Books: Who am I? What am I doing here?

Some Times in America by Alexander Chancellor Bloomsbury pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
A few hours after a lone lunatic planted at bomb at the Olympic Games in Atlanta I happened to be standing among hundreds of thousands of spectators in the Olympic Village filming a report for BBC TV News. One local man listened politely to my report until I finished, then tapped me on the shoulder.

"Y'all really speak like that?" he wondered in a thick Georgia drawl. "Or are y'all puttin' on the ac-cent for the Tee Vee?"

I assured him that I really did speak like that, and he assured me that he could listen to my accent all day. In years of travelling around America I have repeatedly had conversations like this. Almost any sort of British accent, in my experience, guarantees that you will be thought of as possessing a higher IQ, by about 25 points, than you can really lay claim to. But this America is not the America of Alexander Chancellor. "The posh British accent," he writes, "is associated in many American minds less with charm, wit and sophistication than with devious- ness, exploitation, snobbery and decadence."

Mr Chancellor, a possessor of a posh British accent, is, as he describes it deliciously, a Gentleman Hack who was once Washington correspondent for The Independent. I have never met him, but on the evidence of this book he would make an ideal lunch companion, though it would be a three- martinis-before-lunch-and-keep-bringing-the-red-wine-till-I-tell-you-to- stop sort of occasion. His memoirs settle no scores. Chancellor clearly loves the United States and its people. He is kind to just about everybody, even the man who mugged him in central Manhattan.

Indeed, his main weapon is his good humour. In his job as editor of "Talk of the Town", a column in the New Yorker, one of his super-serious American colleagues named Helen approached him twice to "declare an interest" in a story she was writing. The interest in each case was that she had had an affair with the person she was writing about. "To spare her the embarrassment of any further such disclosures," Chancellor writes, "I suggested we assumed that she had had affairs with everybody."

Another New Yorker journalist spent seven years - seven years! - researching a story on the foundations of the World Trade Center. Chancellor's father was also a journalist, and early encounters with reporters convinced him that journalism "was the ideal profession for the lazy person". As Washington correspondent for The Independent, he effortlessly penetrated the top of the permanent Washington social set, the ladies who lunch and the gentlemen who wear bow-ties, the former or soon-to-be ambassadors and political fixers who can never quite bear to tear themselves away from the great capital city on the Potomac or, more especially, the area known as Georgetown. Chancellor is especially amusing on the vagaries of the American political system, especially the presidential primaries and caucuses (or "carcasses" as he says they pronounce them there) to choose presidential nominees. An elderly lady told Chancellor that she wanted to vote for Michael Dukakis but her friends said they would not give her a lift home unless she voted for his rival Dick Gephardt. Welcome to the world's greatest democracy.

The least satisfactory part of the book concerns the New Yorker. It is clear that the internal politics of New York magazine publishing makes the Borgia family appear to be models of openness and good government. The New Yorker, under its celebrated - or loathed, according to your views - British editor Tina Brown, emerges as an extremely bitchy place, and this bad feeling explains Chancellor's otherwise odd comments about the British accent. As another Brit recruited by Miss Brown, he was presumably also resented. But for many British readers, tales of stories being spiked, of the click-clacking of Tina's heels and her hyper-active media advisers, are not very interesting. Yet part of the self-effacing genius of the writing is that Chancellor forestalls this criticism.

Before he worked for the New Yorker he rarely bothered with it. The articles were "presumably brilliant ... but they were very long and it didn't seem strictly necessary to read them". Rather than settle scores, which really would have fluttered the rare birds in New York magazine society, Chancellor makes even more fun of himself. His nickname among the American staff was "Admiral Stockdale". Stockdale was chosen in 1992 by the maverick Texas businessman Ross Perot to be his running mate for the presidency and distinguished himself, on his first live television appearance by saying, as if in utter bewilderment, "Who am I? What am I doing here?"

This book is a triumph of anecdotage when its subject is Chancellor's love affair with America. It begins with the upper-class British view that American comforts - like air-conditioning and iced drinks - were somehow crass and effeminate, and resentment at the way in which America was too vulgar to usurp Britain's rightful place as the world's top nation. And it ends with a wonderful story of one of Tina Brown's innovations: themed issues of the New Yorker. On the day they published an entire issue dedicated to black America, Chancellor finds Stanley, the black receptionist, smoking a large cigar and drinking a tumbler of red wine. Chancellor worries whether Stanley might get himself fired.

"I don't think so, Alexander," Stanley replies. "Not during black-issue week." Isn't America wonderful?

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