The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

As we all know, Bill Clinton has spent the past six months giving speeches, making money, wowing crowds in Europe and Asia, and distracting American tennis players in Paris. Late last month, at the annual literary festival held at the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye—an event Clinton described as the “Woodstock of the mind”—the former president was paid roughly $145,000 to speak about conflict resolution. Last week, Clinton spoke at the annual Yorkshire International Business Convention. But as the Guardian reports, for British taxes purposes, was Clinton an entertainer or statesman? “As an overseas entertainer, Mr Clinton was liable to have 22 percent of his earnings deducted at source. As a politician, he would not have to pay anything up front to the [British] tax man.” The accountant responsible for the event in Yorkshire, uncertain of the tax status of the distinguished guest, made some enquiries with Britain’s Inland Revenue. As the Guardian continues: “On Friday morning, the day Mr. Clinton was flying in from Paris, a fax from the Inland Revenue’s unit dropped from [the accountant’s] machine. In the section marked Artiste’s Name, it said Clinton, William Jefferson. Under Stage Name, if any, it declared: Bill Clinton. Signed SR Robinson, HM Inspector of Taxes, it also noted: ‘Basic rate withholding tax not appropriate.’ ” It’s as well, therefore, that the former president chose not to play his saxophone for the audiences in Wales or Yorkshire. One note from that musical instrument could change his status as statesman to entertainer.

LAUGHING MATTERS Swearing is not always amusing. A recent meeting of rap and hip-hop stars at New York’s Hilton Hotel was considered offensive because of all the obscenities hurled about the place. A roast of comedian Richard Belzer, convened by the Friars Club of New York, was considered absolutely hilarious precisely because nothing but obscenities were hurled about the place. As the New York Observer’s Frank DiGiacomo reports, the Belzer evening may not have been as amusing, or as obscene, as the roast for Rob Reiner last year, but it was nevertheless an opportunity for well-known comedians such as Bill Maher and Al Franken to polish their profanities. Of the honoree, Jeffrey Ross said: “‘When I see Richard Belzer, at least I think of Homicide. When I see Al Franken, I think of suicide. … Actually, all kidding aside, Al Franken gave me a copy of his new book, and I’m grateful because now I have something to give my maid’s husband for Kwanzaa.” Belzer famously has only one testicle, and many of the evening’s speakers would aim their wit at this part of his anatomy. Susie Essman of The Vagina Monologues fame, began her stint at the microphone by remarking on the comic ability of the MC for the night, Paul Shaffer of CBS’s “Late Show.” “I had no idea you were so funny. And such a sharp tongue! That must really hurt David’s ass. … You know, I’m the only woman roasting tonight. And I feel like the belle of the ball, which I think is appropriate, because we’re honoring the ball of the Belz.”

Should two people who love each other live under one roof? Should they be married or in a relationship? Should spouses or lovers live together? Should men and women live with their best friends and go on vacation with the man or woman in their lives? In the June issue of Ms. magazine, Pagan Kennedy revives the idea of the “Boston Marriage”—an arrangement favored by certain late-Victorian women who, Kennedy writes, “wanted to maintain their independence and freedom [by opting] out of marriage … [by living with each other], acting as each other’s ‘wives’ and ‘helpmeets.’ Henry James’s 1886 novel about such a liaison, The Bostonians, may have been the inspiration for the term …” In Prospect, two men, Laurie and Matthew Taylor, argue that the Baby Boomer preoccupation with careers, self-fulfillment, and ideal relationships (including the Boston Marriage type) will have catastrophic consequences on family life later this century—chiefly because there will be so few families. But as an editorial in the New York Times pointed out, the notion of a family has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. “What the new census data underscore is an increasing awareness that the nuclear family is not the only kind of family or even the only healthy kind of family. In modern America no type of family can really be recognized to the exclusion of all others.” Nor, presumably, can one form of marriage over another.

As President George Bush prepares to meet Europe’s political leaders and to explain his rejection of the Kyoto environmental protocols, he might care to consider the life and times of Thomas Midgley. It’s the view of John McNeill that the American chemist has “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other organism in Earth history.” In a review of McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century David Blackbourn explains part of Midgley’s impact on the globe. “In 1921, Midgley calculated that adding lead to [gas] would make it burn better and prevent engine knock. Not until half a century later, by which time 25 trillion liters had been burned by cars, did public health concerns overcome industry resistance and usher in the unleaded era.” Leaded gas wasn’t Midgley’s only divine gift to mankind. To demonstrate the safety of Freon at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, the chlorofluorocarbon gas he developed for General Motors’ refrigeration unit in 1930, Midgley  inhaled some of the cooling agent  and blew out a candle. For vengeful environmentalists everywhere, it must be a pleasing irony that Midgley would eventually die of asphyxiation. As Psychobabble   describes the chemist’s end: “In 1940, Dr. Midgley contracted polio, which left him wheelchair-bound. He applied his ingenuity to his predicament and devised a lifting mechanism that employed ropes and pulleys so he could hoist himself out of bed and into his chair without assistance. He strangled himself in the contraption and died suspended in mid-air.”

