Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

Living in a monarchy, one naturally compares the inauguration of a US President to our Coronation. It compares unfavourably. It lacks beauty, mystery, good order, and, although it is full of history, it lacks the fascinating complications and accretions of a country like ours, which has no theory, only its history. I could not help being disappointed by the way the speakers were announced on the Capitol on Tuesday as if they were performing in some awards ceremony, or by the incompetence and lack of ceremony with which the Chief Justice administered the oath to Barack Obama. Even the music was pretty useless, because it had to embody current compromises about ethnicity and culture rather than lifting everything to heaven. But this, broadly speaking, is how it should be.

The United States is a republic, and one of the genuine republican virtues is a lack of grandeur and ornateness. When Americans refused to pay British taxes, they also refused to buy the rest of the monarchical act. In the Coronation, of course, there is no speech by the monarch, because the office is too sacred and inexpressible. In the inauguration, the speech -- apart from the oath -- is the only thing that really matters. Like many people, I found Mr Obama's speech more boring than I had expected. But he had carefully -- and correctly -- worked out that, if you are in Valley Forge, fine words can be annoying.

The Atheist Bus Campaign poster says: 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.' Is this the best that the power of ratiocination in which people like Richard Dawkins put such faith (yes, faith) can manage? 'Probably' is a weak word, for a start, though I do see that the atheists would find it difficult to assert that there is 'certainly' no God. But if there is only probably no God, why would one stop worrying about this question? And how does His improbability make one able to enjoy life more? Those banners which one used to see at race meetings -- 'The end is nigh.

Flee from the wrath to come' -- were less unsettling than this evasive and nannyish collection of non-sequiturs.

In the course of recent researches into Robert Burns (250 years old next week), I have once again come across the Scots word 'pawky'. It is in current use, but each person I ask offers a different meaning. In the Burns context (as used by a commentator on Burns, not the poet himself), it seems to mean 'cunning' or 'sly'. I have also seen it defined as 'dry'. But then I heard someone praised for his pawky sense of humour. What does it really mean, and what, since it gave birth to an adjective, is a pawk?

In a Liverpool case last week, the court heard that a teenager had been paid £50 to brandish guns on a BBC Panorama programme. He was not paid directly, but had been procured by a middle-man, referred to as 'Male C'. After the 17-year-old had waved his guns about for the cameras -- to illustrate Merseyside gang culture -- Male C said 'Nice one' and gave him the money. I felt a twinge of envy. At much the same time, I was being interviewed by Panorama for a programme, due next week, about swearing, Jonathan Ross and all that. At one point in the hour and a half of which, I would guess, a maximum of 15 seconds will be used, I mentioned payment for my services and was met with a gale of laughter. But then I had no Male C to fight for me, and I was unarmed. …

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