Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005
So much to blog, so little time.

First, a recap of the London trip. The Princess Diana Memorial Playground is really, really impressive. If you're ever in London with a youngster, you do yourself and the youngster a disservice if you skip it. The other playgrounds we visited - Coram's Fields and the playground in Regents Park - were also very nice; the latter lies directly in the shadow of London's main mosque, which was a little disconcerting given the events that transpired just before and while we were there, but of course everyone at the playground was perfectly ordinary in their behavior. Apart from the playgrounds, the highlight for our son was, I think, climbing to the top of St. Paul's Cathedral, a monument he remembered from Mary Poppins, though he was disconcerted to discover that the bird lady doesn't live there anymore.

We saw two plays in London: a production of Lorca's House of Bernarda Alba, in a translation by David Hare, at the National Theatre; and an "original practices" production of The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre. Both productions were good, and I'm very pleased I saw both, but I have reservations in each case. Alba is a brutal play, and the director made an excellent decision to leaven that brutality with as much humor as possible. The result was a production that was far more human than usual, and hence more pathetic (in the sense of pathos); it also felt very British, however, which is not particularly true to the material. Worse still, the actress who played Alba - with such perfect comic timing that I kept thinking she must be Brian Bedford in drag - wound up being insufficiently ferocious. I saw a (televised) production of Alba with Glenda Jackson in the title role. SHE was terrifying. Without that element, one is left wondering why everyone in the play is so dominated by her, why her world must end in tragedy. But still, overall, a very worthwhile production.

The Winter's Tale is a beautiful, beautiful play, one of my favorites in the Shakespeare canon. I never fail to be moved to tears by the final scene, and this production proved no exception. The two exceptional performances were by the leading women - the Queen, Hermione, and her advocate, Paulina. The men - King Leontes of Sicilia and King Polixenes of Bohemia - were less powerful, less distinctive; this is a fatal flaw in Leontes' case who, again, must be a towering presence, sufficiently magnetic for the final reconciliation to be plausible, sufficiently powerful for his mad jealousy to inspire terror rather than contempt in the audience. The actor was, not to put to fine a point on it, a bit too old, and a great deal too "old school" to pull the part off. The Globe itself I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, there's something kind of cool about seeing Shakespeare "as Shakespeare would have done it" (apart from casting). And there's a real immediacy to the stage - the actors are very close (particularly to those audience members standing in the yard) and between that and the ambient lighting it's almost inevitable that the "fourth wall" will come crashing down with regularity. On the other hand, the sight-lines for many of the seats are downright odd - the upper balcony seats look down on the tops of the actors' heads; the lower tier of seats are frequently partially obstructed; etc. - and, at least in an "original practices" production, the ability to produce theatrical effects is distinctly limited. Some plays really don't need them. Others really do. The Winter's Tale is somewhere in the middle. Elizabethan audiences may have been more surprised by the statue scene precisely because, had Hermione actually been a statue, she would likely nonetheless have been portrayed by an actress, so when she "comes to life" it's a shock to the audience as well as the characters. Modern audiences may need a bit more help. This production did an excellent job with that particular scene. Other scenes - most notably the revelation of the oracle of Apollo and, most inexplicably, the famous "exit, persued by a bear" - were flubbed, and I think the stage is partly at fault for limiting the director's options. All in all, though, I'm very happy to have seen the show, and happy to have seen an "original practices" production if only because they made excellent use of musicians playing Renaissance-era instruments, and that sort of thing is always a lot of fun.

Enough with theater. Reactions to the bombings: muted. I don't think Londoners entirely processed what was happening. Everyone's responses - whether PC or their opposite - felt rehearsed. I would be very surprised if anything changed dramatically in Britain, either in terms of immigration policy, domestic anti-terrorism, or foreign policy. I doubt Tony Blair's or the Labor Party's fortunes will be meaningfully altered. Every London cabbie seems to be recalling Enoch Powell with affection, but even they acknowledge that the terrorists arose from the ranks of British citizenry, and their thoughts about what to do about it don't rise above the conventional. In general, I was both impressed and distressed by British detachment - impressed because it means British reserves are considerable; distressed because, as I say, it suggests that because everyone basically expected such events their utter outrageousness, when they transpired, was not clear to people. Which means, probably, that such things, and worse things, will happen again before anything serious changes.

Is London still British? London is a very international city. Is New York American? In one sense, it is quintessentially American; in another sense, it's not very American at all. The difference, of course, is that London is overwhelmingly dominant in Britain, in a way that New York most certainly is not in America (nor is Berlin in Germany, and even Paris is less economically overwhelming than London as, albeit it is at least as dominant in terms of cultural power). I struck up conversations with a couple of relatively conservative (old Tory) types in our London office about the bombings and about the future of Britain. As a touchstone to see what kinds of arguments they found persuasive, I referred them to the work of Peter Hitchens. To my surprise, neither found him particularly worth engaging with. "A little Englander" they sniffed. And sniff they might: England simply is not big enough to survive in today's world other than by her wits in the global capital markets, and that means an openness that dovetails well with London's internationalism. And so long as London is as dominant as it is economically, "Britishness" will be diluted by this economic imperative.

I forget if it was Hitchens or someone else who complained that Margaret Thatcher wasn't actually so different from Ted Heath or Tony Blair, in that they all agreed that Britain had to become less British to survive, and they only disagreed as to what foreign model Britain should emulate: France, according to Heath and Blair; America, according to Thatcher. Well, whoever said it had a point.

There has been much discussion, with respect to the bombings, of "unassimilated" minorities in Britain and how to get them to become more British. One very fair rejoinder is that one can't assimilate to a nullity, and that therefore Britain must mean something if it is to inspire people to assimilate to it, whether from love or fear or both. Another fair rejoinder is Powell's line that "numbers are of the essence" and that minority non-British populations are now too large simply to be assimilated; the assimilation must be two-way.

But I wonder whether all these prescriptions aren't (a) somewhat false to the nature of Britishness; and (b) missing the point of the specific nature of one unassimilated minority in particular. France and America have absorbed much larger immigrant populations than has Britain, and France in particular (and America in the past certainly if less clearly in the present) has done a much better job of assimilating these immigrants. If you really absorb French culture or American habits, you really can become French or American. Not all nations work that way. It is not clear that, even after long residence and cultural assimilation, you can really become Chinese, or German; you can't become Jewish except by religious conversion; you can't become a Hindu at all (of course, you can be an Indian without being a Hindu, but the relationship between the Indian state and Hinduism is a live and politically contentious one). "British" identity, meanwhile, presents yet a third case, because Britishness is itself a construct, composed of historic nations - English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish - with distinct identities and histories. There is a very real sense in which, for example, British Jews are British without precisely being English. (I don't think I'm engaged in sophistry here, but I willing to entertain that I am.)

If I'm right, some kind of "real" multi-culturalism - one that is actually based on the existence of difference rather than a wilful refusal to see it - is in some sense natural to Britain, as natural as "pillarization" is to Holland, part of the longstanding terms on which the national entity subsists. And, as with "pillarization" I am skeptical as to its possible success specifically with Muslim immigrants (whereas it will do just fine with insular, unassimilated minorities like, say, the Sikhs). A great deal is riding on whether that perception of mine is true and, if true, whether it is historically contingent or something much deeper and more essential about Islam. The discouraging and encouraging facts are actually the same fact: that there is no historical evidence on either side, there having never been, beefore the 20th century, nearly any instances of Muslim populations living as settled minorities in societies dominated by non-Muslims. So we'll just have to see.