“MY HEAD IS BLOODY BUT UNBOWED” The poem Timothy McVeigh chose to have read aloud prior to his execution was William Ernest Henley’s imperial eulogy “Invictus“ (with its vague shades of Kipling’s “ If“). “Out of the night that covers me/ Black as the Pit from pole to pole/ I thank whatever gods may be/ For my unconquerable soul./ In the fell clutch of circumstance/ I have not winced nor cried aloud./ Under the bludgeonings of chance/ My head is bloody but unbowed.” So go the first two stanzas. Apart from his poetry, Henley is remembered as being the editor of the Scots Observer, which would move to London under his tenure and became an important outlet for the early writings of Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, James Barrie, and Rudyard Kipling. He was also a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, who would partially base the character of Treasure Island’s Long John Silver on Henley—like Silver, Henley had only one leg. Whether McVeigh mistakenly believed that Henley, like himself, was of Scottish ancestry, is something that we will never know.

National sympathies are put on trial with remarkable frequency in these parts. This week, England lost two cricket matches to Pakistan: one in  Manchester and another in Birmingham. On Wednesday, England’s soccer team defeated Greece, while Wales drew with Ukraine, and Northern Ireland lost to the Czech Republic. Earlier today, the British Lions—a touring rugby team made up of players from England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland—thrashed Western Australia 116-10. Yesterday, the Labor Party won another vast parliamentary majority, though critics of the government pointed out that because 40 percent of Britons chose not to vote in this year’s general election—the lowest turnout since 1918—the victory was in some respects tainted. Home Secretary Jack Straw said, “The politics of contentment may be a factor in low turnout. …We will find after the election there are loads more people who wanted a Labor victory than actually turned out to vote.” The composition of the House of Commons, however, remains almost unchanged, and Conservative leader William Hague’s response to the result was to resign. A mixed week for some of the United Kingdom’s sports teams, therefore, but for Labor’s supporters, a reason to congratulate themselves on securing an unprecedented second full term in office. Among other things, the election proved good for the notion of a United Kingdom; it was a bad night for the separatist parties of Wales and Scotland. In London (which, incidentally, has 11 professional soccer teams—with six in the premier division), the Conservatives picked up two seats, though Labor won 55 of the 74 constituencies allocated to the capital. Prime Minister Tony Blair will now plot the Labor Party’s further reform of Britain—including in all likelihood a referendum on which currency the British can expect to put in their wallets in a few years time—but for sporting types, now that the election is over there’s the serious business of a summerlong series of cricket and rugby matches against the Australians to look forward to.

Britons, unlike Americans, do not easily move from one part of their country to another, though if a person does move, it’s likely to be to London or the Home Counties. Which perhaps explains why former Prime Minister John Major was confronted by a poll in the early 1990s that suggested that almost 50 percent of Britons wanted to live in another country—preferably somewhere warm and wealthy. In adverse conditions, such as those of a decade ago, people felt stuck. If a similar poll were conducted today, the figure would presumably be lower; Britain has been warm recently. Nevertheless the desire to escape remains—even if the nature of the escape is usually temporary. (The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s statistics show that Britons emigrate to the United States in significant numbers.) Excluding business travel, Britons made 30 million international airplane journeys in 1999, 12 million of which were intercontinental jaunts. In London, the thought of escape is rarely remote—not for historical or environmental reasons (London was once a major port; the seagulls, when they’re not shitlashing the streets, remind one of the ocean) but because of the ever-present drone of airplanes overhead. When the wind is from the west, as it usually is, the flight path to Heathrow Airport passes over much of south and west London (to the consternation of many inhabitants who complain about the increasing noise), and with each plane’s passing there’s yet another excuse to consider Abroad.

Just over  31 percent of Britons read a newspaper every day, and though there’s an election here in a couple of days, the alterations to the Nepalese government seem more compelling to the papers than the British stump. Today, Britain’s 12 national newspapers turned out 704 pages of newsprint (in varying sizes), which could all be bought for £4.99—about $7.10. There are the broadsheets: the Daily Telegraph, the  Times, the  Financial Times, the  Guardian, and the  Independent—whose daily circulations total 2,841,923. There are midsheets: the Daily Mail, the  Daily Express, and, if you’re in London, the Evening Standard—circulation 3,862,157. Lastly, the tabloids: The Sun, the  Daily Mirror, the Scottish Daily Record, and the Daily Star—circulation 6,900,332. A total daily national newspaper circulation of 13,604,412. (The figures are drawn from Audit Bureau of Circulation’s Web site, though Roy Greenslade, a respected media columnist for the Guardian and a former editor of the Mirror, expresses his doubts about the methodology employed to arrive at these numbers.) With the exception of the Daily Record, all these papers are published in London, and mostly they see the country and the world through a London lens. That’s to say that what is regarded as news is what is seen as important for London—whether it’s a question of politics or gossip or entertainment or whatever. For years, there was a class component to the press—for example, the Guardian would endorse Labor (and it continues to) and the Times would support the Conservatives, though for the first occasion in its history the Times has this year come out in support (albeit ponderously) of Tony Blair. Yet notions of class and ideology now seem more about theater than about consciousness. It is no longer true that one can assume a Briton’s political allegiance by the paper they read any more than one can read a British newspaper and find a coherent political view.