Thursday, May 28, 2009

I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Elected!!!

In the wake of all the expenses' scandal that's been consuming British life, British politicians and the British media for the past few weeks, there seems to be another phenomenon appearing on the political horizon here in the unusually sunny UK: that of the celebrity politician.

Now, the celebrity politician is something with which we, in the United States, are cosily familiar. After all, we've had an actor in the White House; but the Brits are having fits and falling in them about the possibility that people in the show business world might just have more than a passing or fashionable interest in their country's politics.

The Great British Public and its press are reacting to two specific incidences, both of which are pretty trivial in the general scheme of things. The first has been bubbling quietly in the background for a couple of months, and would have normally gone unnoticed, except that daily harbinger of right-wing jingoistic hate, The Daily Mail, picked up on the situation and the characters involved and started a self-appointed campaign.

The Gurkhas are Nepalese soldiers attached to the British Army. (You know them, the Redcoats). Apart from being a crack fighting unit, they represent the last vestige of the British Raj, and for some years, they've actually been based in the garrison town near where I live. The Gurkhas, once they are retired from the Army, are expected to return to their native country and live out their retirement in Nepal; but recently, several have expressed a desire to remain in the UK in retirement, as you do. At the moment, immigration is a bit of a sticky wicket here. Basically, everybody and his brother, along with the wife, the kids and their pet dog, want to come to the UK. Moreso, all of the above have an innate desire to settle in the Southeast, within spitting distance of London, a situation that's fast becoming untenable. The place is teeming.

In this instance, the Government said, 'No.' The Gurkhas simply had to do what they'd always done after retirement: Go home.

Aside from their fighting prowess, these Nepalese soldiers are the most unassuming of souls, and like the good little rajputs the British hoped to train and enlighten, they're normally wont to do as they're told without complaint. But this injustice was brought to the attention of a 'famous British actress', a woman of a certain age and a daughter of the Raj, named Joanna Lumley.

Lumley is a plummy-voiced sexagenarian, famous for being one of the leather-clad ladies bouncing about with Patrick Macnee in one of the later incarnations of The Avengers in the Seventies, who later reincarnated a spoof version of herself as the drunken and slutty Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. Her fabled beauty is of the aristocratic equine type, complete with a wide mouth, sporting an orthodontically-enhanced version of British teeth. She is the sort of woman, who, in another life, one could imagine lording it over the village fete as the Lady of the Manor. One suspects that her politics are of the conservative hue.

Out of memory of her father, who commanded a unit of Gurkhas in the distant days of the Raj, Lumley took their cause for staying in the UK to heart. A seasoned actress, she knew precisely how to play the media, and she gave a virtuoso performance - probably the best of her career. She lobbied, she pleaded, she harangued, she nagged. The Daily Mail, that bastion of Little England who will stop at nothing to decry a Labour government, waved her flag proudly. Even the Fascist BNP, besotted with Lumley, took up her cause and proclaimed, 'The Gurkhas can stay, wogs out!'

In the end, she won. The Government u-turned and now any retired Gurkha who so wants can stay and retire to the UK.

Coming as this did in the midst of the expenses' crisis, various pseudo-pundits and not a few people, started wondering if maybe they might not be better off with someone as empathetic as Lumley representing their own interests as constituents. To paraphrase Michael Caine, not many people commented on that.

But then, another British personality reared her head. When it was revealed that one of the Labour MPs for Luton, Margaret Moran, had siphoned more than GBP 20,000 off the public purse to treat wet rot in a home in Southampton which she maintained with her partner, no less than Esther Rantzen, doyenne of British female television personalities, seriously announced that she was thinking of standing against Moran in the next General Election in Moran's Luton constituency.

Rantzen is roughly (and I mean literally) the British equivalent of Barbara Walters; but where Walters achieved her esteemed position in the American media through her own abilities, Rantzen married into it. She started as a gopher girl forty-odd years ago with the BBC; but she happened to catch the eye of Desmond Carrington, an established, esteemed and considerably older BBC news and current affairs pundit. They married and she never looked back. Rantzen's forte was usually the quirky pastiche show, until a few years back, she established the charity Childline, which targets child abuse and offers children a confidential help line in order to deal with the problems.

Now, in her mid-Sixties and having been widowed a few years back, she's thinking about another career as an MP. I might add as well that Rantzen appears to be on the other side of the fence from Labour as well.

This set alarm bells ringing bigtime amongst the Big Daddies of politics, in particular the older generation of the Labour Party.

It's not as if the Brits are unfamiliar with their own celebrities entering the political world and being successful in that realm. After all, they can boast of a real Oscar-winning actress, the fabled Glenda Jackson, as a standing Member of Parliament and a pretty good one at that. In comparison, we can boast the late George Murphy (whose claim to fame was that he danced with Shirley Temple) in the Senate and Gopher from The Love Boat in Congress.

The British electorate chose Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe as a Member of Parliament. He now sits in the House of Lords. Coe, like our own Jack Kemp or Bill Bradley, was intelligent, articulate and a hard worker, although my Civil Servant husband, who worked with him in the Sports' ministry, identified him as more than a bit of a first-class dick.

And in the mid-Eighties, at the height of Thatcherism, it's rumoured that Pink Floyd's Roger Waters was actually thinking of standing as an MP from one of the posher Home Counties (Pink Floyd is pretty posh, themselves) for the dreaded Conservative Party. I recall the Tories getting pretty orgasmic at the streetsuss kudos Waters may have added to their slimey cause, but in the end, all came to nowt. (On our side of the Pond, we could boast the late Sonny Bono, who tragically died and left his ineffectual Valley Girl widow to carry on his legacy). No comparison, really. In those two instances, the Brits left us standing.

But, funny enough, I can see the established politicos' discomfort at this current turn of events. And whilst some of the lesser media is enthusing over the prospect of reality television really becoming a reality, I can understand other pundits' dismay.

I've nothing against anyone from the world of sports or entertainment seriously entering politics. There's no one on nothing who says it cannot be done. Professional athletes and actors are, themselves, citizens of a country and in a democracy, they should have a voice and the opportunity - if they desire - to serve the electorate. But the operative word here is 'serious'. They have to have more than their established name, which is only the initial attraction. Not only do they have to have a body to fill the suit, they have to have a mind to fill the head. In short, they have to know and understand the people they serve and they have to identify, understand and offer viable suggestions to major problems affecting both their constituents and the country as a whole. They can't be just a pretty face or a famous name. In short, they have to have substance. They have to be believeable. They have to do more than just look the part, they have to be the REAL DEAL.

At the moment, we in the US are waiting impatiently for Senator Al Franken to be allowed to take his rightfully-won seat in the US Senate. Several people had and still have a problem with Franken because he was a comedian. Most of these people having trouble dealing with this happen to be Republican - funny, they had no problem with Fred 'Gopher' Gandy. Franken, to me, is an intelligent man with a wealth of political savvy and a desire to serve his state. He's educated and articulate. He'll be a fine Senator.

Several years ago in my native state of Virginia, when George 'Macaca' Allen was proving to be a shoe-in for the Senate, Virginia dems actually approached native son Warren Beatty with the possibility of opposing Allen. Beatty, allegedly, considered this; but this wasn't some knee-jerk act by Virginia Democrats, looking for someone who could trounce George Allen - well, yes, it was up to a point. I mean, what woman couldn't, wouldn't vote for Warren Beatty? But Beatty had nous. He'd long been an active Democrat and he knew his stuff. Besides, he was a real Virginian, but it all came to nowt. In more recent times, there have been rumours of Ben Affleck considering an eventual political career; Val Kilmer's reportedly thinking about running for the Senate from Arizona, and people have enthused about the possibility of George Clooney contesting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.

You know, I'd have absolutely no problem with any of the above. I welcome Al Franken as a part of the democratic process. I can envisage a Senator Affleck of Massachusetts, a Senator Kilmer of Arizona, a Senator Clooney of Kentucky (besides, they'd all add to the Democratic majority in the Senate). I'd even welcome Senator Bill Maher from California, even if it meant foregoing Real Time. All of these men have the knowledge, the talent and the wisdom and empathy to serve the public in the political forum.

But the Brits?

The current lot just don't cut it. To her credit, Lumley actually hasn't said she's even interested in a smidgen of a political career, much less standing as an MP. She reacted to an issue with which she identified on a deeply personal basis. End of. She might have some cursory sympathy for the poor or the indigent and she'll make the requisite celebrity appearance on telethons for children's charities, but that's as far as it goes with her. She has her own life, thank you very much, and politics and all it entails just isn't her cup of Earl Grey tea.

What miffed the politicos and various media pundits was the fact that a high-profile showbusiness personality turned the government on the proverbial dime here and forced them to u-turn. Never mind the fact that this particular unelected Labour government, fronted by Gordon Brown, is weak, ineffectual and fighting for its political life in the face of a revitilised, vibrant (and eternally corrupt) insurgent Tory party. Brown was seen to have wrong-footed it, yet again, and he was craven to Lumley's success. As Barbara Ellen in Sunday's Observer noted, Lumley's success made the British Lion look like a gamboling kitten.

The curmudgeonly walking spitoon of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley, is even more appalled at the prospect of a Rantzen candidacy.

