I first met Joan Didion in the summer of 1993, soon after I moved to New York, at the launch party for Christopher Hitchens’s book For the Sake of Argument. I was mesmerised by the hand with which she held her glass – her long, thin fingers. Those hands are on show in the recent Netflix documentary about Didion made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne: she waves her arms and hands in front of the camera as if casting a spell. I’d recently been to Miami and had read her book about the city. As she saw it, Miami was ‘long on rumour, short on memory, overbuilt on the chimera of runaway money and referring not to New York or Boston or Los Angeles or Atlanta but to Caracas and Mexico, to Havana and to Bogotá and to Paris and Madrid’. Much of Miami is about the Cuban exile scene, where a love of guns, violence and conspiracy prefigures the paramilitary supporters of Donald Trump. ‘As in other parts of the world where citizens shop for guerrilla discounts and bargains in automatic weapons, there was in Miami an advanced interest in personal security.’ A single word, ‘advanced’, turns a flat sentence into something else.
With so few people on the streets, your eyes are drawn upwards. I’ve walked or cycled down Rupert Street countless times but have never before noticed the Exchange and Bullion Office at No. 9. The Survey of London says they were the offices of Benjamin Smart, a gold dealer in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1893, the London Daily News published an article about Notting Dale, an area in north Kensington also known as the Potteries for its brick-making kilns and clay pits. ‘A West End Avernus’ was the headline: poor, overcrowded, with shocking housing – if there was an entrance to the Underworld, then this, the article said, was it. A grotesque report inspired by the piece a couple of years later blamed the bad condition of the area on the ‘vicious proclivities of the people themselves’. They were, the report said, ‘loafers, cab-runners, beggars, tramps, thieves and prostitutes’. One of the clay pits made by the 19th-century brick makers was so large that it was called the ‘Ocean’: it was filled with slime. The houses nearby were said to be of ‘a wretched class, many being mere hovels in a ruinous condition, filthy in the extreme, and containing vast accumulations of garbage and offal’. The wells were contaminated. The risk of cholera was high.
Ann Coulter has been Donald Trump’s outspoken champion since he launched his campaign. In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!, her book that came out last summer, was more of a manifesto than anything Trump has written himself (that said, I’m not sure he’s ever written anything himself). ‘The only guy whose personal life sounds fascinating is Trump and he never discusses it,’ she wrote. ‘He was too busy talking about building a wall, renegotiating bad trade deals and ending our insane Muslim immigration policies.’ She said yesterday that the cost of building the wall along the US-Mexican border would be ‘roughly equal to one year's worth of therapy, hospital costs of little girls raped by illegal immigrants’. She is a monster.
‘First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.’ That was how Colin Powell described the battle plan he and his generals came up with for the war they were about to wage against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991, and that is, more or less, what happened. After the US A-10 tank-buster bombers known as Warthogs had finished off the Iraqi armoured brigades on the Basra Road, Harold Pinter, disgusted by the gratuitous carnage, wrote a poem called ‘American Football’. He sent it to several publications, including the London Review of Books, where I then worked. He had it faxed to the paper's office on Tavistock Square. None of the editors much liked the poem, but because it was by Pinter there was some further deliberation, and as the afternoon ended we thought we'd defer the decision to the following morning.
‘We will introduce a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority stays in this country, in our Parliament,’ the Conservative Party's 2010 manifesto said. It was a promise they never kept. Six years later it’s a promise that’s completely obsolete, thanks to the EU referendum, although just now even that ‘ultimate authority’ is in some doubt, as the Supreme Court deliberates on Miller v. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. ‘Our approach to foreign affairs is based on a belief in freedom, human rights and democracy,’ the 2010 manifesto also said. ‘We are sceptical about grand utopian schemes to remake the world. We will work patiently with the grain of other societies, but we will always support liberal values.’
Richard Hofstadter gave the Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford on 21 November 1963, on the rhetoric and superstitions of the American right. The next presidential election was a year away, but Barry Goldwater, a US senator from Arizona, owner of a department store in Phoenix and author of an influential book about his conservative politics, who promised to roll back Roosevelt’s New Deal, was likely to be the Republican candidate.
The skies over New York on the morning of 11 September 2001 were famously clear: the skies over much of the eastern seaboard three mornings later were covered by cloud low enough to have obscured the top floors of the World Trade Center, had its two towers not been destroyed. There was a hope that overnight rain would put out the fires burning in the ruins and the wreckage at Ground Zero. But the fires burned for weeks, and anyone who knew their smoke will remember it for ever.
The Polish Social and Cultural Association on King Street in Hammersmith was daubed with racist graffiti at the weekend. I went to school just up the road, and take the attack on the Polish club more personally than I can explain.
In the address she delivered to the College of Europe in Bruges in September 1988, Margaret Thatcher introduced her notion of the European super-state and why Britain should see it as a threat. 'We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain,' she said, 'only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels. Certainly we want to see Europe more united and with a greater sense of common purpose. But it must be in a way which preserves the different traditions, parliamentary powers and sense of national pride in one's own country; for these have been the source of Europe's vitality through the centuries.’