Sunday, June 01, 2008

Irony, Torpor and God Bless America

In the FT yesterday, Joseph O'Neill, a novelist and once a Londoner, describes the experience of returning to Britain after six years living in New York. He has published a successful novel in America and he is here to promote it, but he finds himself 'having trouble understanding how literary effort is made visible these days.' A friend suggests the British are suffering from 'terminal irony'. This has been said many times since Peter Cook predicted that our islands would sink giggling beneath the waves, but it's still true. Lack of seriousness is a serious problem - and not just when it comes to taking books seriously.  I had a similar experience to O'Neill when I returned from just seven weeks in the US. I felt bereft. The Americans may be foolishly hopeful, they may place too much faith in the future, but at least their hope and faith make them alert. The inattentive torpor of Britain is shocking, especially in political discourse. Gordon Brown, when I left, was being written off, now he appears to be stone dead. The political analysis of this amounts to little more than a shrug of the shoulders - 'Oh well, he's crap.' Not long ago, the same political analysts were saying  'He's great'. But nobody studies the move from great to crap, they just run with the herd, unthinking. At least I can say - apart from a brief deluded period when I thought he was outwitting the Tories - that I always thought he was crap. In America, the political analysis, especially on MSNBC and, sometimes, CNN, is superb. It also contains information - remember that, guys? The British (and many Americans) don't notice it because they are distracted by the razzmatazz. While there, I found myself doubting Obama in many ways, but, finally, came round to the view that he is the only rational choice, not least for the genuinely conservative-minded, as Andrew Sullivan never tires of saying. But it's not just about politics, it's about a whole way of viewing the world. On my first day back home I was treated with casual, offhand contempt in a series of chance contacts. I wouldn't have noticed it before, but, after the extravagant politeness of America, it came as a shock. The British used to mock the 'have a nice day' culture as false and, somehow, corrupt. But it's a thousand times better than our own surly sub-culture and, anyway, if professionalisation and training produce good manners, what's wrong with that? And it's not cynical and skin-deep. Some of the most interesting conversations I had in the US were with waiters and shop assistants. Here I wouldn't bother. We have, as I wrote on my return, a problem, a dimming of our imaginations, a closing of our minds. Occasionally this results in pathetic, knee-jerk attitudinising. I couldn't believe that Standpoint magazine launched itself on the world with this story. But I suppose it's reliable, both the Mail and the Telegraph run it every six months or so. Yeah, yeah, Britain is going to the dogs and we just have to get back to middle class values/hanging and flogging/Christianity, whatever. It's just like the Brown thing - great to crap - it's just so easy, it requires no thought, no seriousness. So-called right-wingers are playing at being Old Tories, which is a joke. Old Tories were serious, the smug British right are just giggling like everybody else and don't get me started on the left. 
But I'm stuck here. I suppose I could start sorting the place out one surly shop assistant or one bad political column at a time or I could slump into the same old torpor. But, on the whole, I think I'll just focus on America and spend my time having nice days.


  1. With the notable exception of the FT there is no paper that provides ongoing info from around the World to these islands. I do not mean the chap/ette lobbed grenade like into some unfortunate part, but real stuff. The stuff where you go Ahh, so that is why. It is not that long ago when there was a person PAYED to ferret out what was going on. When was the last time you read from Canberra something that could not have been placed by the PM's office. Ditto, Canada, India, SA or Paris for that matter. And where is the local info, the why of developers when they are doing it and also the banks or the governments.
    If there was something more in the papers then you might be readier to engage with the food server, who might then have an take on a issue. As it stands, all he has to go on is the fragrant smoke like that served by those attending Stonehenge.

