My room was not ready when I arrived, underslept after a flight from Washington, at the hotel near Shaftesbury Avenue where I’m going to spend the next few days.
My room was not ready when I arrived, underslept after a flight from Washington, at the hotel near Shaftesbury Avenue where I’m going to spend the next few days. So I had a cup of coffee in the lounge. When I came back a very pretty woman was talking to the receptionist. She looked up at me and, to my shock, I knew her. And not just knew her. Although I hadn’t seen her in years, I was sure I knew her very well — maybe even well enough that it would be a faux pas if I couldn’t figure out how. And I could not. So I looked at her, trying to balance my expression midway between ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Darling!’ My brow must have been knit with the effort at recall, because she said, ‘It’s okay… I’m an actress.’
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘Sorry about that.’ Turns out I didn’t know her. It was Helena Bonham Carter.
What? Yes, I most certainly do expect you to believe that on my first trip to London in months, the first person I met was the woman who, to your median American male movie-goer, is the embodiment of English womanhood. It is no less likely, after all, than an Englishwoman stepping off the plane in New York and being greeted by, say, Clint Eastwood. Probably happens all the time.
Maybe I have a knack for bringing out what is quintessentially English in England. As a teenager in the early 1980s, I took the Piccadilly line in from Heathrow, came up from the Tube at Earl’s Court and asked a passing woman where I could find the youth hostel. ‘Blimey!’ she said. ‘Dunno.’ So blimey was the first word ever spoken to me in England. I have never heard an English person of either sex use it since.
Went to Broadcasting House to discuss my book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West on Radio 4’s Start the Week. The book has a really simple theme — You Cannot Have the Same Europe with Different People — but I like to think the arguments in it are sophisticated and the stories full of paradox, that my trips to Clichy-sous-Bois and Senegal to research it have borne fruit, even that it will do for multicultural Europe what Tocqueville did for my own country. Unfortunately, everyone expects a book on immigration and multiculturalism to put forward one of two theses: either a) no problems at all, mate, and only Nick Griffin says otherwise, or b) we’re doomed. I, of course, think I’ve found an equipoise somewhere between a) and b), but most journalists are firmly of the a) persuasion and are likely to greet the book as if it were called Shadow of the Scimitar or something.
So I came on the show well prepared to be misunderstood. I was not prepared for what my fellow guest Monica Ali said. ‘I did pick up on one thing…’ she began, after I’d described my book. My head bobbed up like a dog’s at the sound of a tin-opener, ‘…that you at one point in your life had a job as a street-sweeper —’. When she saw the look of utter confusion on my face, she stopped dead. ‘Is that not right?’
Well, no, it wasn’t. Possibly the information packet sent out to guests had been mis-stapled or something. Still, it was odd to have been placed in such an English-novelly situation by an English novelist. I felt a bit like Adam in Vile Bodies, when he’s trying to ask for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage and her father-in-law persists in mistaking him for a vacuum-cleaner salesman.
For many years, the ingenuity of the British press in exploiting the Brown-Blair rivalry story amazed me. What a gift the papers had for conveying that, this time, it was really about to blow. It was good to see last week that this old journalistic warhorse can still be saddled up, with the help of Hazel Blears’s remarks about the Prime Minister’s ‘lamentable’ failure to communicate. To an American audience, Blears’s insistence that she was 100 per cent behind the prime minister would have sounded wholly credible. For us, describing a politician as ‘failing to communicate’, or (in Americanese) ‘not getting his message out’ is what loyalists do. It’s a way of avoiding the alternative explanation, which is that the public hates him. Funny that the press does. Ninety per cent of them were drumming up Brown’s candidacy in the old days. Now, to someone who’s been away only a few months, their contempt is unfathomable, even irrational. On Monday, two daily newspaper cartoonists filled their frames with caricatures of the prime ministerial bum. Maybe this sort of personalisation of political opposition happens more in monarchies than republics.
I generally come to London with a food agenda — a checklist of eating pleasures that remind me of the times in the 1980s when I lived here. I like to have at least one lunch in a pub, get at least one meal that has a big helping of peas, eat whitebait if I can find it, and make at least one ‘meal’ of a pork pie bought in a supermarket. Today, the wolf is far enough from the door that I don’t pay much attention to what those pork pies cost. But how vividly I remember what they cost around 1984 or 1986 (39p), just as I remember the price of a pint of bitter (92p). Money mattered then, back in what I will now think of as my street-sweeping days.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Financial Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 9, 2009