This Is London: Of Returning to England After 34 Years of Happy Exile
FlaglerLive | February 16, 2013
LONDON–If you’re reading this, it’s no longer a secret: a little after 6 p.m. today (or eighteen hundred hours, as they more logically call it here in the land of the original meridian), my brother Robert walked into Maroush, a Lebanese restaurant near the center of London, and heard—and saw—us all degenerate drunkards-to-be wish him a happy 50th, that half-century mark we’re all condemned to cross, assuming life doesn’t double-cross us first.
He beamed and so did we, all of us incredulous at what had just been pulled off for a man on whose far-flung friends and relatives the sun never sets: seven or eight months ago his wife hashed out a plan to summon us all, from roughly four continents and enough countries to cook up a World Cup of our own, for a globalist surprise party in the city that birthed globalism. Robert and his family had been living there for the last few years. By January a good 80 to 90 percent of the uncivilized world knew of the plan, except, apparently, my brother. Keeping that kind of secret is not easy in an age when Facebook knows more about us than the combined colonoscopies of the FBI and the National Security Agency ever could, and when Facebook reveals and tags and pokes and reminds and suggests and tattles all it knows, with its users—us complicit snitches—as its most effective collaborators. A few days ago an uncle from New Jersey, his inner ear for sense apparently still disoriented by Sandy, left a blaringly public message on my wife Cheryl’s Facebook page: “Will we see you in London?” She had to kindly tell him to zip it for at least a few more days. I have no idea how Susan (Robert’s wife) and his two children, at least one of whom is a Facebook collaborator, managed to keep the secret. Richard Nixon would have been envious.
I mention all this because I was just as surprised to have traveled 5,000 miles for an evening’s birthday wish (actually, there’s brunch too, Sunday). For Cheryl and me a trip across the ocean seemed as ridiculous as any notion of a vacation. We haven’t had one since launching FlaglerLive, our own little gulag in the sun, three years ago. I’m not complaining. It’d be criminal to complain when I’m able to make a living in a profession with Depression-sized unemployment and a graveyard next to every newspaper. There but for the grace of getting fired went I. But for all its cutting edge gimmickry web journalism is an ironic throwback to grub street, which signs our paychecks. It’s not the sort of living that affords excursions further than Epcot’s version of England and Paris, the absolute outer edge of our family’s solar system for the past three years.
Still, one of the many empty promises I made Cheryl when I convinced her to marry me in the late Clinton years was that I’d take her to the original Paris some day, the one with the authentic Eiffel Tower and equally authentic dog shit on sidewalks. The best I did was Nebraska, Vegas and a wind-whipped place called Hell’s Creek somewhere in Montana, a few days before our actual marriage (with the gay owner of a bed and breakfast in Virginia City as the best best man we could scrounge up for her.) Whenever she’s reminded me of the Paris promise I’ve responded with the best defense since Casablanca: “We’ll always have Orlando.”
Until now. And we didn’t have to rob a bank to do it. Just a bank account.
About the same time Susan was sending secret summonses I got word from the New York Times Co., for one of whose late regional papers I once worked, that we had a one-time offer to do with our retirement pension as we please: cash it out, roll it over to one of those 401-k scams, leave it alone and fantasize that it’ll be there in 20 years, or use it to buy plane tickets to Europe. I doubt the New York Times Co. is going to be around in 20 years. I doubt even more that I’m going to be around that long (there’s a heart attack with my name on it even now chiseling its arterial song on a discount tombstone at Craig Flagler Palms Funeral Home). I cashed out, and not only booked us on that flight to London, but tacked on a Chunnel-linked chunk of time for France, and Paris: promise, finally, kept.
I am back in England after a 34-year absence, in other words, at the expense of my doddering future, though bank theft has never felt so good. But I won’t be here long. The English segment of our Bonnie-and-Clyde act is only four days long.
Because the thing about England is this: I hate it. Beside English football, Antony Burgess and The Economist, I can do without it. It goes back to a traumatic year when I was condemned to an English boarding school when I was 14. The war in Lebanon had been a joy to live through compared to the snot-nosed pasty faced pimply kneed little adolescent upper cruddy-classed terrorists I was suddenly surrounded with. Not to mention the eternal grayish soot that passes for Britain’s sky, the same soot we spied from the plane’s windows as we descended on London in its wee-est hours Friday morning, the same soot I remember depressing me as the 707 of the time, that miserable September morning in 1978, left blue behind and descended into what would prove to be the grayest year of my life.
