Innocent Bystander: Last Tango in London

One of the most profoundly and perversely tormenting questions of our time is how seriously to take change. All of our institutions are being challenged and threatened to some degree by this century’s accelerated rate of change and the alterations it brings in personal and political behavior. Are these, however radical they appear at the moment of detonation, merely shortlived phenomena, to be regimented later by the overriding power of immutable human nature? Or are they here to stay—and to reshape our thought and our world into something unrecognizably new, for better or for worse? There is no answer yet, though I’d hazard a guess that you can’t go home again, and that we are a transitional clutch of generations bridging—and often falling into—the widening gap between the safe, pat past and the wild, eerie future.

Consider the close shaves our country and its Constitution have had on their trek into the present. In just twenty years, our stability and our hegemony over half the world have been assaulted by a steady series of crises without and within.

Our whole history since 1954 or so has been a succession of confrontations between meliorism and extreme reactions: McCarthyism, the assassination of John Kennedy, the mess in Vietnam, the rise (and fall) of the radical left, the commission and exposure of the purulent Nixon maneuvers, the first grave failure of the American economy in forty-five years. All of these events are emblematic of our institutional inability to keep pace with the rate of change, of our national unwillingness to face the fact that we are something less than the Lochinvarian state that came out of the West, with the Great White Fleet as escort and the strains of Sousa marches as accompaniment, to lead the world to peace and reason at the beginning of this century, and that we will be less still in the very immediate future.

And, in truth, we have not been that severely jolted yet. Last winter’s shortages and this summer’s inflation may indeed be the handwriting on the wall, but the probably countless victims of these early warnings have been swept into corners far from the limelight, and we rock evenly through another summer, bitching, to be sure, a bit, but essentially unshaken in our faith in happy endings. As long as so many of us—the ones that show in our society—can still afford a fancy car, a dinner out, a mock-opulent vacation (most of the opulence being in the copywriter’s metaphors), we calm each other with the hypnotic iteration of our appointed and expected rounds. The dance will continue for some short time.

But what of a country that has already used up its nine lives and stands on the very brink of the pit, with the sulfurous flames spiring up from below? Early this summer, I visited England—for the third time in less than a decade—with this question in my head. If there is a sick man of Europe right now, it has to be Great Britain. With commendable sang-froid for a British aristocrat, Churchill mortgaged his country’s power and money for the help to win the war; ever since V-E Day, in May, 1945, Britain has repaid the debt in varying currencies. Austerity, loss of empire, loss of guaranteed overseas markets, loss of the will and wherewithal to rebuild an antiquated plant, loss of a classbased tradition of craftsmanship, loss of the last imperial whimper, and the loony gamble at Suez in 1956.

Then the teetering, eighteen-year slack-wire walk across the endless abyss of crises of confidence, balance-of-payment deficits, strikes and disgruntlements leading to low (and poor) productivity, devaluation, inflation (now worse than our own), changes of weak, tentative, overwhelmed governments, the morass of Ulster, and most recently the tragicomic denouement of the threeday week, enacted in the long, brumal winter darkness with the candlelit shopkeepers posturing like old heroes of the Blitz.

I came. I saw what, in the first real, grateful warmth since the hurried and hardly conclusive election, was the new face of Britain. And my jaw dropped. The arrival at Heathrow, from a late Pan Am 747 whose highest nocturnal obeisance to American culture was the showing of an awful movie called Super Cops, was as ever. Long, stiff-faced glides down rubber-smelling, milelong moving sidewalks. A little tighter airport security than before. The customary coach ride down the decreasingly dreary M4 into London. But then, two startling items of news, one official, one otherwise. Just after our departure from the airport, a bomb had been set off in one of the parking garages, damaging fifty cars but fortunately no people. A mild reminder, presumably, of the IRA. Second, the incredible pullulation of Central London on an ordinary Sunday.

Technically speaking, London seemed less crowded with cars, tourists, and Londoners than in June, 1971. It was easier to get around; a cab ride from Mayfair to South Kensington was not an hour-long traffic jam. But the people on the streets, in the bars and restaurants, in the shops on weekdays, seemed markedly more ebullient, almost frenziedly so. The dowdy semistupor of the early sixties, presumably an extension of postwar drabness, had vanished in a mass reclamation of life and, one expects, folly. The long-subdued British laughed and joked as loudly as Americans; for once I felt I came from the older, wiser nation. The theaters were as giggly and cackly as Broadway matinees once were; the Haymarket at midnight was as crowded with promenading couples as Fifth Avenue used to be; in Piccadilly, kids of all nations, including large bands of presumably provincial Britons, seemed prepared to slouch away the night in aimless banter, without a place to go or a desire to go there. And everywhere, always, under the streetlights and the sun, there were the costly cars—fleets of Rollses, platoons of BMWs, gaggles of Mercedes, not infrequent Ferraris and Lamborghinis—wheeling and swooping on their forays into funland. For London was, if only for a season, funland again (assuming it had ever been): a gaudy amusement park, a wide-open town operated for the sole benefit of its presumably affluent walkersand riders-out. Even the old customs were, surprisingly, paid deference to: leaving the Café Royal one night, we found a beflagged Daimler at the door and a mixed crowd of Londoners, all ages, waiting for the presumed nobleman to appear. A police sergeant cheerfully told us that it was Prince Richard of Gloucester we were waiting for; we caught a cab and left the onlookers—as cheerful as a Hollywood-premiere mob of old—still standing at the door.

