Believing in gringos

Neal Ascherson

  • Salvador by Joan Didion
    Chatto, 108 pp, £6.99, April 1983, ISBN 0 7011 3912 9

‘The fire that is burning in our own front yard’. Three days after President Reagan used those words to describe events in Central America, as he addressed the joint Houses of Congress, the Polish police were out again on the streets of Warsaw and Gdansk and the crowds were fleeing from the teargas and the batons. Back yards have become front yards these days. The change in wording isn’t insignificant. In a back yard, something can be expected to be smouldering at most times. It smells nasty, but poses no threat: this is where the householder is allowed to do his own destroying. But in a front yard (not an altogether easy feature to imagine, unless you think of living in a stable), any fire can only have been lit by somebody else with hostile intent. In fact, any yard in which a dangerous fire is burning, capable of setting light to the house, automatically becomes a front yard. This both Russians and Americans seem to agree upon. They also concur that the fireman’s job is a dirty one, best left to friends and allies, although their own tanks or marines may have to be used in the last resort. But the techniques approved for firefighting differ a little. The Russians, in their thrifty way, appreciate friends who know how to use the truncheon, the censor’s scissors and the psychiatric ward. The Americans believe in denying flames oxygen by piling money on them, and they hand their friends sacks of currency with appropriate instructions.

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