Impromptus

England Journal

On a spring afternoon in Cambridge, England (Jay Nordlinger)

I’ll never forget the first time I was in London — I believe it was the first time I was abroad (or at least in Europe) (if we’re counting Britain as Europe, which is a controversial thing to do). It was thrilling.

That was many years ago — when I was a teen. And, do you know, it still is? Thrilling, I mean.

What bliss it is to be unjaded, if we can manage …

• “When a man is tired of London …” You know Johnson’s old bromide. Well, another thing I’ll never tire of is English voices — English voices, or, to broaden it yet more, British voices, in all their variety. I could listen and listen (and have).

(I like the variety of American English, too. And of other Englishes — “Englishes” being a word I once ralphed at, but which I now use, on rare occasions.) (The word “musics,” I will never, in my life, do.)

• I do like the straightforwardness of British signs — e.g., “Way Out.” Don’t you? What a marvelously simple, and clear, description: “Way Out.”

(In the ’70s, we used “way out” to mean extreme, or very unconventional. “That’s way out!” Later, “out there” — “She’s kind of, you know: out there” — came into vogue.)

• I like the way British people treat you in stores. I’m talking about the clerks, pronounced “clarks.” Years ago, when I was a student, I heard people say — Americans — “British manners are false. They are superficial.” I don’t care whether they are false or true, superficial or deep. I like them. Manners are the grease of civilization, someone once said.

• In a cab, there is a sign that says, in large letters, “Please wear your seat belt.” Underneath, in small letters, it says, “The law requires you to wear your seat belt.”

I like the order of those things, and their relative sizes. In my country, I think we’d be more likely to say, “Buckle Up — It’s the Law!”

• Not that you asked, or that it matters much, but I write “seatbelt” one word — not “seat belt.”

• On the streets, down on the pavement, you see “Look Left” and “Look Right.” When I was young, I thought this was stupid — unnecessary, unsightly, and even condescending. But damn, if I only followed those directions, I would not have so many close calls.

A million times, I’ve almost been clobbered in London, or elsewhere in Britain, because I was looking the wrong way. Of course, Brits have the same problem in other countries (as Churchill did in New York). (If he had not survived that accident in 1931, the course of the 20th century might have been different — and, of course, worse.)

• The sidewalks of Kensington High Street are crowded. And everyone — everyone — is looking at his phone (including me).

• By the way, is it “Kensington High Street” or “High Street Kensington”? I’ve heard both over the years …

• This is not in Kensington — but here is a blue plaque indicating that Berlioz lived at this residence, or “stayed” in it. Berlioz was on my mind not long ago: for I wrote about him in this, an “anniversary year” for him. (Go here.)

• London is a little grayer for me, and other people, without John Gross in it. The late man of letters, and prince among men, was one of those who determined what blue plaques to put up …

• Ah, the Saudi Arabian Health Office. Well, I have a piece of (non-professional) advice: If you want to stay healthy, don’t cross the Saudi dictatorship. You may wind up chopped into little pieces …

• Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another prince among men — and one brave mo-fo — leads the Open Russia society from London. I’ll tell you about him another time, soon.

• Recently, I interviewed a great scholar, the classicist Donald Kagan. He spoke of a teacher he had in college — a strict woman who, if you began an answer with “Well …,” would say, “It is not well!” I told him I was reminded of my Sunday School students, who cannot begin an answer without “Like …” I mean, they cannot. I tell them, “No, not ‘like.’ I don’t want to hear ‘like’!” They just grin and laugh.

Here in London, I see an old friend who speaks of a teacher she had in the ’40s or ’50s. (Kagan went to college in the early ’50s.) If you began a sentence with “Well …,” the teacher would say, “Well? What well? I don’t see a well” — as in something you draw water from.

I wonder what the next “Well” or “Like” will be … (A lot of people are saying “So …”)

• How much for that Bristol in the window?

• Um, I’ll be the judge of that, thanks very much (and so will other Americans …).

• Mirabile dictu, as Bill Buckley would say. The window in my hotel room opens. Rarely, rarely — at least in the First World — do you get a hotel window that will open. Insurance, you know.

Thank goodness for this marvelous breeze. How often have I had to put the air conditioning on, on a lovely cool night, thanks to a stuck-shut window?

