The words alcohol and America don’t sit comfortably together in my mind. Understandably, since my father fell hard to alcoholism while living his last years in a kooky town on the Californian coast, which had only one way in, and one way out… He was also addicted to prescription drugs, which he bought by the ton-load over the Internet.
But there is another connection between the US and alcohol in my psyche: an American gave me my first alcoholic drink. I was four years old. She was a neighbour, and had a birthday party for her daughter; having recently moved from the States, she got her Apple Juice and Apple Cider mixed up. When my mum came to pick me up some hours later, I was lying beneath the living room table: I staggered home along the pavement, my fairy wings bent.
These are two defining moments: I won’t go back to California after the hellish week my brother and I spent trying to get my father into a rehabilitation centre, after the nightmare of negotiating his medical bills after the fourth or fifth overdose; and one could argue that the said American introducing me to alcohol gave me a taste, which I abused somewhat through my adolescence and 20s… But these are both other stories. Though the two events popped up in my mind last night after a conversation I had at a dinner party at the weekend. It was about the Little Angel Marionette Theatre’s production of the ‘Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’. The comment was made by an American mother at my daughter’s school who had taken her son to the performance, but had been shocked at what she saw were ‘inappropriate’ scenes that involved copious drinking. I should add here that the Little Angel Marionette Theatre is a puppet theatre, and is primarily a family venue, though some performances are more grown-up than others. This one welcomed a minimum age of six.
It’s a lovely tale, adapted from a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, about a very old man with wings who flies into a village and is believed to be an angel, though he is thrown into a chicken coop, and fed only potato peelings. As word gets around, a village woman starts to charge people ‘five ups’ for a touch of his supposedly healing powers. The funniest scenes are where Father Gonzaga speaks gobbledegoog Latin to the old man to try to catch him out. All the parents were laughing at this point, and my daughter was asking me, ‘What’s happening? What did he say? Mummy Mummy.’
The moral is that the village turns into a money-making tourist trap and everyone becomes corrupted, even the priest who turns to cocktails and ends up getting jiggy with the village woman (please keep in mind that they are puppets, so you wouldn’t call this explicit). I was a bit sleepy at this point and lulled by the dark auditorium, put my head back and had a little snooze. So when American mother questioned me about the scene my response was to dismiss it: ‘Oh, it would have gone straight over my daughter’s head.’ But it did get me thinking, particularly as I have witnessed the destruction of alcohol first hand. On going home I read Marquez’s story and saw that the production company had changed the setting from Marquez’s Spain to a British seaside town, and that the boozy bit was also an addition. Who, after all, would hang out in a British seaside town without a bit of booze and brawl?
It is clear that alcohol advertising is bad for the young brain, advertising in general, and I work hard to limit my kid’s exposure to TV, but what of an innocent bit of humour in a live setting, which the kids probably don’t much understand anyway? Or is it that we are so immune to it in this culture that we don’t recognise that this is in fact where the poisoning starts? We Brits don’t have a problem with taking our kids to the pub and enjoying a few glasses of wine while they run circles around the bar (I myself do this from time to time), and yet there is an argument that we should not drink alcohol in front of them. My father lived in a town where people went in order to opt out of society. It was full of ex-bankers who had hit hard times, or had given up on the tough hard life of consumerism, and had decided to scale down and live the rest of their lives from their car. But I suppose the flip side of this is the street-upon-suburban-street that takes pride in its glimmering façade, while its insides rot away. We are all familiar with this scene. (And actually the film American Beauty springs to mind.)
I walked away from the dinner party thinking it was important that I acknowledge the possible insidious affects of this kind of performance on the tender mind of my young daughter, but I was also sorry that it took away from the overall magic of the story. The puppets were sublime, particularly that of the old man. What a beautiful ending when he finally stretches his wings and reaches out to the sky, and escapes the community who had judged him, used him, and kept him caged.