When do current events become history? At some point in my education, I heard the figure of “twenty-five years” bandied about as the crucial length of time that needed to pass, and that number has always stuck with me. Since the events described in America: A User’s Guide are now some twenty-five years in the past, they could by that reasoning be counted as history. The trouble is that, as an historian reading the book, I also find that I quite clearly remember many of these events. So they have an immediacy to me, as well as an historical dimension. It’s a most disconcerting experience.
The late Simon Hoggart (died January, 2014) was a British journalist and broadcaster, known to Radio 4 listeners as former chairman of the iconic satirical news round-up, The News Quiz, from 1996 to 2005. As a journalist, Hoggart also spent a good proportion of the 1980s in America as the Observer‘s Washington correspondent. In that position, he was able to make a thorough assessment of America of the late 1980s. In America: A User’s Guide, Hoggart provides a witty and occasionally sharp and incisive critique of the country’s habits, culture, and excesses.
What emerges from the white heat of writing at the moment is a passable memoir, a quarter century later, of people and places that had receeded into the vague mists of memory. What is more surprising, perhaps, is how many of the names which Hoggart cites in his book that are still au courant in the American political and cultural scenes. Although the then-recent election contest between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis was a hot topic, many of the characters are still on the stage. Indeed, the vague, dithering shadow of Ronald Reagan still looms over all (although for a blissful – if undeservedly short – period in the early 1990s, his poll numbers fell before he was elevated to the Republican Deity Cult, like Gaius Octavius becoming Augustus, the Living God). Arianna Huffington makes an appearance as a disgraced socialite who expected at one time to be the first Greek-born First Lady. Blighted example of capitalism and good-sense-gone-amok Donald Trump appears, then as now an oafish clod with all the finesse of startled steamroller. Al Gore, Hugh Hefner, Joe Biden (had you forgotten, like I had, that he plagarised Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s memoirs in the 1988 election campaign?), Jesse Jackson, Peggy Noonan, Oliver North: these are just some of the names which make an appearance, and reading this book is almost like knowing future history. We know, at least in part, how the story continued, and often, it wasn’t pretty.
The same can be said of many of Hoggart’s cultural observations: television, for example, is so much worse. Sport in America is even more insane than twenty-plus years ago. In fact, if I had to pick up one prediction on which Hoggart missed, it would be that football – soccer, as it’s called Stateside – appears to have finally caught on as a sport, judging from the idiotic braying over people like David Beckham. It’s finally gotten out of the nursery. Holidays in America well-captured by Hoggart: contrasting the rite of passage of visiting one of the Disney parks (I’ve still never been) with holidays spent driving and “seeing the sights”; he is right that American national parks may be unequaled the world over. In a country with so much space and so many people concentrated in cities, it is hard for many urban dwellers to grasp just how big the country is, a problem which Europeans have more or less in reverse. The American beer of the time is rightly derided (as it was a decade earlier by the Monty Python team), but Hoggart missed what might be called “craft beer explosion” which had just begun in many cities even as he wrote: this would be the disadvantage of his “view from 30,000 feet.” And politics, the area where Hoggart is perhaps most astute, has also gotten worse, but it is strangely pleasant to read of the pre-Clinton era, before the Republicans (and arguably, the Democrats also) went completely mad.
Overall, Hoggart’s “outsider looking in” perspective serves him very well here, and the wit which he deploys in service of his subjects would later become evident in his Parliamentary sketches. An enjoyable walk down what was once current events, but now has that tinge of nostalgia which has almost – but not quite – become history. Four and a half stars.
Originally reviewed 24 April 2014.
Find your copy of America: A User’s Guide at AbeBooks.com (direct link to search results).