Magazine article The Spectator

The Appeal Louise Lost

Magazine article The Spectator

The Appeal Louise Lost

Article excerpt

I HAPPENED to be at Gate 132 at Newark airport when Louise Woodward received her latest sentence, instantly relayed back to the bar of public opinion down the pub in Elton, England. The lady on my left asked me if I'd ever been to Elton, and I said no, but explained that it was one of those mysterious `tightly-knit communities' which only emerge Brigadoon-like from the mist whenever some hapless moppet gets clubbed to death and tossed down the railway embankment. In this instance, the moppet was Louise, who'd been viciously clubbed by the American legal system.

As if on cue, one of the ever more swollen hordes of friends back in the pub grunted that you only had to look at Louise's face to see she's an angel, not a murderess. At Gate 132, we dutifully peered at CNN's sallow, whey-faced closeup but, in an admittedly unscientific poll, regretfully concluded that, on the facial evidence, we'd plump for murderess over angel 11-2. Still, like the tightly-knit types in the pub, we in the loosely-knit community of Continental Express commuters clustered around the television screen and hung on to the judge's every word. In contrast to Elton, though, we did not react to the revised sentence for mere manslaughter by whoopin' and a-hollerin' and popping champagne corks. As we drifted away, there was much murmuring of words like 'bizarre', 'inappropriate', 'unseemly' even. In New Jersey, if not in Elton, we still value the stiff upper lip, an expression which is in any case American in origin ('I kept a stiff upper lip' - The Massachusetts Spy, a Boston newspaper, 1815).

`We love 'er, we wan' 'er 'ome,' sobbed one of Louise's friends in between champagne slurps. `The sooner the better,' muttered a guy behind me. Apart from the prosecution, which is appealing, and the defence, which is appealing against its own appeal, and the handful of observers who think she should have got the chair, most Americans would concur: Louise should be sent home to Elton, who no doubt will be waiting to serenade her with a special fundraising version of `Hello Again, England's Rose'. But over here most viewers are weary of switching on the television and seeing New Britain emoting in its peculiarly menacing fashion. Even the most self-flagellatory New York Times readers are beginning to tire of smug London columnists citing the nanny trial as further evidence of the dismally low state of American civilisation. It was reported that the Guardian was not impressed by Sunil and Deborah Eappen's discreet snail pins, worn as a reminder of the deceased's favourite toy. They apparently `reek of the kind of mawkish exhibitionism which Europeans have always found repellent in American life'. Oh yeah? Tell it to the teddy bears on the Kensington Palace railings.

Such observations are part of a timehonoured tradition in Britain, which has long had a habit of deploring ghastly American customs even as it enthusiastically apes them beyond the point of caricature. On balance, the customised mawkishness of the Eappens' snail pins reeks less than the generic mawkishness of the Woodward fans' yellow ribbons. And, incidentally, where did they get that yellow ribbon business from in the first place? And who wrote `You'll Never Walk Alone'? Even as they castigated American culture, the `Free Louise' campaign's emblems were utterly dependent on it. They were, in their way, very telling both of the blank slate in which the Elton johnnies had chosen to invest their latest spasm of Dianysian emotions and also of that weird ersatz quality of modern British life. There are, of course, local variations on these imported Americanisms - as there was a few weeks ago when the mob demanded that the Queen come out from Balmoral and feel their pain (Clinton-style) or they'd come in and give her some pain of her own to feel (Brit-style). Many Americans, accustomed to hearing `You'll Never Walk Alone' as a genteel high-school graduation hymn, were alarmed by the version being bayed down the pub on Louise's behalf, unaware that in Britain the innocent uplift of Rodgers and Hammerstein has a subtext which approximates roughly to 'Oy, mate, you lookin' at my bird? …

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