Category Archives: England

Public transportation: To me, magic. To Doug, an insufferable hassle

My personal fave may be the London Underground. It's gear; it's fab; and all those pimply hyperboles...

My personal fave may be the London Underground. It’s gear; it’s fab; and all those pimply hyperboles…

Our brief exchange today about public transportation reminds me that I’ve been meaning to post this email Doug Ross sent me the other day:

I’m still struggling with your love affair with public transportation.  Here’s my latest experience:  I started a new job today and had to travel to Boston for a week of onboarding.  I’m staying with my son who lives about 15 miles south of Boston.   Here’s how our journey went today:
1. Walk 15 minutes in 40 degree weather to train station (or he could drive and pay $7 a day to park)
2. Buy pass for the week for $19 (a reasonable deal, about what I pay per week now for a tank of gas in my Honda)
3. Wait 8 minutes for train
4. Board train. Luckily he is at one of the first stops so I was able to get a seat.  But I am not a small person and that means sharing personal shoulder space with the people on either side of me.
5. Train starts moving.  It doesn’t smell great in the car.   Not as funky as the night before when I spent 20 minutes beside someone who smelled like a mixture of old milk and onions, but not as pleasant as my personal car interior.
6. Next stop, a bunch of people get on.   They all are standing.  Had I seen a woman nearby, I would have given up my seat (since I am a gentleman at heart) but there were none.
7. The guy in front of me decides to stand facing me with his crotch perhaps 18 inches from my face.   This RARELY happens in my car.  In fact, it has NEVER happened.
8. Spend the next 20 minutes hunched over my phone so I don’t have to stare at crotch guy.   My neck starts to hurt 15 minutes in.
9. Arrive in downtown Boston and fight the masses to get off train, hike up stairs to sunshine, and then walk 5 minutes to office.   Imagine if it was a rainy/snowy day?
Overall it took 45 minutes to travel 15 miles.   Maybe it would be worse in a car.  Yes, the parking downtown would make it impossible to justify economically.  But if I had to do this every day, I would quit my job and move to the suburbs.
Your mileage may vary.

For Doug, his unhappy experiences with public transportation — even with those systems that are my favorites, such as London’s Tube — are closely related to his disdain of government as inherently inefficient and incompetent.

All he can see is the hassles; all he can think is how much he’d rather be in his car.

Whereas for me, having the rare privilege of getting to ride on a subway is like a magic carpet ride. I LOVE it. You walk down some steps (or ride an escalator), step onto this conveyance that emerges from nowhere out of a dark tunnel (Minding the Gap, of course), and emerge moments later miles away across a metropolis that would be a nightmare to negotiate in a car, bypassing the traffic as though it doesn’t exist.


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Putin probably LIKES being accused in Litvinenko death

Russia is issuing denials, but it occurs to me that on a certain level, Vladimir Putin relishes the British report that concludes he “probably” ordered the death of Alexander Litvinenko in London 10 years ago.

All his old pals from KGB days are bound to be jealous. Or scared. Or both...

All his old pals from KGB days are bound to be jealous. Or scared. Or both…

He’s likely to be congratulating himself that the whole world — and especially the part of it that consists of critics of his regime — thinks he gave the order. And having his old KGB cronies believe he did it in such a Dr. Evil kind of way, with polonium-210 slipped into the victim’s green tea, should be enough to have him hugging himself with delight. That impatient Obama can blow people up with drones, but this was real artistry by comparison. What a way for one spy to do in another!

Such reports would be embarrassing to most world leaders, but not to Putin. Really, what penalty is he ever likely to have to pay for this?

At this moment, he’s probably fighting the urge to strip his shirt off and go running through the countryside, holding a rifle. Or not. Fighting it, I mean.

Yeah, Parliament’s vote about Trump IS embarrassing

I got this release from the DNC today:

Today, the governing body of one of the United States’ closest allies will debate whether to bar the Republican Party’s frontrunner from their country for “Hate Speech.” Setting aside the serious diplomatic implications of the United Kingdom barring a potential U.S. president from their shores, this shameful and embarrassing spectacle shines a light on the Republican candidates’ vitriolic rhetoric and discriminatory policies that undermine our values, alienate partners we need to prosecute the war on terror, and make our country and our people less safe. Today’s debate underscores just how far Republicans have moved to the extreme right and how out-of-touch they are….

