Friday, February 01, 2013

Texas – 7 days in the Lonestar state

A week in the Lonestar state in Galveston, Houston, San Antonio then Austin: two days work and five days of fun. Have to say, Texas has confounded my expectations, not a Stetson in sight, no barmy bumper stickers and no cowboy boots.  
Day 1: Houston - we have a problem!
Bad start with an almighty cock up with a crap UK internet booking company (Netflights), who booked our car at the wrong Houston Airport (Hobby - Domestic flights only) we had to shuttle across to pick up our car, which took forever. 
Galveston, oh Galveston…
Can’t actually say the word ‘Galveston’ without Glen Campbell reverberating round my skull. Flattened by a hurricane in 2008, it’s been rebuilt (again). Reminds me a little of Brighton, a south facing beach and pier sort of place, built around the idea of ‘fun’.
It has a huge sea wall, really a huge hump along which the seafront road runs. And true to Texan style a few distant rigs are visible way offshore. Southern friendliness can be disarming, “Ain’t never been outside of America, in fact, ain’t been north of the Mason-Dixie line”. How long before our first Stetson? Four hours in – not one to be seen.
Day 2: Oil rig
Never been on an oil rig, but as a kid in Scotland I saw them being built at Rosyth and knew no end of guys who ‘worked on the rigs’. Now this was something. It was huge and I mean huge. These things are bigger than skyscrapers and drill to depths beyond the height of Mount Everest.
I didn’t know that many rigs literally float. Some are like cigar cases that float stand vertically in the water after the bottom bit is flooded with water. Others sit on huge underwater floatation tanks. Others sit on the bottom atop huge concrete or steel legs. Some, have huge protective casings to bounce off icebergs. This is architecture at its most extreme – big, utilitarian and dangerous.
The deck was awash with kit – hoist mechanism, mechanical grabs and pincers for the pipes, Christmas tree, concrete mixing and blow out valves. This is pure, brute mechanics; big bits of steel, all force and hydraulics. Drills are sent down then spread out slanting and weaving into identified oil reservoirs. When a new reservoir it found explosives punch holes in the pipe and the oil flows. Every now and then ‘pigs are sent down to clean the pipes – they squeal like hell.
Each rig has an army, navy and airforce to keep it going. The army man and work the rig, the airforce transport them to and from land and the navy provides supplies and transports the oil. This is living on the edge, the edge of physics, safety and civilisation. It’s a dangerous frontier but I can see the thrill and excitement of being here. The flying saucer pod was witness to the danger, as is the decompression chamber and the dodgy choppers.
Bolivar Peninsula
Took the free ferry to Bolivar Peninsula, named after Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan revolutionary. Chavez, I believe, has yet to receive a similar accolade. It’s a long, wild, unprotected spit of land with a completely empty beach. There’s no real protection from hurricanes here so everything looks a bit precarious, where every house is built on stilts and everything seems here today gone tomorrow. I liked it.
Bolivar lighthouse is as permanent as it gets out here. An iron lighthouse that gave shelter to the terrified people in 1900 and 1915, when 125 and 65 people crammed into its spiral staircase, a column of people, protected by what looks like a flimsy structure – but it’s still here – now unused.
This is hurricane country and the whole area was almost wiped out in 2008, with hurricane Ike. You can still see some wrecked houses but this is America, so everything was quickly rebuilt. Our waiter at ‘Gaidos’, Galveston’s famous (but not so great) seafood joint, told us he had 13 relatives stay for three months with three families’ worth of dogs and cats. “Ain’t never been gladder to get back to work”. The experience had clearly been worse than the hurricane.
What isn’t mentioned much down here is the Civil War and slavery. Although we did find one plaque that explained how slaves were landed here and marched for hundreds of miles along the coast to New Orleans. Before oil, this was cotton exporting country.
Day 3: Houston
This is one BIG city, fourth largest in the US, so we headed for one area. Montrose and the museums.
Houston Centre of Fine art
Some fabulous pieces of Greek and Roman sculpture un the lobby and a pretty extensive collection of European work including an astonishing amount of African, Indian and South American work. It’s really a collection of collections as almost everything has been donated by a wealthy collector.
However, it was the new stuff I wanted to see not the schoolroom stuff and sure enough, the Indian roundel of tin cooking vessels was a brilliant piece of sculpture. There’s a thousand differently shaped and angled surfaces that reflect the light like a huge gem. Diamonds from base metal.
The blue Buddha, from Korea, was a radiant blue. On closer inspection it was covered in shiny sequins.
The current exhibition is a brilliant ‘War in Photographs’ show which has every damn image I can recall about war. The supposedly staged cannonball shot from Crimea, Civil War, all the Vietnam Tim Page, Don McCullin stuff, Iwo Jima. If you’ve seen it, it’s here.