'Who is this woman?' he splutters. 'What are her issues? Where is her experience? What is her platform?'

And there's the rub ... the word experience. You see, save but in a few instances, the Brits like their MPs to be professional politicians, to know precious little else other than the duckings and divings of the smoke-filled room. They like them to be bred from birth for the experience. Fair dos, a legal qualification might be in order, but only in order that the prospective candidate might know a bit about a constitution that has yet to be written. Scores of sitting MPs, yet today, have known nothing but a political career and those that haven't, honed their craft as union factota or in the virtual realm of public relations. At the moment, Labour musclemen from Central Office are trying to 'convince' party members in two constituencies that it would be in their best interests to accept the 18 year-old granddaughter of Labour grandee Tony Benn and the 22 year-old recent university graduate daughter of a major Labour contributor as viable Parliamentary candidates in the election which will be next year.

Remember the hue and cry against a possible appointment of Caroline Kennedy to the New York Senate seat?

But in this instance, Hattersley is right. Rantzen's candidacy has more than a touch of the knee-jerk to it. Apart from the Childline charity and an appearance on Britain's version of Dancing with the Stars a few years back, Rantzen's not had anything to say about anything significant about ... well, anything significant; and people voting for her won't just do so as a protest against the incumbent MP, they'll be voting for the celebrity, the angry woman celebrity who used to appear on the pastich That's Life.

It's the celebrity, stupid; and this country, more than anything I've seen in my visits home to the US, has adopted the cult of celebrity as a religion second only to professional soccer. The nation that dropped the stiff upper-lip persona to bewail the death of a princess who put it about more than just a bit and played the media to the hilt, also stopped and wept for a reality television star who embodied the wilfull ignorance and bigotry of the underclass. Amy Woodhouse's every snort of cocaine is scrutinised. The fact that Kate Moss's knees are beginning to sag is a matter of national concern. People rue the break-up of the marriage of Jordan and Peter Andre.

And politics, Labour in particular, have tapped into the celebrity resevoir in recent years. Tony Blair touted 'Cool Britannia' and opened Number 10 to receptions where the likes of the gratuitously foul-mouthed Gallagher brothers, Page 3 Tit-Queens and any wannabe Beckham rubbed shoulders with the serious movers and shakers of the world. A former leader of the Liberal Democrats revelled in appearances on game and entertainment shows. A disgraced Tory politician, caught in flagrante with his mistress, reinvents himself as a sports commentator. Most recently, no less than 'Call Me Dave' Cameron, replete in designer kitware, snuggled up to Jonathon Ross on the latter's chat show and giggled at Ross's suggestion that the adolescent Cameron masturbated over a poster of Mrs Thatcher at her height (pun intended).

All done in the quest for the ubiquitous kudos of cool.

To be scrupulously fair, the celebrities lapped it up; but politicos have been slavering after celebrity endorsement since Saint Bob Geldof raised people's awareness of the famine in Africa in the Eighties. I've no doubt Geldof wasn't sincere in his interest in this plight. He and his fellow troubadour Midge Ure worked tirelessly in this campaign, and it secured Geldof the first of the pop knighthoods. Ure disappeared from sight after that, but Geldof reappears from time to time, when he's not making fruitless efforts at preventing his daughter from turning into an even shallower British version of Paris Hilton, to pontificate on the current state of world affairs. He's now accompanied by Saint Bono of U2, who - as a social commentator - comes across as a bigger dick than Dick Cheney. Pretentious. Pompous. Courting the occasion and the issue to pump up his fame. Sing with Pavarotti? Bono's there.

And his forte is offering unsolicited advice, if not to the leaders of the Free World, then certainly to the citizens of certain countries as a whole about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which has suddenly become a curiously Irish concept. I cringed when I saw a clip from NBC's pre-Inaugural coverage of the concert on the Mall where U2 were, for some reason, invited to play. As Chris Matthews was in the studio all over Cheryl Crowe like a bad rash, Bono thought to lecture Brian Williams in the concept of liberty and freedom. 'It's your country,' he pontificated smugly, 'but our idea.'

You what?

At that particular moment in time, I longed for the gentlemanly Williams to spontaneously combust and be replaced for an instant by a more robust Bill Maher, who could have and would have set Bono straight about Irish notions of liberty and freedom, especially in relation to the Catholic Church.

And then we have those veritable eco-warriors, Mr and Mrs Sting. Mrs Sting, especially, AKA Trudie Styler, who purports to be an actress. Styler ... Esther Rantzen ... Joanna Lumley. They all sport that quintessential elongated equine look, complete with teeth that long to be fitted with a bit ... what IS it about Englishmen and horses? Don't answer.

But I digress ... Trudie Styler.

Ms Styler proclaims to be an eco-warrior. On her husband's name and coattails, they were trying to save the rain forests at one time. She's also a sometime film producer and introduced Madonna to Guy Ritchie, for which, I would imagine, Madonna is eternally grateful. For some reason, known only to some person of power someplace known only to the gods, Sting and Trudie copped an invitation to the recent Correspondents' dinner in Washington, which the President attended as guest of honour.

Mr Sting flew to the event from one of their many homes (this one in New York) via commercial airlines - other New York-based celebrities, it seems, chose to take Amtrak, a journey of 2 hours at least, 4 at the most. Mrs Sting, however, ferried herself and an entourage of 8 other people, including her personal stylist and her life coach, to Washington by means of a private jet.

So much for the environment.

When The Guardian blogger, Marina Hyde, chastised her on this hypocrisy, Mrs Sting responded in an Op-ed, which the paper duly published, rather nastily and more than somewhat petulantly, dissing the 'little people's' opinions of her high and mighty travel arrangements. Mrs Sting, it seems, because she's Mrs Sting and an eco-warrior, is entitled to a bit of private corporate transportation as is her due for services rendered to the environment. Go ... f*cking ... figure.

This is the same woman who hired a private jet to ferry her heavily pregnant cook from her main rock and castle in Wiltshire to one of the couples' two luxury London flats ... to make Mrs Sting a bowl of soup. She later sacked the cook, who sued, and was forced to settle up out of court.

Nice lady.

So ... Britain, it would seem, has a particular dearth of would-be celebrity politicians - or rather, those from the world of show business and entertainment, who would make estimable MPs, wouldnt' be caught dead within a fifty-mile radius of Westminster. And that's a pity. But, I suppose there might be a bright side for Britain in having a real celebrity MP - I would imagine Esther Rantzen's worth a few bob. An MP's salary of approximately $75,000 per annum would be a mere appearance fee for her worth. With an immense personal fortune, celebrities wouldn't be so free and easy about dipping their hands in the public purse in order to buy designer toilet brushes or organic horse shit to fertilize their gardens.

At the end of the day, we get the celebrities and the celebrity culture we nurture.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sleeping With the Enemy

I have a confession to make.

Something has bothered me immensely since the days of my youth. Something that I had once thought had been conquered with age, experience and a jaundiced eye. Something that I thought another life in a foreign country might serve to quell. Something so totally incongruous to my character, ethos and core of personal beliefs that it needs immediate and instantaneous purging through the confessional process, followed by immediate absolution. (No one ever escapes the inculcations of a Catholic upbringing, and so this single guilt has ridden, like the proverbial moral monkey, on my back until I can bear the weight no longer, and the shame must needs be revealed).

As George W Bush once remarked as an excuse for his not being able to admit a youthful cocaine addiction, ‘When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.’

And this is my excuse, the difference between Dubya and me being that I have enough moral fibre to confess my sin. I was, indeed, very young, but my sin had nothing to do with illegal and illicit drug-taking (apart from the occasional joint, bowl or bong session as a student at university). It was far worse, for I can honestly say now, that I have been to the Dark Side.

I slept with a Republican.

Not once. Or even twice. But several times over the course of many years.

I was born and raised in Virginia. People leaning, socially and politically, to the right was a way of life in that state. Even if my people marched to a different drummer, my mother’s family had roots in the state since colonial days. It went without saying that once I was old enough for my mamma to worry about me getting in a car with a boy who could drive, I was bound to date someone or the son of someone who was politically red, in the Republican sense.

My first serious boyfriend would have made Ashley Wilkes look risqué; I bowed out of that budding romance the moment he told me he wanted to be a Presybterian minister. He told me that, quite sincerely, with his left hand down the front of my bikini top copping a feel of my left tit. That must have given him divine inspiration.

I dated a Ragin’ Cajun from New Orleans and a fraternity boy from Baltimore. You literally couldn’t walk ten paces at the University of Virginia in the mid-Seventies without tripping over political conservatism. And as the men at that time outnumbered coeds by three to one, we had precious little choice - if they dared to date us at all - of not consorting at least once with what has euphemistically come to be defined as an educated version of a good old boy.

But there was one, amongst the above, who stood head and shoulders above the rest; and it is he, about whom, I make my confession.

I wasn’t always a political animal, although politics and current events have always interested me. They were the stuff of conversations around the dinner table at home with my parents; but basically, I had come to college to learn how to speak some foreign languages, to read the literature in the vernacular, maybe get a year or a summer abroad, and to party, along with everyone else. You know, work hard all week and then, come the weekend … do a little dance, make a little love, toke a little j … you get the picture.

