Category Archives: Current Affairs

X marks the what?

I remember being very excited about the fact that I was about to get the vote. Admittedly I hadn’t had to chain myself to some railings, get hit by a racehorse or even burn my bra in an attempt to get it, but nonetheless I somehow felt that my eighteen years of life had given me the necessary experience to shape the future of my country.

That my first general election was a showdown between John Major and Neil Kinnock was possibly a disappointment. It was like waiting forty years to lose your virginity, only to be told that the only two living females left in the world were Margaret Thatcher and the octogenarian from across the road who would never give you your football back if you happened to kick it into her garden.*

Still, I proudly marched into the polling booth that day and placed my cross against a candidate’s name with all the solemnity of a Death Row jailer pressing a button to release poisonous gases into the chamber. A little harsh to compare some of the 1992 MPs to poisonous gases perhaps, but given that their number included Michael Portillo, John Redwood and Michael Howard, not entirely unfair.

Since then I’ve voted whenever and wherever I’ve been required to, before cruelly being robbed of my electoral franchise by emigration to the US.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to bleat on yet again about taxation without representation, tempting though it is. Because the fact is, there seems to be so many elections over here that half the time I’d have no idea what I’m voting for in the first place.

For a start, you’ve got the primaries, which appear to be like the early audition rounds of The X-Factor or American Idol – mildly irrelevant to the main event, and of little interest but for the freakshow candidates. Come on, I understand that we need to exercise our democratic right, but do we really have to have semi-finals?

And then there’s some of the things that Americans seem to be asked to vote for. Right now in New York, there’s an election for the roles of comptroller and public advocate. I mean, do we really have to choose who is going to look after the finances – isn’t that why you select a governor in the first place, to make decisions about the best person for the job? And is American politics so far up its own posterior that we need somebody whose role it is to make sure that they listen to the public? Isn’t fear of being voted out at the next election enough for these people?

Next thing you know, there will be a run-off to choose who should make coffee at the Senate on a Tuesday, mark my words. With maybe a subsequent vote to determine whether they brew decaf or regular.

* Bless you, Mrs Lester. May your afterlife consist of watching on in horror as a succession of boys kick balls into your pristine garden for all eternity.

A very public sense of loss

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never exactly been a royalist. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the queen and her mob of dubious inbreds, and I’m sure they’re a useful attraction for the theme park that is Englandland. But you’ll never catch me manning the barricades with the republican forced when the revolution comes.

That said, the presence of royalty can do funny things to you, as I’ve said before. Back in the 1980s, when I was a kid in North Wales, Princess Diana came to our tiny little town in North Wales. I’ve no idea why she was there to be honest – probably opening a small envelope somewhere, on the way to opening a slightly larger envelope elsewhere in her putative kingdom. All I know is that we somehow knew that her car was going to be driving past our friends’ house on her way through the town, and as a result we gathered alone at the side of the road to watch.

As the tiny motorcade drove by, we waved gleefully at the main car with the royal standard flying from it. We assume she waved back, but to be honest, the windows were blacked out so we couldn’t even see her. She could have been flicking v’s and mooning at us for all we knew, in a desperate attempt to get back at Charles for forcing her come to the middle of nowhere to kiss babies and smile inanely at lascivious local dignitaries.

When I woke up one morning fifteen or so years later to find out that Diana had died, it’s fair to say that while I was shocked (and saddened for her two sons), the death didn’t have any personal impact on me. I seem to remember that some friends and I spent the afternoon at a long-planned barbecue, and that while we stopped to watch the emotional return of her body to the UK, the majority of the day was spent idly talking about football, work and – let’s face it – girls.

For the rest of the week until her funeral the following Saturday, I looked on with confusion as Britain collectively seemed to lose its head. I mean, it’s one matter to mourn – as I have, and will no doubt again – the loss of people close to you, but it’s a whole different thing to wail publicly in the street at the passing of someone you never met, however much good work that person did to raise public awareness of vital issues such as land mines and Duran Duran.

The strange thing is that it’s only in the last couple of years that Americans have stopped asking me how I feel about the death of Princess Diana. I used to feel like saying “oh you know, pretty much the same way that you feel about the issues of fiscal responsibility and escalating inflation in Zambia.” Instead I say something inane about the loss that Britain felt, and let the other person waffle on about how they felt that a shining star in the galaxy flickered out that night.