Since we were staying at an American hotel under the terms of our tour—it was one of those alumni-group deals, surprisingly well run and a good value—the contrast between Americans and Englishmen was even more apparent. Our fellow nationals lounged around the hotel in their doubleknits, talking quietly and reading a strange selection of London papers, ranging from the News of the World to the Telegraph; to get some real old-fashioned noise and vigor, we had to march out the front door and into one of the surrounding streets, where the tempo immediately picked up. Too much, in fact, at times; walking up Oxford Street on the Saturday before a bank holiday, we were literally in fear of being trampled by the enormous shopping crowds, and slunk back down into the calmer (more American?) reaches of Mayfair.

But all of this primaveral—or vernal-hubbub and hustle had a counterpoise. At the heart of the babbling city there was still repose. We first struck this when we asked for a cab to the Soane Museum, and neither doorman nor driver knew where it was, something that surely could not have happened in London ten years ago. The Soane itself—which we had never visited— gave us our first breathtaking change of pace. It is, if you haven’t been there yet, a sober townhouse turned into a Regency architect’s eccentrically beautiful vision of the world. Each room is designed as a pierced stabile, with discontinuous ceilings, skylights, and mirrors trapping small pieces of outside sky and inner courts and turning them into a hint of a world beginning to be perceived. The eye is tricked, duped, and delighted wherever it turns.

On the inner walls hangs Soane’s collection—bits of classic sculpture (including one enormous bit, the sarcophagus of the Egyptian ruler Seti I), bagatelles, gewgaws, trifles, bibelots, and artifacts of every age, and some uncommon paintings of Soane’s period; in one small gallery, seemingly no bigger than an ordinary American dining room, the walls fold out to display braces of Hogarths back to back, including the justly celebrated Rake’s Progress. Everywhere through the house the virtues and values of the old England held firm; a Sir John somebody, in Norfolk jacket, strode through leading a group of lecturees and looking daggers at us interlopers; the green-serged guards rocked diffidently on their squeaky shoes, answering questions in a Cockney of Edwardian purity; only in the basement—the kitchen and servants’ hall—did one custodian inject a discreet hint of the present by commenting on the similarity of the room to that in Upstairs, Downstairs; the place was as much a museum of English decorum as of artifacts and architecture.

This backwater quaintness was echoed, curiously, in a few other places in London—all of which, by no coincidence, were largely shunned both by tourists and by Londoners. We were completely alone—at the height of a busy weekday, with the Inns of Court in full cry about their legal business—in the medieval Temple Church, where the effigies of Crusaders were burned and broken by the great incendiary raid of May 10, 1941, and where the silence was as total and Hardyish as in a Wessex parish. We were almost alone, again, in the splendid Queen’s House at Greenwich; and in the adjoining Maritime Museum the loudest sound was the amplified, four-beat click of John Harrison’s marvelous eighteenthcentury marine chronometers, shaped more like a galley with a single set of oars than an ordinary timepiece. Again, no tourists; only the custodians and an occasional young Englishman, presumably of student status; outside, the park and gardens swept emptily away.

All England, or all that we saw this time, seemed either full or empty. People who wanted to make the scene, who wanted to swing, presumably, to the beat of whatever costly novelty constitutes swinging in England these days, were on the scene in a vast, strident, conspicuously-consuming concourse. But the old places, with such obvious exceptions as Westminster Abbey, the inevitable nexus of a thousand coach tours, were lorn of visitors, imported or domestic. Churchill’s grave, in run-down Bladon churchyard (notable for its astonishing number of World War I dead in such a tiny parish; we still don’t realize how much heart that war must have taken out of England), was unvisited, except by our small party; the Cambridge colleges, even with the backs in full summer green and the punters poling up the Cam, were silent and museumlike, a three-dimensional postcard purchased as part of the price of our tour. We were glad of the homely voice of the American professor on sabbatical who conducted us around, and of the undergraduate chatter in Churchill College, where we lunched (for 27 New Pence, a remarkable bargain in inflated England); these human noises brought us back to life, as the splendors of King’s Chapel and Wren’s Trinity Library (even with those heartbreaking, hair-delicate Grinling Gibbons carvings) could not.

But the overwhelming impression of England, in this first summer after the worst winter since the war, was one of jubilant noise and probably pointless celebration, of the militant denial of the presence of great change. When the aging (already!), dirty 747 had deposited us back home, we marveled at the silence and the order of our country— for the first time that I remember.