Just listened to the 2pm news bulletin on the radio here. One of the main stories: the treatment of the elderly heckler at the Labour party conference. What a sorry shower the UK leadership has become.
This is a bit late, but I've been meaning for a while to plug this fantastic piece of blogging over at Lenin's Tomb, in which the eponymous Lenin looks into the controversy surrounding the Lancet's investigation into deaths in Iraq (which Christopher Hitchens dismissed so peremptorily at his recent debate here).
Whatever your views on Iraq, and whatever your views on Lenin's political position, this is an excellent piece of work.
My usual nerdish interest in British politics has been on the back-burner for a week or two, maybe because events here in the States have just been so much more compelling. But life in the old country goes on. The Labour party conference is its usual unedifying self. Perhaps I'll summon up the enthusiasm to write about it some time (but then again, maybe not). The travails of the Tory party are actually a lot more fascinating.
Two developments come to the fore. The first is yesterday's decision by the party to stick to the existing oh-my-God-it's-IDS rules for electing a leader. What the final impact of this will be is up in the air, but it seems a fair bet that the next leader will more likely be from the party's right wing.
The other development is a spate of rather interesting polls which are summed up in this excellent posting by Andrew Wells. Briefly, the conclusion is that the British public sees itself as smack bang in the centre ground of politics, with Labour and the LibDems on the left and the Tories on the right. What must be worrying for Central Office is that the Tories are already seen as being far more to the right of the general public than Labour or the LibDems are to the left. Positioning themselves even further rightwards under a future leader seems a highly risky strategy.
In the 1980s, there were many in the Labour party who believed that the party's mistake was not to be left-wing enough. Whatever you think of the merits of far-left politics, electorally the centrists proved more successful.
Are the Tories destined to make the same mistake? Quite possibly. Of course, politics should not merely about following the public mood. A lot of it should be about leading the public in a chosen direction. But given that the Tories have got an uphill struggle to move the public anywhere near where they are already positioned, it would be a strange decision for them to willingly move the finishing post even further away.
Following last week's opening gala, yesterday evening was my first proper operatic outing of the season at the Metropolitan Opera: Verdi's Falstaff with Bryn Terfel in the title role.
Falstaff was Verdi's last opera, and the only one of his (very few) comedies to survive in the regular repertoire. Technically, it is extremely difficult for both singers and the orchestra so it is only seen with any frequency at the very meatiest opera house. Luckily, the Met fits this criterion with no trouble. Last night's performance was one of the most exquisite evenings of elevated entertainment that I have experienced in two decades or so of opera-going.
Terfel has made Falstaff something of a signature role, having performed it many times around the world. He knows the part inside out and his voice is stunning. What made last night so special was that he was surrounded by a large cast that was, without exception, equally marvellous (my personal favourite being Stephanie Blythe as a particularly delicious Mistress Quickly).
In the pit, James Levine brought out every dazzling nuance of the intricate wit of Verdi's score. Melodies were tossed lightly from woodwind, to strings, to soprano, to contralto.
The production, by Franco Zeffirelli, is not as objectionable as most of Zeffirelli's Met output. His England is a world of beige and autumnal hues that works rather well. His love of the excessive rather undermined the final scene set in Windsor Great Park - a horse and two goats (yes, goats) were brought on stage. Why? Goodness only knows. They served only to distract from the lovely singing of soprano Heidi Grant Murphy in the small role of Nanetta.
My only other caveat with the evening is that it slightly overstressed the comedy. Verdi's Windsor should have an edge, a hint of danger lurking beneath the surface. The final humiliation of Falstaff should make the audience uncomfortable. Playing it merely for laughs rather undermines the subsequent exhilarating reconciliation. The production portrayed Falstaff too much as merely the self-deluding buffoon, rather than bringing out the more complex and even noble figure that lurks beneath that enormous belly.
But not for one second did the music lose its spell. If last night is anything like a sign of things to come at the Met, then I am in for a lip-smackingly delicious year of opera. The thunderous approval given to last night's performance suggests that the audience agrees.
Via Laban Tall I come across this month's edition of the US magazine, The New Criterion. Its September edition is devoted wholly to British issues. How nice. It fits precisely into the category of right-wing writing that I have discussed many times before (most recently here), so I won't dwell - suffice it to say that the articles are almost all unadulterated screeds on what makes Britain dreadful.
If a British left-wing journal had devoted an entire edition to detailing the moral turpitude of the US, the British right would be spitting blood about 'knee-jerk anti-Americanism'. When a US journal does the dirty on Britain, so many on the right cheer loudly. Patriotism, it seems, does not begin at home.
UPDATE: Blimpish takes some umbrage at my comments. Check out what he has to say (and my response).
This year is election year in New York City. More on this over the coming weeks. One of the more delicate issues in the air here at the moment is a museum, known as the International Freedom Center, to be built on the site of the World Trade Center.
