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The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

August 2009 Archives

Wandering London: to stop, to stare, to compare

A pleasant late-August Sunday in London, bright and breezy, the bells of St. Paul's ringing wildly for 11:30 Sung Eucharist, like a sacred pinball machine announcing you've won ten bonus games, the square busy with people including Americans like me, whose business is being tourists. As the poet W.H. Davies wrote:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

It's my ideal vacation, to wander freely in a great city, no schedule, no check-off list, and on my way to church, I passed the true English church, the great Smithfield Market, a grand Victorian warehouse of 1868 as large as two football fields, with a majestic dome worthy of any church, where refrigerated trucks sit idling, carrying beef, pig and lamb carcasses. The meat is trucked in by night and shipped around to butchers and restaurants. Inside the truck entrance is a big marble plaque with the names of 200 meat market workers who died in World War I, the worst and most worthless war ever fought in our time. You pause and ponder and onward go.

Sunday is a day for parents to bring their children into the city to see where the parents might be living had they not had children, in the posh flats above the smart shops, leading the cool life. The children look irritated, bored, the parents thoughtful. If you're 40 and have three whiny children, 25 looks awfully good. But late last night I hiked around Chelsea and the cool life looked thin to me, the sorrows of intoxication evident everywhere, people whose big night out turned out too small, people with people they were wanting to not be with right now, the lonely late-night walkers like me.

When you walk alone, you soak up the sorrow around you until it's not bearable and you must return to the hotel, and then comes morning, a sunny day in a rainy summer, and you attend Mr. Christopher Wren's church and then hike up to Regents Park and Primrose Hill for a view of the great city, a grassy hillside populated by hundreds of Londoners sunning themselves, and you feel a sort of rarefied blessedness and lightness.

It helps that, an hour before, your sins were forgiven and the priest waved her hand and blessed you, and it also helps to be far away from America and the mounting drumbeat of Democratic defeatism on healthcare reform. Nobody is so ready to embrace martyrdom as my fellow liberals, and here they are, seven months after Mr. Obama took the oath, crying out, "Where did it go, the glory and the dream?" Get a grip. Solid majorities in the House and Senate and yet a few puffs of smoke from the other side and Democrats are full of consternation. If they back out on this young president, and if this Congress cannot pass the public option and meet the basic human needs of our people, what does this say about us?

Here in London, people are amused at the wild paranoid fantasies of the right. I don't care about that, I hold weak-kneed Democrats responsible, and if they get spooked by a few hecklers, then it's time to find replacements.

Standing in stark contrast was the simple humane decision of the Scottish government to release the Libyan Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi from prison on compassionate grounds, a man near death from prostate cancer, who was convicted in 2001 on the basis of thin circumstantial evidence and the testimony of a paid witness for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. A shaky conviction of a man for a crime that had to have involved many others who, it would seem, Britain and the U.S. have little interest in finding, what with Libyan oil in the balance. Mr. al-Megrahi had "patsy" written all over him. The Scots did the right thing. And caused a public uproar, and so what? Right is right.

Justice is what makes a great city like London bustle and thrive, a polyglot metropolis full of minorities and escapees from authoritarian lands — it isn't the excellent Underground or the plays of Shakespeare so much as it is the expectation of justice. If you come here, this society will go to some length to do the right thing by you. You will not be snatched up and thrown in a hole and forgotten. If you're sick, you'll be cared for. Right is right.

A Postcard From the Back of the Line

A night flight to London crammed into seat 29A but asleep thanks to modern pharmaceuticals and fairly fresh and bright on arrival at Heathrow. Wrestled the bags aboard the train and cruised into the city and lugged the luggage up stairs and into a lovely quiet hotel. It's in the financial district, near St. Paul's.

Enormous anonymous buildings like filing cabinets nearby, and tucked in between is a pleasant little park on Newgate Street made from an old graveyard, some of the gravestones leaning against the wall like scrap lumber, and here is a lovely memorial to ordinary persons who lost their lives in attempting to save the lives of others. Joseph Ford, aged 30, who in 1871 "saved six persons from fire in Gray's Inn Road but in his last heroic act he was scorched to death," and Edmund Ferry, who in 1874 "leapt from a Thames steamboat to rescue a child and was drowned," and William Donald, who "drowned in the lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weeds," and a boy who "supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms," and a man who "saved a lunatic woman from suicide but was himself run over by the train."

The big record stores are mostly gone, and the book business looks chancy with stores offering three books for the price of one, but the newspaper business seems in good health, the Daily Telegraph still preying on politicians of all stripes, and stationery stores abound where you can purchase beautiful writing tablets of every size and texture and roller-ball pens that write smooth as butter, and as long as people still care to put their hand to paper, then the old craft has a future.

Like a good many English majors, I go to the motherland for the language. The sign in the backseat of the cab, "Please keep your feet off the seats," is something my own mother might have said, but nothing you'd find in any public conveyance in America, where a sign like that would only stimulate certain people to plant their shoes directly on the seats. Better not to mention it. Beside it is another warning sign: "If you soil this vehicle, a charge will be made." This one is certainly aimed at drunks who climb into the cab with unsettled stomachs at 1 a.m. with a long ride ahead over rough streets. The sign doesn't tell you, "No Hurling, Puking, Or Yorking." It simply reminds you that actions have consequences and that if you disgorge your gorge on the floor or seats, you will have to pay for someone to clean it up.

