When I was growing up I was always reading in newspapers and magazines that everyone could remember exactly where they were and exactly what they were doing the day President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, in 1963. Although alive, I cannot recall my whereabouts at all. This was because I was only a child. I’m now increasingly elderly and one of the generations who remark that they can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing in 2001, when the news that an aeroplane had inexplicably collided with the World Trade Center in New York City came through.
My teenage years were riddled by ongoing controversy about who shot Kennedy and how, and even why. The official report – the Warren Commission – was both widely reported and widely derided in the mass media, and it seemed as if everyone and their mother had a book out, detailing their pet theory of whodunnit. There were even theories that Kennedy was not actually dead. It took around ten years before the release of the Zapruder film put paid to that notion.
I’ve wondered recently what would have happened to the liberal dream that Kennedy and his Camelot appeared to create, if he had not died that day in Dallas. Could it have survived the Marilyn Monroe Sex Allegations? His brother appeared to survive the Chappaquiddick Incident, so maybe the liberals would have felt compelled to hide JFK in plain sight too. The furore over President Clinton proved inconclusive as to what might have happened, but he was never impeached was he, whereas Nixon had had to go, mostly it seemed because he was revealed to be a foul-mouthed curser.
Growing up in Britain in the Sixties, America was very much the British dream. My grand-parents may have remarked the Yanks were overpaid, over-sexed and over here, but to my generation they were the folks from the lucky country. Gradually we began to turn our small nation into what we hoped would be a perfect miniature version of that promised land.
As a young teenager my ‘political’ life was of course dominated by “the Cold War”. Communism versus Capitalism. I was late to the argument, and it had passed it’s Red Scare moments but still retained a certain virility. My more prosaic daily political reality was Labour versus Conservatives. Liberals scarcely existed in Britain at the time. Neither of the two main UK sides actually prescribed Communism since both sides aspired to the American Dream and America was resolutely anti-Communist. Labour was resolutely Socialist however and there seemed little in that for me to argue with. When you own next to nothing, sharing seems a super idea. One luxury I did grow up with though, and that was being able to watch someone else’s war every tea time on the black & white TV. Vietnam was probably the first war in over a century that the British could watch but not have to fight in. When you watch a war that you have no part in fighting, then you see the true madness of it much more readily, and of course we had Harold Wilson and Labour to thank for that too.
Unfortunately for the rose-coloured future, the 1970’s came along, and things began to go horribly wrong. I guessed it was all connected with those strange days when I was still little and we had been told the £1 in our pocket was still worth the same, even though half a crown was no longer worth half a dollar. Back then none of us went abroad for holidays so 2/6d did remain worth the same in our own little Britain. In the 1970’s we decimalised our money and the half-crown became 121p. The Shilling became a tiny 5p. If money talks, we were all now speaking a brand new language, and it had a tiny American twang: 100p in £1, 100 cents in $1. We were perhaps edging towards the Promised Land. Were we? Well no we weren’t actually. Instead, a further change of government to the Conservative Party of Edward Heath marched us up a different hill and when we marched down again we found ourselves in Europe, and our American Dream suddenly seemed further away than ever before.
British society in the 1970’s gradually morphed into it’s own strange private civil war and for a while it was difficult to see any winners emerging as a game of pin-ball politics developed, with Labour and Conservatives bouncing us lower and lower down the stairs, and eventually the lights went out. We had arrived in a dark cellar, and working three days a week was a problem rather than a culmination of a promise that we would all have more leisure one day.
Then IT happened, the culmination of a decade of Women’s Liberation (another American invention) brought WOMAN to the pinnacle of British Power; the Thatcher Revolution began.
By the mid-1980’s we were once again in hot pursuit of the American Dream. Red Ford Escorts sped along the new motorways (as we quaintly called our miniature Interstates) and those same Red Escorts and Vauxhall Nova’s overflowed the car-parks of the Shopping Malls sprouting on the outskirts of our towns. We were fast becoming the USA again in our minds. The dream was not dead! Shopping became a leisure pursuit and McDonald’s a gourmet experience. Anyone still harbouring any doubts about which was the side to be on in the Cold War was convinced. Even my mum, who in 1968 had complained about the rioting around the US Embassy in London with the caustic, “They don’t have all this trouble in Russia!” became convinced. Thatcher and Reagan became the double-act that, without firing a shot, finally deposed the “Evil Empire”. We had won.
Having won the Cold War, Britain followed the same instincts it had had after the hot one in 1945, and the successful leader was deposed. Everyone expected the Welsh firebrand Neil Kinnock to sweep Labour back into power next (especially Neil Kinnock himself). Labour’s pre-ballot Sheffield Victory Rally proved his undoing however and quite unexpectedly the quiet man of UK politics who had stepped into the shoes of the immortal Thatcher was returned to power. It may have been Major’s comforting Anglo-American military expedition to liberate Kuwait that led us to see him as having a depth, if not a frightfully exciting surface. Whatever the reasons, Labour needed another plan. They had no politics any longer. Communism was a dead duck. So they went for sex. It pushed all the right buttons. Sleazy Sex and Conservatism became synonymous. A final thrust for victory was all that was needed. The death of John Smith was another lucky break they needed. Labour was wound up and New Labour was invented. The new improved version that washes even whiter. Things could only get better; and in a blur of history and illicit sex they did.
