusive or satisfying order. I continue to question myself rather than demanding answers from those who might help me to resolve matters.
Instead of proving that actions speak louder than words, Kristallnacht demonstrated that actions are louder than the silence of unvoiced dissent. A stone, in this respect, is like a resounding “no” to the potentialities of change latent in the troubled mind. Words can set nothing aright if they merely create the illusion of control, if they obscure the chaos within us rather than dispel it. I let my words bespeak confusion rather than answer conclusively, thus falsely. I let them run riot rather than underwrite what amounts to the hollow triumph of paper solutions.
A quandary is at the heart of “Von Ribbentrop’s Watch,” a radio play by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, which premiered 8 November 2008 on BBC Radio 4. It is the story of a Jewish shop owner in contemporary Britain who learns that the less-than-reliable watch he inherited from his father once belonged to Nazi Germany’s Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop. What to do? Keep the watch and ignore the Swastikas to which a watchmaker alerted him? Sell it to collectors of Nazi memorabilia in order to keep alive his own struggling business? Would that be retribution or profiteering?
The fascinating premise is undermined by the language in which the conflict is couched. It seems that the playwrights are rather too enamored of their at times desperate wordplay, too eager to elicit awkward chuckles from assorted squabbles at a Passover table when restraint might have served them better. Perhaps, the broadcast date for this dreadful piece of imitation Goldbergs was as unfortunate a choice as the playwrights’ mockery—a Jewish defense of Nazi crimes, the sounds of broken glass after a family quarrel, followed by an otherworldly visit from Von Ribbentrop—as it gave me reason to believe that “Von Ribbentrop’s Watch” was meant to coincide with and somehow commemorate the horrors of Kristallnacht. Armistice Day, by comparison, is given a solemn treatment on BBC Radio 3, with an adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.
At least, the titular chronometer of “Von Ribbentrop’s Watch” seems to suggest that even belated justice is preferable to terminal ignorance; time catches up with timepiece in question, however exasperating and offensive the ninety minutes that it takes us to hear about it. Not that the conclusion is rewarding: in its tacky irony, the play insists that the Jews end up confessing their guilt by association.
In response to this appalling piece of misjudged comedy, which is supposedly based on a true story, I retrieved the watch shown above. Like so many stories of so many objects around me, the story of this watch cannot be recovered, the one who could have helped to pieced it together having died many years ago. It was given to my partner, whose father brought it back from the Second World War. My camera failed to capture it, but the face bears the Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the Resistance.
What we need to resist, always, is the convenient answer, the conclusive remark, the word to extinguish the doubt that is the life of thought, the hope for change; and the doubt we should all permit ourselves to voice on this day is whether the past is truly over or whether we are still victims of the same prejudices, susceptible to the same talk, capable of the same actions. Those are the questions we cannot expect anyone to answer on our behalf.
Well (I am saying “well” once more, for old times’ sake), broadcastellan is entering its fourth year today. It all began on 20 May 2005, when I decided to keep an online journal devoted to old times, good or bad, to the culture that, however popular, is no longer mainstreamed, but, as I explained it in my opening post, marginalized or forgotten. Looking at broadastellan through the lens of the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine,” you will notice a few changes; but, overall, things are just as they were when I set out. Except that I am much more at ease and far less concerned about my online persona, its definition and reception, more fully aware of my status and the consequences of casting myself in the role of marginalien as I have come to accept and embrace it. No, it wasn’t this way right from the start.
Having earned my doctorate and relocated from New York City to Wales, I felt the want of continuity. I was reluctant to immerse myself in Welsh culture, let alone its language, for fear of not being able to recognize myself as the cosmopolitan I had impersonate with some success for most of my adult life. The dissertation was placed on the shelf; and my career alongside it. Still, I was not done with American popular culture as I had rediscovered it during years of research.
Not having been able to ride my hobbyhorse all the way to the bank, I thought I’d start parading it here on this busy commons. I sure wasn’t ready to put it out to pasture and wash my hands of it with the soap derived from its carcass. Initially, I might have been confused about the purpose of such a vanity production. I wanted this mare to be petted, even though I was prepared to take it out for others to deride. Nowadays, I am mainly writing for myself, for the kick I get out of being kicked by it into the thicket of research and the paths of (re)discovery.
Whenever I see a show, watch a movie, read a book, or listen to a radio program, broadcastellan encourages me to make it relevant to myself, to investigate and connect—and on the double at that. Right now, I have eight books before me, all designed to warrant my title. After all, it was the aforementioned Eve Peabody who declared that “[E]very Cinderella has her midnight.”
Eve Peabody, the self-proclaimed American blues singer who arrives penniless in Paris, posing as a Hungarian baroness, no less. I’ve always related to this Cinderella’s identity crisis—and admired the sheer ingenuity with which she made it all happen all over again. In the words of Ed Sikov, she proves “tremendously elastic,” a quality that prompted New York Times DVD reviewer Dave Kerr to remark on the “unpleasant degree” to which writer Billy Wilder was obsessed “with the theme of prostitution.”
“I thought that Eve Peabody was a very interesting character,” director Mitchell Leisen remarked. “You see, there’s a bit of good and a little bit of bad in all of us.” Yes, Leisen’s Midnight, like all proper Cinderella tales, has an edge; and, at last, it is being brought into digitally sharp focus. Earlier this month, the screwball comedy Elizabeth Kendall referred to as the “ultimate girl-on-her-own fairy tale” was released on DVD, perhaps in anticipation of the by me dreaded remake starring one Reese Witherspoon.
Since Britain has not caught up with this gem, it shall be one of my first purchases next week when I shall once again (and probably again and again) take the train down to J&R Music World. What with our UK DVD/VCR recorder refusing to accept my US tapes, I have long waited for this moment to catch up with what Ted Sennett has called “one of the best and brightest romantic comedies of the [1930s].” Of course, there’s always the radio.
On this day, 20 May, in 1940, stars Claudette Colbert (pictured above, in an autographed magazine cover from my collection) and Don Ameche reprised their roles in this Lux Radio Theater adaptation (>which you may enjoy by tuning in the Old Time Radio Network). Perhaps, though, the wireless is not the proper medium in which to appreciate a Leisen picture, distinguished as his work is for what James Harvey calls “that look of discriminating opulence.”
Still, you get to hear some of the best lines in romantic comedy, albeit soften at times to appease the censors. For instance, when confronted with a cabbie eager to take her for a ride, even though she confessed to having nothing but a centime with a hole in it to her name, she offers to pay him for driving her around town while she goes hunting for a job. “What kind of work do you want?” he inquires. “Well, look,” Eve replies, “at this time of night and in these clothes I’m not looking for needlework.”
Like Eve, I have gone round in circles (apart from the proverbial block). The ride may not amount to much to many, but this is not why I keep on mounting this hobbyhorse of mine. It is the sheer pleasure of taking my mind for a spin. And, to answer my own question, there is still time for a few jaunts. After all, it is not quite midnight . . .