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I have never seen a bride walk up the aisle faster than Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She said afterwards that it was nerves propelling her. But it was more obviously happiness. The memorial chapel at Harvard was the setting for a crowd of us to gather, on September 10, to witness her marriage to Niall Ferguson. With stock markets tumbling and newspapers predicting terrorist attacks, the union of these two equal and unequalled people, united us in joy. And it reminded me, as did the funeral of a friend a few weeks earlier, that even for atheists when it comes to life's major milestones the Church still does it best.

Drinking and dancing followed in Boston. I joined what I thought was the receiving line for the bride and groom and lingered a while before discovering it was a greeting line for Henry Kissinger. The post-dinner dance floor would have been the Guardian's worst nightmare.

Ten years ago, when Ayaan first began to emerge and change the world around her, many people feared a bad ending. But she faced down the death-cult in the best possible way, not with a happy ending, but with a new and happy beginning. No one deserves it more.

* * *

Heading back to New York on the train, I arrived on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and stepped out of Penn Station into a hushed city. What cars and taxis there were did not hoot. People even spoke quietly, showing that perhaps the world's busiest city can still do collective memory. But it is run by a nincompoop. Michael Bloomberg's petty laws accumulate and yet, ten years on, the World Trade Center crater is still there. Nothing is more telling of America's troubles. Failing to build something for a decade might be expected in the south of Italy. But America?

* * *

At least public life in America still has a capacity for discernment and judgment. This past summer in London a striking example of Britain's comparative failure showed itself. Whenever a ray of sunshine came out and people stripped down to the barest minimum of clothes, it was clear that almost every body is now covered in tattoos.

Even on a train to Norfolk everyone appeared covered. A particularly ugly tendency, popularised by David Beckham, is to have the whole of at least one arm covered in ink. The effect, especially from a distance, is sick-making. It looks as though the body is rotting from the fingers upwards. Sometimes the premature mortification creeps up the neck as well.

Why do they do it? Two explanations seem particularly persuasive to me. First, that it demonstrates how many people literally do not expect (or wish?) to become old. I recently asked someone who was contemplating a tattoo whether she would mind being locked into the clothes she wore ten years ago. She seemed surprised. Making old bones — or old skin —hadn't crossed her mind. The other explanation is more saddening still: that tattooing is the result of a people without memory or identity. Void and nihilistic, they are still occasionally visited by happiness. They find a girl, boy, parent, band or saying in a far-eastern language they cannot read. And they cover their bodies in the mementos of what they know they will otherwise not remember.  Tattoos are a symptom of a sickness at the heart of Britain.

* * *

August was the first month I had spent entirely in the UK for some time. Work forces me to travel. I am now in San Francisco, about to head to LA before New York again. While there I will see what the fallout is of the Palestinian statehood attempt at the UN. In July I spent a week in the West Bank speaking to Palestinian leaders. To a man (only ever men) they thought the statehood stunt would solve their problems at a stroke. I asked several times, "What if the September surprise does not work?" Then all bets are off, they said. Which of course means war. The region is certainly overdue for the terrorists to start another. A friend tells me that Beirut is looking good again. This is usually the harbinger.

* * *

One of the best things about travelling is being able to pick up books. The other month I successfully haggled with a Moroccan bookseller for a complete set of Hadith. At the close he was as content as me — I carting off my bargain, he under the impression he had met a devout convert. But for quantity and production, American books remain the best. It is only a shame that in America, as in Britain, there seem almost no bookshops left in which to sell them.

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Anonymous
December 15th, 2011
2:12 PM
Sad that there are, as in your report, hardly any bookshops left in America (or for that matter the UK) but it is good news for us here as a company called 'Pay Less Books' sells books, albeit second-hand ones from the US at an obscenely, dirt cheap price. So it looks like that there will be a never ending supply of books from the US for the bibliophiles here.

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