Making Amtraks

Posted by Cila Warncke

Union Station, LA

Union Station in downtown LA feels deliberately anachronistic, an amalgam of art deco and country-house library. It is cool, dim, discreetly curved; big tan leather chairs march squarely along the polished floor. All it needs is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s chattering undergraduates clutching long green tickets, or Lane Coutell with his cigarette and unadjusted muffler.

Trains operate on different timescales. Twenty-nine hours from LA to Portland is a languid reproof to modernity. All aboard. Get comfortable. The urgent coping mechanisms of rapid transport (inflight movies, car stereos, PSPs, magazines) are only partially applicable here. An 11-year-old wraps her little sister up, telling her to pretend to be asleep. They both leap up, balancing on the edge of their seats, watching the passing Pacific waves intently, after mum hands them disposable cameras. A much younger mother chats to her parents in English, breaking off to call her wandering toddler back: “Mami! Aqui!” Lengthy complaints from another parent when they discover the change machine in the “arcade room” downstairs (four worn-looking video game consoles) only gives tokens: “I don’t want $20 worth!”

The lounge car is a refuge for beer-drinking veterans and emo kids umbilically attached to their iPods. “They started being nice to us. That’s how we knew it was real. They weren’t yelling at us for once” — an ex-serviceman tells his drinking buddy, recalling the World Trade Center attack.

Downstairs, a middle-aged woman is scanning the drinks menu at the snackbar. “It’s hard to get high on a train, on beer. Something about the motion.” She orders a Jack Daniels, then adds, apologetically. “People think because I’m little I don’t have problems. But after five kids your little old body gets all kind of aches.”

Plump, glossy, brown-eyed Aly is on her way to Chico to sign up for a dental hygienist course. “I told him, ‘get out!'” she chuckles. “Then he came back the next day and said he was sorry, that he’d never had a serious relationship before. That was three years ago.” She is 19; her boyfriend, 22, is shy but a promising baseball player. Aly wants to move to Chico because it’ll give her mom time to miss her, but she’s worried about giving up her walk-in closet. “I don’t want them doing anything to my room while I’m gone.”

The dining car fails to nourish Casino Royale fantasies, but there are flowers on the table and a choice of cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Scott orders scampi and Diet Pepsi. He’s on his way from San Luis Opisbo where he was helping a friend with some building. Getting laid off from his job repairing heavy machinery in steel-processing plants has compensations, like the freedom to take off for a little fishing in Ensenada, Mexico. Someday, he’d like to go to Europe.

Jack wouldn’t. He has vowed to never again leave “the sovereign United States.” His Navy baseball cap shades sharp, Irish-blue eyes: “Americans are targets.” He also won’t return to his home state, Louisiana, because (lowers voice) “The white man is under attack.” Don’t rush to conclusions. Jack has been with his Chinese-American wife for 50 years and three children; has two masters degrees; his manners are impeccable. America — land of contradictions.

Amtrak Coast Starlight

Snow-dusted lakes. Rolling miles of dry, golden grass with the occasional oversized ranch house. Ferns curl wetly on the edge of evergreen woods. Surfers bob sleekly in spumy Pacific breakers. Darkness erases hours as kids pad stocking-footed along the aisles, a mother curls around her sleeping infant, couples sprawl intimate-awkward across their seats and sleepy slumped heads crick necks.

Twenty-nine hours is not half long enough to hear or guess at all the stories. Andrea trots up and down the dining car with trays of food, 13 years on the rails, four days on, six days off. Another waitress, much younger, flirts with the supervisor: “I brought my teddy bear.” He shifts heavily, tells her to go get her things. She’s changing at Salem. Sometime in the night a drunk passenger was met at a station by the police. “Be careful cleaning that room,” the supervisor tells someone. “Someone thought they saw a needle on the bed.”

The Coast Starlight arrives punctually: 15.37 (scheduled, 15.40). Passengers roll off onto the rain-slick platform. Sea-legged. All that’s missing is a man in an overcoat to scoop up my suitcase and offer his umbrella.