Of course, I could do my usual thing and deconstruct that piece as typical overblown rhetoric from one side making generalizations about the other (as though all Republicans were Trump).

But you know what? They do have a point here: This really is embarrassing, and not just for Republicans. It’s embarrassing to America that someone who would attract this kind of attention is doing so well in the run-up to our presidential election.

All of our faces should be red. Because Trump’s supporters are unlikely to feel the embarrassment. We have to do it for them…

This was the only picture of Parliament I could find in my files. That's me in late 2010.

This was the only picture of Parliament I could find in my files. That’s me in late 2010.

Yes, if ‘Downton Abbey’ were set in the US, it would be in SC


Soon after I moved back to S.C., I was struck by how much my home state was like the England of a couple of generations back — or at least, how its ruling class was like that of the older England. I’d read in books how when one member of the public school set met another, they could usually find a personal connection in one of three ways — family, school or military unit.

On one of my first visits to the State House, I either participated in or overheard conversations in which connections were made in each of those three ways. The Citadel or Wofford may not be Oxford, but the interpersonal dynamics were the same.

(Before I came home to SC, I had never in my work life — in Tennessee and Kansas — met strangers who could make personal connections to me, which gave me a comforting sense of professional distance from sources that I took for granted. Then, one of the first people I met at the State House — Joe Wilson, as it happened — heard my name and said, “Yes, I’ve met your father; he’s doing a great job.” It was bit of a shock. My father at the time was running the junior ROTC program at Brookland-Cayce High School after retiring from the Navy.)

All that was brought back to mind when I was reading a feature in The Washington Post this morning about the origins of the surnames of presidential candidates, and I got to this:


Possible national origins: Scottish or English
Meaning: Have you ever seen the show “Downton Abbey”? It’s a good show (or, at least, has had its good moments). It centers on an expansive British estate at which there are strict social norms and a reliance on maintaining the boundaries of proper manners. If it were in America, it would be set in South Carolina.

“Graham,” as it turns out, is a name identifying residents of Grantham in Lincolnshire. And Lord Grantham is the main character in “Downton Abbey.”

As for “Grantham,” it’s apparently a combination of “homestead” — -ham — and either the Old English word for gravel — grand — or a reference to the name “Granta,” which means “snarler.” Making Lindsey Graham actually Lindsey Guy-who-lives-near-a-gravelly-home-or-near-where-the-snarler-lives….

Yes. An American Downton would likely be in South Carolina. In the Lowcountry, I would expect. Think Hobcaw Barony or something like that…

McCartney’s enthusiasm for Guy Fawkes Day creeps me out a bit

I say that on account of my being Catholic and all.

I reTweeted this from Paul McCartney yesterday, which included a picture of him that appears to be from his “Maybe I’m Amazed” period:

But this was a classic case of a reTweet not constituting an endorsement.

Now, y’all know that I’m an Anglophile from way back. I generally love English traditions, including some of those involving fire.

But I’m a bit squeamish about the one that involves burning in effigy a Catholic-rights activist who in reality was tortured by English authorities before being drawn, hung and quartered.

OK, granted, we’re not talking Pope Francis here: Guy Fawkes was a terrorist who intended to blow up the king and Parliament and had the explosives to do it.

But still. The English had already been oppressing Catholics for Fawkes’ entire life and then some, and they used the Gunpowder Plot as an excuse to step that persecution up and continue it for most of the next 400 years. The celebration, unless I mistake, was of a victory over the Pope and papists as much as over a terrorist cell.

Which I kind of resent, because, you know, we’re not all terrorists.

So excuse me if I’m not too thrilled about your bonfire there, Paul…


A nice, readable primer on the upcoming British election

A penchant for awkwardness: Labour leader Ed Miliband having a spot of bother with a bacon butty.

A penchant for awkwardness: Labour leader Ed Miliband having a spot of bother with a bacon butty.

In case you’ve been vaguely aware that there’s to be an election in the United Kingdom but don’t know a thing about it and would like to, you might enjoy reading this piece from the WSJ over the weekend.

