I've lost the plot of soap-opera Britain

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The Independent Online

For many years I was a daily reader of the International Herald Tribune, and would be still if it had not become so expensive. There were many reasons for reading it. It gave only such American news as an intelligent American living abroad would require. It had mouthwatering reviews by Patricia Wells of restaurants in Paris which I knew I would never visit, but could at least read about. It had, in Mike Zwerin, the best jazz writer anywhere. It had long tedious business pages and accounts of baseball and American football games, which I could joyfully skip without guilt. It had appetisingly odd features (I remember fondly a piece on the origins of horse-eating in France, and a travel piece on skiing holidays in Iran).

For many years I was a daily reader of the International Herald Tribune, and would be still if it had not become so expensive. There were many reasons for reading it. It gave only such American news as an intelligent American living abroad would require. It had mouthwatering reviews by Patricia Wells of restaurants in Paris which I knew I would never visit, but could at least read about. It had, in Mike Zwerin, the best jazz writer anywhere. It had long tedious business pages and accounts of baseball and American football games, which I could joyfully skip without guilt. It had appetisingly odd features (I remember fondly a piece on the origins of horse-eating in France, and a travel piece on skiing holidays in Iran).

But above all it had no news from Britain. Based in Paris and aimed at Americans, it had no need to cover British current events except when they were truly international in implication. So you could read many an issue without coming across anything to do with British politics, or sport, or showbiz, or TV. It was wonderful. Nothing about Campbell (Alistair or Naomi), or Blair and Brown, or Cook and Short, or Healey and Kinnock, or Thatcher and Heath, or Benn and Wilson - yes, I was reading the IHT back in the days when Labour was old Labour, except that the IHT never mentioned Labour unless they did something significant, and that happened very rarely.

The only other way I can recapture the blissful freedom from the never-ending British political soap opera is by going abroad to places where they don't have British papers. During my last fortnight in Canada, where I read the excellent Toronto Globe and Mail every day, I cannot remember reading anything about Britain at all, except for a fleeting reference to the Butler report. Nothing that happened in Britain was deemed worthy of mention in a Canadian paper.

The one exception to this was an article by their person in London, in which she commented on the fact that we in Britain have our own cast of celebrities, and don't need to borrow from abroad. The British, she said approvingly, have no idea who Paris Hilton is. As I have no idea who Paris Hilton is either, I feel proud of this. I have no idea who Martha Stewart is either, and I resent any attempt of the British papers to educate me in this matter, as I feel instinctively it is not worth knowing. (Mark you, I also distrust the way the British press thinks I would benefit from learning anything about Maxine Carr, David Beckham, Rod Liddle, etc etc etc.)

But the thing I was most delighted to get away from in Canada was the whole Blair/Brown/Howard thing. For as long as I can remember the British press has been fixated on the soap opera side of politics, and has treated the whole thing as if it were another version of The Archers. Grown-up men and women still write serious-sounding articles headed "How Long Can Blair Last?", and "Is This The End For Blair?" and "When will Brown Claim His Birthright?" and, to counter-balance all that, "Why We Need Blair," and "Leave Blair Alone, Says Bragg", and very occasionally I make the mistake of reading them, and none of them seem to be any different from an article in the Radio Times discussing a change of cast or script in EastEnders.

Perhaps one can only see this clearly after a period out of the country. Perhaps over the next few weeks my detachment will fade and I shall get enmeshed in the old soap opera again. Already this week I remember picking up with curiosity an article headed "Tories Cannot Win Under Howard, Says Tebbit", and reading several paragraphs before remembering that I have no interest in anything ever said by Norman Tebbit, and not much more interest in things said about Michael Howard.

So I put the paper down and as soon as I had done so, I could feel real life returning, like blood returning to a numb leg. I shall enjoy it while it lasts.

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