I was in my third year (junior year to everyone who went elsewhere other than Virginia) and I had just returned from a summer abroad in Spain and Italy, when the Asshole walked into my life. I met him properly near the end of the second semester, when he was a few weeks off graduation and I was thinking about returning for one more summer abroad, in order to sample the wares again before settling down to a final year of study and deciding how I was best going to put language ability to use.

I met him, properly, at a party; but really, I’d encountered him a few weeks prior to that, when he sat down in the student cafeteria at a table with my roommate and me, simply because he slightly knew her and there was no one about, at that moment, with whom he could talk. But, properly, I met him at a party given by a good friend and his flatmates. I was on my own and so was he. He’d had a few and so had I. He got his invitation from the friend who’d invited me, as both of them worked on the student paper, the Cavalier Daily or the CD (pronounced ‘Seedy’- it would later prove apropos for him). In fact, it was Ross who formally introduced us and left us to chat. It was standard stuff, followed by him asking me to dance and me finding out just how awful a dancer he was. Shortly afterward, if I recall correctly, there was the requisite kiss and sooner than I thought, we found ourselves back at my dorm room.

Cue swelling music (amongst other membranes) and the crashing of the sea against the rocks on the shore.

The earth hardly moved. In actual fact, before the earth had begun to remember it should have moved, Mr Asshole put on the clothes I’d helped him remove and left. It was such a sudden non-occurrence that I was left in a state of bafflement.

Was it something I’d said? We hadn’t talked about anything in particular … only that he was studying economics, that I was in Romance languages, that I’d been to Europe the previous summer, that he was going this coming summer. We’d talked about people we both knew and had a few laughs. I was baffled. I didn’t know whether to shrug my shoulders or cry, because, the Asshole really, was kind of cute, in a preppy, conservative sort of way. Sort of like Tucker Carlson without the bowtie.

As it was still relatively early on a Saturday night, I got up from the bed, tidied it up, sorted out my clothes, slipped into a bathrobe and sloped off to take a shower and wash my hair. In the time it took me to do that and walk back down the hall to my dorm room, the bastard had come back. When I entered the room, there he was, stripped buck naked and cuddled up in my single bed and pouring me a Jack Daniels and ginger ale to ease my pain (or maybe, make it easier for us both).

And that’s when we really began to talk. I shared his whiskey and a cuddle and we covered everything from the Nixon pardon to Saturday Night Live, from John Dean’s speaking tour to the ‘Hoos performance in the National Invitational Tournament the previous spring. He was pure Alabama red. I hung blue. He asked me what newspaper I read. I told him that I tended to read The Washington Post when I was at home and - well - nothing really on campus, apart from the student rag.

That’s how the evening went, and that was the beginning of the relationship, such as it was.

That following Monday morning, as I was getting ready for my 8 o’clock class, I heard a thud outside room door. I opened it to find a suscription copy of The Washington Post, marked ‘118 Dabney’ on the floor outside. There was a Post delivered daily until the end of term and for all of the following year.

Mr Asshole never called that week, and I never saw him the following weekend. I kept expecting to run into him on Grounds and steeled myself to act suitably nonchalant. It was, I told myself, a one-night stand. These things happen in life. It may have been the first one, in my young life, but it wouldn’t be the last. Still, I was a Southern girl and my mamma had raised me right. Pulling out the Student Directory, found his address, and wrote a nice thank-you note for The Post, sending it by student mail. I didn’t expect a reply; in fact, I didn’t want one, almost. But two weeks later, when I was preparing to go out to meet some friends for a night out at a local student bar, I opened my door to find Mr Asshole standing there, and the student bar was forgotten.

I must have seen him, always unexpectedly and always (it seemed) when I was ready to dash off, meet or go out with someone else, which necessitated me crying off the prior engagement at a moment’s notice, to spend time with him. Our evenings consisted of him picking up the latest Post, browsing through it and throwing out obnoxious comments about anything that offended his conservative mindset, I would reply in opposition and a debate would ensue that many times bordered on a full-on argument of the snakiest kind, until the horizontal reconciliation process eventually took place. To this date, it was singularly the most stimulating and yet the most unusual foreplay I’ve ever experienced in a relationship.

Relationship? That’s the rub (pun intended).

There was no relationship, per se. We weren’t a couple. We weren’t even dating. We were copulating. Politically copulating.

The school year ended, but a week before I was due to leave again for Spain, he showed up at my parents’ home. Unannounced. Unexpected. Mr Asshole scrubbed up to be Mr Southern Gentleman. My mother thought she’d died and gone to heaven - a law student gentleman caller! (In my mother’s mind, the degree for which I studied was secondary to the good old-fashioned MRS degree; and as one older cousin had returned from the University of South Carolina with her very own doctor in tow, it looked as though I was going to be the one to bag the brief.)

It didn’t stop there. In the middle of July, he turned up in Salamanca. Again unannounced and unexpected. He was on his own Grand Tour and diverted himself from London to jet down and cramp my style in Spain. After all, by that time, even though he was teaching and encouraging me to read the right sort of newsworthy items in the dailies, as well as think about them, I wasn’t sure I liked Mr Asshole very much as a person.

To begin with, he was an inveterate snob - even a worse snob than my mother. My mother was very conscious of her family and her family history, but my mother also liked other people and it didn’t matter one iota to her who those people were, nor what antecedents they had. If she liked you, she liked you. But Mr Asshole was interested in comparative family history. He examined my bloodlines the way a horse or dog breeder would. At any given moment, I expected him to pull back my upper lip for a look at my gums and my teeth. I began to wonder if I should look out the name and address of my old orthodontist, in order that he might attest to Mr Asshole that my teeth were, indeed, all mine and suitably straightened.

He was always looking down his nose at people he deemed socially unworthy. He treated the Spaniards with contempt, because, he said, Mediterraneans looked dirty. When I visited him at Washington and Lee, the following autumn, where he was studying law, I struggled with my suitcase across campus, when a cadet from the nearby Virginia Military Institute rushed to my aid, offering to carry the bag all the way to the law dorms. When we arrived, Mr Asshole gave the cadet a quarter tip and slammed the door in his face.

Then, I always got the impression that something wasn’t quite kosher with Mr Asshole. There would be weeks upon weeks that I’d hear nothing from him. I never called him. My Southern girl pride would have gone craven at the very thought. I was in a state of perpetual limbo. Were we ‘seeing each other’ or just fuck buddies, in today’s terminology? And every time he’d turn up, unannounced, unintended, uninvited, in the course of our evening discussions, he started, almost fantasising about what sort of clothes he’d like to see me wear - the Oxford shirts, khaki skirts and Docksiders. I should try wearing more pink with green and maybe cut my hair. Oh, yes … and think about putting on some weight. ‘More cushion for the pushin’,’ he opined. Somewhere along the line, I began to wonder if I were the training ground for a once and future Mrs Asshole of another variety, if I were, in short, being used.

He went into a blue funk of a mood after the Carter election. His pet peeve was Andrew Young, Carter’s UN Ambassador. Before we always debated both sides of political issues of the day. Now the foreplay was focused on Andrew Young, which became almost an obsession with him. When we went to Washington for a day and he spat on a statue in Georgetown of William Tecumseh Sherman, then proceeded to get my car ticketed for illegal parking, the whole non-relationship began to bore me.

In Mr Asshole’s mind, the Civil War had never ended and when there wasn’t material girl decked out in preppie attire, he got his rocks off banging a liberal. Maybe it was kinky. Maybe it was about power. Maybe it was a lot of things, but it sure as hell wasn’t love.

The problem I had was that just as I would convince myself of all of the above pejorative traits, I’d remember some of the spontaneous things about him that really weren’t so bad. Like the subsription to the Washington Post. Or the tea roses he’d sent me on Valentine’s Day of my last year in college. Or how, I’d be bone-achingly tired from sitting in the Sci-Tech Library for hours on end wrestling with notes for a French term paper and I’d look up across the room, seeing him standing in the frame of the door looking up from hooded eyes and smiling a slow Southern smile, having driven 60 miles from Lexington on the off-chance of finding me bored and wanting amusement. Or how, when my teaching contract wasn’t renewed in my second year of teaching, he spent days accumulating applications and information about various and sundry school districts, all unasked and unbidden.

The whole sick non-starter carried on for another two years, ducking and diving, fucking and thriving here and there. He always seemed to know when to appear out of the woodwork and it was beginning to get old. When he showed up unexpectedly one day in July, expecting to stay the weekend, I made him sleep on the couch. Things were wearing thin and I was planning, for the following summer, another European trip, before moving into a new flat in Charlottesville. Two weeks after I’d made the move, Mr Asshole shows up at my door … only now he’s Captain Asshole of the Judge Advocate General’s School. An army lawyer. Hardly Kevin Bacon or Tom Cruise in a few good men, but I’m not the type of girl who goes gaga for a man in a uniform of any sort.

Still, old habits die hard, and he’d stayed with me a week before I dug deep and got his true mojo. He was dissatisfied practicing law in a small town and so he’d joined the army - just until he’d decided what to do, mind you. Awhile later, when I was in Europe, as a matter of fact, he’d met a girl - a fresh-faced, dew-lipped, wide-assed - hell, let’s not be kind here - fat-assed girl from the mountains of North Carolina, who’d just graduated from the University. She wanted to get married, and he was warming to the idea. He’d found his cushion for the pushing, a pig for his poke; and I didn’t have to gain a pound or even think about wearing pink with green. And he told me this, in bed, a week after his arrival, the day before he was due to drive back to Raleigh to see his sweet intended - before driving back to Virginia at the end of the weekend to snuggle up to me.