Having sold its soul for victory however, New Labour was no longer to be the moral force it had always been. For all of my life the politics of Britain had been akin to two half-brothers running the household. Cain and Abel perhaps. Cain was cold and practical, perhaps even cruel at times whilst Abel was dreamy, but Abel made up for that with compassion and heart and in the household arguments Cain had learned to listen to Abel, even copy him sometimes. Cain had found that aping his half-brother could make him not only more likeable but wise. This often puzzled Cain who found his half-brother half-witted at times, but Cain also realized that his sisters preferred Abel to him.
Like any dreamer with an artistic bent, Abel had neverbefore copied his practical but often ruthless brother; Abel had remained unbending on certain issues, usually to do with guilt and innocence and crime and punishment. Cain had often had to allow his annoying fuss-pot of a brother to run the household his own way, in order that Cain could concentrate on ploughing the fields and collecting next year’s seed. But now everything was changed even though none of us fully realized this at the time. In truth Cain was probably worn out anyway, and besides every way he turned, another ex-girlfriend stepped out of a door to confront his family, and especially his sisters, withstories of Cain’s alleged immorality. Sometimes, embarrassingly, the stories were true. The matriarch and sisters were not impressed with Cain’s work hard but play harder philosophy. Time for Abel to run things again.
“Tough on Crime. Tough on the Causes of Crime.” Cain had heard Abel say, as his once-dreamy brother took over the household. Cain had sulkily withdrew, angry and hurt that suddenly all his work counted for nothing with his sisters. If he had not been sulking perhaps he would have realized that what Abel had actually said was, “Tough on Crime. Tough on the Causers of Crime.” This was a new and very different Abel. Tired of serving as the conscience of the household, now he was determined that Cain would never become pre-eminent ever again. Abel would be the new daddy, never mind brother. He became especially determined to keep the family dream alive though. The American Dream.
And so it was that I found myself no longer watching somebody else’s war on my TV screen. As New Labour became the scoundrel whose last resort was Patriotism, Ibegan to feel as if I was an extra in Attenborough’s 1960’s movie, Oh! What a Lovely War! It was a Looking Glass World where Cain had not slain Abel, but rather Abel had become Cain, and in Abel’s determination to outdo Cain Abel became even more Cain than Cain was. He became crueller and more determined to have his own way than Cain had ever been.
When the next family upset came, as was inevitable in this family; Labour was shocked. The Conservatives took it as a matter of normal business being resumed and happily took the plough back into their hands, sharpening the rusting blades, oiling the leather and cracking the whip over the horses pulling it, mostly to wake them up, so unexercised had they become. Abel had wearied of the tedium of the ploughing after all the years of exciting war games with those new American friends who had helped him in pursuit of the popular British Dream of being America’s miniMe.
New Labour was so shocked by the turn of events that it seemed to undergo a brief but complete nervous breakdown. It dropped the word New and retreated into the past, and as the paranoia mounted, the wish to hurt and break things became stronger; the hate burned hotter. After a terrible weekend when Abel had run amok, smashing all the plates in the kitchen and setting fire to the garden shed, Cain had to take stringent action to contain his increasingly maniacal sibling, but as can happen with anyone confined and trapped and suffering from mental collapse, Abel looked within himself and found the solution inside his own spinning, angry mind, the lever that could once again give him pre-eminence over his now hated brother, the spawn of that bitch Thatcher, not from the womb of his own Mummy.
“Mummy and Daddy!” Abel’s voice was loud and the whole household drew near. Cain stood opposite his feverish half-brother, wondering at the fire that was burning hotly in those formerly calf-like eyes. The matriarch and patriarch drew near and the family stepped back respectfully as the legal guardians bent over their poorly son.
“What is it Abel”, the matriarch asked kindly.
“Mummy!!” Abel’s eyes squeezed tears, “Cain has been touching my willy since I was child!”
The family gasped and stared at Cain, whose mouth had dropped open. Abel continued, pointing at several of his sisters, who stood in a suspicious cluster.
“And Mummy. Cain made the girls perform sex on him ever since they were little!!”
Cain staggered back against the doorpost as the family began to surround him, shouting questions, not listening to his attempts at answering. He was completely flummoxed and unable to think clearly. Behind him, some members of the family began collecting wood, to make a scaffold and a fire.
Abel sat on his bed, grinning slyly and winked at his special sisters. What a great idea this had been. Sex had worked last time too.