Tom Wolfe and the art of Mau-Mau

Posted by Cila Warncke

Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe’s famous new journalism is nothing but an abdication of the traditional journalistic ideal of objectivity. What makes him so beloved of white, middle-class, status-quo lovers is that he presents the ‘freaks’ of society exactly as they wish to see them. Peering out from his WASP bubble he offers no insight; only his own prejudice, funkily punctuated. Far from being revolutionary he is reactionary.

His 1970 essay Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is Wagnerian. He plays every finely tuned instrument of white middle-American fear and loathing with masterful aplomb. It starts with a statement: “the poverty programme encouraged you to go in for mau-mauing.” You don’t know yet what ‘mau-mauing’ is, only that it is encouraged by “the poverty programme” – a vague bureaucratic entity endowed with a definite article. This is a beautiful piece of disinformation. There is not now, nor at any point in American history has there been, anything that could be described, accurately, as the poverty programme. Governmental attempts to succour, redistribute, endow, benefit, aid, or otherwise un-disenfranchise its economic laggards are desultory, peculiar, and limited. Wolfe knows this because he isn’t quite brave enough to give “poverty programme” the initial capitals called for by that “the”.

Over the next few paragraphs a rough sketch of “mau-mauing” begins to emerge. His breathless sentences tap-tap into the brain. The ones doing the mau-mauing are: “hard-to-reach hard-to-hold-hard-core hardrock blackrage badass furious funky ghetto youth.” Not like you and I, whispers beneath the shout. Them. People who mess everything up with their hard-to-hold hard-core hardrock. Hammering chunks out of language itself. I’ll show you how they do it, he beckons.

“There was one man called Chaser. Chaser would get his boys together and he would give them a briefing like the U.S. Air Force wing commander gives his pilots in Thailand before they make the raid over North Vietnam.” This, people, is war. Those furious funky ghetto youth are an invading army, they are braced and coming at you, in your suburban homes and Lay-Z boy recliners and apple-pie-and-ice-cream Sundays. Beware.

Chaser “used to be in vaudeville. At least that was what everybody said.” Old journalism couldn’t get away with substituting “that’s what everybody said” (Who is ‘everybody?’ When and where did they say it?) for fact checking. Did or did not Chaser used to be in vaudeville? Why not ask Chaser? That would ruin the rhythm. What matters is not where Chaser learned his gift of the gab but the image caught up in that word vaudeville. Cheap light entertainment. Minstrel shows. Something tacky, tawdry, archaic. Like Chaser, who “always wore a dashiki, over some ordinary pants and a Ban-lon shirt. He had two of these Ban-lon shirts and he alternated them.” Wolfe pulverises Chaser’s credibility with every phrase. He wears a dashiki over ordinary pants (he’s inauthentic) and he only has two shirts (he’s poor). By the time Wolfe describes him as a “born leader” the words hum mockery. Born leader to dumb ghetto youths too high on their blackrage badass to know you don’t follow men who alternate their shirts and might have been in vaudeville.

The putative ex-vaudevillian wing commander exhorts his troops: “when you go downtown, y’all wear your ghetto rags…see… don’t go down there with your Italian silk jerseys on and your brown suede and green alligator shoes and your Harry Belafonte shirts… And don’t go down there with your hair all done up nice in your curly Afro… you go down with your hair stickin’ out… and sittin’ up… looking like a bunch of wild niggers.” The phrasing lingers in sweet, heavy warning notes. Ghetto rags are a fiction perpetrated by slick-shod, Italian silk jersey-wearing, chocolate-coloured con artists trying to separate the God-fearing white taxpayer from his money by mau-mauing the poverty programme. Don’t even consider for a minute there might be real poverty down in that ghetto. Turn your back and they’ll all be in their Harry Belafonte shirts sporting nice curly Afros. Be wise to their jiveass. If they look poor it’s because they want to look poor. Don’t be a sucker.