• The Round Pond stands in Kensington Gardens, in front of Kensington Palace. It is Paul Johnson’s favorite spot in London. He wrote an essay about this, in 2007: here. I once read this essay (I had printed it out) while sitting next to the Round Pond. I don’t today — but I think of it …

• Swans, for creatures so elegant, can make some very inelegant sounds, by the way: hisses and squawks and the like.

• Can Englishmen — and Englishwomen — still grow flowers? Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, baby.

• Standing with his mother, a little boy is asking one of the Queen’s guardsmen about his gun (of course). The guardsman is kindly explaining about six-millimeter bullets and so on. A sweet (and rather retro) scene.

• Other guardsmen — stoic, unmoving — have their pictures taken with kids, and some adults, all day long, or all shift long. They must have incredible patience and discipline.

• Same with the fellas on horses (and notice the sign at left).

Have one more, please.

• In Trafalgar Square, there is a statue of Sir Henry Havelock, a major general. (I don’t mean that he was a big-time general — though he was — I mean that his rank was major general.) Only last night, I heard Havelock Ellis’s name. Later, I do some Googling: Ellis’s full name was Henry Havelock Ellis, and he was born in 1859, two years after the general died. I imagine, though can’t be sure, that he was named for him.

• In front of the National Gallery, a band is playing (and singing) “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the John Denver hit from 1971. The song about West Virginia, in this particular spot, is a weird incongruity.

• What else is in front of the National Gallery? Or rather, who else? Why, George Washington. So no hard feelings then …

• In a Westminster spaghetteria, there is a heartbreakingly beautiful and delightful Italian girl — a napolitana — working as a waitress. Frankly, I meet lots of Italians on this trip: in London and elsewhere. England seems full of Italians, especially young Italians, working. There must be significance in this — which I will find out about, from knowledgeable people, in due course.

• A little monument to Agatha Christie? Unusual and fetching.

• Back in Trafalgar Square, in front of the National Gallery, there’s another band playing, with ear-splitting amplification. Why? Why do they do it, and, more important, why do people tolerate it? Who could call it civilized? It is madness.

And, as I have written about before, at considerable length, one of the curses of overamplification is that it destroys the music being played.

• Do you know that, in St. James’s Park, in front of Buckingham Palace, I meet, not one, but two Americans I know (traveling separately)? Small world …

• You may like an ice cream from a Morris. By the way, which is better, the ice cream or the Morris? Probably the latter (though the ice cream is not bad). It’s a sweet green machine, isn’t it?

• Much of London — particularly central London — is snarled by climate-change protests. These protests last days and days. They are chaining themselves, or gluing themselves, to things and so on. And they’re having a great time. It’s a party. A rolling, extended party. This is made possible by the weather, which is beautiful. If it were rainy and cold, there would not be such a party.

Why do people, especially young people, protest? Well, there are true believers among them, to be sure. But also, let’s not forget: because it’s fun (with sex and drama and fellowship to be had).

• I have myself a pasty (not for the first time this week). When in Rome … These pasties are damn good — with a perfect crust — but not as good as my mom’s, of course …

• There are a thousand variations on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster from World War II. I thought this was inspired:

• Later, I see a man wearing a shirt with a variation I would not have thought of: “I Can’t Keep Calm, Because I’m Italian.”

• Okay, want an ice cream from a Rolls? A mini-Rolls? Heh, sure:

• I pass, unexpectedly, the Western Eye Hospital.

This is where Dr. Bashar Assad was working when he was called home by his father to be groomed for the dictatorship. His brother, the eldest, Bassel, had been killed in a car accident. Bashar was never to have been dictator. That was Bassel, the anointed. Bashar was to have lived quietly, practicing ophthalmology and taking the black-and-white photos he loved. But he has done his “duty”: his genocidal duty, killing more than the old man ever imagined in his wildest dreams.

(If you’re interested in this subject, try my Children of Monsters, published in 2015.)

• On the sidewalk, near King’s Cross Station, a little kid says, “No, I said I was in London.” His slightly older brother says, “No, you didn’t. Before, you said you were in France.”

• At the Cambridge rail station, I enter the men’s room. (Don’t worry, I’ll keep it clean.) (The story, I mean.) For some reason, I glance at the mirror, and a bloke at a urinal says, “Don’t bother looking in the mirror — you’re not getting any better-looking.” “True,” I say.

