Wasteland of American TV
ONCE AGAIN the New York newspapers" are on strike, and once again it is likely that not all will be resurrected when the strike is over. I find myself wondering how much difference this would make.
To me the most surprising thing about America, given the quantity and quality of its communications technology, is the paucity of news. There is no national Press as such, and only a tiny• handful of quality papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post provide adequate national coverage or pay much attention to news from abroad.
The popular local Press concentrates heavily on neighbourhood news and advertising. My impression is that the average American hears less about what is going on in other cities and states of the Union than the average Briton picks up from our popular Press about events in other European countries.
Television news is almost as bad, with local city politics dominating the headlines. Television in general has a subline awfulness which must be beyond the imagination of anyone accustomed to the standards set by the BBC and the IBA.
Even the dullest evening on British television is to the best evening on American as Covent Garden is to a parish concert. The advertisers' insistence that no one should be startled, outraged, challenged or even stimulated to think, has made American television a wasteland.
Even supposedly quality productions like "Roots" or ''Holocaust" have a tuppenycoloured crudity which are embarrassingly reminiscent of Soviet or Chinese propaganda films. They have No delicacy, finesse or subtlety but play on the emotions like a coal-hammer hitting a funny-bone.
However, it is encouraging to hear that even the children, about whom many Americans worry since they watch so much of the stuff, are beginning to revolt, and learning to jeer the advertisements. When the children feel their intelligence is being insulted there is room for hope.
The lack of news strikes me as dangerous. The jokes about Mr Carter's Georgians needing dementary geography lessons — Nicaragua is in Latin America; Ham, Rhodesia is in Africa; Jody, Africa is . . . may have the ring of truth.
Europeans familiar with the sight of American tourists rarely appreciate what a small proportion of Americans travel abroad or even to other parts of the States. The result is that in the world's most powerful nation foreign affairs feature in conversation even less than in Britain.
When they do. the content can be spell-binding. A New York taxi-driver gives me a lecture, talking round both sides of his cigar, on the decline and fall of Britain since the British people made the fatal mistake of rejecting Churchill and choosing Attlee to guide the nation's post-war fortunes.
According to him, ghostly creatures with brilliant eyes and sunken cheeks stagger through tumbledown British streets. They are dressed in the threads of wartime utility suits and dresses. Bony hands reach out for a crust of bread or a mouldering orange.
Derelict cars, abandoned for lack of petrol, clog the London thoroughfares. Barefoot doctors give the V-sign as they collapse across the bodies of the sick and dying heaped outside the shuttered hospitals.
Only Her Majesty the Queen, crowned and in full regalia, moves shiningly through this stricken underworld, giving hope and comfort to her people. This is Britain under Socialism.
I have to pinch myself to remind myself it isn't true. I try, hesitatingly, to suggest it isn't all that bad. No chance. The flood rolls on.
But as a footnote to this tale of woe, where else in the world would a radio station offer a nonstop reading of "War and Peace", lasting for severals days, with teams of actors, novelists, fashion designers and even Congressmen taking their turn to carry on the story. America is beautiful. It really is.
taus Tibet on Hudson?
LAST YEAR the fifteenth international meeting of the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament met near Cologne at Schloss Friedewald whose mediaeval builder locked his wife up in a dungeon shortly after their marriage and kept her there for ten years. No such ancient discourtesies haunted this year's venue, the Maryknoll Seminary at Ossining. The seminary is huge, with five hundred rooms for students, and when it was built in 1908 a giant act of faith it was, for the two priests who founded Marykrioll has no certainty that their dream of an American Missionary Society for diocesan priests would estr become a reality.
It did, and this vast stone building with its curious Chinese roof which makes it look like the Dalai Lama's Potala Palace transplanted to the banks or the Hudson River, has sent hundreds of missionary priests all over the world. Today's younger Maryknollers have been in the thick of the struggle for justice and peace in the Third World and in recent years a stream of excellent books on justice and development have issued from their headquarters under the Orbis imprint.
Such surroundings were appropriate for a conference which was, as never before, concerned with the connection between justice and security, and the heroic hospitality the members enjoyed from the Maryknoll community encouraged benevolent thoughts. It was possible to drink in faith, courage, kindliness and trust, all of which seem urgently needed if the arms race is to go into reverse and nations are to live at peace.
The Council, you may be pleased to hear, was a British initiative, the brainchild of the Bishop of London, Dr Robert Stopford, way back in 1963, Now it has branches in all the NATO countries as well as other European and Commonwealth associates.
The Council is not a lobby with an agreed policy on defence or disarmament but a forum for discussion. The sixteenth international conference as usual brought together diplomats, politicians, defence experts, and theologians, united by their Christian faith but differing widely as to the most practical course leading to their common goal, world peace.
It includes robust defenders of the policy of nuclear deterrence and outright pacifists, and punches are never pulled on either side, but both lions and lambs graze amiably together perhaps because each day is bracketed with extensive periods of prayer.