It isn’t just the shifty slick-talking bloods leeching on: “before long everybody in the so-called Third World was into it.” The “so-called” (like “everybody said” before it) permits the double-barrelled phrase: Third World. These people aren’t even from here. You, dear reader, belong to the First World. They come from somewhere else, belong somewhere else. They aren’t your problem, the “Chinese, the Japanese, the Chicanos, the Indians” and especially not the Samoans who “were like the original unknown terrors… everything about them is gigantic…. They’ll have a skull the size of a watermelon, with a couple of little squinty eyes and a little mouth and a couple of nose holes stuck in, and no neck at all. From the ears down, the big yoyos are just one solid welded hulk, the size of an oil burner.” Hang on a second and listen while the nuances whisper out of those words: a skull the size of a watermelon; little squinty eyes – like pigs; not even a nose but nose holes like a fright mask; big yoyos; one solid welded hulk. They might be vegetable, animal, monster, mineral or machine but they definitely ain’t human. Not like you and I.

We know, now, who does the mau-mauing. Enter the flak catcher. This passage calls for subtlety. Tamp down the hard-hitting rhythm section, let the woodwinds carry the next segment through on their modulated breath. The “blacks, Chicanos, Filipinos, and about ten Samoans” confront (in all their oil-burner sized, “Day-Glo yellow and hot-green sweaters and lemon-coloured pants”-wearing glory) a single man who has that “sloppy Irish look like Ed McMahon on TV.” Read between them lines: you’ve never worn hot-green sweaters and lemon-coloured pants, but you sure as hell know what Ed McMahon on TV looks like. That’s someone you can recognise and root for. The levee holding back this colourful flood wears “wheatcolour Hush Puppies [and a] wash’n’dry semi-tab-collar shortsleeves white shirt.” We know the bloods have “brown suede and green alligator” shoes at home; time to learn that “wheatcolour Hush Puppies… cost about $4.99, and the second time you move your toes, the seams split and the tops come away from the soles.” Don’t feel sorry for them. Don’t be a sucker. Look down again. The Samoans are wearing sandals and the straps “look like they were made from the reins on the Budweiser draft horses.” Dear god. Someone, or something, has to keep a check on these massive animals. Just as white America shifts anxiously on its sofa, half-hearing terrifying trampling feet Wolfe plays a silken note of assurance: “Nobody ever follows it up. You can get everything together once, for the demonstration… to see the people bury some gray cat’s nuts and make him crawl… but nobody ever follows it up.” They, the Third-Worlders. Huge. Threatening. Noisy. Ultimately harmless. Foiled not by the obfuscation of wheatcolour bureaucracy run by gray cats but by their own ineradicable indolence.

There is more to mau-mauing. Plenty more. A virtuoso teardown of sucker whites slices through the: “middle-class white intellectual women… with flat-heeled shoes and big Honest Calves” and their students who “would have on berets and hair down to the shoulders… and jeans, but not Levi’s… jeans of the people, the black Can’t Bust ‘Em brand, hod-carrier jeans that have an emblem on the back of a hairy gorilla” (Wolfe overlooks the subject-object confusion in his rush to hang the words black and hairy gorilla together).

He is wise to it, and he wants you to be wise too. Don’t get hoodwinked by those twinkling alligator shoes. “Boys don’t grow up looking up to the man who had a solid job… because there weren’t enough people who had such jobs.” Don’t think he’s gonna dwell on the whys and wherefores of there not being enough people who had such jobs, though. Your honour, the witness refuses to answer the question in the grounds that it may incriminate him. Slide fast to the details about “$150 Sly Stone-style vest and pants outfit from the haberdasheries on Polk and the $35 Lester Chambers-style four-inch-brim black beaver fedora” and the men wearing them who slid into neighbourhoods peopled by “the bums, the winos, the prostitutes with biscuits & gravy skin, the gay boys, the flaming lulus, the bike riders” and got “a grant of nearly $100,000”. That’s what happens when civilisation gets mau-maued by the Third-World; the ghetto youth get their grasping – “hanging limp at the wrist with the forefinger sticking out like some kind of curved beak” – hands on “a $937,000 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity.”

Any do-gooder, white middle-class intellectual fool who thinks any of this makes a difference ought to think again. Give them jobs? What for? “The jobs themselves were nothing…. You got $1.35 an hour and ended up as a file clerk or stock-room boy in some federal office… all you learned was how to make work, fake work and malinger out by the Xerox machine.” Moreover, Wolfe can explain why “Nevertheless, there was some fierce mau-mauing that went on over summer jobs”. Not because the community needed those jobs or even wanted those jobs but because “the plain fact was that half the jobs were handed out organisation by organisation, according to how heavy your organisation was. If you could get twenty summer jobs… when the next only got five, then you were four times the aces they were… no lie.” Your taxpayer dollars at work:  propping up the egos of pimp-swaggering furious funky ghetto youth.