It’s a sort of dummy’s guide — I mean, Yank’s guide — that catches you up, and makes the acquisition of that information fun. You learn, for instance, that one of the main problems facing Labour is that their leader has an uncanny knack for being caught in photographs looking very awkward.

The bottom line? Neither the Tories nor Labour are likely to win a majority, thereby giving us yet another uneasy coalition government. But the fun in the piece isn’t the conclusion; it’s the trip itself. A sample:

A British election is looming on May 7, and you might be wondering how it will all work. In a word: sensibly.

Here in the U.K., things are far simpler than in the U.S. We select local representatives we know almost nothing about, in the vague hope that everybody else will select lots of other local representatives from the same party. Then one party either has enough representatives to form a government on its own, or it has to cook up some sort of power-sharing arrangement, without bothering to ask the electorate about it. See? Easy. Like cricket….

Doug reports from London: He didn’t have the time to wait in the queue…

Doug Tube

The queue at Oxford Circus, 6 p.m., Nov. 25, 2014. Photo by Doug Ross

Yes, that’s a paraphrase from a song written by Eric Clapton and George Harrison

Anyway, you remember our discussion of mass transit back at the end of October, when Doug Ross mentioned he would be in London for a week in November, and would report on whether he thought the London Underground was as awesome as I say it is?

Well, he checked in via text last week (sorry, I failed to pass it on, what with trying to get my work decks cleared for Thanksgiving).

He sent the above photo, with this caption:

This is the line to get to the steps to get to the entry to the tube at 6 p.m. in Oxford circus. When it is not crowded it’s fine. Otherwise it’s a nightmare.

So there you have it; the opposite position from my own.

I never ran into anything that bad in London. I was in some crowded trains, and waited on some crowded platforms. But I never had to wait up on street level to get into the Tube. Maybe that’s because I was there between Christmas and two days after New Years Day, so normal commuter traffic was lighter than usual. Or else Doug has just had phenomenally back luck.

I will quote this from Wikipedia: “At the end of the 2000s, Oxford Circus had the highest pedestrian volumes recorded anywhere in London.” So, you know, it might be a place to avoid if you haven’t got the time to wait in the queue.

But I’ve shared Doug’s report, in the interest of fairness. Perhaps he would like to elaborate…

Is the Special Relationship getting a little less special?

Halcyon days of the Special Relationship.

Halcyon days of the Special Relationship.

See this news today?

Britain, Belgium and Denmark on Friday joined the U.S.-led coalition of nations that are launching airstrikes on Islamic State group militants in Iraq, committing warplanes to the struggle against the extremists….

Good for them, but what took so long? The French have been with us from the outset. The French! Plus Saudi Arabia and other countries in the neighborhood.

Apparently, the PM had to do some heavy lifting to bring this about:

British Prime Minister David Cameron made a passionate plea that spelled out the consequences of inaction in drastic terms – noting that the militants had beheaded their victims, gouged out eyes and carried out crucifixions to promote goals “from the Dark Ages.”

“This is about psychopathic terrorists that are trying to kill us and we do have to realize that, whether we like it or not, they have already declared war on us,” he said. “There isn’t a ‘walk on by’ option. There isn’t an option of just hoping this will go away.”

Cameron told a tense House of Commons in a more than six-hour-long debate…

Why would debate have taken six minutes, much less six hours? Yeah, I know — Iraq. The same electorate that tossed out Churchill after WWII turned on my man Tony Blair over Iraq, and they’re still kind of cranky over it.

Sigh. All’s well that ends well. The vote was 524-43 for action, so that’s something.

And remember Kosovo?

And remember Kosovo?

It’s International Talk like Robert Newton Day

Some call it “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” but I’ve often wondered where we get the silly notion that pirates went around saying “ARRRH!” and growling in a West Country burr.

I assumed it came from the movies.

Apparently, it came primarily from character actor Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in the ’50s. This was brought to my attention by the Slatest.

