With so much talk of infrastructure renewal, a case needs to be made for a few new toys for grownups of the kind that enliven London today, and once enlivened cities and nations.
Time was when you wanted to get your city spruced up, you held a world’s fair. All through the19th century and well into the 20th century, the legacy of world’s fairs was that they left permanent attractions for the public to enjoy long after the gates had closed.
London’s fair of 1851 left behind the glorious Crystal Palace, which sadly burned down in 1936.But the idea was sowed for the two legacies that outlasted all the other world’s fairs: Gustave Eiffel’s tower for the Paris Exhibition of 1889 and George Ferris’s wheel for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Both men were great bridge builders and enormously gifted engineers.
Eiffel, who originally wanted to build his tower for an exhibition in Spain but was rejected, faced limitless criticism. Architects, authors, journalists and poets formed a common front against the tower. They said it would destroy the beauty of Paris; it was ugly and dangerous; and, of course, it was too expensive.
Supposedly the writer Guy de Maupassant ate his lunch in the tower every day after it went up, so that he did not have to look at the “high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders.” Eiffel built himself an apartment at the top of the tower, and threw lavish parties there.
Today the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of Paris, and the most popular tourist attraction in the world.
When it became clear that the organizers of the Chicago exhibition were having trouble in coming up with a spectacular structure of their own, Eiffel, whose ego matched the height of the tower, offered to help them out. But the planners could not face the humiliation of bringing in a Frenchman to save the day.
Luckily for them Ferris, who was attending an engineering meeting where the lack of a project was lamented, sketched a passenger wheel on a napkin and the day was saved. Ferris’s original wheel did not survive, but countless Ferris Wheels have enhanced public entertainment ever since.
The London Eye, which opened on the South Bank of the Thames River in 2000, as part of the millennium celebrations (it is also known as the Millennium Wheel), is the most popular tourist attraction in Britain. Take another bow, George Ferris.
The Eye, designed by David Marks and Julia Barfield, a husband and wife architect team, was briefly the largest passenger wheel in the world. But Singapore and the eastern Chinese city of Nanchang rushed to build bigger wheels. However, the Eye is the largest cantilevered wheel–which means, like a windmill, it is supported only on one side–and this is what makes it so elegant.
World’s fairs are a thing of the past in the age of television, and the fact is their legacy has not always been as great the legacies from Chicago and Paris. The 1964 World’s Fair left behind nothing special in Flushing Meadow, N.Y. Its Unisphere still stands, but it is not a big attraction. Likewise, nothing spectacular remains from the 1967world’s fair in Montreal. And the Space Needle in Seattle is a local rather than a national attraction.
The message is that people want beauty, but also participation; a wheel to ride on, a tower to ascend.
When it comes to toys for millions, London stands front and center–and is even a little egocentric. Those buses! Those taxis! Where else? Recent additions to the public amusements of London, besides the Eye, the foot bridge over the Thames River, dubbed the Wobbly Bridge; the New Tate art gallery in the old Battersea power station; new subways and a revived St. Pancras railway station, which is even grander than it was in its Victorian heyday.
Not all of London’s attractions required public money. The Eye was largely funded by British Airways and is operated by the people who run Madame Tussauds.
Once, London ruled much of the world. Now, it beckons it. In America, we are losing the race for public fun–and profit. –For Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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Corruption in Kenya? Blame it on the British and the psychological damage of colonialism. The partition of Cyprus? Step forward the social engineers in London, who underestimated the depth of feeling in the Turkish minority when the British were finally forced out.
When it comes to the Middle East, one can really get exercised about “Perfidious Albion.” The British had their fingers in every territorial dispute: They created whole countries and, with the help of the French, imposed borders from Morocco to China.
Trouble with Iran? Even before the CIA started meddling there in 1953, it was Winston Churchill who, as First Sea Lord in 1913, decided the Royal Navy would move faster, cleaner and have greater range if it switched from coal to oil. So he partially nationalized the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the forerunner of BP, to exploit the newly discovered oil fields in Iran. Later, this led to a surge in Iranian nationalism and the CIA plot to restore the Shah.
On to Pakistan and the British legacy in the autonomous tribal lands, now home to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Put the British colonial administration of the 18th to 20th centuries in the dock. Yes, three centuries of British commission and omission.
