Dylan T on the U.S. Lecture Circuit


Dylan Thomas, who was born 100 years ago next month, spent much of his last few years reading his poetry, writing film-scripts and consuming vast quantities of alcohol on lecture tours across the United States. Just before he set off on his last trip across the Atlantic – he died in New York aged 39 – he wrote a comic, caustic account of the U.S. lecture circuit entitled ‘A Visit to America.’ It is from a little-known collection of Thomas’ broadcasts for the BBC called ‘Quite Early One Morning’ and is a gem of a piece I have no problem relating to – not just because I hail from Dylan’s hometown of Swansea but because I am one of those “dazed and prejudiced procession of European lecturers” occasionally plying my trade in America.

Across the United States of America, from New York to California and back again, glazed, again, for many months of the year there streams and sings for its heady supper a dazed and prejudiced procession of European lecturers, scholars, sociologists, economists, writers, authorities on this and that and even, in theory, on the United States of America. And breathlessly between addresses and receptions, in planes and trains and boiling hotel bedroom ovens, many of these attempt to keep journals and diaries. At first, confused and shocked by shameless profusion and almost shamed by generosity, unaccustomed to such importance as they are assumed, by their hosts, to possess, and up against the barrier of a common language, they write in their note-books like demons, generalizing away, on character and culture and the American political scene. But, towards the middle of their middle-aged whisk through the middle-western clubs and universities, the fury of the writing flags; their spirits are lowered by the spirit with which they are everywhere strongly greeted and which, in ever-increasing doses, they themselves lower; and they begin to mistrust themselves, and their reputations – for they have found, too often, that an audience will receive a lantern-lecture on, say, ceramics, with the same uninhibited enthusiasm that it accorded the very week before to a paper on the Modern Turkish Novel. And, in their diaries, more and more do such entries appear as, ‘No way of escape’ or ‘Buffalo!’ or ‘I am beaten,’ until at last they cannot write a word. And, twittering all over, old before their time, with eyes like rissoles in the sand, they are helped up the gangway of the home-bound liner by kind bosom friends (and all kinds and bosoms) who boister them on the back, pick them up again, thrust bottles, sonnets, cigars, addresses, into their pockets, have a farewell party in their cabin, pick them up again, and snickering and yelping, are gone: to wait at the dockside for another boat from Europe and another batch of fresh, green lecturers.

There they go, every spring, from New York to Los Angeles: exhibitionists, polemicists, histrionic publicists, theological rhetoricians, historical hoddy-doddies, balletomanes, ulterior decorators, windbags, and bigwigs and humbugs, men in love with stamps, men in love with steaks, men after millionaires’ widows, men with elephantiasis of the reputation (huge trunks and teeny minds), authorities on gas, bishops, best sellers, editors looking for writers, writers looking for publishers, publishers looking for dollars, existentialists, serious physicists with nuclear missions, men from the B.B.C. who speak as though they had Elgin Marbles in their mouths, potboiling philosophers, professional Irishmen (very lepri-corny), and I am afraid, fat poets with slim volumes. And see, too, that linguaceous stream, the tall monocle men, smelling of saddle soap and club arm-chairs, their breath a nice blending of whisky and fox’s blood, with big protruding upper-class tusks and country moustaches, presumably invented in England and sent abroad to advertise Punch, who lecture to women’s clubs on such unlikely subjects as ‘The History of Etching in the Shetland Islands.” And the brassy-bossy men-women, with corrugated-iron perms, and hippo hides, who come, self-announced, as ‘ordinary British housewives,’ to talk to rich minked chunks of American matronhood about the inequity of the Health Services, the criminal sloth of the miners, the visible tail and horns of Mr Aneurin Bevan, and the fear of everyone in England to go out at night because of the organized legions of cosh boys against whom the police are powerless owing to the refusal of those in power to equip them with revolvers and to flog to ribbons every adolescent offender on any charge at all…

…See the garrulous others, also, gabbing and garlanded from one nest of culture-vultures to another: people selling the English way of life and condemning the American way as they swig and guzzle through it; people resurrecting the theories of surrealism for the benefit of parochial female audiences who did not know it was dead, not having ever known it had been alive; people talking about Etruscan pots and pans to a bunch of dead pans and wealthy pots in Boston. And there, too, in the sticky thick of lecturers moving across the continental black with clubs, go the foreign poets, catarrhal troubadours, lyrical one-night-standers, dollar-mad nightingales, remittance bards from at home, myself among them booming with the worst.

The Struggle for Europe

100 years after the end of the war to end all wars, there is a new battle for Europe taking place. Few seriously expect a major conflagration on the continent again. However, there is no ignoring the fact that the social and political fabric of Europe has not been so strained since the early 1930s and the continent has not been as divided since the fall of the Berlin Wall – between rich northern countries and indebted southern states and between those that want greater European integration and those that want to roll it back.

On the western edge of the continent, Britain appears to be dying to leave the European Union, while on the southern and eastern flanks poor migrants from Africa and brave protestors from the Ukraine are, literally, dying to get in.

