P.J. O’Rourke opens his diary
Just back from London, 40 years to the week since my first visit. It was a wonderful city then, in a cold- rooms, dark-streets, early-pub-closing, single-TV-channel way. And the food… I ordered a steak, it arrived boiled. But London was more polite and intelligent than America. The language was full of manners. If one didn’t like a person, one could say, ‘One quite likes him.’ One could use the politely impersonal ‘one’. No dialogue began with the rude Americanism ‘What do you do?’ Real conversation was on offer, about shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings and who was the more appalling paedophile, the Reverend Dodgson or J.M. Barrie. Besides, since six shillings an hour was considered a living wage, my London friends were too intelligent to get a job. Not that being American made me feel stupid — quite. There was a white Christmas in 1970. We had an immense snowball fight. Never mind fast bowling, your cricketer stands no chance against a baseball pitch.
Intelligence continues to shine here. One was in town to flog one’s book until the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Nonfiction lodged a complaint. Thus radio and TV interviews. These entail pre-interviews. A young woman producer gets the author to say everything he has to say, leaving him with nothing to say in the interview proper but ‘um’ and ‘up to a point’. In America producers are chosen for good looks, chipper attitude and good looks. In London producers are chosen for good looks, chipper attitude and Oxbridge accents. Typical question from an American producer: ‘Has, like, Sarah Palin, you know, heard that Barack Obama was born in Africa?’ Typical question from an English producer: ‘Would you elucidate what moral qualms you possess concerning nanotechnology?’ (I have only the smallest objections.)
On BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week one guest was Armando Iannucci, a political satirist so skilled that he’s preparing to ascend the Everest of political satire, the American vice-presidency. No US funny-maker would dare try to top reality. As Chicago humorist Peter Finley Dunne said about vice presidents 100 years ago, ‘It isn’t a crime exactly. Ye can’t be sint to jail f’r it, but it’s kind iv a disgrace. It’s like writin’ anonymous letters.’ Another guest, Simon McBurney, is directing a production based on an early Soviet novel by Mikhail Bulgakov about an early Soviet dog turned into an early Soviet. Transplanted testicles are involved, and it’s an opera. Then there was the splendid Mary Beard, Britain’s most famous classicist. In America a classicist is someone who prefers Madonna in her ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ phase. Mary and Simon and Armando said… all sorts of things. I said ‘um’ and ‘up to a point’. They were polite about it.
My theory is that you’re polite because you’re violent. I know, I know, America and guns and all that. But without guns we’d still be part of Canada, where the weather’s terrible. You conquered a third of the world. We’ve yet to extend the writ of law to the Bronx. It took 500 years to get you out of Ireland, and just the part with the beggared banks at that. As for intelligence, your conquests were administered by a few young chaps who’d studied nothing but Latin and Greek. Our load of Poly Sci PhD diplomats in Kabul can’t find their Khyber Pass with both hands. Your intelligence comes from your libel laws. Of course your conversation is brilliant, what with all the turns of mind and phrase required to keep Wills and Kate from hauling you into court. (‘Unemployed man marries girl from estate’ as one London tabloid put it.) I love ‘overtired and emotional’, ‘rich and varied social life’, ‘friends say he needs rest’, ‘helping police with inquiries’. (In American: ‘drunk’, ‘slut’, ‘insane’, ‘arrested for murder and rape’.)
On my last night, talk sparkled at the Wolseley over steaks frites not boiled. There was Dominic Lawson of coruscant wit; International Policy Network’s supertanker among the think-tanks, Julian Morris; nonpareil graphic designer David Pelham (made a pop-up book of a Caro sculpture, say no more). And muse of literature Jacqui Graham, who has recently gone over the side at Pan Macmillan, a company now doing business the American way and good luck to them with The Slummy Mummy Guide to Nail Care. Two tables away was Lucian Freud, the best living painter in the English language, although I tend to get him mixed up with Francis Bacon. I resisted the temptation to go over and ask, ‘Are you the dead one?’ Twelve hours before my BA flight home and already the polite intelligence was slipping away.