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In Which We Operate A Spy Ring At Our Leisure

Desperate Uncertainty


creator Craig Silverstein

It has been six years since the Emmy award-winning miniseries John Adams aired on HBO. Based on David McCullough’s acclaimed biography of America’s second president, the series stripped away the veneer of mythology that swirls around the events of the Revolutionary War, humanising the Founding figures who dominate cultural depictions of the conflict, and injecting a dose of grime and cynicism into an all-too-often sanitised and triumphal narrative.

AMC’s new Sunday night offering, Turn, based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, does even more to disrupt the Founding Father narrative, focusing on places, people, and actions that have, until now, lurked on the periphery of the popular imagination.

Turn tells the story of the Culper Spy Ring, established at George Washington’s command to operate in the heart of British territory at a time when conventional methods of warfare were failing to break the empire’s stranglehold. From the outset, this is an unconventional Revolutionary War tale; we start, not with the Boston Massacre of 1770, nor with boxes of tea cast over gunwales in 1773, but months into the war – months after the heady rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence has given way to the bloody, protracted reality of securing permanent separation from the Crown.

The scrawled text which opens the series is loaded with language that underlines how doomed this project seems – Washington’s forces are in retreat everywhere, and the men and women who will eventually call themselves Americans are dismissed as “insurgents,” “rebels,” “sympathisers.”

The geographical locus of the series is unusual, too; far from Philadelphia and the high political wranglings of the Continental Congress, this war plays out in the fields and woodlands surrounding the tiny community of Setauket, Long Island. Here is fledgling America at its most untameable: the action takes place, not in the stately buildings and hushed council chambers of John Adams, but along boggy coastlines and in ancient forests. New York City, the main counterpoint to the wilderness of Setauket, is a bawdy, corrupt place filled with licentious theatres, shadowed corners, and dank jails.

The people of isolated, inconsequential Setauket, then, react to the continuing British occupation with varying degrees of disgruntlement. Among them, struggling to get through the war unscathed, is Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell), a young farmer with a family to feed and a maggoty crop of cabbages to tend.

Abe is no idealistic hero – he is more concerned with the debts against his name than with the lofty aims of independence, yet he finds himself drawn against his will back into the orbit of his old friends, bluecoated Connecticut Dragoon Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and scruffy smuggler Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall). Tallmadge and Brewster, their bridges in Setauket burned through public declaration of their Patriotism, and aware that the dastardly British have a mole in the Continental army, single out their old friend to turn spy for the rebels.

Even before he is recruited, Abe’s efforts to keep the marks and taints of war from his door are increasingly futile; there are British regulars billeted in his house, their red coats a violent and ominous disruption to the grubby, autumnal palette of his farm. Even his little son is a political battleground – his wife, Mary, warns against teaching the boy to walk (“the sooner he can walk, the sooner he can march”) only days before Abe’s father brings a soldier toy fit for a future Loyalist.

No matter how hard Abe tries to hold onto the structures and traditions that have shaped his life, he can see them crumbling before his eyes. There is a naivety to his conviction that life will revert to its old rhythms once the war is over. Legacies, his father warns, have been sullied forever and irreparable rifts are opening in the community. Lovers are torn apart by politics, church pews are ripped out and replaced with officers’ desks, and the respect and obedience once considered a parent’s due are no longer foregone conclusions.

The simmering tensions and ambiguous loyalties at play in Setauket are symptomatic of the larger crises of social, moral, and political authority that made the Revolution possible. Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman, in excellent pursed-lipped form), the local commander, loudly heralds the primacy of the law from the safety of his garrison, even as, outside, villagers re-enact the most mythologised of anti-establishment stories - Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot - with a gusto that makes it difficult to discern where their sympathies lie.

It is all too easy to forget how distinct the colonies were from each other in 1776, and the vast, perilous distances people, goods, and information had to traverse. The task of building a nation from insular, isolated localities was immense, haphazard – we forget, too, how unlikely a Patriot victory was at almost every stage of the war. It was almost inconceivable that the British crown would be defeated by these upstart provincial rebels, especially when so many were cut from the same cloth as Abe Woodhull; politicised accidentally and against their will, seeking nothing more than a quiet life.

