THE BRITISH PLAY

WillThat the final visit to British shores of President Obama as leader of ‘the free world’ should fall on a weekend when our nation marks the 400th anniversary of its greatest writer’s passing is one of those neat strokes of fate, coming at a moment when the country is perched perilously on the crossroads between alleged integration and alleged isolation. Obama’s unsurprising pro-EU stance, whether his sentiments were given a canny nudge by Dave or not, have proved to be a sly stroke on the part of the Remain camp; regardless of his fairly unremarkable record in his day-job, Obama is a popular figure here, and no amount of crying foul play by the Brexit bunch will really alter that.

Neither Boris nor Farage have issued anything beyond petulant retorts to Obama’s veiled threat as to America’s position should the UK vote ‘no’. There is a certain irony, however, that such a professional patriot as Nigel should possess a frankly flimsy grasp of history. Accusing the incumbent President of being the most anti-British tenant of the White House is somewhat curious considering that just over 200 years ago one of his predecessors – James Madison – declared war on the US’s former colonial overlord. The War of 1812 may now be regarded as a footnote to the far greater Napoleonic conflicts by European historians, but it surely represents a bleaker low point in the Special Relationship than Obama indicating Britain will be shoved to the back of the trading queue if she chooses to retreat from the brotherhood of her nearest neighbours.

I at least expected a myriad of quotes from ‘Henry V’ to constitute the Brexit response to Obama this weekend. Regularly plucked from the text to provoke patriotism at best and jingoism at worst, the words the Bard placed in the mouth of the victor of Agincourt have become a default mechanism for the nation when it perceives itself as being under threat. And there is, of course, a case of the pot calling the kettle black in America preaching European harmony and anti-isolationism when it has spent so much of its existence masquerading as a country breaking with traditional Old World aggression by avoiding excessive participation in world affairs – on the surface, at least. A cursory glance at an enlightening article which appeared online a year ago reveals the US has enjoyed a mere total of 21 years of peace since 1776. In fact, America has never lasted so much as a solitary decade without being involved in some military conflict or another from the moment when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.

‘And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain, and I hate the idle pleasure of these days’; so said Richard III in the hands of Shakespeare’s quill. While the gung-ho war-cry of Henry V may well be evoked to galvanise those who feel Britain’s precious sovereignty is forever in peril from some Brussels directive whilst we remain chained to treaties signed in the 80s and 90s, one could argue a withdrawal from the continent places us back in the role of detached observer on European activities, cast in the role of villain, mistrusted anew by the advocates of the great European project and consequently reinforcing our geographical separation from the mainland. This wasn’t a problem back in the days of the Empire, and we still have a network of connections to our ex-imperial possessions in the Far East, Africa and the Indian Subcontinent that, historically, should have precedence over the neighbours we’ve spent most of our lifetime fighting. After all, we only have a land border with just one country – the Republic of Ireland – which is itself further from Europe than even we are in terms of miles.

The perceived importance of a European Economic Community, not to mention a military one, was passionately promoted by Churchill even before such institutions came into being, but it was Sir Winston’s misfortune to be born too early to participate in the construction of the initial incarnation of the operation. The historical and sentimental ties with the Commonwealth somewhat got in the way of Europe’s post-war destination from Britain’s point of view, leaving the French and the Germans to take control and relegate us to a permanent periphery, even when Ted Heath achieved his long-term ambition of gaining us a place at the table in 1972. Lest we forget, the formation of the Common Market (along with NATO) took place while Europe remained divided between East and West, but the fall of the Berlin Wall, pushing back the borders of democratic Europe to the edges of Russia, changed the makeup of the EU, and the Referendum of June 23 this year will decide our role in an organisation that is a radically different animal to the one it was in 1975.

The Brexit camp contains those who recognise the differences between the modern-day EU and the old EEC as well as those who have always been opposed to any integration with Europe, while even the Remain gang recognise something has to change in order for our continued membership to be something worth fighting for. President Obama’s sentiments are obviously influenced by American interests, but his intervention probably hasn’t helped make the minds up of any don’t knows out there. As with a General Election, notions of doing something in the country’s best interests will largely be supplanted by individual concerns. As someone whose shopping is mostly done online, I would begrudge the addition of import tax on buying overseas goods that EU countries are currently exempt from if we leave, whilst a friend has already decided she will vote ‘out’ due to EU interference in the e-cigarette issue. I suspect this will be a pattern we will all follow come June, and Obama’s opinion will count for little when we visit our nearest polling station.

© The Editor

21st CENTURY BOY

ObamaRemember that night back in November 2008, when the eight-year reign of George II came to an end? That itself would have been something to prompt half of the world’s population into doing spontaneous cartwheels, but look what he was replaced by – a black man! In the White House! America was cool again! It had a dude for President! Civil Rights veterans from the 60s took to the streets, some with tears in their eyes, hardly believing they’d ever live to see the day. Considering the lengthy history of racial turmoil the US has experienced, it remains quite an achievement, even now. The colour of Barack Obama’s skin almost felt like that was enough as a selling point. The Nobel Prize panel were swept up in the euphoria as well, awarding Obama the Peace gong when he’d barely switched on the central heating in the Oval Office.