So, if you didn’t know before, now you know…

Robert Newton

Open Thread for Thursday, September 18, 2014 — Special Scottish Referendum Edition

Today, I’ll offer you two choices:

  1. Discuss the independence referendum in Scotland, results of which will come in over the next few hours.
  2. Discuss whatever you like. I mean, if the Scots can do whatever they like, including committing economic suicide, then why shouldn’t my fellow Americans say what they please? (Within reason, and my civility rules, of course. Because this blog isn’t a bloody democracy. Harrumph.)

I see that YouGov has the Scots deciding to stay in the UK. If that’s correct, they haven’t gone completely mad. Or, if you prefer, they haven’t gone totally radge.

As to why I oppose Scottish secession, I do so for the same assorted reasons I oppose the Confederacy, Quebec secession, the disintegration of the Balkans, the Anschluss and Putin slicing off a chunk of Ukraine on the grounds of protecting ethnic Russians. Throw in my Anglophilia and my affinity for the Special Relationship, which causes me not to want to see Britain divided and weakened.

Also, I think the Union Jack is one of the most beautiful flags ever. By comparison, the St. Andrew’s Cross alone seems rather sad…


Mind the gap there, cobber! Crowd works together to rescue fellow commuter

Does the public transit system in Perth, Australia, warn commuters to “Mind the Gap” the way the Tube does in London?

If so, this man failed to heed the warning, and might have lost his leg and even his life if not for the quick reaction and concerted effort of his fellow riders.

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

“Transperth spokesman David Hynes said the man was boarding at the tail end of peak hour, but the train was still fairly busy.

” ‘He stood in the doorway and as he was sort of taking up his position there, one leg slipped outside the door, slipped outside the gap, and he was stuck,’ he said.

” ‘We alerted the driver, made sure the train didn’t move.

” ‘Then our staff who were there at the time got the passengers, and there were lots of them, off the train, and organised them to sort of rock, tilt the train backwards away from the platform so they were able to get him out and rescue him.’ “

The man was fine, by the way, thanks to all those strangers.

Brigid Schulte of The Washington Post once teased me after I had said for the umpteenth time that I loved public transportation, saying something like, “I know you do, you communitarian, you.”

But this public transit incident is communitarianism squared…


Rebekah Brooks: How could anyone with hair like that be guilty?

OK, so maybe someone with hair like that could be guilty. But the jury said she’s not, and it’s sort of good to know that that mane will continue to wave wild and free, whatever its owner did:

David Cameron’s former communications chief Andy Coulson is facing jail after being found guilty of conspiring to hack phones while he was editor of the News of the World.

Rebekah Brooks, his predecessor in the job, walked free from the Old Bailey after she was cleared of all four of the charges she faced in the eight-month trial….

I imagine Boadicea, the Celtic queen who led an uprising against Roman occupation, having hair like that. I don’t know why; maybe because of pictures such as this one

Sir Patrick Stewart on the various accents of British cows

This seems a natural followup to our discussion the other day about how American and British accents — human accents — diverged.Patrick_Stewart_by_Gage_Skidmore

I didn’t listen to it until today, although it was brought to my attention yesterday by Professor Elemental. Let this be a lesson to you that when the Professor recommends something, one should drop everything and attend to it immediately, because otherwise one is missing out unnecessarily.

It’s a podcast in which Sir Patrick Stewart answers an American listener’s question regarding whether British cows moo differently — or rather, whether British people moo differently when imitating cows. (Although his answer speaks more to the first question.)

Sir Patrick answered the question thoroughly and respectfully. His answer, in part:

“It’s not a straight-forward, simple answer unlike, probably, many other country where a cow’s moo is a cow’s moo. In England, you understand, we are dominated by class, by social status, and by location. So, for example, a cow that is in the field next to my house in West Oxfordshire would moo in one kind of way, and a cow in a field in the semi-industrial town I grew up in in the North of England would moo in another kind of way….

Well, if I were at home in West Oxfordshire right now and I walked down my lane and there were all these cows and I say, ‘Hi, good morning, cows. And they would moo at me like this: ‘Mooooooouhh.’ Now that’s a very conservative moo…”

You should listen to the whole thing (the “listen” button is at the bottom of the post). Or at least, as the site recommends, don’t stop before he gets to the Cockney moo…

Is ‘Breaking Bad’ the best medical drama ever?