The British interest in Afghanistan, which they failed to subdue in a series of wars, was largely as a buffer between British India and the growing territorial interests of the Russian Empire. It was here that The Great Game was played: the romanticized espionage that flourished in the region. The British divided the traditional Pashtun lands with the Durand Treaty of 1893, creating a northwestern border for British India, and later Pakistan. It amounted to a land grab. However, the British did recognize the separateness of the people in the Northwest Territories and left them to their tribal and religious ways.
With independence and the partition of India in 1947, the incoming Pakistani government had enough problems without encouraging ethnic strife between the largely Punjabi Pakistanis and their difficult Pashtun brothers in the territories. So the government in Islamabad continued the British policy of benign indifference to the Pashtuns, with whom they were more closely linked by religion than ethnicity or politics.
Yet, the border dispute smoldered and periodically erupted. Kabul and Islamabad do not agree, both blaming the border drawn by the British.
What neither the British nor the Pakistanis wanted was a strong movement for a Pashtun state that would carve out territory from Afghanistan, as well as the tribal territories in Pakistan. There was a failed attempt to bring this about in 1949. Segments of the Pakistani army and the intelligentsia have feared this ever since. They are haunted by another stateless people living on both sides of a border: the Kurds who straddle the border between Iraq, a largely British creation, and Turkey and Iraq and Iran.
The message is that simply being Muslim does not wipe out tribal and ethnic identity any more than borders drawn by others create a new identity. If it were so, Cyprus would not be divided; Yugoslavia would have held together, as would have Czechoslovakia; and Britain would not be considering the possibility of an independent Scotland–after 300 years of union.
The current hostilities in the Pakistani tribal areas, U.S. drone strikes on suspected Taliban strongholds and renewed determination from the Pakistani army to crush extremists in the region could renew a sense of nationhood among the Pashtuns, and a movement toward the creation of Pashtunistan across the British-drawn border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In the long reaches of the night President Obama’s special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, may wish one of the following had happened in the days of the British Raj: 1. the British had stayed home; 2. the British had insisted the Pashtuns submit to central authority; 3. the British had created a new country, Pashtunistan; or 4. the British had never created that troublesome border.
One way or the other, he can blame the Brits.
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By the time the Washington press corps struggled into the Washington Hilton for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, we were pretty bedraggled.
So much news. There was the Obama puppy; the White House vegetable garden; Michelle’s arms; Barack’s chest, his hot dog, his mustard; and to cap it all, the knife-edge issue of whether Miss California would keep her crown. One suspects the Supreme Court was ready for an expedited hearing on that one.
So 2,600-plus journalists (most of who have never been near the White House) and guests, after many fights over tickets, struggled into the crowded confines of the Hilton to drink too much, fawn over actors and other celebrities, and talk on a leveled playing field with cabinet secretaries and service chiefs.
Make no mistake, this is the big one in Washington: the must-be-seen-at event.
This is Washington’s Oscar Night. Every year, many news organizations throw elaborate before and after parties. Organizations that value their dignity–like The Washington Post and The New York Times–or those, as so many are, that are in bankruptcy, do not throw parties. But ABC, Atlantic Media, Bloomberg, Business Week, CBS, CNN, Congressional Quarterly, Newsweek, Time and Reuters all vied to give the working press the works. The press drank deeply.
Of course, not all those enjoying the largesse of the publishers had tickets to the dinner. Many jumped into dinner suits or evening gowns (show lots of skin, darling) and enjoyed the cocktails and the celebrity-watching, before going home to see the show on television.
Actually, these crashers are smart and necessary. They fill the cocktail parties, so the hosts feel loved; they meet their friends, schmooze and scram before they make fools of themselves. They also are spared the pitched battle for tickets that precedes the dinner every year.
It is a battle between those with the big bucks and swagger, like the television networks, and those who actually write or broadcast about the White House. It is an unseemly struggle. The big outfits want as many as eight tables of 10, whereas many smaller outfits, like Human Events, do not pass the glamour test. Even Barron’s complains.
I used to fight to get one table. Now, I settle for four seats for my wife and myself and two friends. But every year, trade associations, lobbyists and journalists, who are not members of the White House Correspondents’ Association, implore me to get them in. I have started to affect hearing loss.
Year after year, the drill is the same. An inebriated audience listens to the president making jokes, usually at his own expense, then a comedian, chosen exclusively by the president of the association, tries to better the president and the effects of the liquor on the revelers.
Comedian Drew Carey, who can handle just about any audience, from Las Vegas to “The Price Is Right,” told me that the WHCA dinner was the one that had made him the most nervous of any standup engagement, and that he thought it was a difficult audience.