Seems a long time ago, though, doesn’t it – the momentary usurping of American political dynasties in order for a politician virtually unknown outside of Chicago a couple of years previously to go where no African-American had gone before. It seems especially distant now, when the USA is reverting to type by backing a right-wing lunatic to take over the Washington tenancy of the man who is counting down the days before moving out. And as Obama enters his final months in the top job, it’s extremely hard not to think of his Presidency with a gnawing sense of frustration as something that should have been so much better than it has.

In the television age, American Presidents have often left their mark with a specific powerful image – Kennedy’s brains being blown-out in the Dallas motorcade, Nixon announcing his resignation, Reagan’s historic love-in with Gorbachev, even Bush’s expression as events on 9/11 are whispered into his ear while he sits before a group of oblivious schoolchildren. With Obama, the images that are evoked as his tenure as leader of the free world draws to a close seem annoyingly trivial: his endless appearances on US chat shows; acting as a straight man to comedians in skits; dancing with Michelle; singing at showbizzy White House bashes; posing for a selfie alongside David Cameron and the Danish PM at Nelson Mandela’s funeral – all very twenty-first century in their abundance of style and absence of substance. Is that really how Obama wants to be remembered? Wasn’t he supposed to be a great intellectual – or did he merely appear to be on account of the man he succeeded?

Though America was clearly ready for him – he received the highest number of votes for a Presidential candidate in history – Obama certainly didn’t come to power while the nation was enjoying a period of satisfied contentment, winning the Presidential Election just months after the worst global financial crash since 1929, and at a time when his country was still involved in not one, but two unpopular foreign wars. He regarded the economy as his first priority, but also stated his desire to end the detainment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Although he eventually presided over the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and gave the go-ahead for the mission that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, the rise of ISIS has served to hamper Obama’s hopes of ending military involvement in the Middle East, and his reckless reliance on drones to do the dirty work hasn’t endeared him to the Muslim world. At least he could point to the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba as a foreign policy success, if not quite matching the international significance of Nixon’s olive branch to China.

On the home front, an initial economic improvement stalled, while Obama’s proposals for healthcare reforms were not helped by the capture of the House of Representatives by the Republicans in 2010 and the widespread publicity afforded the grass-roots Tea Party movement. Obama’s attempts at arresting increasing racial violence and finally doing something about antiquated gun laws in the face of continuing massacres also appeared to achieve very little, with the latter stymied by the Republicans gaining control of the Senate in 2014. One cannot but feel Obama has reached for greatness, yet has always found it ultimately elusive. Whether that is a failing of the man or the American political system is open to debate.

With Barack Obama still resident in the White House, it’s far too early to judge how his Presidency will rank alongside those that are still talked about with awe. It wouldn’t be much of a substantial legacy if the only aspect of eight years in office that will mark him out in history forever simply centres on the unique factor that made him seem such a breath of fresh air in 2008 – the colour of his skin.

SIR GEORGE MARTIN (1926-2016)

BeatlesThe revelation in the recently published letters of the late novelist Iris Murdoch that she attended Rolling Stones concerts and reckoned The Beatles should have been made Poets Laureate shouldn’t really come as a great surprise. By the mid-60s, it was patently obvious Britain was undergoing something entirely without precedence, and some ahead of the generation on the rise recognised this. The Beatles and the Stones were not Cliff Richard or Adam Faith; they transcended what had been viewed as disposable teenage discharge and elevated it to a new plateau altogether, creating the cultural touchstone for the remainder of the twentieth century; and the older intelligentsia had picked up on this relatively quickly. As early as the end of 1963, Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting skills were being compared to Schubert in highbrow broadsheets, Cecil Beaton drooled over Mick Jagger’s androgyny, George Melly eulogised the pop revolution in lucid prose, and John Lennon publishing a book of surreal poetry brought him into contact with leading literary figures such as Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Breaking free of the basic constraints of rock ‘n’ roll and eager to absorb sounds that had never before graced music aimed at an adolescent audience, The Beatles had an invaluable ally in George Martin, who has passed away at the age of 90. In one of those curious coincidences that constantly recur in the Beatles story, Martin’s teenage oboe tutor was the mother of Jane Asher, future girlfriend of Paul McCartney; it was living at the Asher household that introduced Macca to classical music, elements of which he was able to incorporate into the fab four’s records from ‘Yesterday’ onwards; and the man who facilitated Lennon and McCartney’s appetite for innovation was George Martin.

Had Martin been a producer whose experience had been limited to the manufactured Elvis imitators from Larry Parnes’ stable, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so receptive to the adventurous ambition of his star clients; but Martin had become accustomed to creating eccentric collages of strange sounds via his past work with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. He saw the same wit and desire to spurn convention in The Beatles, and it’s hard to conceive the band could have progressed from ‘Please Please Me’ to ‘Revolver’ in the space of just three years without the invaluable assistance of the man at the console.

After eventually being ousted by Phil Spector during the drawn-out project that became ‘Let it Be’, Martin signed off the 60s with the fitting finale of ‘Abbey Road’, and in the 70s he left EMI to set up his own AIR studios in both London and on the Caribbean haven of Montseratt, a destination for many an 80s big-gun from The Police to Duran Duran. But it is his intimate association with John, Paul, George and Ringo for which he will be rightly remembered; if anyone told them ‘it can’t be done’, they wanted to do it more, and so did he. He was the right man for the job and he got it done alright.

© The Editor