October 31, 2008

New York

America’s diminished intellectualism has made this interminable election period as boring as a Nat Rothschild Corfu party for respectable folk. Part of the problem is that presidential candidates try ‘to reach out to younger voters’, hardly an admirable goal as demographic researchers have gone the way of TV programmers, targeting young morons whose Facebooks comprise 90 per cent of their education. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain have all been forced to make appearances on vile and vulgar TV shows — proof that taking the high ground is as much of a vote-getter as George Osborne’s chances of being invited back to Nat’s Corfu lair. It all started with Bill Clinton — who else? — when the Draft Dodger blew ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ through his saxophone on a cheap, late-night American show. The likelihood of reversing this trend is nil, but stranger things have happened. For example, Taverna Agni could be next year’s venue for the Tory party conference, or even for Labour’s. (Mind you, now that Nat’s Atticus fund has gone the way of Deripaska, maybe George will next do the honours in a rented cabana near Blackpool.)

Do any of you remember the time when politicians were careful about whom they hung out with? Even better, do any of you remember when MPs would communicate with each other — Tories, that is — by conversing in Greek or Latin? Then a eunuch sacked the great Enoch Powell from the front benches and the rot set in. I was once introduced to Enoch by Greville Howard, now Lord Howard, and he addressed me in ancient Greek. I didn’t dare answer in kind, although I understood him perfectly, my classical Greek being rather shaky. The study of those two languages, with their illuminations on morality and philosophy, reached a nadir during the greedy Eighties and Nineties, when students said to hell with the ancients, let’s all become investment bankers and high-tech millionaires. The good news is that the present mess might see their return. Just imagine, 20 years down the road, Nat Rothschild hosting a Corfu party with Amo Latinam as the theme. (Keep imagining because it ain’t gonna happen.) Still, avaritia mala est, and the classics are staging a small comeback right here in the Big Bagel. Enrolment is rising because some young people are seeing the light, Corfu or not Corfu, that being the question.

The bad news is that people are cutting down on charity, especially those who help animals. The men in suits who have so mismanaged the world are doing their best to do little furry things in. Not to mention old, beautifully grimy neighbourhoods. Last week I found myself protesting against yet another outrage, that taking place on West 28th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, where Tin Pan Alley was born. Tin Pan Alley’s golden age was back in the Twenties and Thirties, where titans of song such as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin got their start. But the stretch earned its nickname at the turn of the century, when music companies moved in and the tinkling of pianos could be heard blocks away, 24 hours a day. It was a beautiful kind of clangour, now no longer heard, but the crumbling façades of those historic buildings are still there, unchanged, and one can look up and imagine the melodies.

The tunes back then were lyrical, the words were literate and passionate, and the rhymes were pure. Now a luxury apartment tower is planned to replace a scene that evokes everything that was wonderful about old Noo Yawk, reddish-brown, five-storey houses where talented people worked and created some of the sweetest sounds this side of New Orleans. They were obviously poor, talented, mostly Jewish, and spoke with accents which wouldn’t admit them even to strip clubs. Yet their music was divine, it reminds me of my youth, and that is all that matters. It is very sad and I for one will do anything I can to stop some greedy pig from obliterating a real New York landmark — Tin Pan Alley, for Chrissake, not exactly like tearing down a McDonald’s. We need another luxury tower in lower midtown as much as the island of Corfu needs another Russian oligarch anchoring his disgusting superyacht off its green and lovely shoreline.

But enough of this whining. My brother-in-law, Brian Culhane, married to Princess Victoria Schoenburg, is the winner of the Emily Dickinson First Book Award, as prestigious an award as there is without the name of Salman Rushdie being involved. At a reading down in Greenwich Village, I listened as Brian read out his poem about my father-in-law, Peter Schoenburg, and despite my age — my God, how quickly the tears come after 60 — I kept my composure and had a very good time. William Carlos Williams wrote this about poetry: ‘It is difficult to get the news from poems, /yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.’

Poetry, an art I cannot understand or define, but certainly can feel, makes our daily existence mean more to us. Once upon a time, it was the highest branch of literature, but now it has dwindled into a mere craft. Yet it’s wonderful because it has not gone professional, and poets have not sold out like many writers have. Bravo, Brian, and especially as you chose to become a poet when others of your age group preferred the bank route. Again, Corfu or not Corfu, that is the question.


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