There is one final movement, a violin-swelling, cymbal-clashing, curtain-call guaranteeing flight of earlicking fancy that makes the Ride of the Valkyries sound like a lullaby. There were so many groups mau-mauing, see, “you had to show some style, show some imagination.” Like Bill Jackson, who calls himself Jomo Yarumba and marches on City Hall with a “children’s army… sixty strong, sixty loud, sixty wild they come swinging into the great plush gold-and-marble lobby… with hot dogs, tacos, Whammies, Frostees, Fudgsicles, French fries, Eskimo Pies, Awful-Awfuls, Sugar-Daddies, Sugar-Mommies, Sugar-Babies, chocolate-covered frozen bananas, malted milks, Yoo-Hoos, berry pies, bubble gums, cotton candy, Space Food sticks, Frescas, Baskin-Robbins boysenberry-cheesecake ice-cream cones, Milky Ways, M&Ms, Tootsie Pops, Slurpees, Drumsticks, jelly doughnuts, taffy apples, buttered Karamel Korn, root-beer floats, Hi-C punches, large Cokes, 7-Ups, Three Musketeer bars, frozen Kool-Aids… a hurricane of little bodies… roaring about with their creamy wavy gravy food and drink held up in the air like the torches of freedom, pitching and rolling at the most perilous angles, a billow of root-beer float here… a Yoo-Hoo typhoon there.. a hurricane of malted milk, an orange blizzard of crushed ice from the Slurpees, with acid red horrors like the red from the taffy apples and the jelly from the jelly doughnuts… every gradation of solubility and liquidity known to syrup – filling the air, choking it, getting trapped gurgling and spluttering in every glottis – ”

The words scamper around like that hurricane of little bodies with their perilously angled food and drink. There is a racing pulse to the rhythm, ecstatic as a sugar high. You feel giddy just reading it. Every name snaps on your synapses like bubblegum popping. Without really knowing why you feel your throat filling with the solubility and liquidity of the syrup filling the air choking it getting trapped. You can feel the tide rising. Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood, only this time the savages are going to drown you in creamy wavy gravy Yoo-Hoo typhoon acid red horrors. Thirty pages ago you didn’t know to be afraid. Didn’t know how the furious funky born leader pimp true artists of the mau-mau are just waiting to rise up out of the ghetto and wash over your hallowed gold-and-marbled halls in “purple sheets of root-beer” but now you do. Because you “didn’t know where to look…. Didn’t even know who to ask” until Tom Wolfe came rolling through your door in his white pimp-sharp suit with his fedora and silk handkerchief and (probably) Italian-style socks. The man is a “rare artist” of the mau-mau.

Daily Pennsylvanian: The Politics of Protest

Originally published in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Autumn 2000

Hirsute masses camped around Washington, D.C.’s Reflecting Pool. Stormy-faced libbers incinerating lingerie. Stoic figures reeling under the barrage of fire hoses. And perhaps the most horrific, memorable image of all: stunned Kent State students staring at their compatriots’ bodies on a day that will live in infamy.

Somehow, between the so-called idealism of the ’60s and the hustle-bustle/every-person-for-himself world of the ’80s and ’90s, the word “protest” became just a little bit dirty.

Dirty like an apple cart-upsetting urchin, a useless nose-thumbing at the powers that be, the value of which – if any – is both marginal and decidedly historical.

After all, didn’t the protesters of the ’60s settle down, cut their hair, quit smoking dope and – on their way to becoming our parents – turn into the respectable, law-abiding citizens of today’s USA? That is evidence, we are led to believe, that they eventually recognized just how foolish they looked with their flowers and peace signs.

Implicit in this version of history is the idea that the problems which confronted America in the ’60s – racial inequality, an unjust war, sexual inequality and all the rest – have no present-day counterparts. A dangerous heresy that hints that mass protest is a social relic, irrelevant to our modern age.