Rothko Chapel
Well, art truly has replaced religion! Step in from the hot sun and you enter a polygonal room, a Rothko on every wall. You are literally surrounded by Rothkos, all similar. They’re dark, sombre and exactly what is needed for a place of contemplation – completely stilling. Some are triptychs, others single canvases, all huge. A trio of musicians were playing when we entered. I’ve never been anywhere like it.
Cy Twimbly
Scribbles on white canvases I’m familiar with but there was a set of green and white paintings like Chinese landscapes and a huge canvas that was indescribably incomprehensible. I’m afraid I can generally give Cy a bye.
Menil Collection
Laughed out loud at the African shack and video showing, representing a mock charity, NGO SBOP (Beninese Solidarity with Endangered Westerners) an African collecting for ‘poor white people’ in Benin. He explained, that although we are rich financially, we are poor in love. Amazingly a number of people gave him coins for his charity can.
There was a life size 3D sculpture of the painting in the Wallace collection, Fragonards famous woman on a swing and some thoughtful painting and a room with a huge array of calligraphic variations.
This area, Montrose, is delightful, all small porched homes, hats and bikes.
Whatever happened to bookshops? We always do a shop in the US, where I hole up in a bookshop with a coffee. But this time, despite the huge array of shops, no bookshop. They’ve been Napsterised. Jeff Bezos may also have disintermediated my ability to shop in malls. To be fair this didn’t stop Gil swiping the plastic and we spent so much that the credit card company fraud department called us to make sure it was us – we had exceeded the ‘velocity’ check limit!
Day 4: Austin
Keep Austin weird
Arrived in Austin after a 3 hour drive from Houston. ‘Keep Austin weird’ is the tee-shirt of choice. This is the home of SXSW, Lance Armstrong and we’re here for a little techy meet-up. Staying not far from Congress Avenue, a foodies street and I can attest to virtues of ‘Home Slice Pizzas’ and Hoppadaddy’s Burgers.
Barton Springs
A cool spring-fed, limestone pool almost in the centre of Austin, set in a park full of ‘soccer’ teams. When I came to study in the US. at age 19, soccer was so rare that even I got into the team! True, they’re still chasing the ball like a pack of wolves but the beautiful game does seem to be taking hold. Must be the Beckham effect, although I hear he’s jumped ship again. Some serious fast walkers, joggers and cyclists on the ‘hike & bike’ trail - mobbed. We felt like slobs just walking at a normal pace. Eventually we succumbed to a Mexican lunch – nachos unlike the tiny portions you get in the UK, big crispy things with beans and chilli on top, washed down with some Don Equis.
Capitol building
The big TV news is that women are to be allowed to be combat soldiers, so we can look forward to movies like Full Metal Jacket and Slacks. Some apoplectic military men on the radio. So time for some local politics. Slam dunked right in the middle of Austin is the huge, pink, granite Capitol building. It’s a credit to their democratic system that you can just pop and get a free tour. We were taken into the Senate room, House of Representatives even the administrative area underground.
Texan politic is a rough old affair and they’ve produced LB Johnson and, of course the Bushes. But George W Bush wasn’t really a Texan, as he was packed off East for his schooling. What’s surprising is how much the South in general has dominated US politics in the late 20th century, with LB Johnson, Carter, Clinton and the Bushes.
Moved up to the University area for a further couple of nights and stayed in the Austin Inn, with its themed rooms – ours was gothic, basically a four poster bed, a suit of armour and some knick-knacks. Although we had a balcony that sat beneath trees with lights – beautiful spot.
Day 5: San Antonio
Remember the Alamo
1836 marks independence from Mexico in the battle of San Jacinto, where the Texans slaughtered the Mexicans as they were having a siesta, with no front guard (although this story reeks of revisionism). This is a big deal to Texans, who almost see their state as a country. Indeed Perry, the current Governor hinted at this recently. There’s ‘lonestar’ flags everywhere and Texan patriotism is almost a form of nationalism.
Prior to this was the Alamo. The site is bang in the middle of San Antonio, a church and compound, largely rebuilt, that tells the story well. It’s a simple tale of a rather pointless tactic and defence that led to the slaughter of over 100 people in this compound. There were even three Scotsmen in the role call. The guide was excellent and cut through the hubris to explain how much of this was less about liberty and more about land. Talking to him personally, he disliked the gung-ho visitors who see this as some sort of sacred site. It was a minor skirmish in an overall political struggle for land and assets. Take the one slave that fought here. He was spared by the Mexicans, who had abolished slavery, but enslaved again by the Americans after he was freed. Maybe the US should remember the Alamo less and the Civil War more. Indeed, when Texas became part of the US, all black people were forcibly evicted from Texas.