‘I think before you leave tomorrow, you really ought to call the JAG school about accommodation,’ I said, as I turned over to turn out the light. ‘Really.’

That was the last I saw of Mr Asshole. I’d often think about him - the lead singer in the British boy band Haircut 100 reminded me of him. So did David Gregory. That’s when I’d think of him. I imagined him back in Mobile, mobilising the local Republican Party, cursing the existence of Clinton, envious of the attention he was getting from Lewinsky, but using that as a phallic rod with which to beat him symbolically, spreading bile about Hillary, rundraising for Bush, while condemning Gore and Kerry.

I wasn’t far off wrong.

Through the wonders of Facebook, I found Mr Asshole about two weeks ago. Damn, the Republicans surely must have a contract with the Devil and a portrait in the attic, because he hasn’t aged a day, the cur. I was surprised to see he was still connected with the military. Just giving a cursory glance at his Facebook page, I sent him a message, casually dropping information that I was married and living in the UK.

The rest of the evening was taken up with a volley of messages to and fro, re-establishing the status quo: he was very much right of right and I was very much left of left. Plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme. No surprises there. I expressed wonder that someone of his intellect could support someone like Sarah Palin’s candidacy for a post for which she was grossly under qualified intellectually and otherwise. He countered that, whilst he didn’t like Palin in the least, he was singularly unimpressed with Joe Biden’s mediocre intellect. And so on.

The buzz was still there.

I asked what he thought of Obama’s proposal for universal health care. He replied that he was going out, but would give the matter some thought and reply. He did, two days later, in inimitable Asshole fashion, ranting about the proposal, wondering how it could work, comparing it to England’s NHS and how that had been depicted in Michael Moore’’s (whom he called ‘a fat commie’) ‘Sicko’ as nothing short of the Eighth Wonder of the world. The debates had begun again, with that selfsame flicker of a frisson of sexual tension. I replied, stating my point.

Then, yesterday, in a lull at work, I looked at his Facebook page again. Emblazoned across the front was his most recent application: HOW GAY ARE YOU? Result of the Quiz: You are 100% straight. In fact, they couldn’t get much straighter than you.

I read on. Most of his friends are military types. Real military types. The sorts who refer to him in writing as ‘Sir’. Loads of pictures of him in fatigues and loads of pictures of him and his various mili-buddies, all with Oriental-type girls young enough to be their daughters. Their very young daughters. Long lists of countries he’s visited. More military gumf. Application lists of people he’d like to see go away: Hillary Clinton among them. Lists of people he’d like to bitch-slap: Keith Olbermann, Hillary Clinton, anyone left of centre. No mention of the fat wife, no mention of family. Golf trips. Man things. Like, I love you, man.

He was right, all right. Righter than right. But right right?

And then I began to wonder. The whole page and its contents were posturing. The uniforms suddenly took on the aura of The Village People. The males in army fatigues messaging and calling him ‘sir’, the ‘gay’ quiz, prominent in its denial. The dodgy pics with his mates, obviously on R & R, in even dodgy oriental capitals with girls who’d be better off in Middle School than hanging with their arms around some GI’s neck.

Like this was cool, the sex tourism. Well, maybe to some, but looking at Asshole’s picture, the smile looked more than just a little wan. And I began to think that, scratching the surface, his Facebook page looked more than just a little gay - at least for him. Thinking about it, that would explain a lot about the past, and a great deal about his present - that maybe in the world of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’, it’s safer to be seen as a militarist who enjoys sex tourism, than someone of the ilk of Larry Craig or Mark Foley.

I gather from his Facebook page, he’s got political aspirations and he’ll more than likely be campaigning. Coming to and cumming in a man’s room near you, I suppose.

I suppose, in a snarky sorty of way, I’m glad that karma’s bit him where it might hurt the most. It must be a hellacious life, having to live it in the shadows.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The British Are Revolting

Yes, the British truly are revolting.

Oh, I don't mean 'revolting' in the sense of the phenomenon known as 'British teeth', or the fact that this condition is a result of their appalling dental hygiene. I don't mean 'revolting' in the sense that, verbally, they have the filthiest mouths in the Western world with their propensity to describe everything with the adjectival derivative of that four-letter word beginning with 'f' which is the crude definition of 'to copulate.' Not 'revolting' in the sense that, of all the people in the world, the British seem to get drunk the quickest, puke the most as a result thereof and learn the least from the experience. And I certainly don't mean 'revolting' in the sense that they all, to a man and woman, at some point exhibit that superciliously condescending air of a people who suddenly remember that at one point in time, they had an empire and at another point in time, seem to have mislaid it.

I mean they are actually revolting. Indignant. Up in arms. Protesting. As a nation. As a people. As an electorate.

Now, this should come as no surprise to Americans. After all, many of us who've only ever travelled there by means of a package tour or who drank the KoolAid given to us by the likes of Bill or Tone or George about the 'special relationship' probably think that the British were just as indignant about the latest banking scandal involving expenses paid by AIG's satellite branches in the UK. You probably thought that our British cousins were incensed about the City fat cats getting fatter while the common-and-garden (emphasis on the first part of that phrase) Brit was struggling to make ends meet.

Nah ... you were wrong. They couldn't have given a monkey's about that. Could have cared less. After all, the City, at the moment (and since the time of Thatcher) has mostly been populated with badly-spoken Cockney oikers who, in another place and time, would have been making up the rear of the real ranks surrounding Fagin as he sang 'Yer Gotta Pick a Pocket or Two.' Which is what they did before they went to the City.

This current batch of British best, Thatcher's children, were weaned on her idea that 'there is no society' and that as long as they looked after themselves and their immediate family, the rest of the society that didn't exist could just look after itself.

So all the time their American cousins have been up in arms and near-revolution regarding Wall Street, the Brits have carried on buying expensive items on maxed-out credit cards, spending money that they don't have and just ... carrying on, like the title of the series of films of the same name.

But this time, something rotten's happened in the United Kingdom. Something that's made the average Brit sit up and take notice.

They've suddenly realised that the people they elected to represent them and their interests in that cradle of democracy, the Houses of Parliament, have been robbing them blind in order to feather their own cush nests.

The saga begins with a national British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, commonly known here as The Torygraph, because it reflects the mostly right-wing view of the British Conservative Party (for us, read Republicans). The Telegraph, a couple of weeks ago, published information it had received from a reliable source, claiming that several Labour MPs were actually bending the financial rules to fiddle expenses in order to fund their upper-class lifestyles at the public's expense.

MPs receive a basic salary of around £65,000 per annum (roughly about $80k in real money). It's a pretty low wage, considering the hours they allegedly work and in comparison with someone in a similar position of responsibility in the private sector. So, they are allowed expenses for various services/items which (according to the rules) are necessary for them to enact the job of a sitting Member of Parliament. And because many of them have to come to London and be in the city for the better part of the week, many have been encouraged to seek accommodation in the form of a second home in the City or thereabouts, whilst retaining a home in their constituency, to which they retire most weekends.

Obviously travel to and from the constituency is necessary to their job, so, presumably, MPs would be able to claim for gasoline used for the journeys. They could also reasonably be expected to claim for such services as gas and electric in consituency and London houses (you need light and heat in order to work) as well as telephone and internet services (who doesn't phone or e-mail these days?)

Fair enough.

Now, MPs who serve in the Prime Minister's Cabinet earn well over £100k per annum (roughly about $150k), but they are still allowed the same level of expenses. The expenses system, so I'm told, is something that came into effect under Mrs Thatcher (that woman, again), when a time when an MPs salary was pitifully low. But the problem is that the system has been handled in a pretty lax manner, which has led to a load of MPs taking advantage of this.

Before I proceed further, it's interesting to note that, whilst we in the US, might look at a particular politico - an Obama, if you will - with hope and good will; the British are born cynics, when it comes to their politicians - and, as such, they get the politicians and the government they deserve. That's because of the class system, which is still in place here and grew even stronger under the aegis of Tony Blair. Politicians are, traditionally, privately-educated toffs from the Bertie Wooster mold, jaded businessmen or working-class heroes who've bought into the system. The British believe, wearily, that their politicos are 'only in it for themselves and to feather their own nests' and, as such, they treat their representatives with innate disdain. In fact, that's the common perception of all European politicians, but the Continental variety comes to that conclusion by virtue of the fact that most of their political representatives are openly corrupt anyway (cf: Berlusconi and Italy).

I got a good dose of this world-weary cynicism from my British husband, who took early retirement gratefully last year after serving thirty years as a mandarin in the actual Cabinet Office. It was he, who siphoned through various ministers' letters from constituents or letters passed to certain departments by another MP asking for assistance.

'They don't give a shit about the people,' he'd tell me repeatedly. 'I've seen the letters. I've seen one MP pass a constituency letter onto another MP and describe the correspondent as 'an annoying turd of a man.' They're in it to build their own empire and then, when they retire, they get a chair on some governing board of a big industry name for a load of dosh.'