This doctor thinks so, and makes a pretty compelling case. An excerpt:

While most medical shows—much like the health system at large—focus on acute presentations, hospitalizations, and procedures, Breaking Bad follows its patients far beyond the walls of the hospital. When Hank, the DEA agent brother-in-law of the show’s meth-cooking protagonist, Walter White, is shot by the cartel, he is immediately rushed to a hospital where he gets the usual TV doctoring: wailing sirens, complex jargon, rickety stretchers and tense surgeons. But while most shows would either move on to the next thrilling emergency or end with the patient disappearing into the credits, Breaking Bad did neither. After initially being scared witless by the thought of being discharged, Hank spent almost an entire season in bed, obsessing over minerals and pornography. He became depressed, despondent, and angry. He vacillated between motivation and apathy. In short, he didn’t stop being sick as soon as the bullets were pulled out of his chest or when he was discharged from the hospital. If anything, that’s when his journey started. While most shows focus on the heroics of EMTs, surgeons, and doctors, Breaking Bad shows that the heroism of patients and their caregivers goes on long after they have moved on from an acute care facility. And importantly, Hank walks with a limp to this day, dispelling the notion of magical cures.

Another telling scene that somehow escapes the attention of most medical shows is the look on the faces of Skyler and Marie, Walt’s and Hank’s respective wives, when they receive their spouses’ medical bills. Not only do the bills make no sense to them, the doctors appear as bamboozled and helpless as the patients. In fact, a popular Internet memesuggests that Breaking Bad would not have been possible in a system which provides universal free health care, such as Canada’s, because Walt would never have been desperate to collect the money for his treatment.  …

Good points, I thought.

If “Breaking Bad” has appeal in Britain, it’s probably for the same reason that westerns were once popular abroad. A depiction of a health care system so wild, primitive and uncivilized, where every man is on his own, is probably particularly fascinating for people who don’t have to fret about such things. It’s even set in the wild West. (Hmmm. According to this, it’s NOT popular over there, so forget my theorizing. I guess it’s just too far-fetched for them.)

But aside from health-care politics, it’s true that “Breaking Bad” is more like real life. There’s no brilliant cure within 43 minutes. Hank still walks with a limp…

Once a sailor, always a sailor: McCain hopes bill to eliminate bills will help enrich strippers

OK, to be fair, he was set up. But he rose to the bait, and had fun with it:

(CNN) – If Congress passes the COINS Act replacing the $1 paper bill for a coin, the U.S. government may be able to save billions in printing costs at the expense of a little more jangle in the average consumers’ pockets. But what about the strippers?

That’s what The Hill newspaper asked one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. John McCain, in a piece published Thursday. The question came from a separate 2011 story where the publication suggested strippers could suffer in a bill-less economy, with G-strings and garter belts far less accommodating of cold metal.

For his part, the Arizona Republican responded in stride in a Capitol Hill hallway.

“Then I hope that they could obtain larger denominations,” McCain reportedly told The Hill.

According to The Hill, the 76 year-old McCain started answering questions from another reporter before a smile spread across his face and he shouted down the hallway to The Hill, “Fives, tens, one hundreds!”…

Hundreds? Bada-Bing!

You know, if this bill passes, and the senator wants to determine whether it’s having the desired, um, stimulative effect on the economy, I’ll be glad to help him with the research. But only if he’s buying; I hear the drinks are pretty pricey in those dives.

But seriously, I like the idea of this bill. When I was in England, I thought it was great that I could make small purchases — postcards, newspapers, a cuppa, or a bottle of beer from an off-license — with pound and two-pound coins. They were very handy.

But dollar coins have never caught on in my lifetime. And you know why? Because we haven’t produced a dollar coin that anyone could respect, much less love. Not since the old silver dollars, which by the time I came along were already collector’s items that your grandma gave you for your birthday and you stashed them safely in a dresser drawer where they still reside to this day.

I’m not going to get into the politics of choosing Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea as the “heads” side of these coins; that’s neither here nor there. People would use dollar coins with Alfred E. Newman on them, if the coins themselves were substantial and respectable.

