Sarah Churchwell on The American Dream

If Jay Gatsby was alive today, he would be a Russian mobster with artistic leanings, Sarah Churchwell said at the end of this thoroughly entertaining lecture on the meaning and myth of the American dream. The dream itself is not, as we may have imagined, Washington’s dream, Jefferson’s dream or even Lincoln’s dream. In fact, it is coined at the beginning of the Great Depression as a way to explore the corruption of a society which had collapsed. The ‘American dream’ was invented to discuss American failures: to acknowledge the moral poverty and spiritual bankruptcy of the 1920’s. But the term was quickly ‘hollowed out’ and soon reduced to simple striving for better material prospects.

As Churchwell says, ‘if a novel is an American classic, it must comment meaningfully on the American dream’ and the novel which is thought to most epitomise that dream is Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. Churchwell’s own most recent book, Careless People, is a reflection on Gatsby, and she suggested today┬áthat popular understanding of Gatsby is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the work. Gatsby is a ‘lament’ for greed and acquisition not a ‘license’ for it, while the perception that Nick is a failure because he gives up on the dream ignores the fact that the dream itself is an illusion and a lie. It’s founded on greed and acquisition and Nick is right to be disgusted by it.

The parallels between the ’29 and the ’08 crash were brought out strongly today, though as Churchwell said ‘they had a crash and tried to change it; we had a crash and said let’s try the same thing again.’ Or, to take it another way, the ideals and aspirations of the dream are good, the problems are with the people who dream it.

At the end, there was some wondering what a ‘Welsh Dream’ might look like: any ideas?

Telegraph Question Time: Who’s Going To Win The World Cup?

I don’t know who the BBC or ITV have lined up for their World Cup pundits and the wifi isn’t good enough here to google it, but I think they should sack whoever they’ve got and hire Geoff Hurst, Ossie Ardiles, Ricky Villa and Alan Smith. In fact, the BBC could do a lot worse than giving Ossie his own football/stand up gig. There was a lot – and I mean a LOT of love for Geoff in the room, from more-than-middled aged men responding in the way that a teenage girl might respond to Harry Styles, right down to mobbing the exit for a glimpse of their hero – but Ossie was far and away the star of the show: articulate, thoughtful and above all, funny.

The Telegraph made an unexpected choice in asking their arts editor, Sarah Crompton, to referee the event, which meant questions stayed very broad and general – the impact of money in the game, whether players from humble backgrounds are more likely to succeed, the problem of match fixing, whether foreign players are affecting the national game – and answers were practiced and polished. Geoff Hurst has a collection of anecdotes to match his tally of goals – he was once asked what he was doing when the fourth goal went in during the ’66 final…(at which his fans swooned).

The Argentinians came to life when Maradona came up: asked what it was like to play with him, Ardiles said ‘it wasn’t bad’. Both believed he was better than Messi is – apparently because Maradona is also quite good with his hand….

Inevitably the main question was who is going to win this summer’s tournament and equally unsurprisingly, the Argentinians tipped themselves. Germany, Brazil and Spain were also mentioned. The only surprise was Villa tipping Belgium. Might be worth a fiver.

Review: Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg was the highlight of my last trip to Hay (though he also had the dubious honour of being the sweatiest speaker I saw, bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘dripping with enthusiasm’. Fortunately for Melvyn, though not for the rest of the festival goers, the temperature has dropped fifteen degrees in the past four hours, so the front row was safe).

I feel a little bit as though I have been run over by an intellectual bus, and cannot hope to do justice to everything Bragg says. He was fizzing with ideas and digressions and asides, so the best I could do was try and get the gist of it.

Basically, there are those, like Dawkins, who write the King James Bible off as a consolation or a sop, arguing that it makes people weak and passive. Bragg says that no: the Bible has been a positive, active, liberating force which has steamrollered all progressive movements of the past four hundred years – from abolition to female equality and even science.

More recently, we’ve tended to play down the Bible, whether deliberately or out of neglect or indifference. Bragg thinks this is a huge mistake. You may not agree with the faith, but you can’t deny it’s impact, he thunders. And you don’t have to believe it to be grateful for it.

Bragg speaks a lot like the Bible reads – all poetic and rhythmic but also with serious power. In terms of clever ideas per minute, this was the best value event so far.

Of course, he’s so clever that my own brain fell out of my head in the signing queue at the thought of approaching greatness. Instead of making some sensible remark, I managed to forget how to spell my own name and blather on incomprehensibly. Sorry Melvyn. I am not worthy.