For the life of me, I cannot see what David Cameron was thinking. Stiff as a waterboard, there he went, onto Letterman to face an audience of my compatriots, supposedly to “bang the drum of British business”. Did he not think that BP had done enough damage? He was very worthy and neither likeable nor wholeheartedly dislikeable, just affirming to America that, like the perception of British food, this country’s people are as insipid and as humourless as salty Scottish gruel. So worthy and so bland.
Somewhat bizarrely, much like his first Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons — not as Prime Minister but in opposition facing off against Tony in his last days — he seemed to come off very left of centre, which may suggest he knows how to play a Letterman audience after all. Facts of existence in the UK like the absence of gun usage and the thought of carrying a gun being incomprehensible drew cheers from the live audience, as did the fact that political parties are not allowed to advertise on British TV. Period.
But the point of the exercise still baffles me. Letterman controlled the banter and all the best lines were his, as they should be, so the only motivation one can possible detect is that this appearance is the latest in the bizarre oneupmanship contest between Cameron and the more affably charismatic Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who also appeared on Letterman in June, and who, unlike Cameron, took an equal share of the best lines and drew a much better reaction from the audience with all his bumbling and foppish Freudian slips (Letterman: Would you ban giant sodas [as Bloomberg has done]? Johnson: I I I… We’re not that… We’re not that… Whilst I am certainly bigger than Mike [Bloomberg], as a city, we’re not that… … fat. YET. [hearty and appreciative, self-deprecating guffaws from the audience]).
Much as it kills me to admit it, Boris is one conservative that I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with on all policies. He opposes a third runway at Heathrow, is pro-public transport, pro-cyclist, and stood up to Romney over the summer when Mitt paraded his blustering ignorance in the field of statesmanship doubting out loud that the capital could handle the Olympics. He’s very far from perfect, but his interview is well worth watching and quite entertaining.
Several weeks ago, after I had got back from spending the end of the summer in Ireland, I blogged about native Irish wit and the ability of our Hibernian cousins to take something that has become commonplace and squeeze it with a fresh twist of something subtle, unexpected, and intelligent. There is something of the same spirit in the slogan that Obama (I’m going to say he did it, likely as not it was one of ‘his people’ but I’m just going to pretend) coined or rather gave new life to through translation into Irish last year on his state visit to trace his family’s Irish roots to Moneygall in County Offaly.
Not to be outdone by HR the Q in her visit four days earlier – the first by an English monarch to The Republic of Ireland, when King George visited in 1911, it was still part of the UK – when she opened her speech in Dublin with “A Uachtaráin agus a chairde (President and friends)”, Potus closed his speech “as gaeilge” with the now famous “Is Feider Linn” (Colloquially, “Yes we can!” Say it with me, IS-Fayder-lin).
Like the French, the Irish like it when foreigners at least make an effort to speak the language that has been so neglected for so long by its own people and the Irish certainly like a president who is willing to come back home to find his roots. A cynic might say that he knows how to pay homage to the old Kennedy Irish American lobby, which there may be a bit of, but I think he did genuinely really enjoy himself and he certainly endeared himself to the people of Ireland by going one better than Dubya and sipping some of the black stuff in Moneygall local Ollie Hayes Pub.
There’s a perpetual debate in Ireland about whether the nation’s policies and politics in general should be closer to Europe or the North Atlantic, succinctly put as “Are we closer to Boston or Berlin?” I think it’s clear how the Irish felt on this occasion.
What I didn’t realise until my recent visit is that the above image is now doing the rounds on postcards all over Ireland, commemorating the occasion with the phrase, “Tall, Dark and Had Some”. Irish wit.
Especially with the Romney campaign starting to look desperate, I think it’s worth popularizing the Celtic version of Obama’s tagline and chanting it at rallies as it is so indelibly associated with hope and possibility. Like some secret victory code. You start. Go ahead. Is Feider Linn. Is Feider Linn. Is Feider Linn…
I was ready to like Leonardo DiCaprio as the eponymous protagonist in this upcoming adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann. I had forgiven them both for Romeo and Juliet and had come to accept that cinematic effort in all its smoking guns glory as a useful and exciting way to introduce teenagers to one of the most difficult stories Shakespeare has to offer in terms of engagement and narrative.
