Diary – October 2015: Harper Lee, The Barber of Seville and why London beats New York

What do Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro have in common?

The answer is: more than you might think. Both are set against a backdrop of impending revolution – in Beaumarchais’s case, the French (Figaro was written in 1781, eight years before the fall of the Bastille); in Harper Lee’s case, civil rights (though only published this year, Watchman was written in 1957, six years before the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech). Both authors were sympathetic to the changes brewing in the societies they belonged to, and have main characters – the chirpy upstart Figaro, the righteously progressive Jean Louise Finch – who embody this. But the real interest of Figaro and Watchman lies in their dissection of the old order and their portrayal of those on the losing side of history: Count Almaviva and Atticus Finch.

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In both cases, these characters, previously introduced to the public as heroes, are subverted. The Almaviva of The Barber of Seville is a soppy romantic – a long way from the bitter, lecherous tyrant of Figaro. The crux of Watchman is Jean Louise’s discovery that her father Atticus, whom she – like a generation of Americans who read or saw To Kill a Mockingbird – has idolised for years as a beacon of moral virtue and colour blindness, turns out also to be a racist.

So, for all the shock and outrage Atticus’s fall from grace has provoked, it’s actually a literary trick with a pretty venerable tradition. It’s just a bit unusual to have to wait more than fifty years for the subversion of a character’s moral purity to be revealed.

I got thinking about all this last week while sitting through ENO’s joyous production of Rossini’s version of The Barber of Seville. It’s a brilliant show – beautifully sung and truly hilarious (to my mind, it’s the only opera that really works as a piece of comedy, but even then it takes a lot of skill in the staging and acting to make it work as well as this production does). More familiar with Mozart’s version of the sequel, I’d forgotten just how likeable Almaviva is in The Barber.

I also couldn’t help but relish how linguistically and culturally muddled the show is. Here’s an opera written by an Italian, based on a play by a Frenchman, set in Spain (where everyone has oddly Italian-sounding names), sung in English, with a young Australian baritone (Morgan Pearse) in the title role and a Mexican tenor (Eleazar Rodriguez) as Almaviva. I know it makes me sound like an elitist snob, but what a wonderful testament to pan-European culture and cosmopolitanism in general. Messrs Farage, Lawson et al., take note: let’s not make London a parochial backwater please.

***

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in New York lately. Just before my most recent trip, I went and bought Bill Bryson’s new book about Britain: The Road to Little Dribbling. It’s wonderful, perceptive and funny: everyone should read it. Bryson, originally from Des Moines, Iowa (because somebody had to be, as he memorably put it at the start of his breakthrough book, The Lost Continent) has written a 381-page love letter to his adopted country.

Reading it last week as I commuted back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn on the subway, it got me thinking about the pros and cons of life in American versus life in Britain. And, without wanting to seem ungrateful to New York for putting up with me, I have to say I agree with Bill. Britain is frankly a nicer country to live in than America, and London beats New York hands down. Leaving aside America’s most obvious flaws – Donald Trump, the National Rifle Association etc – there are a number of reasons for this assertion.

For starters, 21st century New York seems to have become the perfect embodiment of the juxtaposition of “private opulence” and “public squalor” – something the great liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith first wrote about in his 1958 book, The Affluent Society. It’s a city that, with the notable exception of Central Park, apparently places no value whatsoever on public space. Its streets are litter-strewn, overcrowded and often badly in need of repair. Its subway stations are dire and sordid. The trains are ancient and creaking. The whole infrastructure is visibly in decay. I don’t know enough about New York politics, but it certainly looks like nobody’s made any investment in upgrading its public transport system since at least the 1980s. The one and only thing I will say for New York’s subway system is that they were clever to opt for longer platforms and longer trains than we have in London. It does mean the overcrowding at rush hour is marginally less terrible than the Northern line at 8am on a Monday.

As a Londoner, it’s the absence of greenery that I miss most of all in New York. Bryson is particularly eloquent on this point:

‘Nobody realizes it, but London is one of the least crowded cities on earth. New York has 93 people per hectare, Paris 83, but London just 43. If London were as densely populated as Paris, it would have a population of 35 million. Instead what it has is parks – 142 of them – and more than six hundred squares. Almost 40 per cent of London is green space.’

