London Calling

My assignment tracking Governor Hull across the pond was a real riot

Darwin's grave is so plain and obscurely placed I can only believe his rational spirit guided me there and talked me down. Good thing. I'd spoken with Lewis Carroll a few minutes prior, and he'd been of absolutely no help.

By the way, I didn't see Jane Hull in the Abbey. But here she comes now, striding up to the gate with a sour face and a small entourage of younger men I'm guessing are either gigolos or DPS bodyguards. . . .

. . . Damn! I just tried to ambush her with a question, but the ticket agents kept me back until she was inside the jetway. Now they're gesturing frantically for me to get on the plane. I'm the last to board. I have to stop writing. . . .

. . . Okay, we're now airborne, and my ill fortune continues: The governor's in first class, and I'm in coach. They won't let me into her cabin. I tried to pass the governor a note and a business card through a flight attendant, but I'm not sure she received it, as she has yet to reply. It's ironic, Governor Hull and me being on the same plane, since I spent the last four days hoping and trying to find her in London.

For starters, I called every hotel in the city identified to me as four- or five-star, but struck out. Maybe she went my route and stayed on the cheap with friends.

Most nights I crashed in a Victorian house in the upscale district of Chalk Farm, a few doors down from rock star Noel Gallagher, whose home is hard to miss, as it's the only one in the area with a locked gate, and scrawled on the sidewalk in front is "The wanker from Oasis lives here!" with an arrow to his front door. The pillars to either side of Gallagher's gate appear as twin Rosetta stones, carrying hundreds of hastily scribbled messages from fans and critics. "Noel I love you!" "Bugger off, Noel, you suck!" and other such sentiments.

Sadly, I didn't see Jane Hull outside Noel Gallagher's place, either. Nor did I see her outside the McDonald's in Leicester Square, where she might have done some good, as the 86 members of Russia's national orchestra were playing on the street there in shifts for spare change -- "busking," in London speak.

The National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia's first tour of Britain stalled in London because of poor ticket sales. Its members were forced to stay in youth hostels and busk for meal money. Watching Russia's finest classical musicians play Tchaikovsky beneath the Golden Arches, desperately hoping to elicit pocket change from passers-by, I finally and fully understood the extent to which NATO's Cold War triumph was a Pyrrhic victory for humanity.

I didn't find Jane Hull walking the Thames River, and I didn't find her checking out five centuries of colonial plunder in Britain's National Gallery. The Jamaican hashish dealers outside the fish markets in Brixton claimed not to have seen her -- "No mon, no such lady of power been getting irie here" -- but I suspect they knew more than they were telling.

Located on the eastern edge of the city proper, Brixton is one of few neighborhoods in the world where you can hear Jamaican patois, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Hindi and English spoken on the same block. Brixton's streets are constantly surveilled via security cameras attached to lampposts and rooftops. I was told the cameras were installed in a largely successful if Orwellian effort to curtail Brixton's thriving crack trade by pushing it farther east, into the city's suburbs, at the sacrifice of the greater public's right to privacy.

There's an odd duplicity at work in London when it comes to public safety and security. You won't find many trash cans on the street, and you won't find any in the underground stations, because the Irish Republican Army made a habit of putting bombs in them. In five days, I drank in three pubs in different parts of the city, all of which had been bombed by terrorists this decade.

On the flip side, in 1996, handguns were used to murder 30 in Great Britain. They were used to kill 9,390 in the United States. Whether that's because of England's strict gun laws, or because fewer violent people live there, or both, I don't know.

I do know, after visiting London for the first time, that popular culture across the pond is just as saturated with gun violence as it is here. The new, British-produced James Bond flick, in which 007 blows away countless enemies, including a woman he shoots in cold blood, then kisses, had as much hype in London as the last Star Warsflick in Phoenix. Prime-time screenings were sold out for a week to come. Yet I guarantee you more people will die by the gun in Phoenix this month than in London, trashing, in my mind, the argument that violent films and music induce people to kill, instead of the pawnshop availability of lethal firepower.

When violence does erupt in London, the weapons used are frequently exotic. I'll give you an example: Last Sunday, a madman walked out of his south London home stark naked, carrying a samurai sword. He entered the nearest church, screamed "God hates me," then began hacking parishioners assembled for morning Mass.

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