The legacy of November 22nd

If you were alive at the time, it’s accepted convention that you know exactly where you were on this date 51 years ago, when news broke that JFK had been assassinated. I was not alive, but I do remember exactly where I was on 21 years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the event – in bed, with the flu, listening to a Radio 4 documentary about the assassination. [I was 12, I’m pretty sure Radio 4 wasn’t my choice.]

It stuck in my mind for a few of reasons:
1. I was 12, and I’m pretty sure this would have almost been the first time that I was properly aware of the events of 1963.
2. In the same documentary, I discovered that C.S. Lewis had died the same day – a death that was completely overshadowed by events in Dallas. To my 12 year old, Narnia-loving mind, this was a travesty.
3. Being ill had meant that I missed out on my best friend’s 13th birthday party. [12 year old priorities…]

Over the years, obviously, I heard more and more about the disputed and theorised events of November 22nd, 1963. It became pretty much the only thing I knew about Dallas. In fact, in 2008 when my Dad visited the city, he sent me a postcard with this famous photograph on it, and a note on the back that “this is still the only thing that Dallas is famous for…”.

ass_JFK_Motorcade

To be honest, he was right! I’m too young to remember Dallas and quite honestly, didn’t know the city for any other reason than the terrible events on Dealey Plaza. When the trip to Dallas appeared on the horizon, I figured I’d make a pilgrimage to the spot at some point – because I like my history and US Politics – I did not expect to be looking out upon it for day after day…

I was in Dallas because it’s recently become the US hub for Matryoshka Haus (the missional community/social enterprise incubator I’m a part of). An element of that ‘hub’ is a desk at The Grove, a collaborative co-working space in downtown Dallas that’s situated on the corner of Elm and North Houston, just across the street from Dealey Plaza. About a month before I visited, a fellow Matryoshka Hausien was among the first to visit the desk, and tweeted about the view from its window:

Rachel & the grassy knoll

And the view?

Dealey Plaza

I really was not expecting to come face-to-face with a site of history – or at least, not quite so frequently. For several days I sat either at our desk or one near by, overlooking a site that many would argue changed the course of world history. [What would the world look like if Kennedy had lived? Would he have won a second term? What would have happened in Vietnam? In Cuba? To civil rights in the US? To his brother? Endless questions…] On my final day at the office, this was my view:

Texas School Book Depository

This is what used to be the Texas School Book Depository Building. The window on the far left, second floor down, is the corner in which Lee Harvey Oswald stood (or did he??), with the gun pointed out of the window looking out of the front of the building. The 6th floor is now a museum dedicated to the events of 51 years ago, complete with a large quantity of conspiracy theorising. You can’t get away from the theories…

Heritage sign, Texas School Book DepositoryThe heritage sign outside the museum – note the underlining of ‘allegedly’.

To be honest, I’m not a great one for theorising. The fact remains that JFK was killed and the world had to find a way to move on from that point. But, it turns out that pretty much everyone you talk to has a different theory on why he was killed  – and these range from possibly illogical, to virtually insane. No one will ever know the reasons behind the assassination, but that doesn’t mean that people will stop trying to find out! The museum is worth a visit – I was surprised at how anxious I became as the chronology moved towards the shooting. But I got bored with the long section at the end about the various Commissions and rehashing of evidence. It’s also very protective of the windows in question, you’re not allowed to take photos at all on the 6th floor, which of course only fuels speculation further. I had a much better view from over the road!

X Marks the SpotX marks the spot on the route of the motorcade.

I’ve returned home with a pile of fridge magnets and postcards, all showing the same view of the Texas School Book Depository building, and the plaza:

TSBD & GroveNot because I feel the need to be reminded of the events of 22nd November 1963 every day – but because in the photo, you can see the window that the Matroyshka Haus desk is next to. The building across the street from the book depository is unchanged, save for the loss of a fire escape, and if you count four floors up (where ground = 1) on the side adjacent to the depository, you find ‘our’ window.

Politicking stateside

As today is mid-term election day in the US, it feels appropriate to share some political gems from my recent travels. If you’re American and reading this, please tell me you’ve voted?? I was very proud that the American travelling with us made the most of our time in her voter registered district and acquired one of these in early voting:

Voting 2014Incidentally, PLEASE could the UK get voting stickers?? They’re such a good idea! 

I love a bit of American political geekery. It’s potentially an odd fascination for a Brit to have (especially as it was fostered pre-West Wing), but it’s largely thanks to lessons on the War of Independence during a summer in Boston aged 10, and half the syllabus of my Government & Politics A-level. [And the fact that aforementioned syllabus was taught by a young and – in a girls’ school context – attractive male teacher who was passionate about the subject.] As that A-level was studied during a period of time that saw Clinton’s near impeachment, it easily became the most exciting subject I studied in school.