I thought Carey Mulligan would work as the beautiful, thoughtless and morally bereft Daisy Buchanan, and I actually thought Toby Maguire was perfect for Nick Carraway, the deceptively innocent looking young man from the Midwest who comes out to New York to make a living and resist the city corrupting his soul while he hypocritically claims the moral high ground.
Nor am I so close-minded as to think that a non-American director can’t handle an American story. Sam Mendes did too good a job with American Beauty for anyone to think that.
Apprehensive though my English teacher’s heart was about this sublime story being given the Hollywood treatment again, I had been convinced by various parties and was ready to believe that it could be done with style and still convey some sense of the aesthetic wonder that is Fitzgerald’s prose.
And then I saw the trailer.
It left me with something nameless beyond apprehension, something approaching dread. How can you tell a quintessentially ‘Jazz Age’ story without jazz? What this trailer appears to do is take Gatsby out of the roaring 20s, and place him firmly in the twentyteens (that seems all right, doesn’t it?) not so much roaring as swaggering with his trousers around his knees and his bling firmly on show, dressed to impress.
Which is not to say I have a problem with the presence of hip hop or even Jack White’s cover of U2’s ‘Love is Blind’. I can actually see the parallels and the reasoning perfectly. The song that was chosen for the trailer, ‘No Church in the Wild’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West, seems to ‘teach the lesson’ of Gatsby, dropping lines like, ‘When we die the money we can’t keep,’ but it also talks about ‘the girl in all leopard… rubbing the wood like Kiki Shepherd,’ not quite the flapper dresses, feather boas and the Charleston of the roaring 20s.
But still, I can see the temptation. In all honesty, there is a lot of rap that is about acquiring material wealth and flaunting it as a kind of two fingers to an oppressive state and rigid class structure that has made it all but impossible to acquire such wealth or any sort of social mobility. And Gatsby is a man who makes his fortune dishonestly but for what seem like the right reasons, holding a quixotic candle for years to one day impress Daisy in the same way Pip one day would like to be ‘good enough’ for Stella. So the excess, the decadence, and the emptiness is all there. And I can see that.
But why then does it need to be updated? Why take away the joie de vivre of jazz that ultimately evokes the hollowness of the glitz and glitter indulged in by these characters, especially when that loud whizz bang blare of apparent life and unthinking esprit serves to heighten the depths of pathos at the end?
It’s not as though it’s a story that’s completely alien to us. The young and the restless of a generation get carried away speculating with money they either don’t have or that doesn’t exist or will never come back from bad loans but no one heeds the warnings because everybody’s having fun. No one wants to hear about it because everybody’s too busy spending money and partying. The desolation when the party stops is stark and unbearable. Sound familiar anyone?
Those of us who have been in education or in theatre or just appreciators of beautifully composed language know that translation is an occasional but lamentable necessity and that something is always lost. Will what appears to be one long F Scott Fitzgerald inspired music video manage to convey the existential longing in lines like ‘Men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…’ and the subsequent tragedy, or will this story be a narrative with the life-blood cruelly drawn out of it? Will this, in the more modern sense of the word be, simply a tragedy?
I had just begun to feel comfortably at ease with my nation being, if not the object of affection, at least, as Happy Loman put it, ‘liked but not well liked,’ widely generating respect and general good feeling around the world.
I lived in the UK during the Bush years, when that right honourable Texan went around brazenly offending the world for eight years, storming out of Mexican state dinners, invading Middle Eastern countries under false pretences and rather callously joking about it, and doing his best to alienate Muslims and the whole of Europe at the same time (no mean feat).
I’m familiar with the generic reaction — ‘Who cares? We’re American Dammit! We do what we want and if the rest of the world has a problem with it, they can go take a jump in a lake! U!S!A! U!S!A! U!S!A!’ Which is fine. There are plenty of other countries who adopt similar attitudes, China, Iran and Malaysia among them, but I for one would like to avoid odious comparisons, not invite them.
