I’m just back from Chicago, Washington and New York where I’ve been making a film on Obama’s four years, and still shaking off the jetlag. It’s been a hot early autumn there, after a scorching summer; but nobody on the campaign trail seems to be talking about climate change. Or indeed about anything except the economy. Nor do many people seem to be listening. There’s an eerie absence of electioneering bumper-stickers, posters or even much coverage on the TV breakfast shows. You get tiny flashes of political coverage between the weather and traffic. This is a fight taking place in upmarket nooks and angry crannies — certain websites, op-ed pages and cable shows. It’s relentless in a few swing states, where breathtaking amounts of money are being thrown into negative TV advertising. But in the rest of the country it seems easy to simply screen the election out. I got more and better coverage in British papers and channels. This strikes me as worrying for American politics, getting so shrill and angry. One of the many shrewd people I interviewed pointed out that today Democrats and Republicans tend to live in completely different neighbourhoods, as well as watching different shows. ‘We don’t talk to each other. Ever,’ she said. Without a common conversation, can you have a successful democracy?
Among those round the breakfast table after the Sunday show was my departing boss Mark Thompson. I told him that having my History of the World scheduled at nine on Sundays, up against Downton Abbey, was a great honour… but it was a bit like the honour of being chosen as the sub-lieutenant who would lead the charge against those jolly impressive machine-gun emplacements on the Boche lines. He laughed and said he thought it was good scheduling — you don’t put like against like. I guess that’s true. If the BBC isn’t for taking risks and doing big historical subjects on prime time, what is it for? Still, a bit of a quaver as I put whistle to lip.
My own favourite TV drama at the moment is Parade’s End. So — at last — time for Ford Madox Ford. Waterstone’s had sold out. I went into the basement at Hatchard’s and just said, ‘I’m afraid I’ve come for the obvious,’ and the assistant smiled and silently went to a shelf and pulled out a copy of this recently obscure novel sequence. How surprising to be living in a country which has, however briefly, gone mad for Ford Madox Ford.
The History of the World project fell into the category of ‘so ambitious it’s loopy — but irresistible’. Because of the iron demands of TV, the choices about what to put in and leave out were brutal, but then even the sainted Kenneth Clark pretty much equated ‘Civilisation’ and ‘Florence’. The shows are meant to draw a BBC1 audience into the bigger picture that school history (scandalously) doesn’t offer — but they will be, I hope, provocative. The book contains stories which never made it into the shows; but both are argumentative. After more than two years, about two dozen countries, a blur and daze of airports, and hundreds of thousands of words, it brought me and most of the team to a state of utter exhaustion. I’ve never been so tired. We then celebrated, no doubt excessively, and I embraced a colleague too enthusiastically and was snapped — or papped — or whatever. The pictures looked awful. All my own fault. I’ve since being going about apologising, not least to my wife, for embarrassing all and sundry. And although the US trip was interesting, it would have been rather more fun had I not been banging my head against every wall I passed, moaning ‘fool, fool, fool’. The symptoms of remorse, it turns out, are very much like flu.
Back in our Indian summer, and I’ve been dealing with the jetlag with long bicycle rides. Having been a lifelong runner, my knees have finally packed up. Something like Teflon, apparently, has rubbed away, leaving ‘bone on bone’. Nothing can be done. This is a blow, since I dislike swimming and watching other people sweat in gyms. So I’m discovering the Thames path, and London back roads. But I make two promises: no Lycra, and no self-righteousness. Cycling is a good form of transport. It’s an OK form of exercise. But it’s not a religion.
Finally, a tip for art lovers. There is a show in Washington of the US painter George Bellows, famous for his boxing pictures and his studies of New York before and after the first world war. You tend to see Bellows pictures singly, or perhaps a couple together, in US galleries, but this is a huge show, which ought to establish his name as one of the very great talents of the early 20th century. There are superb drawings, portraits, landscapes, war-propaganda pictures, sporting scenes and seascapes, a Manet-like sprawl of subjects; and a fantastic sense of line and colour. It’s going to New York and then, perhaps, to London. Kill to get a ticket.