Coincidentally, given that Diana’s death was twelve years ago this week, America has just lost another member of its own royal family. No, don’t worry, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen are both still alive, and all the Baldwins are safe and accounted for. But the Kennedy clan continue to show the importance of investing in a good black suit at an early age, with the passing of Edward Kennedy from brain cancer at 84.

In many ways, the television coverage of Kennedy’s death and funeral was weirdly reminiscent of that of Diana – round the clock and over-the-top at times. To be fair, Kennedy did much more for the world than the People’s Princess, although he had tragically failed to dance publicly with John Travolta before his untimely passing. But I still have to ask whether we need to see live footage of the plane carrying his body from Boston to Arlington.

The fact is that the big winners from these high-profile deaths are the TV networks, who manage to deliver high-yield ad breaks as a result of the demise of such well-loved figures. In years to come, we’ll probably find out that the likes of Fox, ITV, CBS and NBC employ a crack team of international assassins to take out international icons whenever business is looking tough. Poor Michael Jackson never stood a chance when the massed powers of Television Inc decided that his time had come.

If I were Madonna, I’d be looking nervously over my shoulder the next time a guy comes to fix her cable box, I can tell you.

A jump to the left, a step to the right

When it comes to the media, I think objectivity is a little over-rated. I like the fact that certain newspapers – British and American – nail their colours to the political mast, and go out of their way to attract those of a certain ideological persuasion. It’s why The Guardian with its relatively socially progressive agenda will always be more appealing to me than, say, the Daily Telegraph. And if you ever see me with a copy of the Daily Mail, feel free to drive rusty nails into my eyes.

In the States, it’s probably fair to say that more media outlets attempt to claim that they are independent from political bias, but some just can’t help but have their true colours emerge. And of course, the best example of this is Fox News.

Don’t get me wrong, the Fox network has many things going for it. After all, any channel that features ‘House’, ’24’ and even ‘The Simpsons’ is alright by me. But their news coverage is world-renowned for its – erm – marginal right-wing bias. Infact, their political persuasion is so well documented that I’ve never actually turned on the TV or radio to watch or listen to the news for myself.

Until Friday that is, when my Obama-supporting cab driver was listening to the Fox News channel on his satellite radio. Now, as I said earlier, I’m all for a bit of open bias, but this was ridiculous. Despite there being 11 national polls published on Friday, all of which claimed that Obama’s lead was widening (bar one, which had the McCain camp gaining a point), one commentator claimed that McCain had narrowed the gap in the last week by 10 points in key demographics such as 18-30 year olds, to practically level things up.

In a debate about taxation, the host and a Republican analyst both expressed their opinions about possible tax raises in an Obama administration, before cutting off a Democratic spokesperson by playing music over the top of her as she tried to make her response. And as I left the cab, Joe the Well Driller was telling us how much an Obama administration would hurt him.

Now, some or all of this may turn out to be fair, although it still seems unlikely that millions of 18-30 year olds will suddenly wake up and exclaim “Wow, that little man with the grey hair is just the guy I need to stir me from my latent political torpor.” But what really shocked was the abject refusal to put both sides of the argument. One of Fox News’s taglines is “Fair & Balanced,” but to be honest I’ve seen more fair and balanced treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

My best guess is that Fox News isn’t actually a news channel, but some kind of warped reality TV show in which contestants compete to see who can make the most outlandish claims on a broadcast outlet. Mark my words, viewers will turn on later this week to find Ryan Seacrest proclaiming Bill o’Reilly “America’s Next Top News Inventor Idol.”

Just one dollar can save a New Yorker

When you’re in the midst of turmoil, it’s difficult to understand what the rest of the world thinks about it. When I was sitting at my desk in London in July 2005 trying to catch up with the terrorist attacks on the capital’s transport system, it was hard to get a sense of how the rest of the world was reacting. Did they see it as a continuation of the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, or were they thought of as isolated incidents with no real connection to the world at large?

On a wholly different level, when I first realised that there was a vague possibility that my hairline was imperceptibly moving backwards, it was a dark day in the Brit Out Of Water household. Tears were shed, and innocence was lost. Admittedly, this might just have been me, but it felt like a big thing at the time. Clearly, when you’re in the middle of something, it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Talking to She Who Was Born To Worry over the weekend, I casually mentioned that the weather was awful, with driving wind and rain.

