11:00 pm So farewell then, Grosvenor Square US Embassy. Here we are, standing in line late at night in the November drizzle outside of Eero Sarienen’s unloved Modernist expression of US imperial self-assurance (what would a new Embassy in Battersea commissioned under an Obama administration look like? An environmentally-sound yurt?) when we could be tucked up on the sofa watching the election returns with Jeremy and a milky drink. But no, we’ve been unable to resist the lure of mingling with the movers-and-shakers.
The streets are even more barricaded than usual. There are several lines to go through the airport-style metal detectors, two for people without handbags, the others for handbag carriers. “There’s the Shadow Education Secretary”, a well-dressed young person, who must be a Parliamentary junior aide or researcher, exclaims (bite back the excitement!). As we finally gain admittance to the building, we hear the unmistakable tones of Janet Street-Porter.
The front of the Embassy has a huge projection of stars enlivening it. A Dixieland band plays partygoers in, and a co-ed squad of teenage cheerleaders performs intermittently on the front portico.
It’s a far cry from 2004, when, under the austere former Ambassador William Farish, there were no decorations, no bands, and really not much effort to appear welcoming. Similarly, in 2004 the Embassy was filled with Marines in camouflage battle dress standing stock still on the edge of the room, like military-themed living statues. Tonight if there’s a military presence, it’s invisible.
The first floor lobby is absolutely rammed. And at certain bottlenecks, it’s worse than the tube at rush hour. Silent screens above our heads project the latest from America’s CBS, MSNBC, and Fox networks, as well as the BBC. But the polls haven’t closed so all everyone’s doing now is vamping till ready.
It’s slim pickings on the celeb front. Josh Hartnett is the only sighting so far, unless you want to count Jonathan Dimbleby. There are several former significant political figures – Charles Clarke, David Davis, Alistair Campbell – but current Westminster stars are thin on the ground, unless you want to count Lembit Opik.
Bars serving California wines, bourbon, and Jack Daniels (though most people want water) are staffed with friendly volunteers and waiters circulate with foie gras puffs and lamb on bread squares. Sober, business-like dress is the order of the day, enlivened here and there with an Uncle Sam hat or Statue of Liberty crown. One glamourous party, however, didn’t get the memo. Four women in killer heels, tight dresses, lavish furs, and eye-blinding jewelry waft through the crowd, in which they are as exotic as Berbers.
Purely out of self-interest, I’m hoping for Obama victories in Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These polls will be closed by 1:30, and if he takes three out of five, it’s over and I can go home at a reasonable hour.
Downstairs in the basement there’s a large rather grim room with acoutic-tiles on the ceiling. Here a country and western band and later Glen Tillbrook, late of Squeeze, entertain the crowd. The air is thick with the smell of grease from the Burger King stand.
There’s also a theatre with a large screen showing CNN’s election night coverage. Every seat is filled as are the aisles. This is an audience fascinated by arcane in-depth breakdowns of key counties in Virginia.
The energy is strangely subdued. But the Democrats have been here before. In 2004, buoyed by the exit polls, the atmosphere in the early hours of the Embassy’s election night party was exuberant. No one could believe Bush would get in twice. But then, as we moved towards 2 am and it became clear that despite Iraq, despite Abu Ghraib, despite My Pet Goat, despite everything, the American electorate were going to come back for seconds, the festive spirit slowly deflated, like the air leaving a balloon. So no one’s getting too excited just yet. It’s as if everyone is collectively holding their breath.
The crowd seems evenly divided between the parties, although expatriate Americans tend to be disproportionately Democrats (expatriate Republicans are atypical of the breed because they have passports and are not afraid to eat furrin food.) They may have come from small-town “real” (in Palin-speak) America originally, but now have the kind of jobs that have relocated them to Britain, so presumably at some point they moved to the big (Democratic) city. Or else they left the real America as fast as they could of their own volition and just kept going.
12:30 am Indiana is too close to call. This is usually a rock-ribbed Republican state. A harbinger of things to come?
1:00 am Now things are starting to get interesting. Obama has won New Hampshire. McCain has won Georgia. Virginia is too close to call. And the Brits are all leaving so it’s now possible to get seats in the theatre. You have to feel for outgoing Ambassador Robert Tuttle. A genial Reagan Republican although appointed by W, he has to listen as all these freeloaders who’ve been scoffing down his food and drink cheer whenever a state is called for Obama and groan when it goes for his party.
1:30 am Tension you could cut with a knife. McCain is on 34 electoral votes, Obama on 74. North Carolina too close to call. These are all states that Bush won in 2004 and that Obama has a chance in.
1:45 am Look, there’s the Embassy party on the BBC screen as the heads of Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad are interviewed
2:00 am The loudest cheering of the night as Obama takes Pennsylvania. Obama supporters start to let out their breath and feel happy. Florida still too close to call.
3:00 am Ohio is called for Obama. Blinking, those of us wearing Obama buttons finally start to believe we’ve won, as predicted. Our long national nightmare is over. The junta has been deposed. Time to head for the coat check.