  2. I really don't want to be churlish or bad mannered but this is sanctimonious, naive drivel. OK you had a nice holiday. But this is dangerously naive nonsense. Sure, yeah, let's celebrate the nation that brought us the CIA, Dubya, idiotic fundamentalists; that dropped atom bombs on Japanese cities, fire bombed Tokyo; screwed up innumerable nations in South America, secretly bombed Cambodia killing 600,000 people, started a dumb unintelligent war in Iraq (twice), tortures innocent people and nurtures torture academies - fill in the rest can you? We don't use the death penalty: they do. That's a little worse isn't than a few surly 'servants'. Yup? Guantanamo Bay is DISGRACE. These nationalistic score charts get us nowhere. Yes we have a tired, bankrupt labour government: but we don't waste billions on STUPID egotistical self regarding election campaigns that bore the rest of the world for months on end. Come on man, these are the masters of war right? Get a grip.


  4. MSNBC, Bryan? All the news channels are pretty awful - I've given up watching any of them - but MSNBC has to be the worst. Keith Olbermann is a failed sports presenter, for God's sake. As for Obama, to those who, like me, have lived there, he is a typical Chicago politician. He may be smart - everybody says he is, anyway - but he is also jaw-droppingly ignorant - 57 states, confusing Memorial Day with Veterans Day, not knowing when WWII actually began, completely wrong about the JFK-Krushchev Vienna Summit. Of course, on American radio, there used to a show called It Pays to Be Ignorant.

  5. Bryan, having focused my blogging on the home front of late, I can tell you we Canadians have yet another thing in common with you Brits: say anything at all positive about the Americans and you will immediately call forth a gaggle of crabby little xenophobes outraged that you ignore that notorious Yankee addiction to murder and mayhem. I suspect they stay up late memorizing their lists of outrages the way good Christians used to memorize the Beatitudes. Treason, sir, treason.

    Your experience reminds me of ours in the American South, which we have passed through several times in recent years. I keep looking for Jim-Bob shootin' nigras for Jesus from his pick-up truck and lots of other dysfunctional characters from films and novels, but all I ever meet are very pleasant, helpful and interesting people of both races. I guess I'm just not trying hard enough.

  6. The comparison of attitudes is accurate, take it further and include the Germans and we really do begin to look sad.
    I first noticed this through manufacturing, you may have noticed that we no longer have a manufacturing industry of note (allegedly the market capitalisation of one German company, Siemens, is worth more than the entire British manufacturing industry.)
    The Americans broke down the manufacturing process into its simplest form, documenting everything, they assume that you know nothing and start from there, an outstanding example of this is the maintenance training manual for the old Willies jeep, a model of clarity. They, after all showed the Japanese how to bolt things together. The British idea is to assume you know and just get on with it, then walk away and let you get on with it.
    It is only when you see what else is out there that the penny drops.
    An absolute howler of a programme was the one where a few years ago the still mainly unemployed workers from Chrysler Linwood were asked "if you had the same situation again, what would you do ?"
    "The same thing" they said, early stone age I would say.

  7. The sports presenter thing elevates Olbermann in my eyes, Frank. I was really bad at flower shows and golden weddings on the Wimbledon News.

  8. Well, what can I say? I am an American, from the American South, and I'm pleased you enjoyed yourself here. We're not all dumb, obviously, or rude. We're not all fat on McD's hamburgers. But there are A LOT of problems that have to do with the aggressiveness of our government.

    Reminds me of something your great writer Jim Crace said: He really, really wanted to hate America, based on "America Abroad," how ugly it looks, how pervasively influential it is, but then he came here and found he can't hate the people he's met and the friends he's made. He's got a great Amazon download called "America: Love, Hate, and Kicking Ass." I think it covers your feelings pretty well, Bry.

    Moi, I love G.B. and your ironic selves. Keep being cranky.

  9. Apart from England, the only culture i've experienced is Italy, but while i wouldn't describe the spaghetti-benders as 'serious', they have notably more energy & interest-in-things than the English. i interviewed 20 young Italians - most of them had excellent English, and most of them were full of curiosity and passion. Ordinarily i despise career-motivated pro-active apple polishers but with the wops it was an expression of their interest in life, it was pleasing and inspiring.

