I’m blogging from the U.K. (where I’ll be for the next couple of weeks)–and of course it’s PC headquarters of the world. First experience: the mandatory anti-Bush blast from the BBC right on the train from Heathrow Airport to central London. It’s news from New Orleans: “U.S. President George Bush, who vacationed through Hurricane Katrina….” I must say, though, that every Londoner I’ve met so far has been unbelievably kind and courteous to me, the Yank who’s still reading the money before I pay nearly a week after my arrival. There’s been none of the reflexive anti-American hostility that I’ve come to expect in Europe and Canada.
That’s probably because ordinary Londoners are quite a bit different from their betters at the BBC, the Guardian, and other centers of bien-pensant opinion. I woke up to this possibility while on a Thames ferry tour the day I arrived. The tour guides, Cockneys all, work up humorous (and also informative) spiels for the tourists in order to garner generous tips. The jokes are, needless to say, corny and bluntly funny, as when we glided past some awful piece of 1970s architecture that looked like a glass mushroom.
“Prince Charles has called this the ugliest building in London,” called out our guide in pure East End-ease. “As you know, he likes old things–in architecture.” Oooh, call the ageism and sexism police.
So I knew it was going to be good when we passed a Union Jack affixed to the bow of the World War II-era naval warship Belfast, now retired at anchor in the Thames. “Now, you may not know it, but it’s only called a Union Jack when it’s on a ship. Elsewhere, it’s called a Union flag. That’s something you have to be in England to know. Oh, wait–we’re not supposed to call it England anymore.”
Then he added: “We don’t have much of a navy anymore either.”
What he said was true. You can’t say “England”–it’s “Britain,” or else. That’s apparently because saying “England,” even when you’re in England, makes some people feel bad: the Welsh, the Sikh immigrants, whoever. And it’s true about the Royal Navy, too, in the process of being shrunken to bathtub size even as the British yesterday celebrated the 200th anniversary of Lord Nelson’s famous sea victory over Napoleon at Trafalgar yesterday. “We couldn’t pull off the Falklands today,” a London friend told me.
Oh, and at Trafalgar Square, which celebrates Nelson’s victory with a tall column topped by a statue of the admiral, London’s Socialist Mayor Ken Livingston (who calls Trafalgar a “world square” these days so you won’t think it has anything to do with “England”) has put up a statue which he announced would celebrate the beauty of disabled people. It’s crafted by the armless sculptor Alison Lapper, who decided to portray–herself in the nude, when pregnant with her son, now age 8. Lapper said the statue would make us all “confront our prejudices” about the disabled.
As U.K. Telegraph columnist Charles Moore commented: Strange, I thought, that we need a second statue of a disabled person in Trafalgar Square. the one-armed, one-eyed Nelson, looked the other way, refusing, as at the battle of Copenhagen, to see the signal.”
Yes, Nelson, ever the 19th-century gentleman, is indeed averting his eyes (Lapper’s statue of herself is behind him). Now, certainly Lapper deserves some credit for overcoming a series of severe birth defects that led her mother to abandon her in childhood. But, as Moore writes, her self-portrait sculpture is “impressive in its mass, slick in its machine-made smoothness, repellent in its fascistic assertion of propaganda as art.”
Lapper earlier told the newspapers that she was the only personnage in Trafalgar Square not being celebrated for “killing people.” So that’s what Nelson’s celebrated victory over Napoleon has come to. Ah, England, England (if I may use that word without being arrested), what have you come to?