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England and America are Two Countries Divided by a Common Language: Money
Published on Saturday, November 11, 2000 in the Independent/UK
England and America are Two Countries Divided by a Common Language: Money
by Howard Jacobson
I don't care who wins; I just want people to stop saying, "It's too close to call." Do you know why it's too close to call? Because every person in America has become a mirror image of every other, each unable to utter a sentence without sounding like his neighbour. Too close to call? My friends, it is you who are too close to call.

Do we blame democracy for this? Musicals? Game shows? Readers will be disappointed in me if I don't point the finger at television. The devil's tool – that's how we regard television in this column. Those whose souls the devil covets, he first gives digital decoders. But since the devil already has the soul of America in his back pocket and is now concentrating his efforts on winning ours, I am inclined, on this occasion, to suspect a lesser skulduggery. I believe the Florida fiasco is all down to that shadowy Indian bookmaker who is said to have slipped the loucher members of the Australian, South African and Pakistani (but not of course the English) cricket teams 20 squillion rupees each to prognosticate about the weather, the state of the pitch and the number of players their side was likely to field. "Eleven? My God! Can you be sure?"

As cricketing authorities trawl through every close game ever played, I advise American constitutional lawyers to do the same with this election. Has either Bush or Gore been on the phone to an Indian bookmaker lately? Has the Florida electorate?

Myself, I doubt there is a cricketer, right down to the third reserve wicket-keeper for the most minor county side, who hasn't taken a backhander, accepted a gift, or otherwise been swayed by an inducement. I don't see what choice they have. There you are, week in, week out, trundling in to bowl or traipsing in to bat on a wet pitch on a cold day in an all but empty ground – three snot-nosed kids, two pensioners and a pigeon – for which humiliation you earn less in a year than some sociopathic footballer across the road pulls in for a single 90 minutes of miskicking, falling over and spitting at the referee.

Enter Mr X, with rupees spilling out of his pockets, and you say yes, if only to balance the scales of justice a little.

Of course we should do what we do for the love of it, for our pride in it, regardless of what we earn, so long as we earn enough. But what's enough? We are rich or we are poor relatively now. We are deemed to be poor if we cannot afford a laptop. It's only a short step from that to deeming ourselves poor if we cannot afford to have our heads shaved twice a week and to own a Lamborghini fast enough to make our anorexic girlfriend squeal when we drive her around the streets of Greater Manchester.

Comparison is the killer. If we didn't know how much the sociopath earned, if the newspapers didn't choose to rub his wealth in our faces every morning, we might trundle in to bowl more contentedly, and even be happy to sign autographs for the pigeon. But then we'd be saints, would we not? (I mean saints in the old-fashioned sense of being unimaginably good, not saints in Pope John Paul II's sense of being only too imaginably bad.) And maybe we'd be mugs, too. There's the catch. Who wants to look a mug? Rather than that, we pocket the backhander and are unhappy.

Comparison is the killer, but its weapon of choice is money. Think of it as a blunt instrument or a slow poison; money takes our life from us. I can still remember the very month of the very year when writing the sort of novels I write suddenly promised to be lucrative. November 1985. Don't ask me why. Something to do with changes in publishing, some knock-on effect from the Booker Prize, the British public falling in love with long sentences, I don't know. All I do know is that out of the blue there was money for books that previously weren't expected to make any. Good news? Depends who you want to hear from, the sensualist or the saint.

"Whoopee!" says the one. "Woe!" says the other. And the novelist? Well, a good novelist is saint and sensualist in equal measure, but in truth the vocation that drew me always did have something monastic, not to say other-worldly, about it. Not for me the example of Arnold Bennett, jobbing journalist and literary businessman. I wanted to be D H Lawrence, who wrote "religiously, for the race as it were", never knowing where the next penny was coming from. Posthumous glory was what I craved. An obscure death in some foreign field, followed by the slow flicker of recognition, fanned at last into a blaze of fame – wasn't that what we all hoped for, those of us who were serious?

Now we sit around, talking about one another's advances, wondering where our promised audiences went. Three snot-nosed kids, two pensioners and a pigeon – that's what we're down to now. While, across the road, the crowd roars on the television gardening writer with the floppy prose. Should be funny. Isn't. The poison of money has entered our veins.

Money makes us forget ourselves, forget what we were originally for and variously about, subjecting all that is disparate to the same system of valuation and reward. That's the reason America sinks before our eyes into sameness. Not too much democracy. Not even too much television. Just too much wealth.

2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.


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