The subtle message is that protesting is something of an anachronism. Sure, we still have problems – there are still some social injustices and minor governmental cock-ups – but nothing worthy of making a big, noisy, grubby traffic-halting fuss. Demonstrating – with all the accompanying banner waving, fist pumping and commerce interrupting – is hopelessly naïve and out-dated.

Or is that just what the government and media would like us to believe?

In the backlash of the anti-establishment ’60s, it must have become the Establishment’s top priority to stop any further social upheaval. With women and people of color demanding rights and nice middle-class children standing up to the government and demanding to know what right it had to go bombing a poor Asian country back into the Stone Age, it must have been an ulcer-inducing epoch for the denizens of power in Washington, D.C.

So, how to forestall the upheavals? Well, the easiest way was to convince the next generation that all their parents did was waste a lot of time and look a little silly in the process. Remind them of the peccadilloes, the disorganization, the selfishness, the stubborn idealism, remind them that those hippies were all just doped up to their eyeballs anyway.

Most of all, remind them how inefficient it all was, how messy and unnecessary. Imply, if you don’t actually come out and say it, that the government would have sorted out all the social ills a lot more quickly if officials hadn’t had to waste their time trying to keep well-meaning but daft protesters from wrecking political conventions or getting beaten up by racist rednecks.

Apparently, this approach has succeeded. When was the last time you saw a massive student rally? A serious political protest of any kind? Chances are, even if there was one, the media systemically ignored or belittled it. Remember the Million Man March? Recall that rather than discussing the social and ideological implications the media focused most of its attention on the rather silly post-march controversy over whether or not there were actually a million men, imputing that the whole thing was merely a bizarre ego-gratification exercise for Louis Farrakhan.

More recently, in London, more than 15,000 students rallied to protest against expensive tuition fees. It was a peaceful, organized and generally serious demonstration — which the media just ignored.
It is inexcusable, though, that our generation should submit to such treatment, that we should allow ourselves to be indoctrinated into apathy. There are still battles to be fought for justice, equality and political accountability. All of us have different passions and it is of paramount importance that we educate ourselves to stand up for what we believe in — and to resist what we find objectionable.

Unless we learn, now, to band together and hold up a dignified middle finger to the establishment that would like to convince us of our collective impotence, we will someday find injustice being meted out not to others but to us — and by then it will be too late.

Daily Pennsylvanian: Taking Aim at Gun Violence

Originally published in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Autumn 2000

Columbine. I remember the day that name became a national byword, much in the same way I remember the day Princess Diana died or the way those slightly older than I remember the Challenger disaster.

They didn’t know, at first, how many were dead; estimates ran up to three digits. There were no commercials, I recall. And the images didn’t change much, as they obviously couldn’t get cameras inside the building. As the afternoon trickled on they began interviewing survivors, weeping schoolgirls, football players still trying to be macho through their residual terror.

Fifteen dead, including the two kamikaze killers whose innocent-seeming faces would stare posthumously from the covers of every major newsmagazine in the country. Faces whose secrets the world would try, too late, to understand. Blame TV, heavy metal, black trench coats, video games, lax parenting or poor social skills. Invoke the word “evil,” so long out of fashion until now.

Whatever you do, though, don’t blame guns. Guns don’t kill people, people do. To take the guns out of peoples’ hands, to prevent mere children from purchasing weapons, that would be an unreasonable — unconstitutional — infringement of civil liberties.

Americans are not the only ones, though, who have seen hell break out in their schoolyards. Just three years before Columbine, in the little Scottish town of Dunblane, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school with four handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Minutes later, 16 kindergarteners and their teacher were dead. Hamilton committed suicide.

Stunned, shattered, the nation and the government were determined it would never happen again. The parents of the murdered children threw themselves into a campaign to ban handguns. “Impossible,” an American would say. “Unfair!” cried the sport-shooting lobby in Britain. Yet the government implemented a ban on high-caliber handguns, resulting in more than 100,000 weapons being surrendered to the authorities. By early 1998, the ban was extended to all .22-caliber and lower handguns as well.

This legislation was in no way universally popular. Shooting aficionados were outraged at having to give up their weapons. Gun enthusiasts rightly protested that they — the responsible sportsmen — were not the problem. But in the end, despite their feeling that injustice had been served, they handed over their guns and got on with it.

