A weeklong electronic journal.
Nov. 30 1998 3:30 AM


       I am having problems readjusting to London after a week's holiday in New York, where the sun shone, people sat out on the sidewalks drinking coffee, and there was plenty of joy in the air. Here it is cold, wet, and gloomy, and there's no joy in the air at all. This is a particularly depressing time of the year, when the Christmas decorations are switched on in Oxford Street and Regent Street. London's Christmas decorations are a disgrace--cheap and gaudy and flaunting their commercial sponsorship. New York's millions of pure little white lights are magic by comparison. If it were ever the case that the Americans were more vulgar than the British, it is certainly not so now.
       Not that I am totally against London. I have a strange affection for the suburb of Hammersmith in West London, where I live and work. Maybe it's because it is uncannily quiet, and I am woken in the morning by the cooing of wood pigeons. There is also a fox that frequently takes afternoon naps in the ivy on the roof of my garden shed. There are far more foxes per acre in London than anywhere in the English countryside, because here they have almost unlimited food.
       Otherwise, Hammersmith is a borough most people only know from driving through it on the way into central London from the airport--a place without interesting buildings, interesting shops, or interesting anything except for its Georgian frontage on the river Thames and for the Havelock Tavern up the road, where the food is excellent and the waitresses are highly respectable but exceptionally pretty.
       I go there almost every day for lunch, when it is quiet and never full, and spread my newspapers out over one of the large tables and read them as I eat. I recently asked the manager why his waitresses, who change all the time, contrive to be so consistently pretty. He said he didn't know, that they just passed their jobs on to their friends--which may indicate that good-looking people tend to make friends with other good-looking people.
       My life consists almost entirely of reading the newspapers and writing about what I find in them. I get 10 British national newspapers delivered to my doorstep each morning and purchase several foreign ones from the grocery store round the corner after they arrive there about 11 a.m. The grocery store has recently started selling newspapers from practically every foreign country in Europe, and I wonder who buys them apart from me (I need them for writing "International Papers" for Slate). I practically never see a foreigner here except for the chic French women in their smart cars delivering their children to the French infants' school nearby.
       The British papers have had little in them lately apart from the crisis over Gen. Pinochet and the outing of three homosexuals in the Blair Cabinet, one of whom, Ron Davies, the secretary of state for Wales, was forced to resign after he was mugged by a man he met at a gay hangout on Clapham Common. While the British people claim in opinion polls that they have no objection to gay Cabinet ministers, there are now signs of slight disenchantment with the hitherto wildly popular Blair government.
       Meanwhile, speculation mounts over who will succeed the late Ted Hughes as Britain's poet laureate, who, in contrast to the American poet laureate, holds the job for life. The conservative Daily Telegraph has decided to root for a 53-year-old woman, Wendy Cope, because she is so popular and accessible. She has already got into training for royal service by writing an "All-Purpose Poem for State Occasions," the first two verses of which go as follows:

The nation rejoices or mourns
As this happy or somber day dawns.
Our eyes will be wet
As we sit round the set [television],
Neglecting our flowerbeds and lawns.

As Her Majesty rides past the crowd
They'll be silent or cheer very loud
But whatever they do
It's undoubtedly true
That they'll feel patriotic and proud.

Alexander Chancellor writes "International Papers" for Slate.