by Bob Baker
I had always loved my imagined picture of London, drawn mostly from English essayists like Steele, Addison and Lamb, or novelists like Charles Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, etc. I was about fifty to a hundred years out-of-date in my imaginings, but Britain’s reality was much better than I had hoped, but not at first.
This assignment was greeted with pure joy by me and my family as we flew to Heathrow Airport. We were crestfallen when a polite, but brusque British Embassy driver picked us up and dropped us at a shabby hotel side entrance just off the roaring truck traffic at Lancaster Gate. Our dank, dingy basement two rooms stank of boiled cabbage. The high, dark brick wall outside our bedroom window was topped with coils of barbed wire. This was not Sunnydale Farm, nor rooms above a charming coach yard inn. It was bloody horrible.
In Africa, our boss had picked us up at the airport and his wife had put flowers into our new house; everyone at the little Embassy knew and helped everyone else. Embassy London had some six hundred American staff frantically working to keep up the multitudinous ties between America and Britain. Last time I looked, a decade ago, more than 10,000 official U.S. Government visitors came to London annually. Each one expected some Embassy attention to make appointments, to be shown the town, etc. etc.
I had bureaucratic culture shock. My immediate boss was the Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer, a cultivated, boring New England former teacher of Goethe. Luckily, his boss and the man I took my ideas to after Goethe turned me down repeatedly, was a brilliant American academic, Robin Winks, Professor of Commonwealth History at Yale. He was followed as Cultural Attaché by Wayne Wilcox, Professor of Political Science and Department Chairman at Columbia.
Both men were outstanding intellectuals. They supported and/or improved upon my suggestions. I was really lucky in that. Never before or again had I such excellent bosses in the Foreign Service. They were on special two-year assignments as Cultural Attaché in London. (An idiot social-climbing professor followed Wilcox and so blatantly offended the British that the excellent program was abolished).
At the Embassy on Monday after our Saturday arrival, I was told to buy the local papers and look for rental ads to find an apartment for myself at the price I could afford. In Africa we were driven right to our Embassy rented house or apartment, quite a change. I found an area I liked in London and knocked on doors in the block I preferred. I stumbled onto a place that was to become home for the next four years. It took me a month to get that done, mostly after work was over and on weekends.
But let me begin with my first workday. I caught the underground at Lancaster Gate on the Central Line and whizzed down to my stop.
The bright gray London sky at the top of the Marble Arch underground steps glowed as I skipped up to my first day at the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square. At seven a.m., nobody emerged into the day with me. When I had climbed the steps and reached the sidewalk, about 70 feet in front of me, a big red-faced man in a seedy brown suit leaned against the alley wall. With his outstretched left arm he held himself up by the wall. With his right hand, he directed a prodigious arc of urine against the wall. The stream glowed bright yellow in the sun and ran between his heavy brogues to the gutter. I had to pass the tobacco shop he was marking to reach the Embassy. I ignored him but I thought, “Not that far, after all, from my last post in Africa.”
But, it was. Amazing people and places that could not be imagined in Africa were everywhere in Britain. The layers of civility, gradations of social standing, wildly complex and deep-running political life, wonderful music and theatre, stunning public and private collections of silver, paintings, porcelain, furniture, books, everything that almost a thousand years of history could produce were scattered everywhere.
Dr. Johnson had it right. If you were tired of London, you were tired of life. British imperialism cast its net even farther than that of imperial Rome. London hauled in all the best of Europe, Africa, India, Asia, and the Americas. What a stunning gathering of objects, people, ideas. And Britain itself was a delight.
I loved Britain not only for great objects but also for punnets of sweet, deep red Dorset strawberries I’d pick up from the greengrocer street counter in Shepherd’s Market on my walk to work. Two hundred miles South, on a Cornwall holiday morning you could drop a shilling into a sparkling jam jar on a doorstep. Honor system. Take in exchange, a fresh green lettuce plucked earlier by the housewife from her garden. Back in London, you could order champagne for between acts at the opera. The chilled bottle appeared in the upper foyer, your name written on a little card, propped up on a side table with a couple glasses. Up near Oxford, in Newbridge, at The Rose Revived Inn, a dozen dining tables set with white linen and sparkling silver, fresh flowers, stood on the grassy banks a dozen feet from the smooth flowing Isis river. Undergraduates in punts passed under the close by, gray stone new bridge (about 800 years old).
I loved being in the land of all the great writers and poets, the country where our political freedoms were born, the country which stood against Fascism and Nazis and Stalin’s Soviet Union. I loved their quirks and the great objects, places, and performances.
To an American the Brits seemed to be a very class conscious society. We had our very rich, middle, and poor, but not so elaborate a set of benefits and rules for them. Coming from a poor family, I thought lots of British class elements were very funny or sometimes very irritating. I got snubbed enough times to find out I liked the poor working class best (my kind of people) and then the very old families that had no need to snub anyone. The newly middle class (like those in the U.S.) were more likely to be jerks than people at the top and the bottom.
It was funny the way Britons often sized you up at first meeting. An American accent failed to tell them: where you had been born, and where you had been to university, your class and your likely general income and intellectual provenance. They could tell much of that from listening to another Briton.
