June 23rd, 2005


Dionysus, meet Jesus!

I flew yesterday on Virgin Airlines, London to New York. My window seat gave me a view of a cheeky Union Jack flipped on the wingtip like a victory V or a "fuck off". Virgin wants to displace stuffy old British Airways as the "national carrier", so there's much talk of flags and patriotism on Virgin planes. Virgin are going to win this battle, I think, because they've got Dionysus, comedy and sex on their side. As we queued to take off we pulled up alongside a British Airways plane which had been named (I kid you not) "G Bush". Our own plane, sporting the ironic-retro-sexist flying Virgin goddess copied from World War II bombers, was called "Cosmic Girl".

At dangerous moments (before take off, descent) when the passengers had to be controlled, white indie rock music (New Order, Oasis etc) played over the speakers. The safety instruction video featured an indie geezer who looked like Liam from Oasis, Japanese girlfriend beside him. The V:Port in-flight entertainment system recommended I "chill out" with some music videos, or relax with on-demand comedy shows. I watched one that contained this joke: "What's white and sticky and runs down the toilet wall? George Michael's new release."

It's the 21st birthday of Virgin New York flights, so the stewardesses handed out party hats and birthday cake and little paper trumpets, and soon the entire deck (even the Essex casual next to me, who spent much of the flight describing broken-bottle fights in his "rough" Essex town and telling the stranger next to him how some Pakis were all right, actually) was honking away delightedly like a Down's Syndrome day trip. The stewards were Red Coats: lines like "Please make sure your seatbelts are fastened, because we're going to go really, really fast!" got laughs, and turbulent bumps and surges brought collective whoops from the "audience". Who needs the police when you basically have a flying Butlin's Holiday camp? Who needs overt social control when you have a combination of surveillance, technocratic expertise, comedy, rock music and party hats? And who needs all those radical 60s texts about the society of spectacle and repressive desublimation when reality outstrips (and confirms) the wildest predictions of Debord and Marcuse?

I scribbled down in my notebook: "Dionysus sits in the throne of Apollo." We've sent rationality and responsibility up to the locked captain's cabin (and most of the time he's delegated it to the flight computer). With Apollo in the computer, all that's left for humans is Dionysus, the god of wine. We can revel, we can regress to childhood, we can chuckle at sperm jokes. It's all the more comforting because the world is scary and there are people (less Dionysian, more organised, more self-disciplined than we) who want to blow up the plane or fly it into a building.

Those shadowy figures, the ones who don't blow party kazoos, don't enter competitions, don't party (Jeez, they don't even drink!) are shady presences at the airport, too. The airport has a new name, it's not "Newark" any more but "Liberty International Airport". I suppose that's because it was used by the shadows, the organised ones, to remove the two enormous towers that used to be visible from the runway, marking where New York stood. The Department of Homeland Security greets you at Immigration in the form of a noticeboard saying that America is being "kept open to visitors". It's nice to know.

The US feels less postmodern than Britain, more protestant. There's a TV for people queuing for their immigration interviews, but it's not showing Ricky Gervais making jokes about sperm. It's got CNN on with the sound down and subtitles. They're interviewing Franklin Graham of "the Graham ministries", Billy Graham's son. He's talking about "the ministry of Jesus Christ our lord and saviour." The interviewer says "You're known as a bit of a hell raiser, with strong views. For instance, your views on homosexuality..." Graham replies "I have a mission to give the Bible's view on these things, and the Bible says clearly that homosexuality is a sin." I wonder how many gay people there are in the queue, and how reassured they must have been by the gay stewards on the plane, and (possibly) by the gay jokes about toilet sex in the British comedy shows. I wonder if their hearts are sinking at this moment. Graham continues, talking about how, in his view, Islam is an "evil religion". More hearts in the queue sink.

But in today's America there's an equal opportunity: we're all criminals of one kind or another. Potential criminals or sinners. I'm fingerprinted (left index, right index, look into the camera) and waved into New Jersey. From the bus I watch billboards. The first one says "Why Islam?" and gives a free number people can call to learn about the evil religion of organised shadows. The second one has a big banner headline: "YOU LOOK GUILTY!" (It's for a TV show called "The Closer".) The third is for a Broadway musical called "Wicked Is Wonderful". The next, for a bank, proclaims "Land Of The Free... checking". The last shows a new SUV, the Hummer. It's huge, battleship grey, and has tiny windows. It looks like nothing so much as a tank. It strikes me that it's the wintry polar opposite of the AMC Pacer, the 70s American compact car which resembled a futuristic bubble of glass, open to the world around it. "You don't need to see out of me," the 2005 Hummer seems to say, "just crush everything in your path".

The bus pulls into the Port Authority Bus Station. You can feel as soon as you leave the tunnel that it isn't really America any more. It's an anomaly, nervy, creative, dense, nocturnal, glassy-towered. The bus station is full of Asians. The neon graphics are crappy and the magazines look completely alien. But it almost feels like Hong Kong, so I feel comfortable in the nervous hardness, the cheap utilitarian fluorescent light. I'm not strapped in, I can walk. The city doesn't care who I am, I can be anyone. I'm free to escape the flaggy, churchy, rightist "narrative" of America, escape into this city's mesh of complex stories. Even complicate it with a few of my own. It's still New York, isn't it? It's still the city of ambition, weirdness, experimentalism, tolerance. I probably still love it.