My nan had a stroke when I was a kid. I remember the exact day it happened because it was the day John Lennon was murdered outside his New York apartment building. My father said we all had to go the hospital to visit her; my brothers wanted to stay at home to watch the Beatles movies showing on BBC2 to commemorate Lennon’s death. My father was furious. He snarled, growled and ranted at us. A moment later we were all in the sad yellow family car (a Datsun) on the way to the hospital.
My nan was paralysed on her left side. For the rest of her life she had to chain smoke with her right hand, handle the remote control with her right hand (she loved her soap operas), make tea with her right hand. My nan was a no-nonsense woman who had spent the last part of her working life at the Kodak factory. When I asked my mother how she felt about my nan’s stroke, she said tersely: “She was not a very nice woman. Let’s leave it at that.” My mother did not suffer from chronic nostalgia like my father, who misremembered everything.
A working-class Catholic, my nan produced eight children, who in turn spawned plenty more. In short, I had a lot of cousins. My nan had bought me an Action Man figure for Christmas right before her stroke. I was the only one of her multitudinous grandchildren she had had time to buy a Christmas present for. This made me feel a little bit special. My Action Man had flocked hair and “eagle eyes”, which were operated by a little lever sticking out of the back of his head. If you moved it left, his eyes moved left. If you moved it right, his eyes moved right. Left, right, left, he looked, presumably for the Viet Cong who were still haunting him.
I was thoroughly bored of my Action Man in no time. His plastic feel gave me no sensual pleasure. His rigid form was an insult to my febrile imagination. I was far happier playing “The Game” with my brother, an epic fantasy in which we both enacted an array of characters with gleeful enthusiasm. Or else I preferred the tactile thrill of climbing trees. Action Man was not, thankfully, to play any role in imbuing me with a sense of masculinity beyond a vague desire to rip its pointless head off.
I have never felt a sense of crisis with my gender (despite my slender fingers). It is true that my ever-pining, ever-divining sex is the source of all my woes. But I feel quietly at home with my maleness, which has its fair share of femaleness, alongside a still brooding childishness.
J and I have our own codified language, the way children, lovers and dear friends do. Whenever I am unusually decisive and productive she calls me Man of Action. The expression was inspired by a scene in the film World War Z. Brad Pitt and an Israeli soldier (female, pretty) who was assigned to protect him are fleeing a swarming horde of Jewish and Arab zombies. The woman gets bitten on her forearm. Brad ponders for a moment (one, two, three) before hacking her arm off in one fell swoop. After checking to see she hasn’t been infected (by counting to ten), he swiftly bandages her stump and off they run to catch the last plane out of there.
Painfully few men impress me (beyond fleeting admiration for their beauty or envy for their handiness with a wrench). I was, however, strongly attracted to the character of Don Draper in the show Mad Men. J and I watched all seven seasons over the course of a few weeks and we were astonished by how good it is. Don Draper: a man who veils himself through layers of verisimilitude. Draper epitomizes the (ultimately deluded) American belief in perpetual self-reinvention. After stealing a dead comrade’s identity (an unrecognisably charred Don Draper) during the Korean War, pseudo-Draper goes on to become a highly successive advertising executive in New York. Handsome, aloof, laconic, suave, Draper plays his part to perfection. But what worked in the early 1960s quickly unravels in the social and cultural turmoil of the 1960s. By the end of the decade, Draper cuts a tragic, lonely, even pathetic figure. Before likely going on to reinvent himself for the 1970s..
Draper is at his happiest (and creative best) when he is pitching advert ideas. He is forming the gender stereotypes that still haunt us to this day. I actually cried when he pitched his idea for the Kodak Carousel slide projector. Heck, everyone in the room did. Because he had the audacity to peddle a product by appealing to the pang-felt pain of nostalgia. Just as fairground carousels are melancholy, eerie things, so a merry-go-round of questionable memories (Draper had a miserable childhood) must surely dizzy us with mixed emotions.
For the record, I consider Mad Men to be one of the best TV shows ever made, along with, in no particular order, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Freaks and Geeks, Treme, The Office (UK), Peep Show, Twin Peaks, Deadwood, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Rectify, okay, stop right there, this is no time to be making frivolous lists.
For the record, I live in Vilnius, Lithuania. I am now genuinely fearful that the new Russian Armata T-14 tanks will come rolling in. Because a man I despise, a man who brags about his sexual conquests and petulantly threatens lawsuits whenever he feels slighted and who obsesses about his tiny, podgy digits just got elected to the most powerful office on earth. The US was the one plausible counterweight to Russian aggression and expansionism. No longer. This is perhaps the darkest day of my life. News-wise… Future-wise…
Trump was born in 1946. He would have been regularly exposed to Draper’s primitive (by modern standards) but highly effective advertising. He would have grown up hankering after expensive cars, bushy 60s’ pussy, the insatiable American Dream. Trump has out-trumped that dream. His empire of bravado today acquires political legitimacy. A rhetoric comprised of wilful mendacity, malice and bluster will now materialise into political action.
I cling to three flotsam-like hopes. The American constitution is a remarkably robust legal document; it may stymy his worst impulses and prevent him from carrying out some of his most dangerous ideas. America, for all its many flaws, is still my superpower of choice. Perhaps the tidal wave of popular anger and resentment that brought him to power will remove him from power once it becomes clear that he has no interest in helping the so-called “little man”. But Trump is not entirely stupid and I think he will attempt to enact some of the populist policies he incoherently espoused during the election campaign. Which brings me to my last hope: my nan.
Trump is exactly the same age as my nan was when she had the stroke that paralysed her left side. I wouldn’t wish a stroke on anyone but all I can say is that he is not a very nice man. It would be one way of redressing his far-right inclinations. Let’s just leave it at that…