Transatlantic Tour

‘Backward-leaning leftist populism is on the rise. All the old slogans of the 1980s  — “Tory scum” and so on — are making a return’

Social Affairs The Outsider's Diary

To the US for a five-day speaking tour of ten cities from Boston to Texas. On the penultimate day I arrive in Houston and stare at the luggage carousel board. A member of the airport staff approaches helpfully. “Where have you flown in from, sir?” she asks. I look at her blankly before admitting, “I’m not sure.” She looks at me in a kindly manner.

On the final day I fly from Chicago at 5.30 in the morning to speak in Florida at 10am. The morning slot is kicked off by Herman Cain. I am sorry when he subsequently leaves the presidential primary race. But there is no escaping a fact that has been clear across the country: all Democrats are disappointed by Obama, but hardly any Republicans are actively keen on their alternatives. The Republican party’s “last man standing who hasn’t made a gaffe” competition should never be the way to nominate the leader of the free world. But in any case it is a terrible field.

* * *

I go to Prague for a conference but am back in London in time for the launch of my new book — Bloody Sunday: Truth, Lies and the Saville Inquiry — in my publisher’s offices, which face Parliament. It is a wonderful evening, with nearly all of the people I admire from the Northern Ireland conflict there, including David Trimble, Sean O’Callaghan, Lord Bew and Ruth Dudley Edwards (the book’s dedicatee). We are also joined by the brilliant Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Paterson, and his wife.

The evening reminds me of one of the oddest phenomena in Northern Ireland’s politics over the last decade: almost all of the good people got shafted and almost all the bad ones got rewarded. The rest of the world isn’t nearly sceptical enough about  conflict resolution as taught by the British.

* * *Twice in a week Sky News pits me against the journalist Owen Jones. Owen has been fortunate in appearing just as the immolation of Johann Hari saw the British far-Left in want of an Oxbridge-educated “voice of the people”. All the required trademarks are there, including — for someone born in 1984 — a clearly faked obsession with lambasting Margaret Thatcher. Such backward-leaning leftist populism is on the rise. Everywhere you hear claims that simply taxing bankers more will solve our financial woes. Journalists, protesters and politicians assert that a slight slowing in the rate of borrowing means a near-shutdown of the NHS/state schools/all dinner-ladies. This is not only populism, it is a sure sign that the Left in Britain is in an even worse state than the Right. All the old slogans of the 1980s — “Tory scum” and so on — are making a return. You can almost sense the frustration as they fail to find a rhyme as good as “snatcher” for David Cameron. The radical Left need Thatcher as they need synthetic class warfare. 
* * *

I return to my old church in the City of London for a memorial service for a friend. Having been let down by the Tube, I am full of dark thoughts about the Circle Line when, out of breath, I finally arrive, find my place and stand for the first hymn. The second verse contains a line with my friend’s surname in it. Whenever this used to occur I would catch his eye across the church, raise an eyebrow and nod. Distracted by the bustle of the day, as the line comes along I look up and search for him.

A few days earlier I read a story about a French writer and registered there was someone I particularly wanted to share it with before remembering that the friend — a wonderful Francophile Persian writer — has been dead for several years. People often talk of the “gap” that a death leaves, but really it is a set of gaps. The physical one is only the earliest and most obvious.

* * *

The New Year break is the best period for which to store up promising books. I peaked early, however, and have already absorbed one from my pile. John Saumarez Smith, known to bibliophiles for his advice from the Heywood Hill and Maggs Bros bookshops, has edited the correspondence of Anthony Powell and Robert Vanderbilt. Its title is taken from one of Vanderbilt’s letters, in which he describes his correspondent’s novels as containing a characteristic he summarises as “the acceptance of absurdity”. It is a wonderful phrase and sends me straight back to core Powell.

I recently bought a small wood-burner to go into the tiny, dilapidated house miles from London which, after much work, I can finally live — and read — in. Suddenly the New Year seems fully planned for and complete.