Being diplomatic gave almost zip status in the U.K. though it had meant a lot in Africa. Diplomacy in Britain was a mass trade. Not only was the U.K. more sophisticated, it was also more crowded diplomatically than Africa. For example, at the Queen’s annual diplomatic garden party, more than 3,000 variegated dips gathered. Many of them were very dippy dips.
The world of those who counted in London was much smaller than that of America, partly because the U.K. is a small island nation, not a continent.
The educational system back then was much smaller at the university level so many important people knew each other from that, if not through family ties and social events they attended as young people. Even Prime Minister Wilson’s Labour Party Cabinet back then had more than half its members with degrees from Oxford or Cambridge.
Status came largely from merit and/or background. Britain, thanks to excellent public schools back then, had greater social mobility than the U.S. Although the industrial revolution made trade and production the main source of wealth, land still enriched some old families. Many centuries after the King granted the property, much of London’s land is still owned by a handful of nobility. Outside London the case is the same. The Prince of Wales still owns lots of Wales. Ditto for the Duke of Cornwall, the Duke of Northumberland, etc. Even back in the 1970’s, land conferred centuries ago for military service to the King, gave higher social status than money or business. Among some landed people, Bill Gates would be considered a person known to be “in trade.” As a result of ancient land grants, most apartments in London are in buildings that sit on land owned by someone else. You can purchase an apartment with a 40-year lease, for example. A freehold, in which the land is purchased along with your building, is unusual in London.
Getting permission from the owner’s manager, to rent in our building was not easy. We had to submit bank statements, a letter from the Embassy and then make an appearance with our children for an interview by the building manager at his downtown office. He looked cross-eyed at our two children who luckily sat on a bench like little angels. The British at least the middle class seemed to distrust and dislike children. A psychic shudder preceded us when our children accompanied us out to lunch or dinner. Because of that, we often went to Italian places with the children. The Italian waiters always smiled when they saw the children and some little treat usually arrived.
Candid Camera, the British version of the television show that hid a camera and then filmed people’s reactions to situations, tied a little dog to a church rail and filmed passerby reactions in London. Almost everyone stopped to pet and comfort the pooch and a couple had animated conversations on the wickedness of anyone who would leave a dog alone like that. A little child was then fastened with a leash to the same spot instead of the dog. The passerby all regarded the child coldly. When the kid began to sniffle, they scolded it in passing; nobody stopped. Rich Britons still tend to send off boys of eight or nine to a distant boarding school for education. The sadistic hazing of Tom Brown’s schooldays is mostly past, but still, the utter loneliness and confusion of such children must be very intense. No doubt it toughens children up, but it may also account for the very distant relationships seen sometimes in British marriages, or for that matter, in British love affairs.
We eventually were permitted to let the flat near Notting Hill Gate on Kensington Park Road a couple blocks from Kensington Palace and Hyde Park but also not too far from Ladbroke Grove’s lively Black area. We had to sign a five-page, single-spaced document setting out the rules of occupation. I was grateful for the detailed controls later when some yobbo upstairs played bad, loud music despite my personal appeals. A single complaint to management brought almost instant relief.
Other special characteristics of British apartment life were wonderful or strange. I was astonished to find on moving in that all the ceiling lamps had been removed as well as drapes and shades. That was the normal removal of “fittings”. Naked wires stuck out of the ceiling and walls. The house super lived in the basement flat, wore a blue smock, tugged his forelock and greeted you as “sir” when you passed in the hall. The door brass work shone brilliantly and the building was immaculate. Our three bedroom, two and half bath, included airing cupboards with heated pipes that kept linens dry and warm in the damp climate. High and large windows let onto St. John’s church in front and our key garden in back.
A “key garden” meant you needed a key to pass the six-foot high black iron railing. Only those who lived on the square got a key. The garden was about four hundred feet deep and a very long block, long, with great stands of enormous trees, bushes shielding the garden from vulgar gaze, beds of roses, grassy clearings for the children, benches in the shade or sun, graveled paths. It had two full-time gardeners to keep it perfectly. It was a great retreat summer and winter. You could come downstairs and in a minute, picnic on shady grass, or toss the children snowballs in winter. Absolutely no pets were allowed, another benefit of the green space. (Sadly, dogs are now permitted and doubtless foul the grass as happens in America).
In London 1970-1974 as Youth Affairs Officer, my task was to win understanding and if possible, admiration, for American society and arts and support for our foreign policy. As that included both support for NATO, our alliance with Western Europe, and our war in Vietnam, I had lots to do. A year before I arrived, students had rioted outside the Embassy to protest the American war in Vietnam. They were part of my audience, along with young intellectuals, political and labor leaders, artists—anyone thirty years old or younger. Happily, the Cultural Attaché was Robin Winks, a brilliant historian from Yale. He was followed two years later by the equally sterling Chairman of Columbia’s Political Science Department, Wayne Wilcox, who tragically died along with his wife in an airplane crash while he was still Attaché. Both men helped me greatly in my work. I was lucky.