"Two living parents, no sexual abuse, no beatings, no spells in rehab - my literary career is totally fucked"
One of the less publicised tactics of the Israeli army over the past few weeks has been its destruction of Palestinian phone lines and PCs. When people are being bulldozed to oblivion, the loss mightn't seem very significant. But no one values phones, computers and e-mail more than the Israelis. The strategy isn't just practical - suppressing the means to convey information - but symbolic. Look, they're saying, we're removing your privileges. It's a punishment for those suicide bombers. No more modernity for you. Back to the Dark Ages. The destruction of the Khalil Sakakini cultural centre in Ramallah - another little-publicised event - had a similar purpose. In military terms, ransacking a place where people go to see paintings or discuss books can have achieved very little. But as a target for humiliating and demoralising the Palestinians, the Sakakini was perfect: founded in the name of an influential Palestinian educationalist; home to the literary magazine that the poet Mahmoud Darwish edited before he went to Beirut; a place to nurture a sense of cultural identity.
I read there myself four years ago. It was evening, late sunlight falling in, a handful of people gathered in the name of poetry. There seemed a ray of hope about it, or so I allowed myself to think. Next day, I went to Hebron, and walked about the roofs of the old town. Ten yards from me, a young Israeli soldier sat in his rooftop sentry post, guarding a settler family below. "Welcome to the war," he shouted.
I've recently come back from Iowa, where CNN and Fox were my only guides to what was happening. The presentation (pree-zentation) had a simple subtext: suicide bombings = 11 September; Israelis = World Trade Center victims; Arafat = Bin Laden; George W Bush = honest guy doing his darnedest. A suggestion that European countries might disapprove of current US foreign policy was seen off by an angry senator: who do these guys think they are? And who needs them?
But the people of Iowa City, half of whom work or study at the university, are far from credulous, and those I talked to didn't buy the story being put out. Perhaps it's something specific to the Midwest, where people feel as remote from Washington as they do from the Middle East. But I suspect it goes much wider: being proud of your country (the Stars and Stripes was on display in many windows) doesn't mean believing what your president or the TV networks tell you. The anti-American rhetoricians of the British left forget this. The US government and the American people aren't the same.
The week in Iowa was supposed to be quiet. But on the second morning, at some unearthly hour, I found myself appearing on CNN to talk about airport security. I'm no expert on airport security, so the interview came as a surprise. Even more of a surprise was to sit in Iowa while speaking simultaneously from outside the Capitol Building in Washington. And to see that, since the last time I looked in the mirror, I'd begun wearing glasses and grown a beard. I put my confusion down to jet lag and went back to sleep. But when I opened my morning paper, USA Today, there was Blake Morrison again, the bastard.
It seems I have a double. If you're called David Taylor or Donald Thomas, you expect a double, but I'd become used to thinking my name unordinary. Not so: America is full of guys called Blake, and at least one of them is a journalist also called Morrison. Does he know about me? Do people send him my cheques? If it weren't for my resenting his existence, could we get along? I dread to think how my mother would have felt. When she worked at the local maternity hospital, patients were always threatening to call their boy-babies Blake, in tribute to her gynaecological skills. She talked them out of it. But despite her best efforts, another me exists. So much for uniqueness.
I was in the US to teach graduate students on a three-year writing programme. The University of Iowa has been awarding degrees for creative work since the 1920s, which makes our anxiety over such courses seem prissy. A non-fiction programme is its latest addition - Life Writing, as it's sometimes called. I feared the students would be 22-year-olds obsessing over their traumatic childhoods. But most were fortysomethings from all parts of the country who had given up good jobs. Even the younger ones were pleasingly ironic about the confessional genre.
"What chance do I have of being the new Dave Eggers or Elizabeth Wurtzel?" asked one. "Two living parents, no sexual abuse, no beatings, no spells in rehab - my literary career is totally fucked."
"People's Day", royalists called the Queen Mother's funeral, but the London Marathon has a better claim to the title, and the people who turn up to watch are more fun. This year, I sat it out, having run it last year for the first time since 1981. Once every 20 years seems about right, if only because of the strain involved: not the cramp in the legs, you understand, but the pain of asking friends to cough up for charity. However, I do run along the Thames most Sunday mornings.
Last week, an hour before the marathon, the place was as deserted as usual. By the Dome, I saw a dozen herons patrolling the shallows (amazing to see so many together). There were gulls and cormorants, too, and the other week I spotted a woodpecker. Grass grows through the tarmac of the car parks.
It's all very cheering. The Dome has become a nature reserve.