The Council is steadfastly ecumenical and has been so since its beginnings when the late Fr
Torn Corbishley was a foundation member and is still gratefully remembered for his grace and learning. The British section now has a permament office at St Katherine Cree in Leadenhall Street whence those interested can obtain further information and some useful publications on the ethical problems of defence.
City's worst — and best
TEN YEARS AGO the American Franciscans told Fr Bruce Ritter to settle in the centre of New York and find his own way of serving the local community. He rented and apartment and waited.
One evening two or three youngsters knocked at his door and asked if he would put them up for the night. They said they had been turned out of their living quarters by their "pimp".
Over the next few days word of his kindness went round and found a steady stream of teenagers coming to his door for shelter. He discovered that most were from out of town and within hours of arriving in New York had been inveigled into prostitution.
That was the beginning of an organisation called "Under 21", whose headquarters, Covenant House, stands at the corner of 8th Avenue and 43rd Street.
In the past 15 months 9,000 youngsters have passed through its doors — some for a bath, a
bed and a meal, some for counselling, some in fear of their lives after being held prisoner in local hotels by men who run the vice racket.
Some of the youngsters go on to residential homes which find them jobs. Others enter a school run by Covenant House. The only fixed rule is that all must make contact with their parents.
Fr Ritter is helped by a community of long-term volunteers, an ecumenical community which follows a rule of life that includes several hours of daily prayer. The work is so demanding that few last more than a couple of years.
In turn the community is helped by short-term volunteers, often university students who give up their holidays to lend a hand. Fr Ritter has now survived in the work five times longer than any of his staff, and he is a very tired man.
The archdiocese provides some substantial financial
support, but the founder still has to make up the required balance by going round the city parishes with his begging bowl, on top of his work at Covenant House that makes for a punishing life.
The streets round Covenant House reveal the saddest most sordid side of American life. The house itself, its founder and its helpers are the best.
Travel back in time
EUROPEANS tend to think of America as a country with out a history, which is a bit hard on the Red Indians who were here long before settlers arriyed from Europe and, incidentally, are now making occasional successful claims in the law courts for the restoration of their ancient lands.
These were often lost through swindling and breaches of contract by the newcomers. But even post-settler America does have a history, action-packed, and one of the best areas to taste some of the action is the Hudson River Valley, which stretches from New York northward to Albany and was described in 1609 by an officer on Henry Hudson's ship, The Half Moon, as "a verrie good latitude to fall with and a pleasant lande, to see".
It is still enchantingly beautiful, with its river, in places three miles wide, 'rich farmland, and wave upon wave of rolling, wooded hills. It is dotted with a surprising number of houses, farms, churches and monuments which go back to the days of the Dutch and English pioneers.
The bicentenary of the Revolution kindled fresh interest in American history which in some places is not only being revisited but re-lived.
On a quiet Sunday afternoon I went round Philipse Manor on the river near Tarrytown, one of a number of places where buildings have been restored and farms are being run as they would have been in the 18th century.
Frederick Philipse and his son Adolph, who founded the stone manor and grist mill, then became British citizens and were rewarded with the title of Lords of the Manor of Philipsburg. By shrewd buying they built up a 90,000-acre estate from which meal and flour and biscuits were dispatched all over the world.
At the Revolution they again sided with the British and lost the lot. The estate was broken up and the manor fell into ruin. But it is now restored and the mill is back in working order, and if the founders returned they would find everything much as it was except for a vast improvement in the hygiene and a much shallower river.
A bevy of young ladies in authentic costume show visitors a variety of 18th century domestic furnishings and crafts,
and on the farm young Americans likewise dressed to the life, till the land and tend the farm animals which roam around at will as they did 200 years ago.
One strapping young American lived his part so intensely that he talked entirely in the present tense: "I get my iron from England. I cut my wood locally. I have doors at both ends of the barn so that I can drive a team of horses through — it's difficult to back up a team of horses" — so that it was easy to imagine for a moment that we had travelled back in time rather than the speaker.
All the guides were gentle, patients, and dedicated, with perfect manners, and altogether a great credit to the original pioneers. The miller, whose millstones grind a thousand pounds of corn every hour when going full blast, was a Chaucerian figure, built like a barrel, with a bullet head and a face as calm as a Buddha.
He turned out to be an Englishman from Staffordshire, so the old country is till making a contribution to the Hudson Valley. Near the manor is the home of Washington Irving and a Dutch cemetery where his most celebrated character Rip Van Winkle lies buried — this time, I hope, for keeps.
A less pleasing reminder of the past was a statue one the spot where Major Andre, Adjutant General of the British Army, was arrested by three militiamen, commended for their "integrity and patriotism which rejecting every temptation, rescued the United States from most imminent peril, by baffling the arts of a Spy and the plots of a Traitor".
Comparison of this memorial with that in Westminster Abbey to this gallant British officer,' arrested by three rebellious scoundrels, will confirm what I always feared — that there is no objective history to be found. outside Britain ...