TwoPoundCoinBackInstead, our mints have produced these light, cheesy things that look and feel like they’re inherently worth less than a copper penny. They look and feel like something you’d get out of one of those old machines in arcades that squished a penny and stamped your name on it. And you can’t distinguish them from quarters in your pocket.

By contrast, the pound coin has heft, and thickness, and a good tactile feel to its surfaces. You can immediately distinguish it when you reach for one. As for the two-pound coins — they’re amazing. They are so distinctive, so substantial, you’d think they were crafted by the dwarves in Middle Earth in time out of mind. It even appears to have Elvish inscriptions on it.2pd02r

Craft something like that, and America won’t miss the dollar bill.

Maybe we could use some of the money saved by eliminating the paper ones to make these coins something Americans would actually want to use. For a change.

How about a ‘not a sports nut’ button? Or ‘no celebrity gossip’?

Note the hypertext link in the upper right-hand corner.

Note the hypertext link in the upper right-hand corner.

The Guardian today is providing readers online with a “Not a Royalist?” button, which they can click and get less coverage of the royal baby that’s on the way as we speak.

Which is really kind of irritating. I mean, what a time to bring politics into the thing. Oh, the Duchess is having a baby, so let’s grouse about how we hate the monarchy… Like labor isn’t enough of a hassle as things are.

There a certain sort of Brit who suffers from a kind of Jacobin insecurity, who feels compelled to signal to the world at every opportunity that While you may think everyone in what you imagine to be Jolly Old England is all gaga over this baby, and gets misty-eyed about the royals in general, I, for one, am not one of those sheep. I am a forward-thinking modern. Apparently, some editor at The Guardian is that sort of Brit. Michael Palin used to do a pretty good job of sending up that type of pretentious twit.

It bugs me because… hey, we know The Guardian’s political leanings, but it’s still a newspaper, and a good one. And saying to readers, we’ll give you news according to your personal political prejudices kind of undermines what remains of the idea of the newspaper as something that embodies the idea that there is such a thing as news that is news regardless what you think of it.

A newspaper should stand for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

It’s the political nature of this that bugs me. Left and right in this country, and probably in that one, can already wrap themselves in a cocoon that contains only facts that fits their own prejudices, and that is why we’re so polarized today. It’s a very destructive thing. Newspapers, to the extent that we still have them, should be islands on which we can stipulate that certain things are news whether we want to hear about them or not. They should be touchstones of reality, a place where we can check in once a day and agree on a few basic points before spending the rest of the 24 hours arguing.

Now when you get beyond politics, I’ll admit that there’s a certain appeal to this idea. For instance, it would be great to be able to hit a button that would immediately reduce football coverage to a reasonable level (at least when it isn’t football season), or do the same with celebrity gossip.

To me, not being one of Her Majesty’s subjects, celebrity gossip is the category into which royal babies fit. At least, at the level of coverage we’ve seen. The birth of the first child of the first child of the prince of Wales actually is news, of the “take note of” variety. We just don’t have to go on and on about it.

But that’s a matter of taste, not politics.

I don’t know how many takers there are for the “republican” option among The Guardian‘s readers today. Even if you click on the “not a royalist” button, when you scroll down you see that the top story is “Royal baby: Kate admitted to hospital for birth – live coverage.”

And I don’t think that means people are necessarily “royalists.” They’re just interested. It’s not a political statement. Unless you’re just really, really pretentious.

The thoughtful hedonist: Russell Brand on Thatcher


You probably don’t want to watch it with your mom, or with your children for that matter, but I have seen few things funnier in recent years than Russell Brand in “Get Him to the Greek.” From his first line, “I’m Aldous Snow, the rock star,” his embodiment of an out-of-control hedonist is so devastatingly spot on, you come away convinced that that is who he really is (of course, his personal biography isn’t that far distant from Snow’s).

But messed up as he may be, he’s a bright guy who can actually be fairly thoughtful (interestingly, there were flashes of that in the Aldous Snow character, tucked among the Jeffrey-induced outrages). He showed that in a piece he wrote for The Guardian a couple of days back. Excerpts:

One Sunday recently while staying in London, I took a stroll in the gardens of Temple, the insular clod of quads and offices between the Strand and the Embankment. It’s kind of a luxury rent-controlled ghetto for lawyers and barristers, and there is a beautiful tailors, a fine chapel, established by the Knights Templar (from which the compound takes its name), a twee cottage designed by Sir Christopher Wren and a rose garden; which I never promised you.