“I know, it looks pretty nasty,” she commented.

“What do you mean? Have you secretly been popping over here for a bit of shopping?”

“No no, I’ve just been watching the news about America’s financial collapse. New York’s on its knees begging for mercy, you know.”

Sure enough, with the recent travails of Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley et al, New York has been the focus of the world over the last few weeks. While I’ve been complaining about chocolate brownie munching commuters or waiters washing their hands, the Big Apple has been crumbling around me.

Indeed, as far as She Who Was Born To Worry is concerned, New York is currently in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations are airdropping bagels and coffee into the outer reaches of Brooklyn, while desperate queueslines are forming outside pizza places across the city, out of fear that mozzarella rationing is about to be instituted.

I tell you, if SWWBTW is right, Sir Bob Geldof is on the verge of getting on a plane over here to put on a fundraising concert with Phil Collins and the remnants of Queen.

Bono’s apparently up for it, but only if organisers will guarantee the availability of pancakes and maple syrup. The way things are going in New York, nothing’s certain.

A cultural loss

In a classic ‘the dog ate my homework’ style, can I apologize for the lack of the last segment of the 200 Things You Simply Have To Know About New York list? I may or may not have written the vast majority of the final 50 points on a series of Post It notes, which were stuffed into my jeans pockets and subsequently thrown into the washing machine this weekend. I’d like to think that Charles Dickens, William Golding, Joseph Heller, Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy had similar domestic appliance-related woes at various points during their writing careers. I know for a fact that the first draft of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ was almost entirely destroyed when his wife accidentally spilled hot water from the kettle as she attempted to make a cup of instant soup. These are the issues that face all writers at some point, I know.

So as you wait eagerly under your Google Reader feed for the final installment to drop merrily into view, I thought I should mention another writer – and one far better than I could ever dream of being. Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau news chief and host of ‘Meet The Press’, passed away on Friday after suffering a heart attack at work. The outpouring of tributes and emotion – whether from journalistic luminaries, politicians or the man on the street – suggests that this was a man whose ability to ask the difficult question and provide insight made him loved by all. Clearly Russert’s death has impacted a huge number of people.

It’s at times like this that I really notice that I’ve only been in the US for ten months. For while I know of Russert’s work, he hasn’t formed part of my cultural and journalistic upbringing for the last thirty five years in the way that, say, Michael Buerke, Sue Lawley or Kate Adie have. If Sir Trevor McDonald dropped dead tomorrow, there would (in the UK) be a tidal wave of tributes and sorrow which I would be able to understand given that Trevor’s news reports (not to mention his surprise Tiswas appearances) were a constant presence in my life from the age of about six. There is a very clear emotional attachment to these people that you invite into your house every night, and one that only time and repeated exposure can bring. But that’s a long way from happening for me with American newscasters, meaning that I can’t quite relate to the grief in the way that I might otherwise hope to.

In fact, such is the limited amount of TV that I watch at the moment given a move of country and job as well as the acquisition of a ready-made family, the only television stars that I might mourn the loss of would be Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colichio. ‘Top Chef’ is hardly ‘Meet The Press’, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Over the Hil

Incredibly, after more than 500 days of campaigning, it looks like the race is over and Barack Obama is the chosen one for the Democratic party. Personally I think it’s a shame to see either one lose, given that the electorate has paid much more attention to this clash of the titans than they probably will to the presidential election itself. Interest-wise, it’s kind of like following the season-ending edge-of-the-seat cliffhanging finale of ‘Lost’ or ‘24’ (or – shudder – even ‘American Idol’) with a four year old episode of ‘When Chihuahuas Attack’.

The process of selecting a figurehead for the party is about three times as long a procedure as the presidential campaign. It’s also in direct contrast to the UK major party system, which sees a new leader chosen in less than two months through the combined vote of elected MPs and the party membership. Barack Obama’s campaign has so far cost more than $130 million, while a leadership campaign in the UK generally costs less than $500,000. I appreciate that this country’s bigger, and the system’s different, but nothing has to stay the same forever folks. As I believe somebody may have said, it’s time for change.

Interestingly, the Obama campaign spent $738 on bagels from Einstein Bros, while the Clinton campaign laid down a mighty $2493 with the same supplier. Clearly when the going gets tough, the tough get bagels.

