I’ve been visiting London and the north of England for the past few days. Since I moved to the US in 2005, I’ve neglected British politics somewhat. I look at the news now and then, but it all seems increasingly strange. The saga of Gordon Brown is completely bewildering to me – his popularity now restored by the worst financial crisis in the country’s history? Whatever happened to “no more boom and bust”? Whatever happened to “prudence with a purpose”? (Allow me to mention a headline I once wrote for The Economist: “Gordon and Prudence–It’s So Over.” Little did I know.) It all seems such a long time ago.
And yet, in other respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Mohamed Fayed is on the front page of the Evening Standard still, this time questioned over an alleged sexual assault – which he vehemently denies. Peter Mandelson is back in government, and “Tory sleaze” is a resurgent theme: these stories seem to have the same Russian oligarch in common, which is a new twist, but still. When Mandelson left office for the second time, and the papers were saying his political career was over, I bet my friend and FT colleague Gideon Rachman a fiver that he would be back for a third spell in due course. And so it proved. However, Gideon now denies all knowledge of this wager. Did I dream it? I think not. I am searching for documentary support. Had blogs existed back then, I feel I would be in the money.
Private Eye is the fixed point around which the country revolves. Could anything be more English? The current issue has a disappointingly indulgent review of three new television programmes about America: travelogues looking at the United States as though it were another (much more vulgar) planet, narrated with effortless superiority by Stephen Fry, Simon Schama and Griff Rhys-Jones. I sampled all three, as it happens, and could not stand to watch more than five minutes of any of them. Simon Schama, striving for intellectual depth as well as flattering visuals, was worried about the water shortage out west. Driving through the Nevada desert, he talked about “paradise lost”. Was it a green and pleasant land before the gluttonous appetites of Las Vegas stripped it bare? Who’d have thunk? Never mind, I am very fond of the Nevada desert.
Also from the current Private Eye, a feature called “Dumb Britain” compiles idiotic answers from TV quiz shows. It has this:
The Weakest Link
Anne Robinson: In education, what is a formal cap worn by academics and also a piece of equipment used by bricklayers?
As a friend said when I read that out to her, “Aw.” But really, “The Weakest Link” is still in business? And Anne Robinson, I imagine, is still very stern and rude to her guests – who, if they prevail against her scorn and all odds, stand to win as much as Gideon owes me, or even a little more. How come she hasn’t died of boredom?
Back to the Standard, and another very British story. A 16-year old is stabbed to death for no reason. The killer is sentenced to 12 years. He should be out for his 30th birthday. The judge is quoted: “This was an unprovoked attack, but I accept that your intention was not to kill when you used [the knife] to inflict that fatal wound and that you have behavioural and learning difficulties.”
Yes, I dare say stabbing people falls under the heading of “behavioural difficulties”. Calling Theodore Dalrymple. Get me back to the land of the sane.