My mate John and I were wandering there together, he expertly proselytising on the architecture and the history of the place, me pretending to be Rumpole of the Bailey (quietly in my mind), when we spied in the distant garden a hunched and frail figure, in a raincoat, scarf about her head, watering the roses under the breezy supervision of a masticating copper. “What’s going on there, mate?” John asked a nearby chippy loading his white van. “Maggie Thatcher,” he said. “Comes here every week to water them flowers.” The three of us watched as the gentle horticultural ritual was feebly enacted, then regarded the Iron Lady being helped into the back of a car and trundling off. In this moment she inspired only curiosity, a pale phantom, dumbly filling her day. None present eyed her meanly or spoke with vitriol and it wasn’t until an hour later that I dreamt up an Ealing comedy-style caper in which two inept crooks kidnap Thatcher from the garden but are unable to cope with the demands of dealing with her, and finally give her back. This reverie only occurred when the car was out of view. In her diminished presence I stared like an amateur astronomer unable to describe my awe at this distant phenomenon…

The blunt, pathetic reality today is that a little old lady has died, who in the winter of her life had to water roses alone under police supervision. If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t. Her death must be sad for the handful of people she was nice to and the rich people who got richer under her stewardship. It isn’t sad for anyone else. There are pangs of nostalgia, yes, because for me she’s all tied up with Hi-De-Hi and Speak and Spell and Blockbusters and “follow the bear”. What is more troubling is my inability to ascertain where my own selfishness ends and her neo-liberal inculcation begins. All of us that grew up under Thatcher were taught that it is good to be selfish, that other people’s pain is not your problem, that pain is in fact a weakness and suffering is deserved and shameful. Perhaps there is resentment because the clemency and respect that are being mawkishly displayed now by some and haughtily demanded of the rest of us at the impending, solemn ceremonial funeral, are values that her government and policies sought to annihilate…

Rough stuff. But then there are bits like this:

When I awoke today on LA time my phone was full of impertinent digital eulogies. It’d be disingenuous to omit that there were a fair number of ding-dong-style celebratory messages amidst the pensive reflections on the end of an era. Interestingly, one mate of mine, a proper leftie, in his heyday all Red Wedge and right-on punch-ups, was melancholy. “I thought I’d be overjoyed, but really it’s just … another one bites the dust …” This demonstrates, I suppose, that if you opposed Thatcher’s ideas it was likely because of their lack of compassion, which is really just a word for love. If love is something you cherish, it is hard to glean much joy from death, even in one’s enemies…

I found it interesting because it gave me insight into the attitudes of a young Brit growing up in the Thatcher era — someone whose life wasn’t politics. I think he probably speaks for a lot of people in his generation, those who aren’t inclined to engage in the execrable “Ding-Dong” celebrations, but aren’t at all interested in fitting her with a halo, either.

I was also intrigued by the bits of communitarianism that crept into the writing of this young man best known in this country for playing a narcissist, such as “If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t.”

I share it as something from an unexpected quarter that broadened my understanding a bit.

House of Cards: A political fantasy in which a South Carolina congressional district is represented by a white Democrat


That — what I said in my headline — is what struck me first about the American version of “House of Cards.” Kevin Spacey’s character is a powerful congressman who represents South Carolina’s 5th District. At least, he’s from Gaffney, and that’s in the 5th District. (The Peachoid features prominently in episode 3.)

Indeed, that district was represented by a senior white Democrat, John Spratt, just a couple of years back. But that was before the Tea Party, before the Republican Party cemented its hold on the entire delegation — except for Jim Clyburn, whose district is secure because the GOP doesn’t want those black voters in their six districts.

Have you seen the series? It’s the first original series on Netflix, and in keeping with the new national watching habit that that service helped foster, they’ve given us the entire first series all at once. I appreciate that. That is, I would appreciate it if the series had proven to be as addictive as “Breaking Bad,” or “Homeland,” or “The Walking Dead.”

