England, Their England

Roam abroad in the world, and take thy fill of its enjoyments before the day shall come when thou must quit it for good.
- Sa'di

There are no Chinese people left in China. They all got off at Heathrow the same time I did.

Or so it seemed; and handy enough for me, because customs was a hustle-through, no harassment and hardly any questions, everybody far too overloaded to bother with a single aging American. I found myself in a large and noisy outer room where lots of people were holding up signs. One of them said WILLIAM SANDERS. It was held by a well-dressed man about my size; I told him I was me and he led the way out to the car. My daughter, bless her, tends to do things in style.

The driver and I had a long conversation about various things on the way into London, while he pointed out various structures of interest. Traffic was dense on the motorway. A thin drizzle, what the Navajos call "female rain", was falling.

My daughter and her husband live up what is called a "mews" - a kind of high-class blind alley - in a pricey part of town called Belgravia, just around the corner from the German Embassy and only a short distance from Buckingham Palace. (When the kid moved up in the world, she didn't screw around.) She was waiting for me on the doorstep when I arrived. After the usual exchanges of affection she said, "How are you feeling? Did your little experiment work out?"

(A note, here, of possible interest: I was experimenting with an idea to combat jet lag. Over the last few months, I had been gradually adjusting my sleep-and-wake schedule at home, getting up and going to bed earlier and earlier, until by mid-April I was rising at 2 am and turning in at 6 - in effect I was already on London time before I left home. This played hell with my social life but I figured it would be worth it if it worked, and it did. I didn't have any jet lag problems at all. Not over there; coming home was another matter, but that comes under the inevitable piper's bill.)

I told her I was fine. A little while later, somewhat apologetically, she left for work. I stood for a few minutes looking out the window and then said the hell with it and got into my jacket and pulled my plastic poncho over my head and went out to have a look at London.

Naturally I went to Buckingham Palace. Not that I have any great interest in royalty; it was just the Point of Interest nearest to where the kids live.

By the time I got there the rain had let up, though the air was chilly and damp. I admit to staring in amazement. I hadn't realized the Palace was such a dingy-looking old dump. I mean, it may be splendid on the inside, but from out front...all I could think was that if I were a reigning monarch I'd damn well find myself better-looking quarters. This looked like some sort of federal building, the IRS headquarters maybe, in some boring Midwestern city. Except for the fancy railings; I have to admit that added a touch of class.

The flower gardens across the street were nice, though. The butt-ugly heap of statuary in the middle of the intersection, with the gilded angel (or whatever) on top, is the Victoria Monument.

I had a bit of luck and got to catch the tail end of the changing of the guard. Not much of a spectacle today; because of the rain, they were wearing these practical but not very colorful little capes over their pretty red coats.

Puzzle picture: can you find the guardsmen? Even in the wet, the crowds were amazing. I can't imagine what it's like around there on a clear day in peak season. Yes I can, I just don't want to.

Clear of the crowd at last, the guards make their escape. Somehow, watching them march across the street, I found myself thinking of the cover of Abbey Road.

I wandered on past the flower gardens - which really were fine-looking, and the rain had made them fairly glow - and up by St. James Park. That's something I wasn't ready for, all the parks and flower gardens, all the open green spaces - you don't get that in the movies; I'd always had an impression of London as a gray, industrial sort of town. Had no idea there was so much green....

After a bit of aimless drifting I found myself in front of a much more interesting palace: St. James Palace, built by, or rather for, Henry the Eighth himself.

This used to be the main palace, before the Royal Family moved into Buckingham. Personally I'd have stuck with this one: not nearly as big, but infinitely cooler-looking. This is just the entrance, and about all that survives of Horrible Henry's original structure; the damn thing spreads all over, a regular royalty-warren of buildings and courtyards back in there, and most of it has been heavily rebuilt since Tudor times.

The rain had stopped by now and the sentry in front of St. James was in full redcoated glory.

Good God! Where did they get this child? Couldn't possibly be over twelve...I'd always had a mental picture of the palace guards as big, tall, imposing dudes, chosen for impressive stature. The ones at Buckingham Palace had been too far away to get any real idea - but close up, now, I saw the truth, and I confess it shook me. This pale infant couldn't have weighed over 120 soaking wet with full uniform on; I've seen more beef on high school ROTC drill teams.

Got to admit, though, he was giving it his all. Look at that brace! You'd think he'd fall over backwards on his little butt....

(What doesn't show in these photos, though, is that just a few paces off to one side - standing silently and unobtrusively in the shadow of Henry's tower - is a very tough-looking Sikh with a Glock on his belt. Tradition and ceremony are all very well, but there's no substitute for professional firepower.)

This slightly bigger lad is one of the Horse Guards, who stand sentry at another old gate on the other side of St. James Park. A fairly rare picture; usually they're surrounded by tourists and local idiots standing next to them making faces and rabbit-ears and whatever else their tiny minds can come up with, while some other jackoff takes photos to show the geeks back home. Impressive discipline these fellows have, to stand there with that sword (which looks plenty sharp) while a lot of assholes make fun of them; personally I'd be unable to resist the urge to decapitate.

Picadilly Circus. I assume they call it that because of the high concentration of freaks. Times Square East, basically. Just walking around for a few minutes, I spotted half a dozen obvious pushers, at least as many equally obvious pimps, and any number of whores - several of whom I think were transvestites, but I didn't get close enough to be sure.

Some Australian in a travel newsgroup said, "London is just like finding yourself on a bloody huge Monopoly board - you haven't a bloody clue where you are or what's happening but at least the street signs look familiar." Yes. The thing about London, it doesn't feel like a foreign country. Not to me, at any rate. Too many British movies, too many British TV shows - it feels familiar even if you've never been there before.

Which is very misleading, and sometimes dangerous. For one thing London traffic is heavy and hell-for-leather fast, and it's all going the wrong way - all your lifelong reflexes for crossing the street are dead wrong; you look and you don't see anything coming and you start to step out and a black cab or a motorcycle delivery rider nearly smacks you and you realize Jesus, that's right, they drive on the other side...but a couple of blocks later you do it again. What it would be like learning to drive here, I can't imagine.

Nelson's Column on Trafalgar Square. The British National Boner. I have this theory that all countries, or most countries anyway, have National Boners. In the US of course it's the Washington Monument; in France they've got the Eiffel Tower. Come to think of it, I don't know if the Germans have one.

Anyway this is the British one, and from all I've heard about Lord Nelson, he deserves to be on top of the National Boner. I wonder what Lady Hamilton would say? Probably, "Yes, that's about the size of it...."

Eventually I ambled back to Belgravia, finding the mews without much difficulty and rather pleased with myself.... My feet and legs hurt, even though I'd been doing a lot of walking and working out in training for the trip; the wet weather didn't help. I figured that was a temporary problem; my extremities would toughen up and quit complaining over the next few days. Little did I know that my core enduring memory of Europe would be sore feet and aching legs - but that's getting ahead.

Next: England, Part 2
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