That's pretty much true in the UK. Polticians have actually gone to prison and come out wealthier than they were when they went inside.

And that's the way he saw the US elections - that Obama was a fraud, that everyone was in it for their own self-glorification and that politics was alike the world over.

And still the British go to the polls. They vote in either the Tories (Conservatives) or Labour.

But not this time.

The warning bell was sounded when it was revealed that Jacqui Smith, the woman serving as Home Secretary (our equivalent of Attorney General) had claimed for an internet/telephone package for her second residence. No problem there. As I said, they need access to a telephone and e-mails; but this package entailed a television package as well, as many ISPs give in the US. But it seemed that, on a couple of occasions, late at night, when Ms Smith was sitting in the Houses of Parliament, her husband wanted his fancy tickled a little bit and so he turned to the services of an adult pay-per-view channel and ordered up a healthy helping of porn in the shape of a couple of blue movies. Which Ms Smith sought to sneak past the Fees' Office on the public's expense. In short, the British taxpayer was paying for an MP's husband to watch porn - and not just an MP, but a senior member of the Cabinet. I mean, imagine if Mrs Eric Holder booked a private command performance by Chippendales and then AG Holder tried to get the DOJ to chalk it up to expenses! It simply wouldn't happen.

Smith was called to task and, humiliatingly, had to make a grovelling apology and rethink her ISP provider. We still don't know what transpired with her husband.

But it didn't end there. The Telegraph started singing like the proverbial canary.

Their schtick of the past two weeks has been to highlight how various Labour politicians, more than just a few senior ones as well, have managed to use their expenses privilege in ways which vary exhibit a whole range of behaviour from stingy pettiness (charging a chocolate bar to the public purse) to sheer arrogance (paying for the construction of a helipad).

Even Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, himself, was forced to apologise for securing the services of a cleaner, not only to clean the flat he owns ten minutes from Downing Street, but also to clean the home owned by his brother, a private citizen, as well. An oversight on the part of the Prime Minister.

But the main area of abuse lies in the practice of 'flipping.'

MPs are expected to be in London for at least three days per week in order to attend to the business of, well, governing and legislating. They are required to maintain a residence in or around the capital, usuall within about 30 minutes' drive or ride of Westminster. They are also required to live in the constituency which they represent, so they have to maintain a home there also. Ergo, most MPs either own or rent at least two properties. The expenses policy, with regards to MPs' homes, states that, they must declare one of the two residences as a secondary residence. In accordance with this policy, and service or item they require regarding that second residence, which aids and abets in their being able to perform as a member of Parliament, can be claimed from the public purse. For example, any service requiring the maintenance of heating or electricity can be claimed from public funds (furnished by the taxpayers) as most people need heat and light in order to work.

The system, as it is, is open to heavy abuse. No less than Jacqui Smith - she of the porn-addicted husband - was actually renting a room in her sister's London home and claiming expenses through the public purse for renovations etc done at that address. So the sister got a house makeover courtesy of the Great British Taxpayer. Not really kosher.

But, as I mentioned, it's here where the practice of 'flipping' comes in. An MP declares that his home in his constituency is actually his 'second residence.' After all, he's in London most of the week and only returns home during the weekend to do his political surgeries amongst his constituents. Now if the constituency home needs a new roof or a lick of paint, the MP can arrange for a firm of builders/decorators to do the job and farm the invoice back to the Fees Office and - Bob's your uncle, as they say here - bill paid. And not by the MP. An MP can even secure a mortgage on the second property and arrange for the mortgage payments to be made from the public purse.

Flipping occurs when an MP suddenly decides that the 'second residence' is actually his main residence. This means the main residence, maintenance etc having been paid for from his wages, now, effectively, becomes the second, which means any expense incurred to enable his more effective performance as MP can be paid for through the Fees Office.

You see the pattern? An MP refurbishes/redecorates/renovates his second home at the public's expense, then declares this to be his main residence and proceeds to refurbish/redecorate/renovate the former main residence, again at the public's expense. He, ultimately, has paid for nothing.

The list of abusers of this practice read like an honour roll of the Labour party:-

1. Hazel Blears, Communities Secretary, was found to have pocketed the capital gains tax due on her second residence. Blears, obligingly, went on national morning television, waving aloft a personal cheque to the tune of some £13,000 (about $15,000), and bleating about paying this back to the Inland Revenue. (Most of her constituents in Salford, near Manchester, don't make £13,000 in a good year).

2. Elliot Morley, an ex-Agriculture Minister, who was deemed a pretty concientious MP, was outed as claiming £16,000 (about $18,000) over the past two years regarding mortgage payments on his second residence ... except the mortgage on the second residence was repaid some years ago. Morley 'forgot.'

3. Shahid Malik, a junior Justice Minister, owned a property in London and privately rented, below the market rate, a property in his Birmingham constituency, which he deemed his second residence. He claimed for some £60k worth of renovations etc to this property in a mere couple of years. This meant that his private landlord had the property made over at the public's expense. It also meant that Malik had the public pay for a new digital flat-screen plasma television and a 'massage chair.' Malik resigned yesterday. Justice?

Throughout this turbulent fortnight, one thing was noticed by the Great British Public: Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, instead of shouting the Labout calumnies from the spires of Westminster Abbey, kept their mouths firmly clamped shut.

And then we found out why.

The Torygraph unceremoniously bit the hand that religiously bought its papers. They then listed some of the Conservative miscreants. Chief amongst the guilty named and shamed was none other than David Cameron's, the fat frat boy who fronts the Tory Party, main Parliamentary aide Andrew McKay and his wife Julie Kirkbride. Together, they popped a corker. McKay and Kirkbride jointly owned a marital property in London. Kirkbride owned a second residence in her constituency. McKay owned nothing else, yet he listed Kirkbride's property in her constituency as his second residence, whilst his wife listed the marital home as her second residence. Result? A double whammy of over £140k's worth of services/refurbishment accomplished at the public's expense. But, hey, he's already written out a cheque for £42k of it and promises to pay back the rest.

Then there's Douglas Hogg, AKA Viscount Hailsham, a peer of the realm and an MP, who charged the public thousands of pounds for cleaning the moat around his 13th Century manorhouse. And then there's the small matter of one George Osborne, the plummy-vowelled Old Etonian who'll have the responsibility of managing the country's finances when the Conservatives return to power. He's down for charging the public £500 for a taxi to take him from London to Cheshire ... because he missed his train. Osborne's one to watch. Remember the name, because he just might be one who'll be working closely with Tim Geithner in the future, and - if nothing else - this posh snake oil salesman will show our Timmy how to have a good time on the public purse: he's rumoured to be a fan of 'hos and blow, and a book's about to be published to prove that.

This entire saga came to a head last Thursday night on the BBC's live broadcast of their weekly political discussion show Question Time. Question Time is like a de-balled version of Bill Maher's Real Time; only last Thursday, like the Republican base, the Great British Public were mad as hell and they weren't gonna take it anymore. And they knew exactly what it was, unlike the Republicans.

Someone was stealing the money right out of their pockets. Someone was taking money that could better be spent scoffing fish'n chips, downing pints at the local pub, spending mindlessly on DIY equipment every bank holiday, or swanning off to the Costa del Sol on a last-minute bargain break. Someone was stealing money that meant an upgrade in the Sky satellite package, or money that would be better spent buying a season ticket to watch Arsenal lose out to Manchester United next soccer season.

And that somebody was the dirty, sneaking, slimey little bitch/bastard the Great British Public had elected to represent them in Parliament. The public rose in unison on this program. They ranted, they railed, they demanded the truth from the politicos on the panel. In fact, as one member of the audience rightly pointed out, if a mere citizen had perpetrated what had amounted to a fraudulent act in claiming benefits, that individual would be tried and sentenced to prison.

And the anger hasn't subsided. The Observer, which is what The Guardian becomes every Sunday, today quoted a political aid as saying that the public now are clamouring for an MP swinging from a lampost on every corner. I smiled as I read that, because it made me think of something Bill Maher, a particular hero of mine, opined early in this season's Real Time, when he called for the investment bankers who caused the economic meltdown to be hung from the clock on Wall Street with their balls stuffed in their mouths. The British are getting there, they're learning the art of righteous anger.

Senior ministers in Brown's government are calling this a 'constitutional crisis', which - again - made me laugh; because that's one thing the British haven't got - a written constitution. They've just sort of poodled along since God was a boy, making up the rules and traditions as they occurred and then changing them as they saw fit, to the point that no one's actually sure what's what anymore - and that's how this whole rigamarole with the expenses came about.

But there's a dark side to all this kerfuffle. In the first week in June, there'll be European Parliamentary Elections, when every country in the EU elects its regional representatives to the European Parliament. This sort of election is similar to our mid-terms in the US. It's a good gauge of how the party in power is performing. This fiasco hasn't left any of the three British political parties smelling like roses.

Labour tanked, because people perceived Gordon Brown to have done nothing. The Conservatives, leading in the polls, saw their lead shrink. Cameron slapped wrists, but he's an appalling actor; and anyone who thinks for a moment he didn't know this shit was hitting the fan before it hit has one egg short of a dozen in the brains department. The Liberal Democrats don't figure because they simply ... don't figure.