This is what Turn does best; it explodes the myth of inevitability, and reminds us that America’s future was far from secure in 1776, by flipping the triumphalist, teleological motifs of previous cultural incarnations of the Revolution on their head. There is plenty that is familiar here – cold, plum-voiced British officers, plucky tavern wenches, gruff Scotsmen – but there is much more that is new, or different, or troubling.

This is a grimier, messier Revolutionary War than we usually see, one where vicious scout groups wage amoral, opportunistic guerrilla warfare in the undergrowth, and where political allegiance is based as much on pragmatism as principle. "They picked the wrong side," Abe’s father, Richard, says of Patriot families forced to flee the town, urging his son to break all ties with dangerous sympathisers. Even if we know that, eventually, he will be proved wrong, Turn captures the desperate uncertainty of the Revolutionary era, and in so doing, renders the actions of the rebels – especially the reluctant among them – more remarkable and more extraordinary. There is a sweet and knowing irony to Major Hewlett’s smug quotation from Henry IV, Part II, when, relaxing after a fine meal, safe in the knowledge of the might of the British army, he declares, "O God! that one might read the book of fate,/ And see the revolution of the times/ Make mountains level, and the continent,/ Weary of solid firmness, melt itself/ into the sea!"

Rachel Williams is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about Sleepy Hollow. She is a writer living in Nottingham. You can find her twitter here.

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In Which We Cannot Touch On This For Long

Someone Was Awake


The last few nights I’ve been sleeping with the window open. A few trains pass by our home in the night, and as you can imagine, the sound is even more robust without the window as a buffer. This nightly occurrence drives my housemate up the wall, stirs up the curses in her when the train’s route is brought up by guests. She rants it's the only reason why she was able to afford a down-payment on the house. But I like it.

All my associations with trains have been very positive. Growing up, my parents had a tiny condo off of Clear Lake, Iowa. We’d drive up on the weekends to ski, fish, visit the dollar theater in town, and spend time in the park. Sometimes, a carnival would come through, and I would be allowed to ride on one or two “safe-looking” rides. Clear Lake is quaint. Thursday evenings are celebrated by locals, during which time they have their own festivals and parades. But aside from a few weeks of the summer, we were one of the invaders — the tourists that come to vacation Friday-Sunday. I’m afraid it won’t always stay so sweet, but a part of me still wants to get married on a white Missouri Ferryboat, lovingly named “The Lady of the Lake,” that has resided there since before I first visited the lake for the first time as a little girl.

One Halloween my parents let me attend a ghost-story night that was hosted on the top deck of the boat, under the stars. Regardless of the time of year, though, in the middle of the night you could hear the train pass through town. And every time I heard it, I remember feeling a warmth, the passing “oh yeah — there it is.” Someone was awake, in the middle of the night, steering the train. Someone was driving a beautiful, metal beast through the flat plains of the Midwest, keeping watch. I always slept so well those weekends, even if it was more to do with the physical exhaustion and heat then anything else.

In my early twenties, I moved to small town in Missouri that was a common stop for trains along the way to Kansas City and St. Louis. The summers there were considerably warmer, stickier than in Iowa. My friends and I would stay up on the back porch, usually lounging in a hammock and a few folding chairs, talking into the early morning hours, the bugs being electrified to death to the soundtrack of some new music L had just found. I miss that girl.

Once I escaped by train from an unbearably awkward situation which occurred during a cousin’s wedding. For everyone’s pride, I won’t go into details, but I was annoyed to the point that I called my grandmother a few hours away in Minot, North Dakota to see if I could stay with her immediately after the celebration was all over. From Minot, I took the train to St. Paul, where I was greeted by a few university friends and flowers. Escaping by train sounds silly and archaic to the point where I expect associations to fork at either a John Wayne western or a Russian novel. The situation is, of course, laughable now. As cliche as it sounds, if it were to happen again, I would’ve done the exact same thing. I spent most of the actual trip to St. Paul watching the sun rise through the train windows and reveling in the sensation of how much I wanted to stay on it — just a little while longer, much like kids on swings. 