    English graduates of the same age by contrast were listless, couldn't speak anything but English (and that badly), and showed no curiosity or even awareness of the world. Once in Italy they made no effort to learn Italian and were only interested in nightclubs and alcohol.

    Another difference - when Italians found out i read Dante, or wrote stories etc., they reacted as if i had some unusual (if incomprehensible) accomplishment, and would nod with a certain respect. i guess any Brit would know how the average Englishperson reacts if they see you with Shakespeare or Milton, or find out you write stories - with something between genial derision and all-out contempt.

    Every time i meet a good Brit and think there's some hope for us, they go on to say how much they hate the UK, or how they're planning to emigrate asap.

  10. Malty, a note on the German Siemans' co. A friend of mine whose parents were Holocaust survivors pointed the name out to me once: "They made the gas chambers," he told me. Is that true? Jeez louise. Let's talk double-edged swords of technology.

  11. You're a cheerful wench Susan, there are a lot of stories about who knocked up the gas chambers, I had dealings with a company in the Black Forest who manufactured gas fired process equipment for the German car industry, his dad was rumoured to have made some of them, the clue might have been their company logo `Albeit Macht Frei`
    Apologies to Ernst R.....dt, sorry Ernst, only joking.
    A far more interesting story is IBM and the holocaust, that is fact (well, in their previous guise as Hollerith) a book well worth reading, their punch card machines kept the score, very accurately, how on earth did we get off the original topic ?

  12. I like it here, mostly.

    Though to be fair, I don't live in London.

    With McCarthy's No Country for Old Men still fresh in my mind, Bryan's Big Grump here looks remarkably similar to what the ageing Sheriff Bell says about America. Betcha old Italian codgers say the same about Italy.

    Everywhere is going to the dogs when you're starting to get on a bit. But people always think they're the first to spot a thing.

  13. I don't get the surly English thing. I think it's largely a front for shyness and lack of social skills. Our education system doesn't give kids the confidence to feel it's all out there for them, and that with a bit of can-do they can have a crack at life.

    If you engage the alleged surly-person directly, even for a moment, their apparent surliness often vanishes. Of course that doesn't always happen, and in that case I'll make a note to avoid the place/person. But I don't think real surliness is any more common in the UK than anywhere else.

  14. One way we Brits can cheer ourselves up, we could be worse, we could be sodding Swedes.

  15. I like it here, mostly.

    Though to be fair, I live in London.

    And all the rest of my family are farmers and I can escape to the country whenever I feel like it. The proper, working, country that is, not some verdant dormitory.

  16. Hold on a minute Bryan. I hear loads of Americans saying Dubya is crap in the same way we label Brown. We do have earnest polticians in the UK - the problem is too many of them end up like Ed Balls and not Frank Field. For all it's faults, I'd still rate the BCC ahead of MSNBC, Olbermann's thuggish rant against Hillary last week was off the scale (though I am partial to Morning Joe). Finally, there are lots of fascinating Slovak and Polish waiters and shop assistants in the UK if you took the time to talk to them - many have outstanding degrees in serious subjects. Oh, and we've got Stonehenge too.

  17. I didn't want to leap in on this but to go away and think about it. In that time we have had the thoroughly predictable xenophobic reactions.

    I still think the Americans may be more refined and intellectual that they are also more narrow, that little bit more locked into their own point of view and not willing enough to be self-critical. Though the Brits are bad enough I think the political discourse is more aware of and more open to the POV of other cultures.

    I have said a bit more in this article reflecting on the differences between the Huff Post and Comment is Free.

  18. Ah, the back-from-holiday blues. Everything looks so fresh, so exciting when you are away. People are pleased to talk to you just because you are you, a little bit exotic. There is always something interesting to do ans see. And people are desperate to serve you and look after you and accept your money because they really, really like you.