So the English portion of this journey is not just to celebrate my brother’s 50 years—a brother without whom I doubt I would have survived that plague year in England—but to make my peace with that little segment of my own Canterbury tales. Yes, the awful year was spent in Canterbury, she of the august cathedral and Thomas Beckett’s murder. But of those tales, another day.
Right now we were descending past the soot into a London as unrecognizable to me as it would have been to someone who’d seen its rubble in 1945 (at the end of World War II for you products of our historically illiterate schools), and was seeing it again for the first time since, say, 1978. For this is what struck me as I rode the Underground from Heathrow to Kings Cross station in the thick of rush hour Friday morning, and thinking—as my mind compulsively does when idle or punch drunk for lack of sleep—of those days when these very tubes were the bomb shelters and last prayers of democracy’s last stand against fascism: It has been 34 years since I last set foot in England. And it had been exactly 34 years since the end of World War II when I had first set foot in England. It was a startling, almost frightening realization.
Frightening, because time, that other fascist, is merciless. Those 34 years, like Robert’s 50, passed as if on a high-speed train to Last Rites Station. And startling, because the England of 1978 might as well have been centuries removed from its Blitz days, after only 34 years. Grimy and exhausted though it was in the late 1970s (after the be-Laboured years of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan), as all western democracies were after those decades of economic and social revolutions, England was a country as new as the old empire could possibly be, even then. And that was before Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair remade it anew, again, for good and ill, into an Americanized annex. But with cheap and universal health care, and public transportation of no lesser quality than France’s or Germany’s (which wasn’t the case in 1978). Big headline in the Independent’s Saturday centerfold: “Brash, crude, offensive—and a massive hit: The Book of Mormon, a musical by the creators of South Park, has taken the US by storm and now it’s coming to Britain.” We hadn’t landed in a different country, quite. Just a somewhat socially more responsible, better organized, more crowded, obscenely more expensive one. You get what you pay for.
And a touch more poetic, too. They’ve got a little thing going called “Poems on the Underground” (or was it in?), with poems scattered in advertising emplacements along the curved insides of rail cars just above commuters’ eye level, presumably to give the minuscule minority of people riding the train without an iPhone, a Kindle, or a medieval newsprint tabloid, and the even more minuscule minority of people who still read poetry, something to do. We were dazed from almost 24 hours without sleep since leaving Palm Coast. We had six pieces of luggage handcuffing us. Our eyes wandered, and fell on Jo Shapcott’s “Gherkin Music,” which went something like this:
Walk the spiral
Up out of the pavement
into your own reflection, into
transparency, into the space
when flat planes are curves
an you are transposed
as you go higher into a thought
of flying, joining the game
of brilliance and scattering
when fragments of poems,
words, names fall like glory
into the lightwells until
St. Mary Axe is brimming.
All I can say is that we’d had enough of flying for a day and a night, all transpositions into higher thoughts and falling glories aside. Our arrival had coincided with rush hour on the Picadilly Line, so we were surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of rush hour on any subway line anywhere in the world—those morning aromas of fresh showers and innumerable perfumes wrestling it out greco-roman style in our nostrils, the sudden orgiastic intimacy with too many touching bodies to count but for the saving grace of winter’s thick clothing, the cradle-like rhythms of the train’s stops and starts, murder on anyone trying to stay awake against the Atlantic tide of jetlag, and that sound, that cockroachy sound of a half dozen earphones wrestling it out with the voice of that woman, the same woman, the same voice, used by British Rail and the Underground to announce in an accent as swarthy as Dame Judy Dench’s and with intonations more lyrical than any errant poem the list of coming stations on whatever seductive stretch of line we happened to be gliding to end, in our case, at the no less orgasmic terminus called cockfosters.
It was a nice contrast with the labor of rush-hour transit, and the half-hour line to have our passport stamped and the purpose of our stay’s interrogated before our welcomed entry into Her Majesty’s British Empire. They didn’t even check our bags at customs. The Arab look on me must be fading. Or I must be getting very, very old, though my son Luka and his Teddy bear walking next to me was a good decoy. The pastier Britisher behind me, much younger and walking alone, was fingered by a tight-lipped customs lass with her “could you come over here sir, you, yes,” as we walked on into the sooty-gray air of suburban London.
We weren’t done traveling for the day. Our plane had landed at 7 am. Local time. Robert’s party wasn’t until Saturday evening. We had 36 hours. I wasn’t about to waste them resting up, or “preparing” for the party. We had an appointment to our own Samarra at St. Pancras Station—a high-speed train to Canterbury, where we’d spend the day and night, and get that reckoning over with. London would have to wait.