Thursday, September 01, 2005

Archive: London Log - Falling & Falling

My log of the momentous week in November 2003 during which, amongst other things, the Dubya roadshow came to London

London Log: Falling and Falling
Molara Wood

American icon
Saturday November 22 was exactly 40 years since American President John F Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas. The killing brought the curtain down on the age of Camelot and was the first of four assassinations (others being Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy) that shaped the turbulent sixties in America.

Fortress London
JFK’s slaying created in American minds a paranoia that resulted in the obsessive closeting of the persons of US Presidents. That paranoia, coupled with the depth of anti-Bush feeling in Britain, led to a suffocating fortress atmosphere in London in the week beginning November 17. George W Bush was due in town on the first full state visit by an American President since Woodrow Wilson in 1918. The huge security operation cost some £5.5m, a no-fly zone was in place over central London, and 14,000 policemen were on stand-by. A concrete barrier was placed around key central London locations, most of which were cordoned off to keep people at bay.

War and no peace
Bush and his wife, Laura, were to be guests of the Queen in Buckingham Palace. The most unpopular American President in living memory looked forward to hob-nobbing with the Queen, with the attendant monarchist pageantry - and he wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder once more with his fellow Iraq war-monger, British Premier Tony Blair. The visit would give Bush plenty of triumphalist images to beam to his people on the television networks back home. He hopes such images will help boost his chances in next year’s Presidential elections because, as one Pentagon insider put it, “Americans don’t know shit”, but they know the Queen and Tony Blair. The visit would also allow the belligerent Bush to drive home his message of war and even more war for an increasingly elusive peace. Quite what Tony Blair stood to gain from hosting Bush was not altogether clear.

I’ll be back
The enduring mystique of JFK was on display on Monday 17th. Austrian immigrant and epitome of the American dream, Arnold Schwarzenegger was sworn in as Governor of the US state of California. He became a global megastar through a blockbuster film career marked by its complete lack of soul. His films are shoot ‘em up affairs with huge body counts; he cannot act and can barely speak. His signature line in the hugely successful Terminator films is “I’ll be back”. And in California, the cinematic promise was fulfilled. The Schwarzenegger election train was unstoppable in spite of claims he was a Nazi sympathiser who admired Hitler, and a serial groper of women. He had going for him a huge fortune, the power of celebrity and a wife who is one of the Kennedys.

The Kennedys are Democrats and JFK’s widow, Jackie Onassis, had not cared much for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s right-wing politics. But with JFK’s niece by his side, he coasted to victory on the platform of Bush’s Republican Party. The youngest of the new Governor’s four children looked dead bored as his father gave his inaugural address, and I don’t blame the boy. Schwarzenegger was an oratorical corpse, and words which were meant to inspire fell to earth as soon as they issued from his lips. The moral of the story? The Kennedy magic can get you there but then you will have to speak for yourself.

Toxic Texan
Here in London, as Buckingham Palace and No.10 Downing Street prepared for George W Bush, so did the Stop-the-War Coalition who were organising huge rallies to protest against his presence. He was to be moved around London in a security bubble, including a £2m Cadillac with doors 6 inches thick. Over 250 fully armed US secret service agents had arrived ahead of the President and wanted shoot-to-kill powers. The British government did not dare grant such. We held our breaths and waited.

Tuesday 18th was the day of one thousand sirens in London. Police vans formed a vehicular wall outside Victoria Station, the air was oppressive. London Mayor Ken Livingstone opposed the visit, calling Bush the “greatest threat to life on this planet”. He said the American President’s policies would “doom us all into extinction”. Speakers at a televised Stop-the-War meeting that evening included the playwright Harold Pinter and the Vietnam war veteran turned peace activist, Ron Kovic. Then the Bush wagon rolled in with the President’s arrival on Air Force One. Even as I settled into bed that night the police sirens could still be heard from the road. It was going to be a long week.

