Basil Fawlty Lives!


Blue Rooster on a plinth, Trafalgar Square, London

London –

OK this is it.  Final thoughts on my trip to England.

The blue rooster on the old grey rectangular plinth once reserved for a statue of a long-dead member of Britain’s ruling class near Nelson’s Column, is an example of how many here would like to think of themselves.  Fun, a little bit excentric, but very much in touch with their roots and proud traditions.

Cocky perhaps!

Irony, wit and a love for language are delightful ingredients of English conversation. In newspaper columns and on the BBC there is often a pleasing irreverence that is missing from our more earnest commentariat.

street performer in front of The National Gallery, London

Street performer in front of The National Gallery, London

From West End theater and the enormous London Eye, to street performers dressed in gold relaxing on invisible chairs in front of gasping crowds, there is much to amuse tourists.

All very fine as far as it goes.

But scratch beneath the jolly surface and you will often find service not with a smile, but through gritted teeth. The impossibly rude hotel manager Basil Fawlty still lurks somewhere in the English soul.

While this may sound strange coming from a guy lives in New York, many English people do have a problem with sincere good manners.

When New Yorkers say “thank you”, we usually mean it.  Not here. There’s often a shocking insincerity on display, especially from the comfortable classes.

One of many examples I witnessed in the past few days was in the foyer of a modern London office building.

“Oh, you are so extremely kind,” said a posh chap with an apparent straight face to the uniformed security guard, as he was allowed through metal turnstiles despite failing to present his corporate ID.

Did the man with tailored suit and silk tie mean what he said? Not a chance.

The owners of the country bed-and-breakfast where I stayed last weekend threw a late-night party for a bunch of loud friends right below my bedroom.  There was no hint of apology the next morning.

Cell-phone conversations on commuter trains are often long and loud here. And while that often happens on Metro-North, the English pride themselves in being proper and polite in a way that few Americans would claim to be.

Did any of these minor wrinkles spoil my trip? No way.

I still love it here. But a little more warmth and spontaneous kindness would not go amiss.

What’s your view of the English? I’d love to hear it.



London: I Changed My Mind

London and Cranes by against the tide
London and Cranes, a photo by against the tide on Flickr.

London is a city of cranes, and it has really changed my mind about how I think about this great old city.

You see cranes and new buildings all over the place, from a huge new development that’s going up near Victoria Station to many smaller new building sites around the formerly depressed neighborhoods of Shoreditch and Old Street.

After years of falling behind the US there is a sense of vitality that was sorely missing in the 1970’s and early 80’s when I lived here.

One new train system, the London Overground is up and running, and another huge project, connecting east and west London is well on the way.

After years of struggle following the 2008 financial crisis, the British economic growth was recently upgraded by the IMF.

Has the mood of the country changed to match the growing evidence of prosperity and pride in public works? Not exactly. And as anyone from other parts of the country will remind you, the boom is more of a London thing than nationwide.

But there is a sense of possibility.  And the co-alition government established by Conservatives and Liberals in  2010 has held together surprisingly well.  It’s a model for political co-operation, unlike the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington.

What’s ironic is that today’s US political scene reminds me of the rigid ideological orthodoxy of the Labor and Conservative Parties in the 70’s: the very time when Britain was being derided as the sick man of Europe.