London's best show in town

The theater is great, but it can't compare to the Daily Telegraph's dogged campaign to expose the corruption in Gordon Brown's government. 2,200 pounds for moat cleaning, anyone?

By Garrison Keillor
Published May 20, 2009 10:25AM (EDT)

I come to London for the signage ("Danger: Men working overhead"), and to pick up a tube of Euthymol toothpaste and devour a cup of Mr. Whippy lemon ice and a package of chocolate HobNobs, and to enjoy the roomy taxicabs and the cabbies' no-hesitation style of driving, their bold U-turns, and to observe the gilded gates and the Mounted Guards and all the storybook tinges of aristocracy so dear to us Americans.

And terrific theater. Saw a beautiful and moving performance by puppets -- life-size horses in "War Horse" at the National Theatre -- light shells of horses with visible frames and legs of two puppeteers inside, another manipulating the head, and yet the sight of the beasts grazing, nuzzling, shying, rearing up was the most perfect and believable thing I've seen onstage in a long time. And then at the vaudeville-burlesque "La Clique," saw a fine contortionist work his body through the head of a tennis racket and an American comedian drop her drawers, pull a kazoo out of her bosom and stick it up her dress into a very private place and proceed to give us (we thought, we assumed, we dared to hope) a rendition of "America" from her nether regions and, a moment later, put another kazoo in her mouth and play a very accomplished orifice duet, all with the innocence of a 4-H'er doing a performance project at the county fair. Wowza.

But the best show in town is the Daily Telegraph's dogged campaign to bring down Gordon Brown's Labor government by exposing the squishy underbelly of corruption in Parliament that Labor has tolerated for years. Day after day for almost two weeks, the paper has pounded away with details of petty grifting in high places and large unflattering photographs of members of Parliament, some of which seem horizontally distorted to give the Honorables a piggish appearance, like a funhouse mirror. And now, as I write, the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, has stepped down, the first to do so in more than 300 years, knocked off his horse by a crusading newspaper.

The story is fairly simple: Parliament members from districts outside London can be compensated for expenses deemed "wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred to enable you to stay overnight away from your main home," and a large number of members have exploited this provision to pad their modest salaries (slightly more than a hundred grand per annum) in ways that Martin tried to keep secret. But some minion in a parliamentary office took home a computer disk and sold it to the Telegraph for a tidy sum and out spilled the garbage -- 2,000 pounds for a 37-inch high-def plasma TV set; 1,625 pounds for a garden table, chairs and parasol; 7,000 pounds for a new kitchen; 519.31 pounds for a week at the Bide-A-Wee holiday cottage; 100 pounds to remove moles from a garden; 725 pounds for a cherrywood mirror; 600 pounds for the removal of wisteria; 2,200 pounds for the cleaning of a moat; 2,000 pounds to repair a pipe under a tennis court; 5,700 pounds for a portico; 115 pounds for a handyman to come and change light bulbs -- on and on it went, day after day, a tide of savory details.

There were several instances of members being compensated for interest on mortgages that turned out not to exist, a criminal matter. But most of the stuff was rather small, if fascinating, potatoes. A wealthy member who owns seven homes in Britain and part of one in France charged the taxpayers 119 pounds for a trouser press. This is the sort of thing that makes a constituent grab his pint of bitters and slam his fist on the table.

And now, having seen the speaker walk the plank, the Honorables must go out to their districts in Sodden Wickham and Twitching Bridgewater to explain why taxpayers paid for the cleaning of a moat. A dreadful fate, having to kneel down and crawl in public as the mob flings dead fish and dry dog dung at you.

The other part of the story is that Telegraph sales are up by 10 percent, which is one answer to the question all newspapers are asking these days. If you print stuff that people are avid to read, they will buy your paper, and there is nothing people love more than to savor the embarrassment of the high and mighty. Forget about Iran -- if Mr. Obama is charging us for his trouser press, we want to know.

(Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty," published by Viking.)

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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