Nearly four years have passed since Dunblane and nearly two since the legislation banning handguns came into effect. The shooting fans are still grumbling, yes. There is still gun-related crime, yes. However, there has been no second Dunblane.

Will we be able to say the same thing four years after Columbine? I doubt it.

Because it wasn’t just Columbine. It was Jonesboro, Ark.; Springfield, Ore.; West Paducah, Ky.; Pearl, Miss. A trail of blood and anguish, the children with guns in their hands and blank eyes. And every time it happened we were horrified, the images running together in a montage of huddled parents, weeping children, stone-faced politicians.

Those were just the disasters epic enough in proportion to become catch phrases. In mild-mannered Portland, Ore., a boy was stopped outside my brother’s school, the trunk of his car full of guns. In South Dakota, my friend’s sister got the day off of school because of a bomb threat. Multiply that by thousands, the number of incidents that border on the knife-edge between near miss and front-page horror show.

This is all because Americans cannot live with the idea that their precious right to bear arms might be infringed. Even if it means that the litany of names will continue into a new century — the names of the dead, the names of the guilty, the names of the communities devastated by violence.

In Britain there is one name — Dunblane — and there was one reaction: banning handguns. A knee-jerk reaction, some have said, but since then no one has turned on the BBC evening news and seen blood-soaked children fleeing out of schools — unless they were watching the Columbine coverage, of course.

Like it or not, the ban seems to have worked, and it stands as a rebuke to America’s selfish unwillingness to make radical change in the face of tragic persuasion.

Daily Pennsylvanian: Pop Music Lacks a Feminist Perspective

In 1999 I took issue with Britney Spears. I didn’t like …Baby One More Time and I wrote a column to say so. Some of my views have changed (I like Britney, love the record) and some haven’t (I still object to self-objectification for male titillation). Read on.

Britney... Baby...

Britney... Baby...


Once upon a time girls hummed along to the catchy strains of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. Or joined Aretha, singing about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Turn on the radio, or television, these days and you’ll hear young women singing a very different tune. In fact, chances are if you listen to any pop music station for more than an hour, your ears will be tormented by the grating Britney Spears single, …Baby One More Time.

Click here to continue reading…

Daily Pennsylvanian: Loud, Obnoxious and decidedly American

Thanks to Google I’ve just stumbled across a column I wrote for the Daily Pennsylvanian some eight years ago. I was their foreign correspondent for a term, while studying at London’s King’s College. An excruciating tutorial there formed the basis for this column.

All I could think was that I’ll never be able to open my mouth in this class again. He was ruining it for me, ruining everything with his grating tone, his blatant rudeness, the patronizing way he kept interrupting other students to correct their opinions. If only he was German or French or Dutch or Spanish, I would have been all right. But he was American. As much as I wanted to light into him, my tongue was tied by the sudden awareness that my voice and accent would betray me in an instant. It wouldn’t matter what I said, my accent would stamp me just as quickly as his had identified him — and equate us beyond my power of control.

Until that mortifying hour in my critical theory class, surrounded by British students who were — justifiably — looking daggers at this specimen of Americana, I hadn’t realized to what extent language shapes and projects our identity.

Click here to continue reading…

Ibiza Voice: Green Velvet – Welcome to La La Land


Green Velvet @ Portland, OR

Green Velvet @ Portland, OR

If there ever was a time and place dedicated to stamping out the vestiges of party culture it is 21st century USA. In a nation where you can’t drink till you’re 21, where bottled water is considered drug paraphernalia and where electronic music promoters can be indicted under the same laws as people who run crack houses there isn’t a hell of a lot of leeway for having fun.

Sure, there is Pacha and Cielo in New York City, Chicago’s Crobar & Vision… a handful of big name clubs pulling glamorous crowds and A-list DJs. But what about everywhere else? Despite the obstacles, there are still brave promoters and music freaks who occasionally pull off a coup like luring techno legend Green Velvet to a small-time rave in an industrial corner of Portland, Oregon (pop: 500,000; biggest musical exports: the Dandy Warhols and Beth Ditto). This coffee-fuelled hippie haven happens to be my hometown, and I wasn’t about to miss a chance to see what happens when techno stars meet barebones raving.