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The Idiot’s Guide to Snooping on Europe


American spies have been taking it on the chin from European Union officials since it was disclosed in the files leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that U.S. secret agents were eavesdropping on their conversations in Brussels, New York, and Washington, D.C. While spying on your most powerful allies just before the start of transatlantic trade talks may not exactly be neighborly behavior, spare a thought for all those poor NSA snoops trying to translate EU gobbledygook into intelligible English or make sense of the Byzantine workings of the world’s richest trade club. Out of sympathy for our friends at the NSA, Foreign Policy asked our man in Brussels to gin up an A-Z guide to the European Union for U.S. spooks.

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The EU Is History, Now Enjoy The Museum


Merkel panned

Museums about the European Union are a bit like the No. 71 bus in Brussels — you wait ages for one to arrive and then three show up at roughly the same time. The first to open its doors was the Parlamentarium, which sounds like a giant water tank filled with EU lawmakers swimming around, but is actually the European Parliament visitors’ center. The museum, which was inaugurated in October 2011, is stuffed with interactive gizmos like a 3D tactile model allowing starry-eyed guests to explore the EU assembly in its three places of work — Strasbourg, Brussels, and Luxembourg. There is even a “tunnel of voices” which “immerses you in Europe’s multilingual heritage” — although you can get the same experience on the No. 71 bus.

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One Man, No Vote

On May 8, European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding announced 12 new proposals to boost citizens’ rights in the EU. Point six – aimed at “strengthening citizens’ participation in the democratic process” – pledges to work on ways to “enable EU citizens to keep their right to vote in national elections in their country of origin. The practice in some Member States of depriving their citizens of their right to vote once they move to another EU country effectively is tantamount to punishing citizens for having exercised their right to free movement.”

One of the member states Reding is referring to is Britain, which stops citizens voting in their motherland after 15 years abroad. I am a victim of this absurd rule and although the European Commission’s chances of forcing London to change the law are slim – what voting systems member states use is a matter for them, not the EU – it is a welcome move.

I wrote about this issue in an editorial piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2007. As it is now behind their paywall I am publishing it here:

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And you thought the EU was bureaucratic?

Just when you thought no institution could be more bureaucratic than the European Union, along comes the United Nations to give the EU a lesson in writing jargon-filled mumbo-jumbo.

In a job advert for an undetermined number of editor positions at the UN’s New York headquarters, the organisation’s careers service helpfully informs candidates:

This position is located in the Editorial Control Section (ECS) of the Editorial, Terminology and Reference Service (ETRS) of the Documentation Division of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management. The incumbent is under the general supervision of the Chief of ETRS and the immediate supervision of the Chief of ECS.

Maybe the UN careers service could do with a few editors of its own. Their first task? Writing job adverts that are clear, succinct, devoid of meaningless HR jargon and are meant to attract quality candidates who believe in the UN cause rather than faceless bureaucrats who fret about what section of what service they will be assigned to.

An Obituary Writer’s Obituary

Last week, a 71-year old journalist wrote his own obituary as his last reporting assignment, according to a report on Jim Romenesko’s blog: http://jimromenesko.com/2013/03/25/ex-cbs-evening-news-staffer-writes-his-own-obituary/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter.

Harry M. Polster, who had a successful career in New York before editing the Brunswick Times Record in Maine,  prefaced his obituary with these words:

Greetings from the beyond, wherever it is. While death is life’s only certainty, most don’t know the when and how. I did, and I decided it would be fun if my final writing assignment were my own obituary.

The article reminded me of a short story I wrote when I was about 25, shortly before I started as a journalist and never wrote a word of fiction again. It is about an obituary writer who feigns his death in order to read his own obituary. The articles written by fellow obituary writers prove so spiteful that he kills himself. The story, written in the style of an obituary and heavily influenced by reading too much Roald Dahl, was originally published by New Welsh Review. It has never been published on the internet because there was no internet back then. So here it is:

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No Wonga, No Words

Hungry for News

Hungry for News

Most journalists take pride in championing the underdog, exposing injustice and fighting exploitation. But when it comes to their own working conditions many are curiously submissive, accepting high stress and low wages as the inevitable by-product of their trade. Which is why Nate Thayer’s tirade against the Atlantic Magazine Tuesday was all the more exceptional.

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One Election Under God


Ten things I’ve learned about U.S. politics from following the election

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” wrote Mark Twain in ‘Innocents Abroad’. Not always. Travel can also confirm and cement previously held beliefs – as I have discovered during the last three months in America. Before I came here via Britain (where I was born) and Belgium (where I live) I thought Americans were the kindest, loudest, warmest people on the planet. How right I was. I also thought they would be as open about their politics as their personal lives and as polite in their political discourse as they invariably are in public. How wrong I was.

Having closely followed the presidential campaign from its stormy first act in Tampa to its tragic finale on the Northeast seaboard, here are 10 lessons this election has taught one non-resident alien about politics in the United States:

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Eyes off the Prize

Contrary to the reams of mockery unleashed on Friday and over the weekend, the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is absolutely the right idea. The EU is one of the great achievements in human history, and its contribution to peace in Europe and elsewhere is beyond doubt.