I am an American and certain things irritate me extremely, such as British flight attendants asking to see your boarding pass as you board. You hold it up and they peer at it and smile and say, "Twenty-six D -- that's straight ahead and on your left," as if you were an utter demented drooling feckless idjit unaware that the low-numbered seats are up front and the higher numbers toward the rear.

And yet I am descended from these people, as I found out in the Dublin airport Saturday morning, standing in an endless line at security that wound back and forth and moved slowly slowly slowly between the poles and the plastic tapes, and there I was, far back in line, at 9:05 a.m. when my flight to Glasgow was boarding. Anxiety builds, and then I see a short quick route to jump the line and go straight to the passport control -- I wouldn't have to jostle anybody or apologize, just duck down under two tapes and I'd be home free -- AND I COULD NOT DO THIS. I could not jump the line. I told myself to and I refused. It was deep-seated upbringing and also it was the fact that the people behind me in line had introduced themselves as being from Minnesota. They might judge me harshly for this and word would get back: he did not wait his turn.

Now you ask, "Had you known the extreme misery the airline would inflict on you for missing the flight and had you known that it would take you nine hours to get to where you were scheduled to arrive in two -- would you then have jumped the line?" Yes, of course. But down deep, I am a good boy. I do not soil vehicles nor do I jump lines. My feet are on the floor. I will now take my seat and face forward.


© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

The Swashbucklers of the New Media

You know it's going to be a difficult day when you wake up with "Guantanamera, Guajira Guantanamera, Guantanamera, Guajira Guantanamera" going around and around in your head and it won't stop. You know that probably you should not tackle health care reform today though brainlessness has not stopped other people from weighing in on it.

Here are mobs of flannel-mouthed robots denouncing Socialist Gummint Takeover as Medicare goes rolling along rather tidily and the private schemes resemble railroads of the early 19th century, when each line decided its own gauge and each stationmaster decided what time it is. Anyone who has tried to coax authorization for payment from Federated Amalgamated Health knows that, for incomprehensible standards and voluminous rules and implacable bureaucrats, the health insurance industry carries on where the Italian postal service left off. But don't mind me, I'm a man with a viral song in my head and I should go soak it.

The goons who go to town hall meetings and shout down the congressmen are museum pieces. They can shout until the bats fall off the rafters, but if you really want to know about health insurance, you just look around on the Internet and it's all there and more. The president gave a good solid tutorial on the subject back in June to the AMA, and you can still find it at YouTube. When you come to choose between him and the goons, you don't have to think too hard.

This is the beauty of new media: It isn't so transitory as newspapers and TV. Good stuff sticks around and people e-mail it to friends and slowly it floods the country.

What the new media age also means is that there won't be newspapers to send reporters to cover the next war, but there will be 6 million teenage girls blogging about their plans for the weekend. There will be no TV networks to put on dramas in which actors in costume strut and orate and gesticulate, but you can see home video of dogs and anybody's high school graduation anywhere in America. We will be a nation of unpaid freelance journalists and memoirists. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

It comes too late for Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton. In the new media age, there would not be a Watergate or a Monica Lewinsky. The president could conspire to break the law or canoodle with anybody within arm's reach and likely there would be nobody in the forest to hear that particular tree fall. And that would be just fine. All we got from those enormous Old Media events, frankly, was entertainment. They were no more enlightening than a Harold Robbins novel.

I'm an old media guy and I love newspapers, but they were brought down by a long period of gluttonous profits when they were run as monopolies by large, phlegmatic, semi-literate men who endowed schools of journalism that labored mightily to stamp out any style or originality and to create a cadre of reliable transcribers. That was their role, crushing writers and rolling them into cookie dough. Nobody who compares newspaper writing to the swashbuckling world of blogging can have any doubt where the future lies. Bloggers are writers who've been liberated from editors, and some of them take you back to the thrilling days of frontier journalism, before the colleges squashed the profession.

The Internet is a powerful tide that is washing away some enormous castles and releasing a lovely sense of independence and playfulness in the American people. Millions of people have discovered the joys of seeing yourself in print -- your own words! the unique essence of yourself, your stories, your jokes, your own peculiar take on the world -- out there where anybody can see it! Wowser.

Unfortunately, nobody is earning a dime from this. So much work, so little pay. It's tragic.

But one door closes and a window opens. The health care industry is wide open and there's a need for writers. Old people are lonely, old people want to be listened to and their stories written down, old people need entertainment. That's why I am opposed to the current health care reform bill -- there is nothing in there for creative therapy and the artistic fulfillment of the sick and elderly. A humorist in every hospital ward. Laughter is the best medicine. Sick people need distraction. When you wake up in the morning with "Guantanamera" going around in your head, you forget about your troubles except for that one.


© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.





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