Curiously, one of the largest buildings in San Antonio was the Scottish Freemasonary Hall. Turns out that Jim Bowie, he of big knife fame, and Davy Crockett, a Congressman from Tennessee, were Scottish masons. The door was a huge bronze affair with reliefs of Moses, Ezeikel, Plato, Socrates, Dante, Confucius, Luther, Jesus, Zarathustra (no Mohammed?).
The riverside walk is pleasant enough and we found a Mexican restaurant to fill up on enchiladas verde, refried beans, and tacos. Forget the Alamo, just keep on serving Mexican food. Stopping off on the way back to Austin, we once again came across a couple of young people serving us in a shop, who had never met anyone with an English accent (forget the fact that we’re Scottish). But it was the following line that made me smile “Do you have ‘whataburger’ over there? No! You don’t have ‘whataburger’?’” To explain, Whataburger is a Texan burger chain. It ain’t even US wide. In any case Hoppadaddy’s burgers, in Austin, are better.
Out later for dinner at Legends – a barbeque joint downtown. We were with the gates Foundation and they had put the word Gates up on a big sign inside the restaurant. Once again, a great night with academics from all over the US. As Brett from the Gates Foundation said “When I joined this organisation I realised that I would never know if someone was being sincere again”. Nice guy – good point. The out for a beer at the W hotel, very different from the Crystal bar in the W in Doha Qatar, where it’s one of the only places in the whole country where you can get a drink. Tried the local brew Shiner Bock.
Day 6: First photograph, first book: Ransom
Popped in to the Harry Ransom’s Museum of Film and Photography to see the ‘first photograph’, taken by Joseph Niepce, in France around 1826-27, only to find that it was out on loan in Munich. He was quickly outshone by Daguerre and Fox Talbot, but there’s something about being first. The good news was that they did have a two volume Gutenberg Bible.
Big gallery, big art
There’s the usual collection of Greek and Roman stuff paintings as you enter, rooms of representative, but not great, European art and some abstract expressionist paintings. But in this big building there were a few big pieces that made the trawl worthwhile. First a piece with a thousand cow bones hanging over 60,000 pennies and 800 communion wafers. It was infused with an orange, copper light.
Then a huge ‘Long’ stone circle of Cornish slate that was a great slab of beauty. The stones were laid out delicately but the form was monumental. I'm not always fond of Richard Long's work but this was a fine. big slice of rocks in a gallery room that was big enough to show it to good effect.
Finally, my favourite piece of the whole trip – a fibreglass cowboy lassoing in a steer covered in automobile paint and lit up red eyes. It was a huge, shiny, American thing that was unashamedly big, brash and bold. There’s greed and gutsy life in the red-eyes of the cowboy and steer and the tension, set across the rope is that focal point for reflection. America tamed nature but not quite as nature fights back. Americans made money but the markets couldn’t be controlled. America sometimes reaches beyond its need and ability and gets kickback.
LBJ Museum and Archive
Museums are everywhere and in the US the buildings are huge. You’ve got to be a little suspicious about Museums’ role around cultural conformity, fixed narratives and consumerism. Ever since the Guggenheim in NY, a place where the building completely overwhelms the art, making it the worst place in the world to actually view art, galleries and museums have become bigger and bolder. In the US, the older ones are neo-Classical, them modernism hit (big time). Bilbao mad this even worse, another place where architecture triumphs the art. But you’ve got to hold back some of the scepticism. They’re nice places, especially on week days, where you can just hang-out in peace and quiet.
LBJ was an interesting President who found himself in a situation he would rather not have found himself in, a default President that resulted from a tragic assassination. But he was more than this and his legacy has lasted to this day. He was a working politician who pushed through legislation that was to create a much more equal America. He was a teacher in Texas and knew poverty and prejudice. The Civil Rights Acts, Voting Right Acts, Medicare. Gun Control Act, Education Act, Environmental Act – he got them all through in one term. Compare that to Obama. Whenever I turned on the radio on the highway, it was still one or another of these issues that were being discussed. The whole LBJ shrine thing is done rather well, but the main hall looks like a communist Mao think – all red books and a huge mural. They even have a huge Lincoln Continental, lots of film and a replica of the Oval Office. We may remember him as the Vietnam President, but Vietnam broke him, and look what came next – Nixon.
Our final few hours in Houston were spent down on Congress Avenue, and a burger at ‘Hopadaddys’. I have to say this was the best burger I’ve ever eaten, washed down with a Vanilla Bean Milkshake. Had to be done.
Day 7: Houston – no problem
Back in Houston for our flight and a hotel receptionist who, when she saw our passport, said, “Wow, this is the first passport I’ve ever seen!” It’s not that she didn’t have a passport, most Americans don’t, she had never seen one. “Geez you folks have been to a lot of places”. They say it’s all BIG in Texas but it’s the little things that were noticeable. The genuine welcomes, jokes and laid back attitude. It was far more fun and bohemian than I expected.