So now we enter five months of back-and-forth between McCain and Obama as they battle for the right to clear up the mess created by the least popular politician on the world stage in living memory. As soon as the whole affair’s over, it’ll be time to start up the Obama 2012 re-election/’I promise I won’t f**k it up this time’ campaign.

Clearly, I am one of the disenfranchised many (no taxation without representation, my arseass) and so I have no say in what happens on November 4. It’s probably for the good of the nation that I don’t have a vote in any case, as there’s only one issue that I want to hear the candidates’ view on. And since neither of them currently seem willing to announce that they’re going to outlaw peanut butter, I guess I’m going to have to keep on waiting.

Tough on peanut butter, tough on the causes of peanut butter. Unite behind me, America.

Scandalous

The story of the former governor of New York truly is the gift that keeps on giving. I imagine that things are pretty frosty over breakfast in the household of former attorney general Eliot Spitzer, after he slept with $1,000 per hour high-class hooker Alexandra Dupré. Once talked about as a future President of the United States, Spitzer is now resigned instead to spending his days getting more and more frustrated enquiring about the health of his octogenarian property tycoon father.

The tale of Spitzer & The Call Girl is the story that simply won’t die here in New York. The chat shows are still making fun of the former governor, and Dupré is allegedly a millionaire herself now thanks to all the publicity for her music career. Although even Dupré would admit it’s not her G sharps that people are largely interested in.

If this had taken place in Britain, this whole sorry tale would have been chip paper by now. The UK has possibly the most effective scandal-busting tabloid press in the world, having uncovered the David Mellor horror story (Tory MP gets ‘actress’ to suck his toes while wearing the football kit of his beloved Chelsea FC), the John Major affair (former Prime Minister gets low-down-and-dirty with frankly unlovable Edwina Currie) and the Cecil Parkinson debacle (Tory MP – it’s always Tories – has a lovechild with his secretary). Sure, the country obsessed with each story for a few days, but then everybody moves on to the next example of sexual profligacy at its most public.

What makes the whole Spitzer affair so amusing (although admittedly not for his wife or children) is the reaction of David Paterson, the man who replaced him as governor of New York. Having been installed as governor in a ceremony in Albany on Monday last week, Paterson – who is registered blind after complications following an ear infection as a child – immediately admitted that he and his wife had previously had a few rocky moments in their marriage, and had both had extra-marital affairs.

One week on, and Paterson has now admitted that he used both cocaine and marijuana when he was younger. Apparently he only used coke “a couple of times” when he was “22 or 23”, and hasn’t touched pot since the 1970s.

Having seen what happened to his predecessor, Paterson’s clearly determined not to be caught by the short-and-curlies by the rampaging tabloid press. After two successive Monday revelations, it looks like he probably goes through his closet every single weekend, and then admits to whatever skeleton he’s discovered as soon as he gets to work in the morning.

I can’t wait for next Monday already. Who would bet against Paterson admitting that he’s not even blind, and he actually just used it as an excuse to get out of doing his homework when he was a kid?

Down to earth

It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes you read an article in a newspaper that just defies belief. No, not the kind of overblown pomposity that UK readers have come to expect from the likes of AA Gill or Richard Littlejohn – I’m talking about the news stories that leave you scratching your head, and re-reading them to find the hidden meaning that you somehow managed to miss first time round.

Today produced one such story, as I satstood reading Metro on the train into work. Now I know I may have railed against Metro in the UK in the past, and rightly so. All I can say in my defence is that the New York edition doesn’t seem to rely quite so much on wire services, doesn’t have the irritating blue masthead, and – most importantly – isn’t owned by Associated Newspapers.

Anyway, in a short story on the inside front page was an intriguing but tragic tale of a man who had jumped off a building in Brooklyn. Sadly the Metro version isn’t available online, so I’m relying on AP for this account:

“An emotionally disturbed man armed with a candlestick confronted police in a 17th-floor apartment before crawling through a broken window onto a balcony and falling to his death, authorities said.

The incident occurred at about 6 a.m. Tuesday after the officers and ambulance workers responded to a report of an emotionally disturbed person at a couple’s high-rise apartment in Brooklyn.

Once inside, they found the 33-year-old Queens man, a friend visiting the couple, swinging a long candlestick, police said.