So one of two scenarios will occur in two weeks' time at the Euro Elections:-

Either the people will shrug their shoulders with resignation, reckon that all politicians are dishonest and are feathering their nests and just not bother to vote, which would be a typically British thing to do, as the modern-day Brit has cornered the market in politcal apathy. Or ...

The voter turnout will be larger than usual and the voters will eschew voting for one of the three major parties, instead opting for a fringe party. A recent poll taken by PoliticsHome found that 27% of voters were now prepared to defect from their current party, due to disillusionment about this expenses affair. Of the 27% responding, 28% of that number say they will back UKIP (UK Independence Party), who are slightly to the right of the Conservative Party, and who advocate removal from the European Union, amongst other things. 16%, however, say they intend to defect to the British National Party, and that's scary.

For BNP, think Brownshirts, think Nazis. Their leader, the Oxbridge-educated Nick Griffin is the British equivalent of David Duke. He took what was essentially a racist group of violent, skin-head thugs, dressed them in suits and taught them how to speak properly. In the past five years, they've accumulated various and sundry seats in certain local councils throughout the land, and this was achieved even with the government of the day denying them the right to be heard in the media.

In the words of the current British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, himself, the child of the sort of immigrants the BNP hope to expel from this sceptr'd isle: 'The politics of hate thrive where voters become utterly alienated from the mainstream parties.'

Judging from the ire exhibited by the Great British Public on Thursday evening, they're doing a fair job of hating.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Karma, Miss Scarlett and Me

During a lull in proceedings in my normally hectic office earlier today, I took advantage of the quiet to browse through some of the British papers online. There's a big financial scandal in the brewing here, involving all three major political parties. It concerns MPs abusing expenses privileges. It makes Gordon Brown look more like the spent force he is and it makes David Cameron look like a liar.

But thumbing through today's Guardian, I came across an article concerning something that's particularly dear to my heart, in an almost perverse sort of way; and that's the fact that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Southern Girl's Bible ... Gone With the Wind.

I first happened upon the book when I was thirteen years old - ironically, I bought my first copy of the book in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the battle where Ashley Wilkes went missing and the Tarleton twins were killed. That was the first of many copies of the book I've owned, and I've probably read the damned thing more than I've ever read any other book, certainly more than I ever read The Bible. I wouldn't say it's my favourite read either - that's reserved for the brilliantly poignant To Kill a Mockingbird - but it's certainly the most fascinating book I've ever read; and each time I return to it, it affects me in a completely different way.

I read it on the recommendation of my mother, it being her favourite book and film. I was weaned on the Civil War, and mine was probably the last generation in Virginia raised this way. Mine was the generation, white and black, which saw the end of Jim Crow and racially segregated schools. I remember the Centenniel of the Civil War being celebrated in my hometown, which boasts no less than the corpse of Col John Singleton Mosby resting in its cemetary. Girls of my generation, growing up during the Sixties, were the last generation of Southern girls to be raised to be professional ditzes, described accurately by Margaret Mitchell in the early part of the book, when she remarks upon how it was all important for an unmarried girl to act as if she didn't have two brain cells to rub together in order to snare a poor, dumb, unsuspecting (but socially acceptable) male, only to turn into a bastion of intelligence, common sense, efficiency and intellect as a married woman - as if marriage redeemed a woman's social and intellectual status. An old maid, like the character India Wilkes was destined to be, was a pejorative creature to be pitied and consigned to the eternal and charitable care of a reluctant male relative or shunted off to live in genteel poverty as a teacher in some out of the way school district. But then, Margaret Mitchell is at pains to remind us, part of poor India's problem was that she just couldn't hide the fact that she was intelligent. She was well-read and articulate; that made her a bluestocking. That, more than anything physical, made her plain. In hindsight, I think it actually made men fear her. After all, knowledge is power and if women are kept ignorant and in intellectual darkness, what can they hope to achieve? Just look at the Taliban.

As adolescents, my friends and I read the book around the local swimming pool. We actually didn't give a toss about Scarlett (whom I found, initially, faintly annoying) or Melanie. We were more interested in arguing the pros and cons about which male character we preferred - Rhett or Ashley. As young girls, the book was read to experience the romance of the South, the bodice-ripping, more than anything, which - apart from the marital rape scene in the book - never really got past first base.

From time to time, however, every five or six years or so, I'd return to the book and read it again. Being such a long book, it's easy to forget certain parts and the film left out great chunks and even some major characters. Reading it much later, after I'd married and gone to live in Britain, I was appalled at how horribly politically incorrect it was, looking back at the book then, in the last quarter of what was the Twentieth Century. Still later, I reread the tome yet again, after a long visit to Virginia, in which I had managed to reconnect with a lot of friends from my high school and college days.

Something entirely different struck me during that read - and that was the dialogue Mitchell used, especially Rhett Butler's dialogue, his banter with Scarlett. Something hit home in me with that and I suddenly realised what it was. My alma mater is the University of Virginia, and I had occasion to be part of the third class of women entering in the autumn of 1972. Suffice it to say that that portal of learning dubbed 'the last vestibule of Southern decadence' by the late great William Faulkner, and commonly known amongst the ivy-clad walls up and down the East Coast as 'the country club of the South', wasn't too enamoured of the fact that the University had been dragged kicking and screaming, suddenly, into the Twentieth Century and told it had to admit women. Women, in short, were not wanted there. We were about as welcome as a bastard at a family reunion and the 'gentlemen' let us know it in no uncertain terms.

That was some glass ceiling to crack, let me tell you.

The Virginia gentlemen liked to import their women from amongst the local talent in neighbouring women's colleges, little more than expensive finishing schools (all of which had offered me a place to study, which I had, in turned, politely declined). The Wa-Hoo male wanted women for weekend consumption only. To put it crudely, he wanted a girl from Friday night until Sunday morning, so he could suck her, fuck her and then chuck her and not have to risk running into her in the student cafeteria or tripping across The Lawn on the way to class on Monday morning.

These were girls who came down acting like the proverbial ditzes, whose sole purpose in attending a college of higher education was in order to obtain an MRS degree, preferably in union with someone attending medical or law school. And you know what the co-eds did?

We adapted. We learned the art of ditzing with the best of them. We dressed the part in preppie pink and green, with expensively shod Docksiders gracing our dainty feet and we traipsed off each weekend with our chosen date to the fraternity of his choice. We smiled at their drunken antics, we laughed at their inane banter, and our smiles assumed the stiffness of rigor mortis, as our Cavalier proceeded to puke on our shoes. We learned to match them drink for drink and hold it. We made the 'Gentleman's C' grade totally unacceptable. Standards were raised. The ceiling was broken.

Reading Gone With the Wind years later, reading the cadence of Rhett's banter, made me realise how very little men had changed in all those years. Take away everything in the story except some of the lighter scenes when Rhett's talking to Scarlett, dumb bitch that she is, and you have any good old Southern boy bantering with a girl whose panties he's hoping to explore by the end of the evening. Bill probably spoke with Hillary this way, and Jimmy with Roslyn. Hell, that numbnutz Dubya probably wooed Laura with the same shit different day.

And that's when I started thinking back over a lot of the Southern boys I'd known. That's when I realised that Margaret Mitchell had cracked it. Because, you see, there are really only two types of Southern fellas - Rhetts and Ashleys. Of course, the Rhetts were always the Alpha males - well-educated, well-spoken, but good at things like huntin', fishin', shootin', drinkin' and all things masculine (mostly gridiron football). The Ashleys were well-educated, well-spoken and towed the line on all things male without heart but because it was expected. They were the dreamers, the idealists.

My childhood sweetheart was an Ashley. My high school boyfriend was an Ashley as well, who went on - to my horror- to reveal to me during our first year at university that he wanted to be a Presbyterian minister. I spent the remainder of my college days veering between two men who embodied a peculiarly hybrid species I'd call 'Rhashley'. One was an engineering student who wanted nothing more than to be a DJ and who cracked me up with a sexy rendition of Groucho Marx's 'If a Nightingale Could Sing Like You.' The other was a law student from the Deep South who almost got me arrested in Georgetown when he spat on a statue of William Tecumseh Sherman. I repaid him the favour by tricking him into attending the wedding of a close college friend of mine, who happened to be a black woman marrying a white man. My boy was from Alabama. Need I say more?

He was as rightwing as I was on the left. We argued politics all, I mean all, the time. He lectured me on my heritage; I bucked against it. When, in my last year, I took the LSATs and scored well on them, he and my sainted mother connived to convince me that my sole lot in life was to teach rural children to conjugate French and Spanish verbs until he'd finished his law studies and then I could retire and breed Republican babies.

I went to Spain instead for the summer. He cheated on me with a fat girl from North Carolina and that put paid to that.

But that was all the bad bits.

The good bits were the making up after a heated political debate or any debate about social culture of the day. For all he was a weeping, rightwing gooper of the Gingrich variety, he bloody encouraged you to think. He'd make you read the paper and he'd argue the toss on various articles and problems of the day. He stimulated my mind and then it goes without saying that he stimulated something else as well.

It was Rhett's banter that reminded me so often of this Bubba.

