Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. In every life there is the subject for a sermon. Perhaps that is why so many sons of the manse have ascended into Fleet Street’s paper pulpits. Indeed, if there is one area of journalism that has progressively improved over the last 20 years it is the obituary notice.
Reality television has demonstrated that it is no longer necessary to possess a distinguishing talent in order to enjoy celebrity status. Critics might argue that Simon Garfield has worked similar wonders for the diarist’s art. Where once we were treated to the inner demons of generals and statesmen, Garfield touts the daily musings of ordinary folk doing nothing much.
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is the most commercially successful documentary film ever made. It received a prolonged standing ovation from critics at the Cannes film festival where it became the first non-fiction film to win the Palme d’Or. If it does not win an Oscar at the next Academy awards, then do not rule out Moore making a documentary about the right-wing conspiracy at the heart of Hollywood.
When Robert Goizueta, Coca-Cola’s boss, attempted to justify his $80 million annual income to a meeting of shareholders he was interrupted four times — with applause. Attitudes to wealth and opportunity, as to so much else in the United States, are far removed from the prevailing mood in Britain and Europe. During the Cold War, many of these differences were overlooked in the common cause against a yet more alien ideology. The illusion of unity has disappeared with the Warsaw Pact. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge argue in The Right Nation: Why America is Different, ‘it is rather like two relative strangers who fight off muggers and then go off for a celebratory meal only to discover that they don’t have as much in common as they thought’. The American hospitality might not, in any case, be to the taste of many Europeans. Nearly a quarter of those living in the southern states want to reintroduce prohibition.
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In 1795, John Evans, the son of a Methodist preacher, set out from St Louis across the unchartered plains of North America in search of a lost tribe of ‘Welsh Indians.’ He had heard reports of a pale-skinned people speaking a language that sounded like Welsh inhabiting the area that is now North Dakota. Rumour had it that they were the descendants of Madoc, a 12th- century Welsh prince and his retinue who had supposedly made it to America 300 years before Columbus stood before the mast.
This first volume of Bill Clinton’s biography, taking the story as far as his presidential election victory in 1992, comes at a peculiar time. Unlike many of the hasty invectives pronounced upon the 42nd president, Nigel Hamilton’s study is written on the grand scale, drawing on much of the published record and delving further with interviews and insights. Yet it has been published too late to take account of what Hillary Clinton has to say in her recent chart-topping memoirs (soon to be a staple of second-hand bookshops). And it has been published prior to Bill Clinton’s autobiography and the release of his archives. Nigel Hamilton has put in an awful lot of work for a biography that will soon be comprehensively superseded by the release of new material.
When, in 1825, Harriette Wilson began her Memoirs with ‘I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of 15, the mistress of the Earl of Craven’ an avid readership settled down to revel in what was clearly going to be the work of an old pro. So perhaps it is as well for Eleanor Berry’s personal reputation that at the end of Cap’n Bob and Me the reader feels somewhat short-changed.
In the first two volumes accompanying his History of Britain television series, Simon Schama had a clear framework in which to work. Essentially he told of the dynastic struggles of kings, queens and pretenders, adding a little bit of plague here and a touch of religious fervour there as and when it became necessary to discuss lesser mortals. In Professor Schama’s hands, the technique worked well, but there was no prospect that he could sustain such an approach in this third and final volume, covering the period between the dawn of an independent America and midnight’s false bonhomie on the Greenwich peninsula.
There is doubtless some passing pleasure to be had in making it into the Royal Enclosure or, failing that, the ‘Sunday Times Rich List’. But for those in political and media circles the last opportunity has passed for gaining immortality in the pages of the Pepys of our times now that the final volume of the Alan Clark diaries has been published. Part of the pleasure was the risk that inclusion entailed. A mention in the Alan Clark diaries is like playing Russian roulette with posterity.