US polls are so exotic and ours so dull

Why the White House race is more enthralling than home-grown politics. Plus, Prince Charles's birthday plans, and other royal matters
Click to follow
The Independent Online

With just over a week to go until polling day, more than one commentator has remarked on the fascination of the US presidential election when set against our own domestic arrangements. There are several reasons, of course, why the spectacle of Barack Obama shaking hands with his vampiric challenger on a podium 4,000 miles away should have the edge over David Cameron seizing upon the paw diffidently extended to him by Ed Miliband. One of them is the exoticism lent by distance: the kind of sensation which, transferred to literature, means that an English reader will very often prefer a novel by Cormac McCarthy or Annie Proulx to one by, say, Anita Brookner.

Another is the fact that the time-honoured Yankee bombast of which European observers sometimes complain (the "libation of freedom must sometimes be quaffed in blood" line that Dickens satirises in the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit) somehow seems appropriate to the protocols of stateside politics. A homegrown politician who stepped on to a public platform with a cry of "My fellow Britons" would be laughed into extinction.

Uttered in the land of the free, the words invariably carry a queer kind of conviction, for lurking behind them is the thought that the abstract nouns like "liberty" and "self-determination" which we tend to take for granted in comfy old Western Europe have a much more direct application to the citizens of Nowhere, Nebraska.

Then there is the gravitas and expertise which certain American pundits continue to bring to their analysis of the polls. One always notices this in the BBC's election-night coverage, and the realisation that whereas we have nervous psephological chatterboxes who sometimes look as if they could do with a back-stage makeover, the Americans usher in the elegantly coiffeured Professor Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia, whose last job before he got tenure was clearly introducing Kool and the Gang at Madison Square Gardens.

Sadly, this year's TV shake-down will lack two vital components. One is Gore Vidal, who could always be relied upon to inject a note of cynicism into these journeys towards sunlit uplands. The other is Christopher Hitchens, whose cameo in 2008 was one of the great election-night performances of all time. The Hitch was in tip-top form, called Sarah Palin "an affront to democracy", and then produced some remarks about Hillary Clinton that made his staider colleagues practically quake in their galoshes. For all his suavity, Professor Sabato could only nod his head at the sight of the old world – for once – being brought in to redress the balance of new.


Anthony Powell once maintained that humanity's crucial division was between "agents" and "patients" – that is, between the comparatively small group of people who do things, and the rather larger body to whom things are done. My own view – that humankind is essentially split into highbrows and lowbrows – was confirmed by a spat that broke out on The Daily Telegraph website over the news that the Prince of Wales is shortly to spend his 64th birthday in New Zealand on the set of Peter Jackson's three-part film of The Hobbit.

There followed a wounding exchange of views in which J R R Tolkien and his books were clearly being used as ammunition in a war being fought out far above their heads by one group of readers anxious not to sully their minds with the taint of populism and a second group who seemed to glory in the fact that they liked good plain storytelling with not a shred of intellectual complexity or moral nuance in sight. This is not, it should be said, the first time that Tolkien has suffered from these slights. A 1950s Observer review by Edwin Muir was headed "Oo, those awful orcs!" and Muir later accused their author of a bad case of arrested development.

But as nearly always happens in these cases, the simple things you see turn out to be a great deal more complicated. The Lord of the Rings might be a good old-fashioned quest narrative, but its mythological underpinnings and what might be called the creative environment that Tolkien fashioned for it are highly complex. Tolkien himself, horribly unsophisticated in some of his views, was – as he could hardly fail to be, given his Oxford day job – remorselessly intellectual in others. There are many excellent works which may help people anxious for this satisfaction to define themselves as highbrows and lowbrows, but The Lord of the Rings is probably not among them.


Last week brought the publication of one of the autumn schedule's most talked-up items, a volume entitled Celebrate by the Duchess of Cambridge's sister Pippa Middleton. If a certain amount of suspicion had been expressed at the amount Miss Middleton was paid for it (a reputed £400,000) then her subject – party-planning through the year – seemed thoroughly innocuous.

There is a fine old tradition on both sides of the Atlantic of the parents, siblings and descendants of the famous making nuisances of themselves. One thinks of John Dickens, whose son Charles was eventually forced to decline responsibility for his debts, and Jimmy Carter's brother Billy, who once urinated on an airport runway in full view of a band of journalists. Given this proud heritage, we have probably got off pretty lightly, and I am told that Miss Middleton's recipe for ginger cake has a great deal to recommend it.