One thing to know about partying American-style is that you’ll rarely find good music in a legitimate club. You don’t dress up to go out on a Saturday night so much as layer up, because chances are you’ll wind up wandering through freezing cold railway stockyards (or forests, or fields) trying to find the sound system.

After a false start that takes us across the path of a slow-rolling freight train loaded with desert camouflaged military jeeps we finally find a corrugated steel warehouse with a flickering sign outside reading On Air. A pair of guys in black parkas – one fat and bearded, the other rangy and pony-tailed – wave us in and another lanky kid standing behind a folding wooden table takes our 20 bucks entry fee. Even in the ostensibly free atmosphere of a semi-legal rave there are rules in abundance. Half the barn-like space is cordoned off to form a bar (more plywood tables and a cheap metal rack full of spirits) – you have to show ID to get in here, and once “inside” you can’t smoke. You also can’t carry any alcohol back onto the dancefloor, meaning those of us relying on vodka to keep warm have to make repeated trips between the two. Here, having a huge parka comes in handy: I manage to sneak a dance with my drink nestled inside my oversized cuffs.

However, it isn’t the funny little restrictions that are the most striking. It’s the spirit. Never mind the local DJ is busy mangling Heater (ironic tune choice, given the ambient temperature is about three degrees), or that the only toilets are a row of port-a-loos on a concrete slab out back; or even that half the crowd looks too young to drive and the other half looks old enough to know better… the atmosphere is crazy. On the dancefloor drug-skinny kids are breaking out elaborate “liquid” moves that went out of fashion in Europe a decade ago. Even if they knew, they wouldn’t care, because here there is still a sense that being a raver is something special, a mark of distinction. One boy in a trilby is soaking up attention, showing off moves he must have spent hours practicing. Around him, girls in tiny skirts and day-glo bangles are dancing with fierce concentration.

Half an hour earlier my friends and I looked around the warehouse and asked, “What the hell convinced Green Velvet to come out here ” Usually, he’s in a DJ booth dripping with the latest high-spec equipment, commanding the world’s best sound systems. Tonight, he’s on a make-shift stage DJing off two decks perched on one of those wire shelves they use as discount racks in supermarkets. But he’s a true professional and, more than that, a man on a mission. Soft-spoken Curtis Jones is a devout Christian who sees his DJing as an opportunity to spread love and positivity, and he’s throwing himself into this set with as much energy as if it were the main room of Space.

And the reaction? Well, it beats any crowd I’ve seen at Space…. There are only a couple of hundred kids here, but their energy is filling up the room. It doesn’t hurt that everyone seems seriously, loopily altered. Whatever they lack in legal access to alcohol they clearly make up for with fistfuls of narcotics – mushrooms, pills, speed, whatever. And it’s all treated in share-and-share alike fashion. Absolutely everyone will stop and say hello, offer you something if they have something (even if it’s just a smoke), or simply turn around and holler “you having fun?

Sometimes this goes better than others. One kid, dancing next to me, turns around with a shit-eating grin and gives me the thumbs up. “Have you ever seen Green Velvet play before?” I shout over the music. He looks at me, eyes like saucers. “Are you speaking German ” he shouts back. When I burst out laughing he grins back, anxious to please. “Whatever you just said, that was cool,” he assures me.

Green Velvet

Green Velvet

It’s enough to make the most sober head feel twisted, and there aren’t many here. Tall, thin and cool in black leather and Matrix-esque shades, Green Velvet finally drops the tune that he wrote for kids like this: La La Land. He originally meant it as an anti-drugs message, but that seems to go right over the heads of everyone who is shouting out the chorus in un-ironic appreciation. It is a world away from sophisticated, commodified European party culture but looking around the room, it kind of makes sense.

Outside this cold, ramshackle building the train loaded down with military hardware is still rolling inexorably past. Outside a stupid, venal government is too busy scheming to kill other people’s citizens to bother feeding, educating or providing health care for its own. Outside times are tough and probably not about to get better in a hurry. But inside… well, it’s la la land. A place where freedom exists, music matters and people treat each other as potential friends, not potential enemies. Right about now it feels like the best, warmest, safest place to be.