The man then says, “Where are you from?” “America,” I say. He says, “May I ask you a question?” “Sure.” “Are you a Trump man?” I size him up, hesitating. He continues, “Are you for him or against him? Has he made things better or worse?”

Calling on my latent diplomatic skill, I say, “He’s made things livelier.”

Then the man says, “May I ask you something else? Are you a black man or a white man?” Nonplussed, I mutter, “A white man, I suppose.” He thrusts out his hand and says, “Well, let me shake your hand, before you touch your willie.”

Finally, he leaves.

I guess this has been a racial-solidarity thing (creepier than I’ve described). “Well, at least an episode for my journal,” I think.

• Remembering the local dead in World War I:

• Downing College, Cambridge — an idyllic day:

• Looking at some of these colleges, I think, “Reminds me of Yale” — and then I smile, because that’s like looking at a mother and thinking she reminds you of her child. The mother comes first! The child looks like her!

• Traipsing around Emmanuel College, I think, “Man, I could really study and learn here. Or get a great deal of writing done. What an ideal environment, conducive to education, reflection, and productivity.” Then I think, “Nah, this would be true for about a week, then the magic would wear off and I’d be screwing around same as I always do, hanging on Twitter and listening to music on YouTube late into the night. Who’m I kidding?”

• A kid, a student, is sprawled out on the lawn, with his laptop. I wonder what that would be like. I went to college before the Internet. Having it is practically like cheating.

If I were a student today, would I ever darken the door of a library? I doubt it — I haven’t in years …

• “Oh, no!” I hear on a sidewalk downtown (or, as they say, “in the city center”). A man has dropped the top scoop of his ice-cream cone. It had been precariously perched. His girlfriend or wife commiserates. Is there anything sadder than a dropped ice-cream scoop?

• I peer into a college — its quad, specifically — and think, “Chariots of Fire.” I saw this movie when it was out in the theaters, in 1981. Its soundtrack was a big hit (as was the movie, as I remember).

• “Let me beat my feet up and down Market Street.” That specific lyric is about San Francisco, but you can apply it anywhere — anywhere that has a Market Street.

• How I’d love to throw a hyphen between those first two words …

• Traffic jam, on such a beautiful spring day:

• I offer a little pun for the French among us: “Allée, allée, allée!”

• Nice to walk down Jesus Lane — do we name things that way in America? Not to my knowledge.

• Jesus College is one of the constituent institutions of the university. Some years, they’ll have a team on University Challenge. And Jeremy Paxman (the quizmaster) will say (for example), “Here are your bonus questions, Jesus.”

• I sit for a couple of hours with Vladimir Bukovsky, the Soviet-era dissident, of whom other dissidents are in awe. I’ll tell you about this soon …

• Gazing at the countryside, in the gloaming, on the train back to London, I think of Coming Up for Air, George Orwell’s novel of 1939. Have you ever read it? Of enduring interest and beauty.

• At King’s Cross Station, I want to go up — so I head to the escalator on the right. It is on the left (of course).

• Twice during this week, I head to the driver’s side of a car — thinking it is the passenger’s side.

• I say to a brainy London friend of mine, “Will you explain Brexit to me?” He says to me, “Will you explain the Mueller report?”

• In a park, there is a sign giving “advance warning” that a marathon will take place there the following weekend. I’m not crazy about “advance warning,” on redundancy grounds. Are you? (I have come to accept “co-conspirator,” however.)

• A beefy bobby, dressed in the time-honored style, is dealing with a street type in an obviously professional way: firm — unmistakably so — but courteous. Impressive.

• ’Tween British English and American, there are plenty of differences. Here, dogs must be kept on “leads” (rather than leashes). I like the signs that say “Diverted Traffic.” Does that mean the traffic is amused? Having fun? Also, I like the straightforwardness of “lift,” for “elevator.” So clear and short, and accurate. But what about when the contraption comes down? “Lift” does not work so well (but then, neither does “elevator”).

• On my flight home, the little screen in front of me gives me my choice of imperial measures or metric — miles and the like or kilometers and the like. Thank you for asking. And you know what this conservative and Anglophile will choose …

Thanks for coming with me, y’all. Appreciate it. See you later.

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