What the footman saw
Wednesday 19th, and a tabloid newspaper, Daily Mirror, published photos of never before seen parts of Buckingham Palace - taken by a reporter who conned his way into a two month job as a footman. Style gurus had a field day with the photos, ridiculing the royals’ taste in furnishings. So when the Queen got an injunction preventing the paper making further revelations, observers said she acted more out of wounded vanity than genuine security concerns. She held a state banquet that night in honour of the President. Condoleeza Rice looked lovely in a burgundy evening gown. Ms Rice is 48 years old, single and doesn’t date, her parents are dead and her friends have moved away. It is said that she eats takeaways alone in her Washington apartment. Not such an enviable life afterall.

Saved by the girl
Prince Charles was seated next to Mrs Bush at the banquet. The week before he had been in danger of being buried under an avalanche of rumours of homosexuality. The lurid details had been published in Australia and other parts of Europe but we in Britain were prevented from knowing the facts by an injunction gagging the press. Still the secrets threatened to spill out any minute, but then a daughter was born in dramatic circumstances to Charles’ brother, Prince Edward. The press latched onto the birth of a new royal princess, leaving Charles alone. So, saved by the girl, he sat down at the state banquet, relieved.

Falling, Saddam style
Over 100,000 protesters descended on London on Thursday 20th in the biggest weekday march ever seen in Britain. The highlight was the pulling down of a giant papier-mache statue of George W Bush in Trafalgar Square. Gleeful protesters jumped all over the fallen statue, in a symbolic re-enactment of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s homage to himself in Baghdad during the Iraq war. In Istanbul, Turkey, terrorists sent Bush and Blair a more deadly message, with two bombs on UK interests - the British Consulate and the HSBC Bank. Altogether there were four bombings in Istanbul in under a week, killing more than 50 people - including the British Consul General. With the terrible news from Turkey, Bush and Blair were grim-faced as they posed for the press outside 10 Downing Street. The protesters saw to it that when Bush left No.10, it was through the back exit.

It was a week of great falls. That same Thursday the legendary record producer, Phil Spector, who once steered the careers of The Beatles and The Ronettes, was charged with murder. The victim, Lana Clarkson, had been found dead in his Hollywood home in February - shot in the face with Spector’s gun. He claimed she had shot herself, prosecutors beg to differ. Earlier in the week, the media mogul, Conrad Black, had also taken a tumble in the boardroom - forced out for questionable financial dealings.

Man in the mirror
The other news of the 20th (one which knocked Bush off the No.1 spot on US news networks) was the arrest and handcuffing of Michael Jackson on child sex abuse charges. There can be no greater height from which a man could fall. Sky News followed images of the arrest with clips of the Billie Jean video, reminding us of the musical genius that was Jackson. The searing brilliance of the young black man who danced as though propelled by meteors was hard to reconcile with the pathetic phantom whose whiter-than-white face was captured in the mugshot photo released by police.

Velvet or Damask?
In the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, a people’s uprising - a Velvet Revolution - led to the fall of strongman Eduard Shevardnadze. There was no violence, not a single shot fired. The opposition leader declared himself proud, and so was I. My thoughts turned to Nigeria. Could it happen in our country, could the people rise up as one to triumph over a corrupt government? Without wishing to be labelled a “pessimist” by our President, I would have to say no. A Velvet Revolution - or a Damask one for that matter - cannot take place in Nigeria in this generation. But I would love to be proved wrong.

A grave new world
Bush took his leave on Friday 21st and London breathed again. On Saturday 22nd, the media remembered the abbreviated life of John F Kennedy, re-examining the legacy of the man for whom an eternal flame burns in Arlington Cemetery. Four decades of historical revisionism have not diminished the perception that the dynamic JFK inspired and led his people by natural force. I wonder what will be George W Bush’s legacy, what will be said of him in 40 years’ time? 185 US soldiers have died since he declared the Iraq war over. Thousands of Iraqis have had their lives taken from them, no one bothers to count them anymore. And who knows where the next bomb will hit? It is a grave new world, that has George W Bush as the most powerful man in it.

  • Published on Nigeria2Day Online, December 1, 2003


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