At the height of the rioting in London, I arrived home to find our American guest transfixed by the television coverage. I doubt she had much sleep that night; early next morning I found her tapping her computer, searching for flights back across the Atlantic. Within the hour, she had left for Heathrow, convinced that the army would be enforcing a curfew by dusk.
Now you can scorn such apprehension. You can insist that the anarchy was never going to lap at our door; that Tottenham and Croydon were quite a long way away and even Brixton and Clapham were hardly around the corner. But that is not necessarily how it appears to a visitor. And looking at some of the television footage as it is repeated, I'm not really surprised.
VisitBritain, the UK's publicly-funded tourist authority, moved quickly to suspend its international pre-Olympics video promotions. It was the right decision. You don't want happy pictures of London buses, Shakespeare's Globe or Camden market when the reports on the preceding news bulletin say something so different. Even if the two realities coexist, as they actually did in those disquieting days, you know which will leave the greater impression.
Tourism, especially upmarket tourism of the sort Britain always wants, is a delicate flower. Globetrotters can choose where to go; they can afford to cancel. But the damage to the economy, I fear, has further, perhaps much further to go.
I was on the King's Road in Chelsea on Saturday. I saw several people – in their 20s – sporting "Keep Calm And Carry On" T-shirts. But I noted, too, that the prevailing demographic seemed older than usual. If you remember the Blitz, however distantly, a few high streets in flames in less-privileged parts of London are probably not going to faze you. But crowds were still sparse. I didn't have to queue for my milkshake in McDonald's (a first), and had a window table to myself (ditto). The tills at M&S were silent. Next day, the shopping streets of Kensington seemed similarly bereft.
Someone, though, has an eye to a profit. A while back in this Notebook, I mentioned the promotion for armoured cars that had popped up in the nearby BMW showroom, and asked whether this showed that the neighbourhood was going up (more to be protected) or down (more villains out there). That same showroom, I was startled to find yesterday, has returned the bullet-shattered car-door from that promotion to the front of the window, but pride of place – leading the procession of luxury cars – is given to a BMW in white-and-yellow police livery. Only a few nights before, I had seen a teenage girl bound over at Westminster magistrates' court (just around the corner) for throwing "concrete masonry" and causing £5,000 worth of damage to just such a vehicle.
While admiring the chutzpah of BMW's advertisers, I couldn't but wonder whether that cop car might not be more usefully employed on the street.
Oh dear, what can the matter be?
How was it for you? For me, it was a juvenile disappointment. But then I generally find that talk of penises and lavatory seats doesn't fit particularly well with dinner. Saturday's Comedy Prom was a bright idea that misfired by underestimating its audience, straying too far from music and forgetting that a large part of its audience – listening at home – would miss the visual jokes. Much of this can be rectified next year.
But the visual thing grates. That same evening, the BBC was competing against itself, televising a recording of the National Youth Orchestra Prom, even as it relayed the Comedy Prom from the Royal Albert Hall. This is absurd. Why not just show all Proms live on BBC4?
Talking of the National Youth Orchestra, I hesitate before casting aspersions on an undoubted national treasure. But following as it did Venezuela's fabled Simon Bolivar orchestra, one difference was glaring. Where were the black and brown faces? There seemed fewer by far than at Oxford and Cambridge (which take so much flak at admission time), fewer than at Greg Dyke's "hideously white" BBC. With the current furore about gangsta rap, is music apartheid not something worth worrying about?
Those fortunate, Teflon-plated, few
The Press Complaints Commission, the independent body that enables the newspaper world to regulate itself, has advertised for a new chairman to replace the low-profile Baroness Buscombe. She recently declined to seek a second term, after criticism that the PCC had been soft on illegal phone hacking. The advert, by the way, strongly infers that the less the new chairman or chairwoman knows about newspapers, the better. We'll see about that.
What interests me more is the way some individuals float away so effortlessly from their mistakes, while hapless others are unjustly held to account. Tony Blair is a classic example. He is still enriching himself hugely, dispensing advice, despite initiating a diplomatic and military disaster to rival Suez; Gordon Brown was left to clear up the mess. The former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is a Blair. As a government Russia specialist, she advised George Bush senior to tell the Ukrainians not to seek independence, weeks before they voted overwhelmingly to do just that. Yet she prospered, ultimately failing to heed the Clinton administration's warnings about al-Qa'ida, just weeks before 9/11. Her reputation intact, she is now comfortably ensconced at Stanford University.
And so back to the PCC. Lady Buscombe took over from Sir Christopher Meyer, on whose watch the first phone-hacking prosecutions occurred. Has anyone asked what Sir Christopher might or might not have done differently? But then he was the flamboyant red-socked diplomat whose publisher's sleight of hand got his racy memoirs of Washington embassy days past Foreign Office censors, earning him a tidy sum and a new career in punditry – but also shutting publishers' doors to other government servants with more substantial tales to tell.