Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Good Show for the Brits


The name's Regina, Elizabeth Regina

A visit to England of more than two weeks—such was my thinking as I sat down to write this morning—surely ought to provide the material for a fairly ambitious essay on “The Mood of Britain Today” or some other grand, comprehensive design.  After all, each day over my morning coffee I read such preposterous titles atop op-ed pieces no more solidly researched.  My first thought was to report on the American election as seen through English eyes.  A moment’s reflection made me realize that in addition to its narcissism, the topic brought with it the risk of acute embarrassment.  There are quite a few things about American political life that are difficult to explain intelligently to oneself, let alone to foreigners.
            I can, however, offer a brief summary.  The British press, which is actually worse than the American press, though usually more literate, agrees in a quasi-Hobbesean assessment of the American presidential campaign, to wit, that it is nasty, brutish, and mind-numbingly long.  It regards Barack Obama’s re-election as a foregone conclusion.  As this would appear to differ from the American journalistic consensus only in the foregone part, it doesn’t really seem like much news.  The American press appears to believe that the presidency was Mr. Romney’s to lose, and that he has lost it.  Like Mr. Romney himself, most American journalists appear to be committed to the theory of individual responsibility.

            So it’s back to “The Mood of Britain Today”.  I find that the mood of Britain today is excellent.  In contrast, the mood of America is lousy.  America’s lousy mood has to do with its politics.  No matter what happens in November about half the nation will declare disaster barely averted, and the other half lament disaster fully achieved.  That is not a situation very promising in terms of our shared national need to face up to working together to address some very real problems, many of which neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Romney has the political courage to lay out for us honestly.

            Britain’s politics are not all that much better than ours, certainly not good enough to account for the optimism, the good feeling, and the sense of accomplishment that I encountered everywhere in my travels.  No.  The source of the quite remarkable sense of well-being in Britain at the moment is the national panache with which the Olympic Games were planned and carried out.  This was a gigantic undertaking for London and indeed the whole nation.  In the run-up to the games doubters were prone to be dubious and cynics ready to be cynical.  But the way the Games played out—from the brilliant and slightly goofy opening spectacle to the extraordinary contributions of literally thousands of intergenerational, interracial, multicultural volunteer helpers, guides, and marshals—seems to have left the country with a licit and infectious feeling of rare, communal achievement.

 Olympic volunteers

            Since we arrived in London only as the Games ended, it took me a while to grasp all this.  My understanding began with a train ride.  After an overnight with my delightful stepmother-in-law in St. John’s Wood, we set off the next morning to suburban Kent and the house of my eminent brother-in-law, John Newman in Sevenoaks.  There is a considerable commuter traffic between London and Sevenoaks, but in the morning it is mainly headed in one direction—toward the city.  There are several trains an hour, but even so the inbound trains often fill to capacity.  Outbound from London in those morning hours, on the other hand, the coaches are mainly empty.  I noted with surprise—but without actually thinking about it—that our outbound car was practically full.  It was also quite animated.   Several groups of youngish people speaking various languages, none of them English, kept up a lively buzz.  I thought vaguely that the train must be going on to Dover, and that these were middle-Europeans on their way home.  But to my surprise they all got off when we did, at Sevenoaks station.

            It took me a minute or two to figure out what was happening.  On the platform were several uniformed volunteers, who directed the travelers up a stairway, down a long corridor, and out onto the street where several specially designated Olympic buses were waiting.  Sevenoaks is not far from Brands Hatch, site of one of the well known motor raceways in Britain.  It had been commandeered on this occasion as the venue for the Paralympic bicycle races.  That was where all the surprising people on the commuter train were headed.  It is typical of the British that the general enthusiasm for the Paralympics was not less fervent than that for the “regular” Games.

 Alex Zanardi (Italy) at Brands Hatch

            The whole country is basking in the sense of having come together to do something rather difficult, and in having done it very well.  You might call it “British exceptionalism”.  I wonder if we might not give it a try ourselves