To be honest, I hadn’t anticipated that politics would become such a significant theme on this trip. Yes, I expected a certain amount of political discussion and cross-cultural engagement between the politics of Texans versus a tribe of leftie Londoners – that’s one of the joys of building relationships there. Yes, I knew that I’d definitely be visiting the site of JFK’s assassination – because Matryoshka Haus’ new Dallas workspace looks out over it. But did I expect a full on geek out at Presidential libraries and government buildings? No! 

IMG_7797King George leaves the stage…

Looking back, it seems the tone for the trip was set on my very first day in Houston. Saturday morning saw me sitting in a cool church building watching an educational theatre troupe perform an account of the founding of the USA. Because nothing says “welcome to America” like an hour of hearing just how terrible the British were!! Hours later, I attended a dinner party in honour of the Brits, featuring a menu designed to honour the War of Independence. In retaliation to one British jibe, I shared the conclusion of an essay I’d written for my Imperial History MA in which I’d argued that if we hadn’t got rid of the 13 colonies, the British Empire wouldn’t have been the force it was… Never mess with an Imperial Historian!

Texas CapitolThe Texas Capitol looks a little similar to the Federal one, but is shiny & pink.

Somehow, upon arriving in Austin, a trip to the capitol building was placed on our itinerary.  [Didn’t know Austin was the capital of Texas? Clearly you need these educational cookies!] We had a slightly more cynical tour guide than the official ones (God bless our wonderful Austin friends who make us Brits feel at home with their irony and sarcasm), who nonetheless covered a decent amount of Texan history and put it into the context of the current election. For example, did you know that there have only been two previous female governors of Texas? [Miriam A. Ferguson, 1925-27 & 1933-35 and Ann Richards, 1991-95 – both were Democrats.] Today, Wendy Davis (the epic Wendy Davis who taught a new generation the meaning of the word ‘filibuster’) is in the running to be the third. Happily, we were able to explore most of the building at leisure, including the House of Representatives – election season meant that little state business was on the agenda.

Governor balconiesGubernatorial balconies [I love that word!] – we worked out that there’s only space for another 7 or 8 governor portraits…

Press RoomThe press room, where I may have had a bit of a CJ moment behind the mic.

To be honest, I’d have been happy if the political geekery had ended there! I’m not one to impose my political geekery upon others and I’m sure there are lots of things we could have done the following morning, left to our own devices in Austin. But when one of my travelling companions suggested the LBJ library, it seemed churlish not to approve this idea enthusiastically!

LBJ Library

The Presidential Library concept is a curious (and comparatively recent) one. Since Hoover, a presidential archive has been established for each president, often at an academic institution, and usually in their state of origin. In fact, Texas boasts more of these institutions than any other state (thanks to two Bush administrations and Johnson’s) – three out of thirteen. LBJ’s happens to be on the University of Texas, Austin campus and also happens to be quite the excellent museum. Well, if you discount the rather perturbing animatronic LBJ…

A video posted by Liz Clutterbuck (@lizclutterbuck) on


Given that our next destination was Dallas, it felt appropriate to experience the LBJ Presidency knowing that we’d soon visit the point it at which it had begun. All three of us left the museum with a new level of respect for him, and a lot of questions about other Presidential libraries. Presumably they all did a propaganda job on that presidency? Was there a library for William Henry Harrison (who died a month after catching pneumonia at his inauguration)? [Answer: no, because the system only began with Hoover and only ‘significant’ previous presidents have been added.] And, what on earth was the George W. Bush library like??

George W Bush library

The last question was, in theory, easy to answer given as it stands on the Southern Methodist University (SMU to locals – and daughters of theological college principals who have spent a month there…) campus in Dallas. The rest of the British contingent had left Texas by the time I got a chance to visit it and unfortunately, I still can’t really answer our question. I came, I saw the outside of the building and I browsed the gift shop. I didn’t choose to go past the airport style security (including liquid restrictions!) that preceded the ticket office. To be honest, I felt incredibly uncomfortably the entire time I was there.

I have friends – good friends – who voted for Bush at least once. I meet many people on my travels in Texas who think he was a great president and who decry the Obama administration that most of the rest of the world rejoiced in. It’s a difficult conflict to navigate, except by agreeing to disagree. While in the museum’s gift shop, I was very conscious of being surrounded by retired WASPs who were enthusiastically stocking up on Bush memorabilia. I, on the other hand, couldn’t find anything I’d want to buy – not even ironically. By all accounts, the dominant theme in the museum is the war on terror and honestly, I couldn’t face a glorification of military endeavours. You can take the pacifist left-winger out of Britain, but you can’t take pacifism & left-leaning thoughts out of the Brit…

Go Wendy Davis

Travelling in election season brings these differences to the fore. While having a pedicure one afternoon, I watched a number of political ads on the local news channel. Party Political Broadcasts they were not! No careful unpicking of the opposition’s manifesto, just straight out attacks on the other candidates – like a Republican ad arguing that electing Davis would be tantamount to electing Obama (and that that would be a bad thing). On my final evening, we went out for tacos at a place that happened to have political themed tacos (I know!!). I went for the Democrat, owing to its inclusion of beef & cilantro, and observed it happened to be 20c pricier than any of the others. “Of course!” my host replied, “everything’s more expensive under a Democratic administration!” We laughed.

