Sunday, June 01, 2008
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.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:11 am