Now here's the karma bit ... out of the blue (pun intended) and out of cyberspace, I got an e-mail today from my Rhashley man of the past. The entire afternoon and evening's been one continuous e-mail of banter, with pictures exchanged. He's aged well - hardly at all, the bastard. Still to the right, still with the gift of the gab, still egging on at the intellect, still a tease.

The fat girl got left behind someplace between DC, North Carolina and Heidelberg, Germany.

I wouldn't kick him out of bed, even now ... but, for once, I'm glad I'm on this side of the Pond and married ... still, it's sort of enticing to think that the frisson's still there after all these years ...

Who knows?

Friday, May 1, 2009

English Identity Crisis

Last week, here in the UK, there was a national holiday which no one celebrated nationally.

April 23rd was a double whammy of an English holiday: Shakespeare's birthday and St George's Day.

I'm not speaking about the United Kingdom as a whole. Too often, people who don't live in this scepter'd isle, and particularly in the United States, confuse the concept of the United Kingdom with England, alone. Just to clarify things, the official name of this country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 'Great Britain' comprises what was once three separate entities - England, Scotland and Wales. Wales, technically, is a principality, which the English conquered in the 14th Century and tagged the principality onto the Crown as a courtesy title for the eldest son of the reigning monarch, hence Prince Charles being the Prince of Wales. Scotland, always a thorn in the side of the English because it was 'there' in the north and pesky and always sided with the old English enemy (the French) scored a bit of a coup de coincidence when Queen Elizabeth I died, and her closest relative happened to be King James of Scotland. So, since the early 17th Century, the fates of the English have been ever entertwined with the troublesome Scots (hence the name of the first permanent English settlement in the New World, being named Jamestown).

History lesson over.

What has transpired during the past 400 years or so is not so much of an amalgamation of three nations into one entity, but sort of a grudging mesalliance of cultures, with much of the working-aged populations of the lesser two countries of the triumvirate descending at one time or the other on the metropolis of London in search - what else? - of work. The three nations, combined, came to be referenced under the blanket title of 'British.' And although the Welsh and Scots, at various times, have given the nation of Great Britain the odd Prime Minister (Lloyd George and Ramsay McDonald come to mind) and even the Queen Mother (a Scot, for all intents and purposes), they, themselves, have managed to retain their own cultural identities, distinctly different to that of the English.

The Scots wear the kilt - well, the men do and with nothing underneath (commonly referred to as 'going commando'), they have their Highland dances, and in the Highlands in some areas, Gaelic is spoken. In January, they celebrate the birthday of their much-loved poet Robert Burns in an evening of poetry and excessive drink. Such is the popularity of this event that Burns's Nights are celebrated by Scots descendents the world over, from the US to India to the wilds of Tasmania. They celebrate the day of their patron saint, Saint Andrew, every November 30th. They still live by the code of the clan, with each clan having an individual identifying kilt. Religion still plays a part in the lives of the Scots, if only to radge up a street-fighting fever pitch after Glasgow's two soccer teams - the Catholic Celtic and the Protestant Rangers - play each other in a local derby. The Scots even have their own flag: a white cross on a blue background.

The Scots are fiercely Scottish and want 'nae part of the Sassenachs (the English)', and their most vocal proponents are no less than Billy Connolly and Sir Sean Connery (who wants an independent Scotland, lives in an offshore tax haven and wasn't averse to taking a knighthood off the English Queen).

At the moment, it's 1-0 to the Scots because the last two British Prime Ministers have hailed from that part of the country, and whilst the Scots have their own separate Parliament, they can and do sit in the main Parliament in Westminster.

The Welsh, also, have retained their cultural identity and their language. Go to Wales and all the road signs are in English and Welsh. Welsh is widely spoken and is taught in most schools. They're a nation of poets (Dylan Thomas), of bards and minstrels (the late Sir Harry Secombe, Ivor Novello, Shirley Bassey and Sir Tom Jones) and immensely talented (and sexy) dramatic actors (the late Richard Burton and Sir Anthony Hopkins). Their patron saint, Saint David, has March 1st as his holiday.

And they, also, have a separate Parliament, but - yes - can and do sit in the National one.

All this 'separate but equal' (sound familiar?) status is a recent one, bestowed upon these separate but equal entities by the recent Labour government of Tony Blair, after years of fruitless lobbying for devolution by Scotland and Wales. Indeed, Scotland's long had a bit of a Texas moment, in wanting to separate entirely from anything whatsoever to do with England.

And so that leaves the English.

Pity the English, for they no longer know who they are.

In the years since the last vestiges of the old Empire crumbled into the modern and loosely-knit concept of the Commonwealth, their singular national identity has been more than somewhat eroded.

This has happened since the end of the Second World War. They entered that conflict a roaring lion (the Royal symbol), led by a half-American epitome of that most English canine, the bulldog (Winston Churchill). They came out on the other end an exhausted and bankrupt nation, living on rations and edging into socialism, heavily dependent financially on what had been the old colonies, in order to stave off starvation. It was much the situation of a grown child, coming of age, called upon to help a decrepit parent avoid the ravages of senility.

In fact, it was the Second World War which brought the first vestiges of globalisation to Great Britain and, specifically, to England. For many people on the homefront in the UK, they experienced the first direct contact with people from the 'old' New World. The Yanks arrived - overfed, overpaid and over here - and, if they didn't leave with war brides, they left a lot of legacy behind, much of which was bought for the price of a pair of silk stockings.

While this country has always been stringently divided along class lines, after the war, social mobility between the classes became more fluid. Women from middle-class homes, where servants had formerly been the norm, were now doing their own housework. Men who skivvied for paltry pay wanted something better. Churchill, the aristocrat, was dumped as PM in favour of the socialist Clem Atlee. There were jobs on the market that the indigenous English simply didn't want to do.

The labour problem was solved by issuing a call for workers from the poorer parts of the old Empire, and England saw the arrival of its first black residents from the West Indies. In the years following the partition of India and Pakistan and the ensuing home rule there, Hindu and Muslims alike came to work in the northern textile and steel mills. The Irish, north and south, also came looking for work.

Great Britain - and, in particular, England - became a melting pot.

A great many of these immigrants settled, raised families and got 'British' passports. But here's the difference between what happened in England and what happened in that great nation of immigrants, the United States.

We are a nation of immigrants, the only 'real' Americans being those whom we displaced, the indigenous Native American population. Yes, we're a young nation and more times than we would care to remember, the people in social power haven't looked too kindly on those whose racial and ethnic make-up didn't quite fit the accepted norm. And that's reprehensible. But at the end of the day, in this nation of ours, we're all Americans. Yes, we're African-Americans, Italian Americans, Polish Americans, Irish Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans ... but the emphasis is on the last proper adjective American.

We haven't always got along and we still don't. But our cultures have blended. We've borrowed from each other. We eat soul food and jambalaya. Italian cuisine is the norm in homes whose residents don't have a drop of Italian blood. Chinese New Year is celebrated. So is Hannukah and Yom Kippur. We're mutts and our leaders reflect this. In modern times, we've been led by aristocrats (the Roosevelts), jumped up shanty Irish (the Kennedys), crooks (Nixon), farmers (Carter), film stars (Reagan) and the mentally deranged (Bush II). Bill Clinton could claim Native American blood and was a bubba. Now we've got a mutt President who can claim affinity with the African American community as well as being an 8th cousin of Dick Cheney, a relative of Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis and whose Irish blood entitles him to march proudly in any St Patrick's Day parade.

This is us. This is America.

But the English ...

They're still not accustomed to a technicolour view of their country. They still live in black and white - as does a great deal of Europe - when modern society is blazing along in living technicolour. Their leaders preach a religion of multiculturalism, which is unlike any multiculturalism I experienced in growing up in the United States.

They just don't get it.

The immigrants arrived, specifically from the Indian sub-continent. The English encouraged them to keep their own customs and language. They were not encouraged, even in the schools, to adapt to the culture of the new country they'd chosen. Whilst many male immigrants went to work, their wives, all of whom subsequently became citizens, still could not and would not speak English. Whole swathes of schools in certain areas have student populations where English is not spoken in the home. Dress codes in schools have to be adapted to conform with cultural and religious dictates, especially concerning women. The concept of arranged marriage was practiced exclusively - ofttimes, recently, with tragic results. The English social leaders (often policticos and social workers) who advocated this sort of multi-culturalism thought this approach was progressive. It was anything but.

And that's just the Asian community.

Twenty-eight years ago, when I arrived, a bride, in the UK, the English cities of London and Liverpool were alight with race riots, the likes of which I hadn't seen in the US since the late Sixties.

And this is the country who thought to lecture us on racial prejudices.

It's still there, subtly, on both sides of the political divide.

In the late 1990s, the all-white town of Cheltenham in Gloucester, whose inhabitants hail from the pages of John Betjeman's Joan Hunter Dunn and Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster, adamantly rejected the Conservative Party's chosen Central Office candidate, John Taylor, a distinguised lawyer and academic ... because he was black. Take a look around the Cabinet tables of either Blair or Brown ... in the words of one ex-Chairman of the BBC: hideously white.

As if almost to excuse this prejudice and in an almost tacit apology for it, English councils and authorities began to act somewhat strange. For example, Birmingham, the second largest city in England and with a large Asian population, banned the word 'Christmas'. Instead, they celebrate 'Winterval' because Christmas might offend some Muslims. The Red Cross and the Royal Mail have banned any religious depiction on Christmas cards and postage stamps for fear of offence. In an East London council office, everyone must observe the dietary laws of Ramadan in order to appease Muslim employees. That means from the time you arrive at work until the time you leave, no eating and no drinking.

