The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

June 9 2001 12:00 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

National sympathies are put on trial with remarkable frequency in these parts. This week, England lost two cricket matches to Pakistan: one in  Manchester and another in Birmingham. On Wednesday, England's soccer team defeated Greece, while Wales drew with Ukraine, and Northern Ireland lost to the Czech Republic. Earlier today, the British Lions—a touring rugby team made up of players from England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland—thrashed Western Australia 116-10. Yesterday, the Labor Party won another vast parliamentary majority, though critics of the government pointed out that because 40 percent of Britons chose not to vote in this year's general election—the lowest turnout since 1918—the victory was in some respects tainted. Home Secretary Jack Straw said, "The politics of contentment may be a factor in low turnout. …We will find after the election there are loads more people who wanted a Labor victory than actually turned out to vote." The composition of the House of Commons, however, remains almost unchanged, and Conservative leader William Hague's response to the result was to resign. A mixed week for some of the United Kingdom's sports teams, therefore, but for Labor's supporters, a reason to congratulate themselves on securing an unprecedented second full term in office. Among other things, the election proved good for the notion of a United Kingdom; it was a bad night for the separatist parties of Wales and Scotland. In London (which, incidentally, has 11 professional soccer teams—with six in the premier division), the Conservatives picked up two seats, though Labor won 55 of the 74 constituencies allocated to the capital. Prime Minister Tony Blair will now plot the Labor Party's further reform of Britain—including in all likelihood a referendum on which currency the British can expect to put in their wallets in a few years time—but for sporting types, now that the election is over there's the serious business of a summerlong series of cricket and rugby matches against the Australians to look forward to.

Britons, unlike Americans, do not easily move from one part of their country to another, though if a person does move, it's likely to be to London or the Home Counties. Which perhaps explains why former Prime Minister John Major was confronted by a poll in the early 1990s that suggested that almost 50 percent of Britons wanted to live in another country—preferably somewhere warm and wealthy. In adverse conditions, such as those of a decade ago, people felt stuck. If a similar poll were conducted today, the figure would presumably be lower; Britain has been warm recently. Nevertheless the desire to escape remains—even if the nature of the escape is usually temporary. (The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's statistics show that Britons emigrate to the United States in significant numbers.) Excluding business travel, Britons made 30 million international airplane journeys in 1999, 12 million of which were intercontinental jaunts. In London, the thought of escape is rarely remote—not for historical or environmental reasons (London was once a major port; the seagulls, when they're not shitlashing the streets, remind one of the ocean) but because of the ever-present drone of airplanes overhead. When the wind is from the west, as it usually is, the flight path to Heathrow Airport passes over much of south and west London (to the consternation of many inhabitants who complain about the increasing noise), and with each plane's passing there's yet another excuse to consider Abroad.

Just over  31 percent of Britons read a newspaper every day, and though there's an election here in a couple of days, the alterations to the Nepalese government seem more compelling to the papers than the British stump. Today, Britain's 12 national newspapers turned out 704 pages of newsprint (in varying sizes), which could all be bought for £4.99—about $7.10. There are the broadsheets: the Daily Telegraph, the  Times, the  Financial Times, the  Guardian, and the  Independent—whose daily circulations total 2,841,923. There are midsheets: the Daily Mail, the  Daily Express, and, if you're in London, the Evening Standard—circulation 3,862,157. Lastly, the tabloids: The Sun, the  Daily Mirror, the Scottish Daily Record, and the Daily Star—circulation 6,900,332. A total daily national newspaper circulation of 13,604,412. (The figures are drawn from Audit Bureau of Circulation's Web site, though Roy Greenslade, a respected media columnist for the Guardian and a former editor of the Mirror, expresses his doubts about the methodology employed to arrive at these numbers.) With the exception of the Daily Record, all these papers are published in London, and mostly they see the country and the world through a London lens. That's to say that what is regarded as news is what is seen as important for London—whether it's a question of politics or gossip or entertainment or whatever. For years, there was a class component to the press—for example, the Guardian would endorse Labor (and it continues to) and the Times would support the Conservatives, though for the first occasion in its history the Times has this year come out in support (albeit ponderously) of Tony Blair. Yet notions of class and ideology now seem more about theater than about consciousness. It is no longer true that one can assume a Briton's political allegiance by the paper they read any more than one can read a British newspaper and find a coherent political view.


FROM LONDON On Thursday, there will be a general election in Britain. Unlike the outcome of last year's American presidential race, the result is not in much doubt. More Britons, so it seems, will vote for Labor Party candidates in most of Britain's 658 parliamentary constituencies than for Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. A handsome Labor majority in the House of Commons is all but assured, and one can assume that the current Prime Minister Tony Blair, will claim his right to form a new government in the early hours of Friday morning. Since I am currently in London, this week's entries will be devoted to the city—not to the election (which you can follow by reading the British press), but to a variety of London themes. The first is about traffic since it is in cars, buses, and trains that people formulate some of their more strongly held views about the city where they live and work and where they read, listen to the radio, talk on mobile phones, and perhaps, if they are so inclined, make up their mind about who to vote for.