And our current president, for whom I have great respect, has made great headway in healing the wounds opened and liberally salted by his predecessor, building bridges and consciously acknowledging America’s important part in and dependence on the global community.
Which, I suppose, is one of the reasons why it seems such a shock to me that the divide between the Middle East and the West is still so acrimonious and so filled with the bitter bile of irrational, mutual antipathy.
It puts me in mind of September 11th, 2001, when I lived in Dublin, and saw first hand how Dubya inevitably failed to even attempt to open channels of communication between America and the moderate voices in the Middle East, but instead, went in, unilateral guns blazing, ingloriously entrenching us first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. In doing so, he effectively obliterated the genuinely heartfelt outpouring of sympathy that the rest of the world had expressed for the indescribable tragedy that was 9-11 and very quickly ignited and fanned the flames of Anti-Americanism for the rest of his time in office.
The barely elected man-child gave the world every excuse to berate America in terms of the laziest and shallowest of stereotypes, condemning me as an American abroad to morning break monologues and dinner party diatribes decrying the loudness, brashness, obnoxiousness, arrogance, and naked belligerence of Americans. After the kind of battering foreign policy and countless Bushisms did to our reputation abroad, it became damn difficult to defend our nation. I did my best, but I wasn’t a paid diplomat.
I ended up playing devil’s advocated on both sides, which I suppose is a tautology in terms of devil’s advocates. I argued with friends and family back home who astounded me with their support for what seemed to me to be a catastrophic and vindictive military action. But I also argued with my colleagues who persistently encouraged me to attend anti-war demonstrations in Dublin, to which I would always frown, shake my head and say, ‘No. It’s simply uncritical anti-Americanism at its best. I can’t go.’
Due in part to their repeated insistence that it was ‘anti-American foreign policy not anti-American,’ and in part to curiosity about something happening so close to me and to which I felt so intimately connected, I did eventually attend and take part in one of the largest anti-war demonstrations at the time. Nothing unusual there: placards, posters, beards, megaphones, chants, the usual. I was taken aback however when I saw one young member of the Socialist Workers’ Party flying Old Glory. And then I realized it wasn’t. The stripes and the colours were there all right, but in place of the stars were neatly lined swastikas, all 50 of them. Sanctimonious as it may sound, something bilious lurched in my stomach. After all, this was just a flag, but it was also a national symbol that I had stood to attention for and adored, hand on heart pledging undying allegiance to every day of my childhood. That kind of indoctrinated loyalty doesn’t just fall away because you criticize your leaders. And here was the symbol of my nation superimposed with a symbol of everything that is loathsome and base in humanity.
This did not bolster my colleagues’ case about the nature of the demonstrations and I felt at least temporarily vindicated in thinking both sides were uncritically dogmatic. But, as a friend told me on recounting the demonstration years later, a flag is a symbol and means very different things to different people. The Irish tricolour, which means freedom fighting and resonates with phrases like ‘tiocfaidh ar la!’ (‘Our Day Will Come!) is never flown in schools in Ireland for fear associations with militancy. The Union Flag (sometimes incorrectly called the Union Jack), once indelibly associated with imperialism, has acquired a cult status cool that’s gone from punk rock right into the main stream and onto toilet seats and SMEG fridges.
Hard and bitter a pill as it is for us to swallow, there are many who see the flag above as more representative of the kind of American foreign policy that’s struck a dangerously Machiavellian balance of sabre-rattling, ‘devil-you-know’ funding, and bombing back to the stone age that’s left many with the bitter taste of ash on their tongues.
It is certainly more difficult to engage with other nations while being a critical friend to our own, and infinitely more complicated, but the fundamentalists of the right wing of America have spent too long nourishing the bitter nightmares of a sleeping tiger (forgive the exotic metaphor) and unless we start to engage with the rest of the world in meaningful terms, I fear we have only begun to feel its bite. Yes, it is easier to be an American abroad now than it once was, but as we revel in our current chic, we also find ourselves, as another great American writer once put it, ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
|The Dolly with The Trolley (image taken from http://www.awaycity.com)|
|Grand Canal Dock Basin, fisheye view|
|Image taken from http://www.coffeyfilter.com|