The only problem is, the Nobel comes at completely the wrong time. It would have made perfect sense 20 years ago when the Cold War was over and Europe was whole, free and at peace for the first time in its history. But with the continent mired in its gravest social and economic crisis since the 1930s and the EU project in danger of unravelling, it feels like a consolation prize — like a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars or a retirement gift for decades of loyal service.

In his 1950 declaration that gave birth to what eventually became the present-day union, French foreign minister Robert Schuman called for the pooling of coal and steel to make war between France and Germany “not only unthinkable, but materially impossible.” Today, a military conflict in the heart of Europe is indeed unimaginable — as it is between other democratic trading nations like the United States and Canada or Australia and New Zealand.

Despite what the cynics say, the EU deserves much of the credit for this for devising a system in which European disputes are solved in drab Brussels boardrooms rather than on battlefields. But it did not act alone. As U.S. President Barack Obama said when accepting his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, “The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world.” The presence of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops helped keep the peace in Europe. NATO continues to supply a security umbrella for most European states. And globalization has bound countries ever closer together through trade and business ties.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee praised the EU for helping turn Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace.” This is only partly true. While its members have kept the peace between themselves — no mean achievement for a continent that perfected the art of bloodletting — the European Union’s fringes have been anything but peaceful. In the last two decades alone, there have been wars in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and Georgia after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the return of genocide and ethnic cleansing with the violent splintering of Yugoslavia.

“This is the hour of Europe,” declared Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos in 1992 as the Balkans started to burn. But instead of demonstrating Europe’s strength, the conflicts in Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, and finally Kosovo highlighted Europe’s impotence. A club with pretensions to become global a power could not even stop slaughter an hour’s flight from its capital.

As storm clouds gathered over the Balkans in the early 1990s, EU leaders met in Maastricht to sign a treaty that is at the root of many of the bloc’s problems today. Far from uniting Europeans — one of the aims of the single currency that was unveiled in the 1992 treaty — the euro has divided the continent and contributed to the EU’s deepest crisis since its foundation.

It is cruelly ironic that on the day the peace prize was announced, the top four headlines on the European Union page of British broadcaster Channel 4’s website were: “Greek government cracks down on foreigners,” “Greek police clash with protestors during Merkel visit,” “Spanish government set to unveil more cuts,” and “Clashes in Greece as strikers protest austerity measures.”

No wonder the decision was greeted with incredulity on the streets of Athens. “The leader of the E.U. is Germany, which is in an economic war with southern Europe,” retired lawyer Stavros Polychronopoulos told the New York Times. “I consider this war equal to a real war. They don’t help peace.”

This is grossly unfair to Germany, which is helping to bail out the Greek economy. But it is a sign of the dangerous divisions that have resurfaced inside the EU after decades of “ever closer union.” For peace is not just the absence of war. It is harmony between different peoples. It is tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. And it is solidarity between different classes and generations. The EU has constantly fostered these ideals, and authors such as Jeremy Rifkin have argued that these values represent some sort of “European Dream” to rival America’s.

But in 2012, this European Dream lies in tatters. Partly as a result of Europe’s economic woes and the threat to national identity posed by the EU, extremist parties advocating racism, nationalism, and intolerance are on the rise across the continent — a fact recognized by Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland Friday when he warned: “We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating.” Nobody would benefit from the re-Balkanisation of Europe, which is why Jagland called on Europeans to “focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization.”

At its heart the EU was, and still is, a peace project. But it is an unfinished one. If the Nobel Prize serves any purpose, it should act as a call to responsibility to EU leaders who often adopt an adolescent approach to matters of war and peace. They complain about U.S. hegemony but are unprepared to pay for their nations’ own defence. They lecture the world about European values but are either incapable or unwilling to stand up for them. And they talk of EU solidarity, knowing perfectly well the union has neither the duty nor the capacity to come to the aid of an attacked member — or even, apparently, one whose economy is melting down, until it’s nearly too late.

Whoever accepts the Nobel Prize on behalf of the EU should have the courage to say, as President Obama did in his 2009 speech, that well-meaning declarations are not enough to protect and promote cherished values. Sometimes, preserving peace means preparing for war — as France and Britain understood in Libya. Sometimes, solidarity means writing checks, as well as delivering moral sermons. And sometimes, promoting stability in Europe — for example by speeding up Turkey’s EU entry — means confronting prejudices and arguing that European values only make sense when applied.

The EU’s Nobel recipients should also have the vision to move beyond issues of war and peace entirely. Harking back to 1945 for a raison d’être is hardly the most forward-thinking philosophy for a 21st-century organization. Likewise, warning of a return to war if the euro fails, as some European leaders have, is not the greatest vote of confidence in the core values the bloc has supposedly embedded. If the EU wants to remain relevant in the world and connect with citizens who are rapidly losing faith in the European project, its leaders should use the Oslo award ceremony to offer a new central narrative for the union that resonates with a generation whose only knowledge of continental conflict comes from history books.

This article was first published in Foreign Policy Magazine in October 2012

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