Saturday, August 29, 2009
My first Edinburgh Book Festival gig (the first I was let into anyway) was to see Ian Jack, who was impressively articulate and perceptive, as well as pleasingly rumpled, as a journalist shoud be. I could have happily listened to him chat with the venerable Ruth Wishart for some time, as I think could have the rest of the audience. Alas, it was not to be.The audience was completely white, mostly middle-aged, and entered with a kind of furrow-browed earnestness that said 'I'm not here to enjoy myself, my national identity is at stake.' It was wall-to-wall tweed and natural fibres. Until, that is, the speakers arrived. Enter stage left a very slim woman with perfect make-up, a blonde bob with edges as sharp as a knife, a short, red, body-hugging dress, heels and a broad patent leather belt. She had to be American.
She writes for the New York Times, apparently, but I have never read her. For a start,I don't read columnists in newspapers. If you want to witter on about nothing start a blog, I say. I did. I see no place for it in a publication whose function purports to be news. At least that's what I think until someone offers me a column, at which point I will be wholly and enthusiatically in favour.
Judging ONLY from the appearance at the Festival, one would conclude that her column consists of amusing little observations about those whacky English with their sexual hang-ups and refusal to use the word 'toilet' in polite company(really?). The overall impression was that she probably came from a part of New York that was solely inhabited by well-educated white people, and upon marrying an Englishman, now lives in an area of London solely inhabited by public-school educated white folk. Apparently, they love their dogs but have trouble expressing their emotions to humans. Well blow me down with a fucking feather.
Well, good luck to her, if she can manage to get a gig at Edinburgh festival to promote her collection of columns, she is clearly destined for great things. I am not sure that being part of a session billed as being a discussion of Britishness was the right place for her, though. In fact, having only glimpsed America through the prism of Vegas and Arizona (see above mentioned blog), I am not sure she was even going to be much use in a discussion of American identity. She claimed, among other things, that Americans - unlike the British - become Americans when they arrive on those shores, whereas the British are always looking back to their origins and staying exactly who they were in the first place (those naughty fundamentalist Pakistanis were cited as evidence).
The tweedy audience, feeling increasing hurrumphy, kept her on her toes. They have been quite feisty this year. One pointed out that both on the stage seemed to be speaking solely about some white, Christain, tea-and-biscuits version of Britain that no longer existed, if it ever had. Another pointed out that in her 15 years of living in America the people she met were constantly referring to themselves as 'Irish' or 'Italian', when in fact that had not been the case for four generations.'Well,' our American friend replied.'People got very interested in their heritage after Roots was on television.'
One small editorial note on the program. It described her take on the English as 'waspish' when they clearly meant to say 'W.A.S.Pish'. Regardless, the most eloquent statement of national identity remained the appearance of the red dress and the shiny shiny black belt.