One year, Laura Bush stole the show when she spoofed her husband. In other years, George W. Bush stole the show with his self-mockery.
This year, Obama was funny but not uproarious.
Things were headed down the predictable slippery slope of after-dinner festivities when Wanda Sykes, the comedian known for her acerbic and sometimes blue humor, intimated that she would not shed a tear if Rush Limbaugh went to the great studio in the sky.
This did not cause supporters of Rush to walk out en masse. On Monday Fox News, which was well represented at the dinner and had Todd Palin as their prized guest, decided that a sacrilege had been committed against the sainted Rush. Led by Bill O’Reilly, Fox wanted an apology for the keeper of the conservative covenant. Their indignation was right up there with, you know, the Obama puppy, the White House vegetable garden, Michelle’s arms and Barack’s torso.
For those of us who are not in the small space to the right of Fox News, a vulgar comedian made an unfunny joke about a vulgar broadcaster. We should concentrate on the big stuff, like Miss California and her political philosophy.
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It was a simple calculation: If I could not make history, I wanted to have a front-row seat to watch it unfold. I would be a newspaperman. What is more interesting to me is that I made that calculation when I was just 11 years old.
After more than 50 years, I am as much in love with newspapers as I was then. But alas, my love is in failing health.
One after the other, the great newspapers are stumbling; and some have fallen, never to get up again. The Boston Globe is on life support, as are many of the titles of the Tribune Group and The McClatchy Company. Two of the country’s most revered titles, The Washington Post and The New York Times are losing money. The venerable Christian Science Monitor and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer have ceased daily print publication and now haunt the Web. Gone is The Rocky Mountain News.
Newspaper closures are not new, but this time the sickness is pandemic. Long gone are titles like The New York Mirror, The New York World-Telegram, The New York Herald Tribune, The Washington Times-Herald, The Baltimore News-American, The Chicago Daily News, The Baltimore Evening Sun, The Washington Star and hundreds of others.
The first great infection was from the impact of television on afternoon newspapers. That changed the whole pattern of newspaper reading. No longer did the newspaper fill the evening hours, television did. Ironically H.L. Mencken, maybe the greatest newspaperman, worried about the health of morning newspapers in a time when evening papers dominated the market.
Television also swept away the great magazines like Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers.
The message here is clear: Few survive, despite long wars of attrition, and despite the best efforts and deep pockets of some publishers.
I am sure that the World Wide Web will grow into its mission as the substitute carrier of the news. But it has a long way to go before it reaches the basic standards of the lowliest daily newspaper.
First, the Web lacks a viable business model. It costs money to maintain a worldwide system of bureaus and correspondents. Then the Web has to find discipline. Its writers need to learn their trade–with respect to the veracity and provenance of both their news and the news on which their opinion is based. The Web also needs an appellate procedure. With a newspaper you can complain to the editor, the publisher and even, in some cases, the ombudsman. Also you can sue. If you are libeled on the Web, it is an indelible stain. So far among the millions of web wannabes only Slate, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast are showing the way it might be.
For the rest, the Web needs editors. These are the men and women who keep the standards in newspapers, verify the doubtful facts, cut the indulgent writing, and save writers from the humiliation of their own mistakes. The unseen hand of the copy desk is what makes newspaper journalism worthwhile and saves the wretches who write.
For news, neither television nor radio has supplanted the newspaper. They are too ephemeral, too transitory and too inefficient to deal with a complex world. Even at this time, the heavy lifting is still being done by newspapers– newspapers with reduced staffs and demoralized employees.
The production of a daily newspaper is a daily miracle. It involves many disciplines, sometimes many unions, in a management structure that is more horizontal than vertical. The publisher is nominally in charge, but so is the editor, the advertising manager, the printing foreman and the mailing supervisor. In fact, it is the undertaking that is in charge day after day.
The newspaper, especially a big metropolitan newspaper, is akin to a steam locomotive: a great and beautiful beast. In the old days, I loved the clack of typewriters, the smell of ink (it has been reformulated since then), the industrial-scale paper loading, and the tremor when the presses, deep in the bowels of the building, started up. We had pulled it off again.
And I loved the denizens of the newsroom, whether in Harare, London, New York, Baltimore or Washington–my journalistic ports of call. Underpaid sentimentalists posing as cynics all.
I wish the newspaper business well, even as the fever rages. It kept its bargain with me.
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