When I moved to Oxford, my mother and I had planned a mini-trip beforehand. The ride from London to Oxford was considerably less romantic, lots of stuffy commuters and stink and noise. And of course, we were dragging along with us a considerable amount of luggage as I would be staying for some time. Still, I can’t imagine Great Britain without trains, and I hope the day never comes when my associations between the two lessen. There’s something nice, too, in knowing that a massive city was right there, on the cusp of our very old town, just an hour or so out.

It seems nothing short of fitting that my window is just eclipsed by the fence that helps to pull the trains past our home in the middle of the night in Austin. I hope that I always live in a place with trains that sing loud enough for me to hear them, but far enough away for me to still interpret it as just that: singing.

For legal reasons, I can’t touch on this point for long, but at the assisted living home in which I work, one of the residents shares my love of trains. In the car, he always points out what train it is, where it must be going, and how far it could keep rolling if it so desired. He even owns an old hat that he wears religiously with a prominent train logo on the front. It’s the kind of hat a mom would’ve ruined in the wash, or thrown out in secret. He might love trains more than anyone I’ve ever met, and probably ever will. This thought simultaneously fills me and then, all of a sudden, threatens to drench me in a kind of sadness — as is a pattern with so many things I experience. For whatever reason, I’m deeply disposed to melancholy, which I manage — even at moments like this, thinking of mortality. I’ve kept at the managing for years, and have finally grown comfortable enough with it as a companion. We’ve made a truce, but I’m the one that upholds the peace.

My birthday was a few days ago, and I’m struck by how the life I have lived — outside of me — has been beautiful so far. And I say that in a detached kind of way — looking at the facts, people, and places— lining them up on a timeline, finding myself shocked, and weirdly denying that I’m involved. These memories just involve figures that looked like me and thought and acted like me — but distinctly aren’t me. Said figures are passing through that place, loving and being loved by these people, and raising some sort of hell, and listening for trains in the night.

Writing all this about trains makes me wonder if I’d much rather get married on a train than a ferryboat. Yes, and if not on a train, maybe a train station somewhere. Do conductors have the same power to marry people as sea captains? Just so we’re clear, this train-wedding tangent is only half of the absurd girlhood fantasies I haven’t managed to shake in adulthood, if I’m honest. And to put it even more bluntly, I can’t write over 500 words about why I wanted to get married in a water-processing plant for quite some time. It’s a long story that I have no intention of telling, so here I am making myself ridiculous on another topic: trains. Come fall, I’ll be returning to my masters program in the Hill Country of Texas. During my commutes, I will be delayed by the seemingly endless train that cuts through the middle of the town, which will bring on a new-found annoyance for the steaming, huffing beauty. But that’s no matter; all Beauty can act like that.  

Micah Ruelle is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. You can find her twitter here and her tumblr here.

Photographs by the author.

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In Which We Recline In A Zebra-Striped Bathtub

Science Is Over


At the dawn of the 1980s, no one’s wardrobe was complete without a pair of Fiorucci jeans. Preferably you would have seven of the skin-tight pairs — one in every color of the rainbow, to be worn with your gold Fiorucci cowboy boots. When he turned 15, Marc Jacobs "saved and saved" for his first pair. Miuccia Prada has claimed to have only ever owned one pair of jeans; they were from Fiorucci. Diana Ross, Jackie Onassis, and Lauren Bacall were fans, as was every 13-year-old girl with a Seventeen magazine subscription.

Elio Fiorucci opened his first shop in Milan in 1967 not with couture in mind, but with the idea of bringing the London street trends of the Youthquake movement to Italy. The Fiorucci line debuted shortly after in 1970. However, Elio was a marketing whiz with a taste for the outré, not a designer. The clothing reflected this; much of the line consisted of basics like polo shirts, denim jackets, and tote bags emblazoned with Fiorucci’s winged putti logo.

To Elio’s credit, before Fiorucci, designer denim was unheard of. The company was also one of the first to embrace a global aesthetic, importing not just English looks, but also drawing inspiration from traditional prints and fashions of India and Brazil, with Fiorucci sending young trendspotters around the world (or downtown) to scout for unique local styles to be reproduced by the label. "What he had done was to capture a kind of international ideal of teenage promise and bottle it," said Eve Babitz, author of Fiorucci: The Book.

