It is spring, the pound is at $1.28 and the voice of the tourist is heard in the land. In Hatchard’s, that admirable bookstore on Piccadilly, an exuberant and commanding woman was dispatching more than $100 worth of books home to Minneapolis, amid noisy uncertainties as to which she might in fact want for the flight back.
In truth there seem to be very few months of the year when the tourists aren’t here. The bedrock Anglophiles arrive in the bad-weather months to absorb the still-matchless theater and to shop Harrod’s when it does not quite so closely resemble Macy’s basement at sale time.
In most superficial ways, the returning visitor does not find much changed from 2, 5 or 10 years ago. Someone can still afford to build and buy expensive real estate, and steel scaffolding is still the principal architectural feature of London from Heathrow to Whitechapel and beyond, just as brick dust and wet plaster are the principal aromas.
On one of those eccentric afternoons, special to London, when there is simultaneous sunshine and misting rain (making it possible to steam a suit free of charge), the lovely public gardens running west from Park Lane are ablaze with rhododendron, daffodils and crocuses and, far from the construction sites, the aroma is of new-mown grass.
At the barracks of the Household Cavalry across from Hyde Park, in sharp contrast to the rumpled passers-by, a guardsman in uniform stands at attention, like a dress extra who didn’t hear the director say “Cut.”
The more London changes, the more it seems not to change. The newspapers each day carry stories affirming that there will indeed always be an England. A genuine period Teddy bear sells at auction for close to $2,500. Hospital patients complain of cockroaches in the food and the hospital defends itself by pointing out that the insects had been thoroughly cooked and were sanitized thereby.
The theater is still ample and marvelous. It is sustained, as English friends say with mixed emotions, by the tourists (Scandinavian and Continental as well as American), who also make tickets hard to come by for some hot attractions.
Hardly a British accent is to be heard in the foyer of the Queens Theater, where Charlton Heston drew fine reviews and is luring full houses for a revival he has directed of “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” with Ben Cross (from “Chariots of Fire”) sounding impeccably American as Lt. Greenwald, the defense attorney. Heston, far more often heroic than neurotic in his roles, makes a remarkable, pitiable Capt. Queeg, and I hope the revival may be seen in Los Angeles.
“Starlight Express,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Richard Stilgoe rock musical in which the whole cast is on roller skates and goes tearing around two audience-encircling elevated ramps, opened in March, 1984, and is selling seats into October. The notion of people on wheels pretending to be trains is evidently so enchanting that no one cares that the songs are repetitive and that there’s not much to say after your initial “Gee whiz” at the scale of the production.
A train, or a railway carriage, is the setting for a Royal Shakespeare Company production just opening at the Mermaid Theatre. Stephen Poliakoff’s “Breaking the Silence” is set in the post-revolutionary Russia of 1920-24. Flashing lights and thunderous sound effects create a splendid sense of motion as a private car rattles north from Moscow.
The car is now home to a wealthy Jewish family, said to have been modeled on Poliakoff’s grandparents. The father, an unabashed autocrat, has been assigned minor bureaucratic chores on the railway but continues to experiment with sound motion pictures, thus the title. The play, with Alan Howard, Gemma Jones and Jenny Agutter, is amusing and suspenseful, a sort of oblique glimpse of the Revolution as seen indeed from a siding.
But, to proclaim the diversity of the local theater, “The Mousetrap” is now in its fourth decade, and “No Sex, Please; We’re British” is billed as the world’s longest-running comedy. One of these years I’ll have to see both, or I’ll be the only soul in the Western world who hasn’t.
The city does change, although it surrenders its antiquarian charms even more reluctantly than Paris. A hulking mini-high-rise is taking shape at the bottom of Berkeley Square, dislodging a few nightingales I have no doubt. The Covent Garden sacred to Eliza Doolittle and her father is hardly discernible anymore, replaced by chic boutiques, restaurants, ad agencies and modest public buildings.
I wandered into one of the new buildings, built by the Greater London Council and housing the Ecology Center and other good works. A friend named Simon Cutts, who runs an art gallery in Camberwell, commended me to see “The Medicine Wheel,” a strange and oddly heartening construction by an artist named Chris Drury.
On a man-high circular frame, made of sticks and string and resembling something between a giant spider web and a dart board, Drury hung, as if from the spider’s filaments, a natural object for each of the 365 days of the year: There are beechnuts, pinecones, melon seeds, corn tassels, feathers from various kinds of birds, an amazing cornucopia and a sort of quiet rainbow of earth tones, an unexpected find amid the bricks and steel of modern London. As a theme piece for an organization dedicated to preserving Britain’s open lands, it is perfection, of course.
But, as Gertrude Lawrence sang in her younger days, “It ain’t all jelly and it ain’t all jam.” The soccer hooliganism that begat the terrible tragedy in Belgium seems like nothing so simple as high spirits run accidentally amok, but is symptomatic of a deeper, angrier discontent on the lower rungs of British society.
During my brief visit, a court sentenced several supporters of the Cambridge football club to jail for terms up to five years for their organized and deadly assaults on visiting fans. The assailants wore “uniforms” of trendy pullovers and slacks so they could recognize each other in the melees. Their MO was to lure visiting fans into a side-street pub and clobber them.
The miners’ strike, ending in defeat for the miners, will evidently lead to more closures. Unemployment is high and in some areas chronic. After the promise of early postwar, the class system seems more entrenched than ever, the gap between rich and poor wider, the public services, from the National Health to support of the arts, cut because of falling revenues from a sputtering economy. The best young brains are forced into emigration and British capital invests abroad rather than at home.
It is a subtle change, easier to feel than to pinpoint, but tourism feels less and less the glaze, so to speak, on a vibrant economy than the desperate heart of the economy. It makes for a real discomfort, if you love this place and are not into antique silver, overpriced even with a deflated pound.
As part of its acknowledgement of the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, the BBC magazine the Listener recently reprinted a broadcast that Edward R. Murrow made in 1946, his farewell to Britain. He remembered his first visit in 1930, when he was young and unimpressed.
He found the streets mean, the cooking vile, the tailors overpraised, the young indolent. “I admired your history, doubted your future, and suspected that historians had merely agreed upon a myth,” Murrow said. But always, he went on, “there remained in the back of a youthful mind the suspicion that I might be wrong.”
The war proved that he was right to suspect he was wrong. “I have been privileged to see an entire people give the reply to tyranny that their history demanded of them,” he said, ending his broadcast and his wartime chronicle of Britain under fire.
Even those too young to remember the war, the broadcasts or even an England before Charles and Di are drawn as tourists to that history. Dickens and Shakespeare (whoever he was) seem near at hand. But beneath the packaged surfaces, the frequent visitor with old friends here senses the disquiets and the stresses. Ed Murrow might again find room for doubt, along with all the admiration and real affection.