The centre's main purpose will be to preserve the memory of what happened on 11 September 2001, but it will also deal with wider issues of 'freedom' around the world. And there's the rub. Some of the families of the victims of 9/11 fear the centre will be used to promote 'anti-American' themes, instead of concentrating exclusively with the heroes of 2001. These families and their allies are opposing the scheme, and have received some support from New York State Governor George Pataki (a Republican who is not up for re-election this year).
On the other side of the debate stands much of the city's cultural establishment, and, indeed, many other families of victims. Their argument is that the centre must belong to everyone, and not just to some victims' families.
Any final decision will be painful. And it is very difficult to go against the views of the families who have suffered (remember the banning of hand guns in the UK after Dunblane? - who was ready to criticise the views of the bereaved?). But I hope that the New York authorities will stand firm, and ensure that the Freedom Center is the rich and thought-provoking museum that Ground Zero deserves.
The LibDems deserve a certain amount of Brownie points for not caving in to the government's demands to yet more draconian legislation in response to terrorist threats. Mark Oaten, their home affairs spokesman, is talking sense when he says:
If we give up the fundamental principles of justice, we are giving in to the terrorists. And if we sacrifice our liberal society we will be weaker, not stronger.
The BBC's reporting of his statement contains a rather chilling phrase: it talks of the LibDems 'breaking the cross-party anti-terror consensus'. No quotation marks around 'anti-terror'. The nature of the consensus is presented as fact. So the implication must be that the LibDems are not truly 'anti-terror'.
Would it not be just as accurate to call it the 'cross-party anti-free-speech consensus' or the 'cross-party abolishing-ancient-liberties consensus'? Calling it an 'anti-terror' consensus is a matter of (highly contested) opinion, not a matter of fact. This might just be sloppy journalism, but the BBC should be more careful in its reporting on such contentious issues.
Summer clings on to New York. September is on the wane, yet the temperatures still think it's July. Every afternoon the thermometer climbs to 30C and beyond, and refuses to dip below 20C at night. Autumn waits in the wings, like an impatient tenor waiting for the self-obsessed soprano to finally stop taking curtain calls.
But the calendar does not lie, and event after event bears witness to the fact that the Big Apple's fall season is well and truly here. Last night, after months of slumber, the Metropolitan Opera re-awoke to life and opened its doors by throwing an opening gala to remember. Sometimes, brash, modern New York can easily outdo old-world London or Paris in its sheer aristocratic extravagance. Tuxedos, ballgowns, pearls, diamonds, pearls, rubies, pearls and a few more pearls assaulted the eye from every corner. Munificent donors to the Met's coffers strutted their stuff, the occasional Dutch surname bearing witness to the fact that their ancestors were eyewitnesses to the Netherlandish beginnings of this city. They saw and were seen. The spectacle was superb.
After all that, it seems a bit excessive to talk about the actual performances. It certainly was not standard fare. We had Act I, Act II and Act III - but they were all from different operas.
The evening began with Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. James Levine in the pit gave a dazzlingly fast rendition of the overture, one that would have defeated any orchestra of less talent than that of the Met. Every note rang clear from the strings and the woodwind, particularly the bassoons, attacked their notes with precision. Leading the cast was my compatriot, Bryn Terfel. I need hardly say that he was superlative. His singing is without rival, and his stage presence is magnetic. In Jonathan Miller's naturalistic and fluid production, it was an hour to truly savour.
Next we had Act II of Tosca. Here, Terfel took the part of the hated chief of Rome's secret police, Scarpia, one of the most evil villains ever to set foot on the operatic stage. It took some swallowing to see the man who a few minutes before had been the jovial Figaro now engaged in torture and sexual sadism, but Terfel managed to persuade me. Angela Gheorghiou made a divine Tosca, vocally and physically, and Marco Berti as the tenor Cavaradossi was superb, his ringing cry of 'Vittoria' half way through the act almost stopped the show. The production, though, was everything I dislike about the Met house style. Lavish to the point of tastelessness with no lightness of direction. The singers were just left to sing and declaim, a world away from the easy movement of Figaro. The music won out, but the production did it absolutely no favours.
Finally, it was Act III of a real operatic rarity, Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saens. The role of Samson was taken by Placido Domingo (yes, this really was a night of the stars). While his voice once or twice showed signs of strain, Domingo was on the whole masterly and totally convincing as the blind Samson railing against his fate. Denyce Graves had a slightly less happy time in the thankless role of Dalila. Perhaps the star of the performance was the Met ballet crops, who gave a marvellous and, for the Met, somewhat racy interpretation of the score's dance music. The production was excellent - no attempt at the Met's stock overblown realism; rather, there was stunning use of lighting, and huge symbolic geometric shapes on stage, all adding up to a breathtaking visual experience. Musically, the Saint-Saens might have been the weakest of the three operas on offer last night, but the production definitely put it in the ranks of the great.
Bryn Terfel returns to the Met stage later this month in the title role in Verdi's Falstaff. My ticket is already bought. The season, pearls or no pearls, should be one to savour.