Tales of the City: Bring on the global ballot box

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The Independent Online

Another week in US politics: the sitting President is comprehensively slagged off by one of his predecessors, Jimmy Carter, for lies, misinterpretation and a blind devotion to his father.

Another week in US politics: the sitting President is comprehensively slagged off by one of his predecessors, Jimmy Carter, for lies, misinterpretation and a blind devotion to his father. Then the former White House anti-terrorism co-ordinator, Richard Clarke, informs the world that the President and his advisers were warned that al-Qa'ida was about to do something security-threatening before 11 September, but failed to act.

Shortly afterwards, the Vice-President, Mr Cheney, accuses the Republican candidate John Kerry of being insufficiently tough on matters of national security. Next, Mr Bush calls 80 foreign ambassadors around him and tells them that any little local differences between them - like, say, not believing in the efficacy of invading Iraq - should be a thing of the past.

The next day, millions of anti-war demonstrators hit the streets all over the world, demanding that US-led troops be withdrawn from Baghdad and Basra forthwith. As the November Presidential elections inch nearer, the only thing that's clearer than the chronic duplicity and double-think of the US administration, is the fury of the rest of the world about the mortal danger that the President's actions have foisted upon them.

What, though, was the significance of Bush's summoning all the ambassadors and trying to suck up to them about the importance of forgetting old quarrels (and accusations of some nations being "surrender monkeys")? Surely there aren't any votes to be had from the goodwill or otherwise of the world outside America? And then it struck me. Of course! Why can't we all vote in the American elections?

It's so terribly obvious. There's no other country where the election of a head of state has direct (and dire) consequences for the rest of the free world. A single decision by the guy in Washington, DC, easily side-stepping the counsel of the United Nations, could directly affect the populations of a score of countries across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. So why shouldn't we directly affect who he is? As you listen to your heart beating faster when, eyes flickering for bomb-shaped packages, you approach your Tube stop or the main concourse at Waterloo, don't you wish you'd had a say in choosing the chap who visited these everyday alarms upon you?

Oh, come on, of course it could work - an exercise in global democracy. For too long we have watched the US elections with amusement, trying to square the fact that months of local cheerleading and folksy homilies about freedom and growth will end by putting in the White House a man who will lead the unrepresented, unaffiliated West into conflict. If we're having to suffer the consequences of US policy, it's time we were allowed to determine who makes it. In France, Italy, Greece, Ireland and Australia, we should all be empowered to decide on which rich, granite-jawed crowd-pleaser should hold all our fates in his gnarled hands.

A little souvenir to treasure

The treasures Room at the British Library is a unique bibliographic Holy of Holies. I discovered it earlier this week at a champagne party, and moved through the room utterly gobsmacked at the marvels on all sides. Looking into a glass case, you peer at the tiny dots on a musical stave on a long, yellowed page of a ledger, and silently digest the information that they were inscribed by Johann Sebastian Bach, and are part of The Well-Tempered Klavier. Next to it is the original page of the Hallelujah Chorus, written in BIG BLACK blobs, as though Handel was actually shouting while he composed.

Nearby is the Beatles vitrine, where you can gaze at the scrappy bits of paper on which the original lyrics of "She Said" and "The Fool on the Hill" were written, in a round, childish hand. Right behind you is a First Folio of Shakespeare. Walk around a bit, and you'll discover illuminated manuscripts of rare and shiver-inducing antiquity, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. And then there's the pièce de résistance, the Magna Carta, the first edition, as it were, of English law.

We were not there to gawp at the ancestral vellum, however, but to celebrate the American scriptwriter Paul Schrader, who had just been interviewed on stage at the library, and was now being rewarded by the Orange Word Festival director, Peter Florence, for being generally wonderful. His prize was a first edition of Dickens's American Notes. Schrader looked around at the treasures on display. "I'm very happy to announce to all the people in this room," he said, "that I've been empowered by the Word Festival and the British Library to say, before you go, please select one item from all the things on display and take it home with you..."

Just not cricket

Fans of Hustle and The Sting will have warmed to the story of the three Eastern European fraudsters who apparently rolled over the Ritz casino by using laser scanners and a microcomputer to work out where the ball would drop. Defrauding casinos, which exist to fleece the thick and over-optimistic, is always popular. What startled me, however, was a professor of gambling who opined that using lasers was new to him - that it was more common to have "devices under tables such as magnets". Magnets? How deliciously Heath Robinson. What a picture that conjures, of tuxedo'd clubmen sitting with cigars and brandy, reaching surreptitiously under the table with one of those old-fashioned horseshoe magnets, trying to steer the ball into the hole marked "12" as it whizzed past their flushed faces. Those were the good old days of English fraudulence, of course, before these Serbo-Hungarian blighters began muscling in...

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