THE RAT RUN The street I live on in West London is a rat-run. That's to say, it is used by smart drivers in agile cars who turn to back streets, such as this one, to avoid the traffic on major roads during the rush hours. The borough council, Hammersmith & Fulham, supported by many local residents, has plans to stop the rats—with gates and "sleeping policemen" as speed bumps are known—though with fewer back streets the big roads to the south and to the north will resemble the endless and days-long traffic jams envisioned by Martin Amis in his novel London Fields. For anyone who must travel to work (4 million Londoners are employed, while 1 million commuters enter the city every day) there's public transport, but what with all the traffic the buses are slow. (In 1997, the average speed of vehicles during peak hours was 10 mph, but that figure has presumably declined.) Taxis, once the best way to rat-run London, have always been expensive. Commuting by rail from the suburbs and beyond has lately become unpredictable, while the London Underground is now so dilapidated and unreliable that Mayor Ken Livingstone has appointed an American, Bob Kiley (who helped revive New York's subway system), to reverse the rot. In 1997, the average journey to work for people who lived in London was 55 minutes. Assuming the average Londoner takes four weeks vacation, he or she therefore spends at least 17.5 days of every year traveling to and from work. Except on bad days, Londoners don't complain about the distance they travel or the time it takes. They prefer to live in a sprawling city—just so long as the rat-running can be kept in check. (Statistics are from the Department of Environment, Transports, and Regions' Web site.)

First, there was the pre-election revelation about President Bush's conviction for drunken driving in 1976. (The Australian tennis player John Newcombe was traveling with Bush at the time of his arrest.) Then there was news that Vice President Cheney's eldest daughter worked for what Andrew Sullivan described as the "redneck" brewing company, Coors (Mary Cheney is a now graduate student at a Colorado university). And now, as surely as one ale follows another, there are the reports and commentary about Jenna Bush's second citation for breaking Texas's drinking statutes—laws that where revised and stiffened by her father while he served as governor of the Lone Star State. A day after the story had gone cosmic, Howard Kurtz asked whether the media's reaction to the Jenna arrest wasn't a bit overdramatic, though contrived to avoid answering the question he posed his readers. Well, yes of course it was overreaction—what isn't these days—and with good reason. As Katie Roiphe points out in the Guardian, the laws governing drinking for young adults are draconian. "The fact that a girl with a beer in her hand would even be called an 'incident' is bizarre." Simon Jenkins, writing in the Times, contrasts America's prohibition tendencies with Britain's laissez faire attitudes toward drinking—where people revel in their enjoyment of wine and beer yet where few would also admit that alcoholism is a national issue. Meanwhile, the Telegraph has news that may cheer up Jenna Bush and her father. Euan Blair, the 17-year-old son of the British prime minister, who was found unconscious by police after a night on London's tiles last July, was yesterday made deputy head boy at his school.


GOING GLOBAL Who can forget the scene in Jour de Fête, Jacques Tati's movie that's partly about France's modernization, when a short film about the style of the U.S. Postal Service is shown in a small French village? The local postman, played by Tati, inspired by the amazing efficiency and speed of the American way with mail, decides that such innovation can be brought to his remote corner of France by tearing around the village on a bicycle like a lunatic. The result is a fiasco, and the scene remains amusing because such exercises in Americanization continue in Europe. Take, for example, Britain's postal service—the Royal Mail—which recently decided to re-christen itself " Consignia"—as if to consign a letter or package is somehow better than to mail or post, and somehow so very American. Or the American election practices adopted by Britain's political parties. Perhaps it's no surprise that many Europeans are reflexively anti-American, not just because of America's economic and military power and because globalization is synonymous with Americanization, but because European companies and political parties adopt cosmetic changes—labeled "American"—in the hopes that these sleights of hand will miraculously alter how the public will perceive them. The problem is that few people believe such alterations change anything. In Italy an unlikely proponent of further and more thorough globalization is the Marxist Antonio Negri. As Negri tells the New Statesman, capitalism has brought about an "end of the distinction between production and life—life and work have become the same thing. But it is not life that has been reduced to work, like in a totalitarian society. Instead it is work that has identified itself with life."

In honor of Memorial Day and the beginning of summer, the columnist Jack Newfield chose 50 great things about New York as his theme. His list begins like this: "1. The paddock area of Belmont Park. 2. Joe Torre. 3. The subway … 4. The atmosphere inside Madison Square Garden when Tito Trinidad fights …  5. Canal Street, where you can buy a Yankee hat in Japanese and enjoy the amazing diversity and energy. 6. Little St. Patrick's Church on Mulberry Street … 7. The School of Visual Arts. 8. The 30-foot Irish Freedom Mural at 230 E. 124th St. in Spanish Harlem … 9. The Lakeside Lounge on Avenue B and 10th Street, which has the best jukebox around … 10. The temperature-and-time box on NY1." Other aficionados of NY1 might have said "Weather-on-the-Ones," the forecast one can catch every 10 minutes at one, 11, 21, 31, 41, and 51 minutes past the hour, though a list such as Newfield's obviously cannot please everyone. Christopher Hitchens (who is not a New Yorker but who is a regular visitor to the city) would, one imagines, include the Cafe Loup on West Thirteenth Street on his list. Hitchens' fond appreciation of the restaurant appears in the May issue of the American Spectator. (I must thank him for introducing me to the Loup seven years ago: It is where a lot of my own New York life has subsequently taken place.) "Even though New York has a more bewitching range of bars and restaurants than any other city on earth,"  Hitchens writes, "I have often taxied many blocks or got others to do the same, in order to be reassured that I wasn't wrong the first time and that some verities still hold."