* * *
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.