There are many places where a gay Jewish couple wearing yarmulkes wouldn’t feel comfortable walking down the street. I didn’t think west London was one of them. Ambling along Edgware Road to a wedding at the West London Synagogue, however, my partner feels something land on his jacket. At first, he believes it is bird dropping. Closer examination reveals the white gob to be human spittle. Later, we tell a friend, Harry Cole of the Mail on Sunday, who tweets about it. The Sky News presenter Adam Boulton replies: ‘No excuse but it is a Middle Eastern quarter.’ He later apologises. Perhaps we should have known better than to don yarmulkes on a street with so many kebab shops, hookah bars and women in chadors.
Table conversation at the wedding reception inevitably turns to politics. As an American, I am asked for my view of Britain’s predicament. I express dismay at the anti-Semitism that has infected the Labour party. ‘Don’t you think it’s all just lies pushed by the right-wing press to discredit Jeremy Corbyn?’ a young lady not so much enquires as declares. I think of the alarming figure that 40 per cent of British Jews would consider leaving the country were Corbyn to become prime minister. ‘We’re at a Jewish wedding,’ I reply. ‘Presumably there are many people here you could ask.’
From the wedding celebration, we go straight to Canterbury on the high-speed train to spend a few days at the Georgian manor home of David Starkey. The Red House dates to 1721, making it older than the United States. Our host is an institution of sorts — not just a leading historian of the British monarchy, a popular television pundit and a man who has overcome great obstacles to reach the heights of several professions, but also a fantastic cook. He whipped us up a sumptuous chicken risotto after a day spent touring Canterbury Cathedral. Like every other Brit we tell about the spittle experience, David is outraged and apologises profusely, as if he were responsible. For his cutting performances on radio and television, David once earned the moniker ‘rudest man in Britain’. As far as I am concerned, he is the opposite.
Harry Cole hosts us in the parliamentary press gallery for a rather uneventful Prime Minister’s Questions. Harry leavens proceedings with a wry, whispered running commentary; he would make an excellent sports commentator. Seated catty corner from us is Seumas Milne, who, in the flesh, looks exactly like the wannabe commissar he sounds like in print.
Fourteen years ago, while studying at Yale, I spent a summer working for David Lammy. Office drudgery aside, it was a fantastic experience, nurturing an obsession with British politics, culture and journalism that continues to this day. Over dinner, I mention to David the MP my weekend spent at the home of David the CBE. He grips my arm, laughs and marvels at my penchant for accumulating such a disparate collection of friends and acquaintances. My mother says I lead the life of Forrest Gump, which I take as a compliment.
David the MP takes us to the premiere of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, where I am introduced to Diane Abbott. What better place to encounter a member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet than this timeless indictment of American capitalism? Like everyone else, Diane wants my take on the Democratic presidential field. If you’re going to plagiarise another politician’s speeches, I say of frontrunner Joe Biden, steal from a winner, not Neil Kinnock. When Diane asks for my view of Bernie Sanders, I reply that a geriatric leftist backbencher who has spent his career delivering interminable speeches, boasts scant legislative accomplishments and is hijacking a political party to which he has shown little allegiance is not fit to lead a country. Whether Diane wants to laugh or strangle me, I cannot tell.
Over coffee in Soho, Howard Jacobson and I spend most of our conversation commiserating about the sorry state of the world. He recently wrote a hilarious piece in Tablet, an American Jewish magazine, imagining emails between Corbyn and his acolytes over its anti-Semitism row. ‘I did hear about the cock-up,’ says the (fictional) Corbyn. ‘I’m still waiting for someone to explain who invited Hamas and Hezbollah for tea at the House of Commons on the same day. It’s common knowledge they don’t get on.’ Who says English Zionists lack a sense of irony?
James Kirchick is author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.