New York is also stunningly bad at making the most of the obvious natural assets it has – miles of waterfront and the most famous skyline in the world. Here’s what I mean. I went for a walk on Saturday and stumbled across one of the loveliest spots I’ve found in the city: a small park just under the Brooklyn end of Brooklyn Bridge. From there, I watched the sun set behind the Statue of Liberty, and, as darkness fell, I stayed to see the financial district, just across the water, light up. It was beautiful.

But the truth is, stumbled isn’t quite the right word for how I got there. No subway stations serve this bit of waterfront and there’s certainly no signage around the place suggesting that you might find something nice if you keep going. So in fact what I did was take my life into my own hands crossing eight lanes of traffic at a crossroads where those eight lanes meet another eight (because in typical American fashion, most of New York is designed for drivers, not pedestrians). Then I had to persevere through four blocks of deeply unpromising, run-down industrial estate, the kind of place where you feel you’re quite likely to be stabbed (or, because it’s America, shot). Finally, through sheer bloody-mindedness and a Londoner’s instinct that I’d find something worth getting to by the water, I made it.

Once you get there, the view is captivating for the first thirty seconds. But then, if you’re me, you start to look around and think: “now wouldn’t this be a nice place to have a beer and watch the world go by for half an hour.” No such luck. There is one posh restaurant for the super-rich and one greasy hot dog stand for the super-desperate and that’s it. In London, in a place like this you’d have a choice of dozens of bars and restaurants, but here, nothing. Bizarrely, the main group of people that seems to frequent this spot is wedding parties. I saw three groups having photos taken within two hundred yards. How typical of New York, I thought, that even in this most charming of public spaces, the highest and best use the locals can think of is to make it the backdrop for an intensely private celebration.

In his book, Bryson references the way London’s skyline has been shaped by the existence of a number of protected sightlines that criss-cross the city. The result is that tall buildings are pretty well spaced out and you get stunning views from places like Hampstead Heath and Richmond Park. Sadly, the same hasn’t happened in New York. It may be the most famous skyline in the world, but there are precious few places you can actually see it from. I went to evensong at St Thomas’s, Fifth Avenue on Sunday. It’s a magnificent building – on a par with many of Europe’s finest cathedrals – as is St Patrick’s, the Catholic cathedral across the road. St Patrick’s is almost as tall as St Paul’s Cathedral in London; taller than Liverpool Cathedral. But you can’t see either it or St Thomas’s until you’re about a block away from them. What a waste.

My final argument for Britain’s superiority (for now at least) also comes from Bryson. It’s been more than four years since I had anything to do with a British university, but I still felt a tingle of pride as I read Bryson’s reflections on the comparison between the UK and US higher education sectors:

‘People give $40 million a year to the Ohio State University football team … Forty million dollars is about equal to the total endowment of Exeter University in the UK. Only twenty-six British universities have total endowments greater than the amount given annually to the Ohio State University football team.

‘I first became interested in all this when I sat at a dinner next to a fundraiser from the University of Virginia, who mentioned, as if it were the most naturally thing in the world, that they had just embarked on a five-year campaign to raise $3 billion… The University of Virginia, in short, had turned itself into a mighty cash-raising machine.

‘It met its target, a remarkable accomplishment, but here’s the thing. According to the 2014 Times Higher Education world rankings (which are generally held to be the most exacting of their type), the University of Virginia ranks 130th among the world’s universities. Eighteen much more modestly funded British universities rank higher. On the world stage, according to the Times Higher, Virginia is about level with Britain’s Lancaster University, which has an endowment fund one-thousandth the size of Virginia’s. That is pretty extraordinary.

‘I very much doubt if there is any other realm of human endeavour in the country that produces more world-class benefit with less financial input than higher education. It is possibly the single most outstanding thing in Britain today.’

I rest my case.

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One Response to Diary – October 2015: Harper Lee, The Barber of Seville and why London beats New York

  1. Pingback: My year in books – part I – non-fiction | Musings of a young Londoner

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