Parliament enacted recently a religious hate crime act, but it only pertains to anyone inciting religious hatred against the Muslim faith. Christians and Jews are fair game - especially Jews. Anti-Semitism is growing apace in England, in particular. It's fashionable amongst the chattering classes of Islington and Hampstead Heath in North London. In a recent election in the Tower Hamlet section of East London, the sitting MP, Oona King, the biracial daughter of Jewish mother and a black father, was pelted with eggs during her campaign, subjected to racist abuse and voted out and supplanted by the ex-Labour now rogue independent candidate George Galloway. In many cases, Galloway, a practicing Catholic, led the verbal charge.

And here's the rub in that: for all a lot of rationalists in the US (and there are many of us and we're growing) look to the United Kingdom as an example of a nation functioning in a post-Christian society ... the United Kingdom is, by dint of its unwritten constitution, a Christian country. Our mutt President isn't wrong when he says the US isn't Christian. We're not. We're not supposed to be. We were founded on secular tenets. But the United Kingdom, in particular, England, is Christian. Protestant Christian. The ruler's specific title is Defender of the Faith. And that faith isn't being defended very well at the moment.

Which leads to another paradox ...

The state church, the Anglican Church (we call them Episcopalian), is a dying entity. Churches are being closed all over the country due to lack of attendance and membership, although the majority of white Anglo-Saxon England identifies itself as Anglican. There are Christian memberships growing - the Catholic Church and the - shock, horror - born-again fundamentalist movement are increasing their flocks by leaps and bounds. And that's scary.

With the enlargement of the European Union in 2004, many economic immigrants from Poland have swelled the population of England. Catholic churches are teeming and Catholic schools over-subscribed. Add to that the Luddite Anglicans who couldn't live and wouldn't live with the idea of female priests, who have joined the ranks of the Catholics, with the convert-in-chief being Tony Blair. And there's a growing fundamentalist movement, with the selfsame belief in home-schooling, Creationism and purity pledges. Don't ask me how this happened, even I have trouble getting my head around that one; but they're growing in number, so there you go.

So, where is the English identity in all this, you ask?

Well, the government of the day has basically subverted it. A lot of this subversion has to do with a quasi-Nazi organisation, the British National Party, the British - or rather, English - version of the Ku Klux Klan, minus the sheets. When I arrived, they were a violent but often ludicrous assortment of ugly, ill-educated an inarticulate skinhead thugs, whose chief pasttime was baiting innocent and defenceless Pakistani immigrants. In the ensuing years, however, they found their David Duke figure - the Cambridge-educated Nick Griffin. Targetting not only the Asian immigrant population, they're now singling out Eastern European immigrants; and they've adopted as their symbol the flag of the English nation: the red cross of St George on a white background, which means that, by extension, the BNP have adopted St George, the patron saint of England.

Not only have they assumed the English flag as their symbol (thus, making it as synonymous with racism as the Confederate flag has become in the States), they've preached their gospel of fear and racial hate amongst the basest element of indigenous English society, uniting them with the leftover dredges of the Colonel Blimps and Hooray-Henry-Nice-but-Dim types frequenting the outer edges of the upper echelon of English society. And they're growing in number too. And that's not nice at all.

On the one hand, I can understand how these drifting souls are attracted to someone like Griffin. He feels their pain. They're adrift in an England that suddenly doesn't seem to be England anymore, or at least, the England of their imagination.

But that's almost laughable, because to me, England never has looked like the England of my imagination. My England, taught to me by an Anglophile English Literature teacher, who'd taught the same to my mother, was the England of green countryside and cottages, hedgerows, Shakespeare, Canterbury Tales (I can still recite the Prologue in Old English), the Wars of the Roses, Henry V ('Cry England for St George and Harry!'), Bolingbroke's speech upon returning from exile, George III tanking, Queen Victoria and Churchill, fair play and sportsmanship and Wimbledon. My idea of England as a child was that if boys grew up to look like a young Paul McCartney, they couldn't be all bad and were worth persuing. It was freedom of speech and the cradle of democracy, with honour enough to instill those ideas in its first colonies in the New World, balls enough to fight the adolescent child trying to burst its colonial parameters to stand alone, and decent enough to know when to let the child go its own way.

Women could vote in England before they could vote in the US, and so they promptly elected a daughter of Virginia as their first woman Member of Parliament. England stood up to Hitler as the last bastion of defence when the French rolled over for a tummy-tickle (and I still say Churchill's gumption came from Jenny Jerome's Manhattan roots). England, simply, did not appease. England fought the fight for the little guy.

This isn't the England I know. The England I know has sprung fully grown, like Athena from Zeus, from the forehead of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher's most famous quote was an observation that 'there is no such thing as society' and the England she created reflects that. It's a slate-gray nation of feckless single mothers who start producing progeny from childhood (this nation has the highest rate of underaged sex and the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe) and move from man to man, living off the state and letting their children run feral. It's a nation of haves and have-nots, where if you've got what you need, you always want more. Thatcher's England is founded on greed. She stripped the country bare of its industry and created the faux industry of Gordon Gekkos and rogue traders who meted out a false impression of wealth and preached the right to home ownership based on excessive debt. (Again, sound familiar?) As long as you were all right, sod the poor bastard made homeless down the street. That's the attitude, exemplified by a 1950s pre-Hollywood Peter Sellers film entitled I'm All Right Jack.

It's a nation where 40,000 people per month are either being downsized or unemployed, where wages are stagnating and prices are rising, yet where a professional soccer team can afford to hire a player on a wage of a million dollars a week and fans will go hungry in order to afford a ticket to spend 90 minutes watching this paragon parade about a pitch. It's the nation who gave our nation the awful concept of reality television, a nation brought to a standstill over the tragically early death from cancer of a reality television star. It's a nation of z-list celebrity, where a talented yet drug-addled singer can be caught on film smoking crack cocaine and the nation relishes in watching her physical decline. It's a nation where a mother drugs a daughter and hides her for weeks with a funny uncle in order to spark a nationwide hunt for her 'kidnapper' as a perverted scam to get money. The nation that gave us Shakespeare also gave us Jonathan Ross. The nation who gave us Noel Coward also gave us Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan, who - as the editor of The Mirror - revelled in a particularly nasty form of anti-Americanism, until he was offered the chance to judge American Idol and to rub shoulders with David Hasselhoff. It's the nation who laughs at our sentimentality and then goes ga-ga over the death of a pretty shallow princess. It's the nation who poked fun at the atrocious display of sentimentality exhibited by Gwyneth Paltrow when she won her Oscar and then gave us the equally atrocious Kate Winslet.

It's a nation where feral youths in hoods stalk the streets with scant respect for property or person, where children are bullied remorselessly, where people are still killed because of the colour of their skin, their religion or their sexual orientation. It's a nation where the people's tax monies help fund the porn addiction of the husband of a government minister. It's a nation with a massive alcoholism problem, which starts in earnest for most people during adolescence. It's a nation whose youth go abroad to fight, not in the armies, but on the beaches on drunken holidays. It's a nation of open rudeness, with a government that shows a singular lack of common sense.

And at the moment, it's a nation quick to blame the US for anything majorly wrong that happens in the world, yet it secretly nurtures an incipient jealousy of the direction in which the US seems to be taking. They're jealous of Obama, that he's ours and that we chose him. The nicest things the populist pundits are admitting is that we're enjoying the euphoria they felt with Blair after 18 years of Tory corruption and sleaze.


But maybe not. And that's down to the difference between our type of representative democracy and their political democracy. We chose our man because he was the best man for the job, not as a gimmick because of the colour of his skin, but because he was what we perceived to be a good leader - and here's the rub: we chose our leader.

Some nations have born leaders, some have politicos who aspire to great leadership and some have leaders foist upon them. England fits into the latter mould. The majority party picks the leader, the Prime Minister, not the people. Tony Blair was chosen by his party and got the nod when that party got a whopping majority. Gordon Brown forced Tony's hand and stepped into the breach.

It's a demoralised nation, looking for reasons to be cheerful.

I think they need a national holiday. Not Christmas or May Day or New Year's, but a truly national day of ENGLISH celebration. Like our Fourth of July, which some English pubs rather pathetically attempt to celebrate here. That, alone, tells me the English are wandering aimlessly in search of a national holiday to call their own. The central government has poo-poohed the idea of celebrating St George's Day, considering the saint and his flag have been snatched by the fringe right. There's always the Fifth of November, Bonfire Night, commemorating Guy Fawkes's attempt to blow up Parliament; but again, the government says that would offend Catholics. Of course, April 23rd is also Shakespeare's birthday, and no greater proponent of the English language or literature has ever existed. His phrases are stock components of our everyday expressions. He's known and translated the world over. He fits. Nicely. And celebrating Shakespeare's birthday would tip the nod to someone and something appreciated worldwide about England and of which the English can be proud.

Now all we have to do is get the English to read some Shakespeare and familiarise themselves with the subject whose life they should want to celebrate.

Fingers crossed.