This is why I love travelling the way I do. I don’t hide in sterile hotels that are the same the world over, I experience life the way locals live it. I ask lots of questions along the way, and get lots in return too. Life would be very dull if we were all the same – it’s the differences that makes things interesting!

Thoughts, 15 years late

This week I am most celebrating the fact that I don’t need to hand in any more essays and that my final presentation has been done. By way of celebration, I’ve indulged in something I’ve meant to indulge in for a very long time:
The West Wing.

Now, I realise I’m pretty much a decade and a half late to this party, but I have much to say in my defence…

Firstly, when the show first aired in the UK, I was a busy student (the first time around). I was already committed to shows that I *had* to be at home to watch – Ally McBeal, Friends, ER, Dawson’s Creek, Neighbours… – and this was a time when we didn’t have DVR’s or iPlayer. If a show clashed with a regular commitment, it was likely you’d never get to see it. I can’t be sure, but I think The West Wing was usually on on a night when I was out. Box sets were prohibitively expensive, so catching up before a new season was nigh on impossible. Given that I was (and still am, to some extent) a US Politics junkie who’d just sat an A-level in the subject, those are the only reasons I can think of to have totally passed it by. I certainly was not having one of my (occasionally) irrational “I won’t get involved in this insanely popular cultural phenomenon because I resent cultural phenomenons” moments.

West_Wing_S1_DVD

I appreciate that box sets of the show have been easily available for quite some time now, and still I haven’t watched it. My excuse? I knew I was likely to get addicted  and there are seven whole seasons of it. That’s a lot of time to lose to a classic TV show. A few years ago, a friend lent me season 1, so I was ready to give it a go. Then my sister acquired seasons 2, 3 & 6 on my behalf. I could have given it a go last summer, yet the opportunity never quite presented itself.

But, on Sunday night, knackered beyond belief, I ran myself a bath and chose The West Wing as my bath-time entertainment. I watched 2 episodes before emerging and had laughed out loud multiple times throughout. Since then, I’ve watched almost the entire first series, and have had the following thoughts. (Think of this as a series of tweets that might have been tweeted had Twitter existed in 2000.):

  • Wow, that was a very long continuous shot.
  • Blimey, this script writing is even wittier than Gilmore Girls.
  • Where do I know that irritating marketing woman from? [Answer: it’s Moira Kelly, as seen in The Cutting Edge, one of the best films ever made about ice skating. Incidentally, whenever I recognise someone in TV/Film it’s never from the most obvious thing – it’s usually the trashiest credit on their list!]
  • What do I need to do to become CJ? And why was White House Press Officer never on my list of possible careers??
  • I’ve only watched 2 episodes and already there are multiple potential sermon illustrations.
  • Where is Stockard Channing?
  • Oh, there’s Stockard Channing and she’s flipping awesome! Rizzo always was the best character in Grease…
  • This bit feels familiar. I wonder if I’ve seen it in someone’s sermon?
  • That bench looks familiar. Maybe I had lunch there in 2009?
  • I really, really want to be CJ.
  • Back in the day, the Apple logo was the other way around on the Macbook lid.
  • Hah! The Indian Ambassador went on to be Principal at McKinley High – of Glee fame!
  • Please can CJ and Danny get together?
  • Being the President is really, really hard. Being Chief of Staff is harder. 
  • Paris Geller did good!! [To explain: Paris is a Gilmore Girls character who is a massive try-hard and would have loved a job at the White House. Liza Weil, who played her, is in one episode of The West Wing – coincidentally filmed just before Gilmore Girls began. Like I said above, I always recognise people from the weirdest places.]
  • Hmmm, I appear to be on the penultimate disc of the series.
  • It’s amazing how different politics was in a pre-9/11 age.
  • I wonder where my Obama/Biden bumper sticker is?
  • It’s definitely time I re-visited Washington DC.

In short, this is the wisest TV watching move I’ve made for quite some time and I’m delighted that I have another six seasons of joy ahead of me. I’ve managed to avoid a lot of spoilers and have received a lot of encouragement from friends – much along the lines of “I’m so jealous that you have all this ahead of you!”

Essentially, this is delayed gratification on an epic scale. And right now, that’s just what I need.