Wednesday 25 January 2012

Choose your scandal

What constitues a moral scandal?  I only ask because of the debate which grew out of yesterday's Government defeat in the Lords on the proposed benefit cap.  The charge was led by the Lords Spiritual, who with the unexpected and opportunistic help of Labour and the opposition of some Liberal Democrats, managed to prevent Child Benefit from being taken into account when the cap is calculated.  Although the Government is likely to try to reverse this when the Welfare Bill comes back to the Commons, the Bishops were momentarily and unusually hailed as heroes by those who oppose the cap, the Coaltion, and all its detestable enormities.  One commentator said that it was the best publicity the CofE had got since the Royal wedding.  Well, it was certainly the most publicity it had got since then; but how good it was depends on what it yields in terms of the Church's public standing. Opinions on this may differ.  And sure enough, differ at least one of them did this morning, in the form of an article by Lord Carey in the unspeakable Daily Mail.  In it, the former ABC criticises (in fairly reasoned terms, it must be said) the Bishops' opposition to the Government's proposals on the grounds that he couldn't "possibly believe prolonging our culture of welfare dependency is in the best interests of our children"; and that "the sheer scale of our public debt... is the greatest moral scandal facing Britain today".

This did not go down well Churchside.  It was a bit disloyal to start with; but worse, it took the shine off what had looked like a much-needed clear win for the Church and those who oppose the Welfare Bill and the Coalition generally.  Now while I have to confess myself not the former Archbishop's greatest admirer, I do think he has a point - our huge public debt is indeed scandalous, it cannot be blamed entirely on bankers, and is at the root of a lot of other unwelcome measures - of which the benefit cap is, partly, one.  And while he might have mentioned a few other contributory scandals - eg the sheer greed of some people inside the banks and elsewhere - to rubbish his view quite as comprehensively as some have done today, strikes me as both unfair and an over-reaction.

But it has led to some interesting discussion about what constitutes a moral scandal.  There are a good few to choose from at the moment.  Phone hacking, bankers' bonuses, MPs' expenses, gay bishops, abortion advertising, and assisted dying are among them.  We all have our favourites.  But all these issues involve our being scandalised by others, safe in our own moral fastnesses.  Is there anything closer to home? No? Sure?

A colleague confessed that he was recently very badly affected by a visit to his elderly mother who is in care, suffering from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.  While she is ill and confused, she is being looked after perfectly well.  Pretty much everything that can be done for her is being done.  The moral scandal for him is our (including his own) failure to care for our own elderly and infirm as he perceives we used to, and as some cultures still do (even here). He is her only relative; he was moved and upset by her condition, and conscious that, despite the best comfort that could be provided, despite the presence of carers and neighbours, she was utterly alone.  Because that is what we do with mad, ill, old people. 

Phone hacking, did you say?

Monday 16 January 2012

The Opera Lady

She sits at the bar of Il Mare restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. It is a Friday night and the place is heaving. Customers enter from the freezing night and wait for a table in a huddle by the doorway. The heater over the door sends waves of ludicrously hot air that just prevent the cold from encroaching as far as her favoured spot. She sips white wine, chatting occasionally, and with the insouciant and proprietorial air of a regular, to the barista. "D'you wanna order now, before it gets even loonier?" asks the latter solicitously. "No: I don't know what I want yet", she replies, with the certainty of the born-again client in New York City. The girl retires, not hurt but put in her place, to wait on the demands of others, less regular but no less demanding. She works flat-out, 7 evenings a week and smiles for America.

The lady is called Elsie and this is her local. She tells us she eats here three evenings a week because she lives alone. She is, in a smallish way, an heiress. Her parents died and left her and her younger brother $1m dollars each. He has spent his on a series of girlfriends and a home on the coast of South Carolina; she has been more frugal. She occupies a rent-stabilised apartment on the Upper West Side, which costs her so little that she can live perfectly comfortably, eating out as she chooses, without eating into her inheritance. She's now 65, but had a career as an operatic agent, working with singers who performed at the world's most famous opera-houses. Given our shared English ancestry, she refers particularly to her visits to Covent Garden and the Coliseum (and doesn't understand why you can't get a post-performance dinner at 11:00pm in London as you can in New York).

We talk about food and drink, and she eats her pasta. She does not look especially as though she needs to lose weight, and sniffs at my explanation of the three Ps avoided by Italian women (pasta, patatas, postre) as the key to minimising weight-gain in later life. I don't mention the fourth no-no - alcohol - as the barista pours her a third glass. Like so many New Yorkers, she doesn't assume from our accents that we are not resident; but when we confess our nationality, chats amiably about the Royal Family. She is interested in actresses who have played the Queen, but struggles to believe there is one who rejoices in the name of Prunella Scales. "Prunella!", she exclaims, "Can you imagine how a child with that name would fare at elementary school in this city?" But, we reflect silently, she was not at school here and is a famous actress. It occurs to me that Elsie must have represented some artists with equally improbable names - some, perhaps, who grew up in New York.

She finishes her meal, then accepts and quickly swallows a glass for the road. She bids us good-night with old-fashioned grace, and leaves when we do, wrapping herself tightly against the bitter Manhattan night.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday 13 January 2012

Looking West

Dawn, Friday 13 January 2012

It is mid-January on the Upper West Side, but not as cold as I have known it. The dawn rises grey and damp. From my 22nd floor window, I look beyond the nearer water-towers and fire-escapes, across the Hudson River to its farther shore and the slowly blinking red lights of radio masts, beyond shadowy, sleeping New Jersey suburbs, to the line of low hills on the horizon. Ragged clouds scud northwards. The first, brief shaft of weak sunlight catches the tower blocks and roof-gardens. There is a time of day when even the most sanguine are at a low ebb; and The City That Never Sleeps, possibly the most positive place on earth, seems drowsy and may have indeed slept and woken with the tiniest hint of depression.

In the street below, the huge trucks and taxis move warily down Broadway, past boxes stacked high on the sidewalk outside the Fairway supermarket. Like No Other Market, it is a warren-like Aladdin's cave of chaotic plenty: uneven floors, impossibly narrow aisles, clashing trolleys and baskets, incredible amounts of food piled obscenely high and sold... well, not that cheap; all bathed in a complicated scent of coffee and fish with an underlying spicy sweetness. Almost none of the vast amount of fresh produce is sourced outside the USA - this is a nation which can feed itself.

It is January: most of the Christmas lights have gone and the trees are bare - the grey, early hours of the new year. And there are signs of economic slowdown I have not seen before in the years I have been coming here. Filene's Basement is history. This famous chain of stores selling high-end clothes at knock-down prices in almost jumble-sale style has gone forever. There is the occasional closed-up shop unit and vacant lot along Broadway; and a subtle dulling of the exuberance that makes this city so exhilarating for the visitor. The can-do, right-now spirit is in the tap water; it will always survive. But it is temporarily toned down as Gotham, self-styled capital of the Western world, peers into the distance and waits for the recovery.