While the garish fashions of Fiorucci may have rarely made the pages of Women’s Wear Daily, the stores’ parties did. The opening of the Beverly Hills store was famously shut down by the Los Angeles fire department. A year later, Blondie held a post-concert party in the same store to celebrate their album Parallel Lines going platinum. Attendees Wilt Chamberlain, James Woods, and Karen Black watched as Debbie Harry arrived in a World War II tank. Today one can revisit the scene by watching Xanadu, which features Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck dancing to ELO’s "All Over the World" while Gene Kelly shops for a new suit.

The fluorescence of the Beverly Hills shop may have been permanently archived on celluloid, but the real epicenter of Fiorucci’s cool was its New York store at 125 East 59th Street. Opening in the spring of 1976, it soon became a destination for all those young and weird. The press compared its atmosphere of debauchery to that of Studio 54. In 1977, New York magazine would declare: "All it took this year to achieve instant chic, day or night, at the slickest New York party or the trashiest was a pair of $110 gold cowboy boots from Fiorucci."

Much of the store’s cachet was due to its eccentric staff. Klaus Nomi, drag performer Joey Arias, designer and filmmaker Maripol, and Madonna’s brother Christopher Ciccone all worked for Fiorucci during its heyday. The store was one of the first places to sell Betsey Johnson’s clothing and exhibit Keith Haring’s artwork. Fiorucci’s knack for youth-driven pop-art consumerism also attracted the likes of Andy Warhol. Surrounded by a coterie that included Truman Capote, Warhol launched Interview magazine with an in-store party. Douglas Coupland was inspired to quit studying physics after visiting the store.

"There was this absolute density of color and imagery," Coupland recalled. "I just thought it was the most perfect place I had ever been to." He brought back a postcard (the only thing he could afford). “It was on my desk. I looked at it and thought, 'Science is over.' I stopped caring about school. I had been a straight-A student and I started getting D’s. It felt like the best drug ever, and I thought, 'If this is what a bad grade feels like, this is great!'"

The store was a playground of glitter and spandex. Wide-eyed squares in their drab trench coats regularly gathered in front of the legendary window displays to see fashion at its most fun and subversive. It was Shangri-la for freaks and the conservative world couldn’t get enough. A People article from 1981 describes one memorable display: “Wearing a Merry Widow corset, bikini bottoms, fishnet stockings, and spiked heels, the Barbie Doll model reclined in a zebra-striped bathtub that had been placed in the window of Fiorucci's Manhattan store. For the next six hours she read smutty paperbacks, ate bananas, and blew bubbles — to the delight of a street crowd pressing 20 deep against the window.”

By way of explaining Fiorucci’s aesthetic, the article quotes Elio as calling haute couture “pathetic.” He embraced a certain trashiness in dress — lamé, peek-a-boo plastic, animal prints — literally incarnated when the store gave away miniature garbage-pail backpacks covered in brand-name stickers to customers who spent over $150.

Despite its popularity, the New York store wasn’t necessarily profitable. In the beginning, Fiorucci bet on the store’s ability to establish the brand’s image within the United States and, in turn, entice retailers around the country to sell Fiorucci merchandise, increasing the company’s wholesale business. At first the gamble paid off, and profits quadrupled the year following the store’s opening.

However, the label was built around the fickle tastes of the youth market and success was short-lived. Soon after Fiorucci jeans hit the market, Calvin Klein signed a jeanswear deal and his brand would emerge as the new must-have designer denim, bringing along with it his beige-on-beige minimalism as the look du jour. The Manhattan Fiorucci shuttered in 1988. The brand was further hindered by a series of ineffective business deals and relaunches that flopped.

Today a Williams-Sonoma occupies the 59th Street address and the Fiorucci name doesn't hold the same prestige it once did, but its impact remains. The boy who once spent his summers hanging out in the store, Marc Jacobs, has said his Marc line is influenced by the label. And the cheap plastic key chains and makeup compacts of his accessories boutique are certainly a nod to the tourist-friendly knickknacks Fiorucci used to carry. Any store that has hired a DJ and tried to turn retail into a party experience (ahem, Fashion’s Night Out) is indebted to the Italian label, as is anyone who has tried bring a little sex and trash into fashion.  

Helen Schumacher is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and here. She last wrote in these pages about Device 6.

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