Impromptus

London Journal

by Jay Nordlinger

I arrive in London early in the morning (as one tends to do, at least when one has flown from New York). London is waking up — or has woken up in the last hour or so. People are going to work. Kids are going to school. The sun is shining (which is not very London).

“Who will buy / This wonderful morning? . . . I’m so high / I swear I could fly.”

Ed Koch once said something amazing — coming from him. Remember, no one was more associated with New York than he was. He was the “quintessential New Yorker.” He was the city’s biggest booster.

But in an interview with me a few years ago — see it here — he said (I paraphrase), “New York isn’t the most beautiful city — that’s Paris. New York isn’t the most interesting city — that’s London.” (But it’s the most dynamic, or something.)

That is so right: London is the most interesting city, and probably the greatest city in the world. (Americans should be secure and confident enough to express such truths.)

As everyone remarks, London is a city of immense racial and ethnic diversity. There are any number of tongues on the street. Honestly, London makes New York seem almost homogeneous — like Provo or Watts. Several of my British friends say that London is no longer a British city. Instead, it’s an international one.

Well, from this outsider’s perspective, London is still damn British. A fish doesn’t know it’s wet. A Londoner may not know that he is still living in a British city.

How’s integration going? Assimilation? My friends tend to remark, “This is more a religious problem than a racial or ethnic one.”

But that’s a subject we can return to some other time . . .

This is not very British at all: a violet cab. A violet-colored cab. What the . . .?

When we first moved to Manhattan, years ago, I was slightly chagrined to discover that the New York cabbie no longer existed — I mean, the native-born cabbie. The kind that took you to “Toidy-toid and Toid” (33rd and Third). I have almost never been in a cab driven by a native-born American.

Not that I’m complaining. I could care less who takes me from Point A to Point B. I’m just noting.

In London, the cabbies sport a riot of London or Greater London accents. The Brits I tend to see, in America, are Oxbridgians. I’m glad to hear the greater variety of Englishes.

Memo to itchy-fingers (unless I’m too late): “I could care less” is an idiom I have come to embrace. Resistance is futile, or at least undesired by me . . .

In a London cab, there is this sign: “The law requires you to wear your seat belt.” I think of the drug debate back home, in America: Some anti-legalizers say that the mere law is a curb against drug use, not to mention sales. Parents and others can say, among other things, “It’s illegal.”

Never, I think, have I seen so many sports cars: Italian and German sports cars. The swankest, prettiest models. I think, “They can’t all be Russian oligarchs” — that is, they can’t all belong to Russian oligarchs. I mention this to a friend later. He smiles and says, “I’m not so sure . . .”

This is a little incongruous: a statue of Simón Bolívar in Belgravia (Belgravia being one of the swankest quarters of London). Or is there some congruity I’m failing to grasp?

Like many others, from all over the English-speaking world, I get a kick out of reading British newspapers. They are colorful, distinctive — not-bland. Mark Steyn is always complaining about the “monodailies” in the United States, and rightly. Our papers tend to be conformist and monotonous and zzzzz . . .

Of course, some of the British papers are not renowned for accuracy. I suppose boring and accurate is better than colorful and inaccurate. But colorful and accurate — now you’re talkin’.

I have some trash to throw away — not the newspapers! — and I walk for blocks and blocks, seeing no trash can. I walk yet more blocks. I swear, I’ve walked for 15 minutes. Not a single trash can.

At some point, I remember: “Oh, yeah: IRA. London did away with trash cans so that terrorists couldn’t plant bombs in them. Bastards.” (The terrorists, I mean.)

Eventually, I go into a store, to ask a clerk — “clark”! — to throw the trash away, which she does, cheerfully.

I wonder: Given the absence or paucity of trash cans, how come there’s not more litter? In fact, I see almost no litter. Odd.

One evening, I talk to an esteemed historian (British). He says that Barack Obama is the worst American president ever. “He wins the George III prize,” the historian says. Puzzled, I ask, “Do you regard George III as the worst monarch?” “No,” answers the historian, “I mean he lost America.”

When it’s time to go home, I get through security at Heathrow Airport in nothing flat. They seem to have their system “down.” For one thing, they have very large bins in which to place everything — and a guy or two are there to help you do the placing.

On the other side of the screening machine — I can’t think what to call it just now — I like the gentleness with which a female employee treats an African visitor. The visitor is a woman with a large and elaborate hair-do. The employee says, “I’m just going to have a quick check, love,” and pats this hair-do delicately, almost affectionately.

In one of the terminals, there is a Ben & Jerry’s vending machine — I’ve never seen one of those at home. Years ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine about whether to patronize Ben & Jerry’s. I know I’ve written about this in Impromptus before.

The friend was a principled conservative — very thoughtful. He grew up in Vermont, the home of Ben & Jerry’s. These people are such commies, as you know — capitalists who make a killing, but commies, in a sense. Should we buy and eat their ice cream?

We decided yes — because it was like the Left to make food choices and other such choices on the basis of politics. We didn’t want to be like that, if we could help it.

I was in London primarily to interview Michael Gove — the brilliant conservative writer who entered politics in 2005 and is now Britain’s education secretary. I hope you will enjoy a piece about him in the next National Review. He has no end of interesting things to say.

See you soon.