The man used the metal stick to smash a hole in a window pane, and a sergeant tried to subdue him by zapping him with a stun gun but missed, police said.

The man crawled through the hole and onto the balcony and fell to his death, they said. “

See what I mean? Clearly this is an utterly heartbreaking story, and sympathies go out to the family of the man, and indeed the couple who will be forever traumatised by the experience. But this report demands so many more questions than it provides answers.

1) Did the man bring the candlestick with him? The New York Post describes it as a metal candlestick, and another report offers that it was quite a lengthy affair. Did he just knock on the door of the couple and say that he’d brought them a present, or was this a spur-of-the-moment candlestick brandishing kind of thing?

2) It’s not clear whether he jumped with the candlestick, or left the present behind. Maybe I should be checking eBay?

3) How incredibly unlucky can this guy be? First off, he’s (understandably) labelled as emotionally disturbed, and the Post claim that he had a history of drug abuse. Again, mental problems and drug addiction are a terrible thing for any person to go through. Next, he finds himself being confronted by police because of whatever situation he’s got himself into with the aforementioned candlestick. Then he suffers the ill-fortune not only to leap to his death, but to be allowed to do so because a police officer didn’t quite get his aim right with a stun gun. I mean, I’ve got no desire to be blasted with 1000 volts of electricity, but if it stops me from jumping 17 floors to my death, I’ll probably give it a go.

4) I’m no expert, but I’m guessing that forcing a hole in the reinforced glass of a balcony, and then crawling through it to your death, takes more than a split-second. That glass would never break first time, for a start. What were the police doing during this time? Arguing over the stun gun-toting officer’s incompetence??

Here’s hoping that tomorrow’s newspapers provide some more answers.

Looking for Trouble

In death as much as life, hotelier and real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley proved that she really was the Queen of Mean. Helmsley, who is famously reported to have once said that “only the little people pay taxes”, died last week at the age of 87. With an estimated fortune of around $4 billion, she might have been expected to spread some love around in her last will and testament which was revealed today. But I somehow doubt that her family will be cracking open the Cristal this evening.

Unless you’re her beloved pet dog Trouble, that is.

Helmsley set aside a $12 million trust fund for the 8-year-old white Maltese dog, who once lived up to her name by biting a housekeeper. It’s interesting that the dog only gets the cash in a trust, rather than getting immediate access to the cash. Presumably Helmsley couldn’t quite trust Trouble not to go out and fritter the cash away on Bonio’s and fast poodles?

Trouble was the biggest beneficiary of the will, narrowly edging out Helmsley’s brother Alvin who was gifted a $10 million trust fund. Grandchildren David and Walter Panzirer each ‘only’ managed to pick up $5 million outright and another $5 million in trusts, but even then they might not pick up a single cent. The provisions in Helmsley’s will state that to receive any money from the trust, the pair must visit the grave of their father at least once a year. And if they don’t? Their interest in the trust will be terminated at the end of that calendar year, and they will each be treated as if they “had then died”.

Jonathan J Rikoon, a member of the New York City Bar Association’s committee on trusts, estates and surrogate’s courts, admitted that the provision was “quite unusual”, and that Helmsley was a woman who “from what I understand, had some family issues”. You don’t say…

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Helmsley’s other two grandchildren were not only written out of the will, but specifically excluded:

“I have not made any provisions in this will for my grandson Craig Panzirer or my granddaughter Meegan Panzirer for reasons which are known to them.”

Given that Leona Helmsley was a woman who once served a jail term of eighteen months for tax fraud, one can only speculate on what Craig or Meegan might have done to deserve their treatment.

The other personal recipient of some Helmsley largesse was her chauffeur, Nicholas Celea. And his reward for loyal service? A cool $100,000. Now don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say no to anyone offering me $100,000. But bear in mind that this is a woman who was worth an estimated $4 billion. Leaving her chauffeur a bequest of $100,000 is rather like me going for a nice meal, finding myself short of change, and leaving a tip of 12p: the thought was there, but in the end, it’s still a bit of a slap in the face for the receiver.

Helmsley was never much of a philanthropist in life. In recent years she donated around $35 million to good causes, but the figure would be more a tax write-off than any serious attempt at charity. The irony is that her refusal to give more money to friends and family means that the vast majority of her fortune will go to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. In death, it seems that Leona Helmsley may become the Queen of Kind after all.