But it didn’t. Netflix had hoped it would, that the series would give it the kind of cred as a content producer (because it is such a hassle negotiating with others to use their content) that “The Sopranos” gave HBO. But this is no “Sopranos.” Nor is it a “Mad Men.”

First, it’s not original. It’s based on the 22-year-old British series of the same name, starring Ian Richardson, whom I will always think of as Bill Haydon in the original BBC production of le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” The first season co-stars the lovely Susannah Harker, who five years later played Miss Jane Bennet in the definitive production of “Pride and Prejudice” (the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. (Hey, did y’all recognize her in “Zero Dark Thirty”? Jennifer Ehle, I mean. I knew I knew her, but I didn’t realize who she was, with her hair down and all, until the credits. And can you tell my caffeine is starting to kick in? I’m writing this at Barnes and Noble, with a cuppa the black stuff from the Starbucks across the parking lot — I prefer it to the “proudly served” version served here — and since I don’t drink it much since my ear thing started, I’m feeling it. Sorry about the digressions…)

Let’s focus in on Ms. Harker’s character, because I think it will help define why I don’t like the new American series as much. Oh, the production values are better; you can tell more money was probably spent making it look good, and the technology’s just better now than it was in 1990. But it’s not as engaging. My wife and I watched two episodes a night for two nights, then stopped. Last night, I proposed going back to it, and my wife OK, but as I called it up, said with disappointment, “Oh, you mean the American one…?” So we watched the last of the first season of the original.

But back to Ms. Harker’s character. She’s much, much more engaging than the extremely irritating little girl (which I mean both literally, in the sense of stature, and in the sense that our governor uses the phrase) played by Kate Mara in the Netflix version. She’s also more believable. It is far more credible that this is a person who would be able to keep a job. OK, so she eventually gets fired, but she kept the job for awhile.

MaraYeah, I get it. Mara’s supposed to be the brash “new wave” of electronic journalism, sweeping aside the conventions established by the old-timey ink-stained wretches. And maybe that offends me because I’m pretty sure I’m as adept at blogging and social media as her character is, and even if I’m not a grownup, I know how to act like one. Obnoxious is obnoxious. Then there’s the fact that we’re asked to believe that Spacey’s character — who has Robin Wright waiting at home, and no end of young lovelies walking the halls of Congress — would be attracted to her. She was cute in “Shooter” several years ago, in a waiflike sort of way, but both physically and in terms of personality, is about as cuddly as a hedgehog in this.

By contrast, Susanna Harker’s character in the original series, which debuted when she was 25, draws you in. Even though, or perhaps because, her tragic fascination with Richardson’s character makes me think of the refrain of Elvis Costello’s “You Little Fool,” you can’t help caring about her. You see why, for instance, her editor loves her hopelessly. Oh, and for any young people who think, “Well that was made in the olden days before women were set free and allowed to have sharp edges,” I’ll point out that it was 20 years after the leading edge of the movement that produced today’s allegedly liberated generation. (Sorry, but y’all didn’t invent independence and assertiveness.) Harker made her soft and vulnerable, but she also made her real. I found myself wishing she were a little more cynical and tough-minded, to keep her out of trouble, but at least she doesn’t come across as cheesy and contrived.harker

Why is this difference important? Well, because the main problem with the new American series is the utter lack of a sympathetic character. Everyone is horrible. It doesn’t have to be a soft, vulnerable young woman — any sympathetic character would do. This sort of thing doesn’t bother everyone. And indeed, a really excellent series can get overcome that flaw, as I think “Breaking Bad” does — I keep watching in horrified fascination. But normally, the lack of a likable character will ruin any work of fiction for me. As much as I enjoy Tom Wolfe’s old New Journalism — especially Acid Test and The Right Stuff (his only book in which one could detect a hint of admiration of his subjects) — I hated Bonfire of the Vanities. Brilliant writing, interesting Tory social commentary, but everyone in it was so contemptible, like loathsome little bugs being fried under Wolfe’s magnifying glass.

Eventually, I’ll watch the rest of the new version, if only to see if it ever does anything interesting with the supposed South Carolina connection. But so far, I’ll have to say that it doesn’t live up to the ambitions that Netflix had for it.