I had a new book out the other day. Usual doom and gloom, as the more alert reader may just about be able to discern from the subtle title: After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. One always hopes, in a competitive market for shrill apocalyptic alarmists, that there will be some topical news peg to give the release date a bit of a lift. And sure enough, the weekend before the launch day, S&P obligingly downgraded the United States from its triple-A rating for the first time in history. You can’t buy publicity like that. Well, okay, you can, if you’ve got $15 trillion and toss it in the Potomac and watch it float out to sea, as the government of the United States has done. But other than that, the stars have to align pretty darn precisely. (It is untrue, by the way, that S&P stands for Steyn & Publicity.)
A few days after the U.S. release, the book debuted in the United Kingdom. Halfway through my narrative, there’s a chapter about civic disintegration in the old country called “The Depraved City.” Obligingly enough, 48 hours before the British launch, London erupted in flames. Switching on the TV to find a beautifully posed image of one of those double-decker buses beloved by tourists vividly ablaze and as perfectly lit as the iconic shot in a disaster movie (the aliens zapping the White House in Independence Day, say), I wondered if my publicist had perhaps let things get a little out of hand. You probably want to be out of town when she decides the nuclear finale could use a bit of a plug.
What’s happening in London is part of the same story as the downgrade. S&P run the numbers, factor in the political probabilities, and produce a green-eyeshade assessment. London reminds us that, as I wrote in this space a couple of issues back, culture trumps economics. The blazing double-decker is where the plot goes after the financial pages.
I quote a little bit of Anthony Burgess in my book. Burgess isn’t as famous a name in the futuristic-dystopia biz as Orwell or Huxley, but he was remarkably prophetic and in a rather lightly worn way. His most famous novel is A Clockwork Orange, thanks to the Stanley Kubrick movie. At one point in the book, the precocious psychopathic teen narrator offers his dad some (stolen) money so his parents can enjoy a drink down the pub. “Thanks, son,” says his father. “But we don’t go out much now. We daren’t go out much now, the streets being what they are. Young hooligans and so on. Still, thanks.”
Burgess published his book in 1962, an era when working-class Britons lived in cramped row houses on dingy streets that were nevertheless some of the most tranquil on the planet. Their residents kept pigeons and tended vegetable allotments. The idea that the old and not so old would not go out, “the streets being what they are,” “young hooligans and so,” was not just the stuff of fiction but of utterly transformative fantastic fiction.