Another thing I neglected to mention about the Circle Line was that the never-endingness of its route made it the perfect venue for a near-riotous party when, in 2008, London finally banned the consumption of alcohol on buses and trains. Bizarre as it might sound in America, where in all but a handful of 24-hour party cities like Las Vegas or New Orleans, a person can be clapped in irons for appearing anywhere in public with an open container, in most of England it had always been perfectly lawful for someone to drink him or herself silly on a street corner, park bench, or while taking a leisurely stroll or bus ride across town.
Somewhere in the 1990s, around the same time the advent of New Labour and “Cool Britannia” saw pavement cafes and pastel colors introduced to the previously beige, white and buttoned-up capital, public drinking took on a new dimension, one that was further amplified when World War I laws forcing pubs to close at 11 pm and 10:30 on Sundays were finally scrapped. The idea was to replace the traditional Anglo-Saxon style of alcohol consumption (guzzle as much as you can before closing time before staggering out into the street to get in fights with the thousands of other similarly sozzled souls milling about with nowhere to go because restaurants were also forced to close by the antiquated licensing laws) with “Continental” style drinking, which, at least in the wet dreams of New Labour, would consist of well-dressed and coiffed intellectuals and artists whiling away the balmy nights (I think they genuinely believed that if Britain introduced enough aspects of Mediterranean culture, the weather would be forced to follow suit) over a glass or two of a witty and urbane Bordeaux or Beaujolais.
The reality has proved to be more like Animal House spilling out into high streets across the land, prompting much media agonizing about “Binge Britain” and demands by the Daily Mail that “sensible” restrictions on alcohol consumption be re-introduced. Those with sufficiently long memories will recall that at one time pubs opened for lunch, then closed for the afternoon, only reopening once the man of the house had had time to have his supper, and one gets the impression this arrangement would suit the Daily Mail down to the ground.
Another suggestion is that alcohol is sold too cheaply, though prices are already sufficiently elevated to send visiting Americans into catatonic shock, a state which can only be addressed by, as you might guess, drinking more and faster to avoid having to think about how fast one’s money is disappearing, which may also go a long way toward explaining the British habit of drinking to obliteration. In any event, no one has yet succeeded in teaching the locals to drink like Europeans, and this was well illustrated by the Circle Line Cocktail Party that marked the last night of legal drinking on the Tube.
Today there are fewer bottles and cans rolling around on trains and buses, as well as fewer puddles of vomit and other unidentified liquids, but the streets still resemble an alcoholic armageddon at times. Much ink has been expended on the subject of why the English can’t seem to teach their children how to drink, but no solution seems in sight, so it’s a real godsend when everyone can turn their attention to even more intractable questions such as how the massive national debt is going to be paid off or who, if anyone, is going to be the prime minister everyone blames for attempting to do so.
It was with some reluctance that I dragged myself away from the newspapers, radio and TV to watch my beloved Fulham Football Club humiliate themselves and be humiliated in the last game of the season against powerhouse Arsenal. Arsenal needed to win to assure themselves of third place in the Premiership (and to avoid being passed up by their hated North London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur), and therefore fielded a full-strength team; Fulham had nothing to play for and were mainly interested in keeping their squad healthy for Wednesday night’s Europa Cup final, so they played mostly second and third stringers. By the time Arsenal had gone three goals up nobody was taking the result too terribly seriously, but it was still a hell of a way to wind up the season. And while there were tentative plans to travel to Hamburg for the Europa final, those too have gone by the board, and instead I’ll be watching via big-screen TV along with a gathering of Fulham loyalists out in leafy Surrey.
Presumably by then the political crisis will have been resolved one way or the other; at least I hope so, as I have to go back to America the following day and would hate to miss out on any of the excitement. Then on the other hand, the volcano has been acting up again, so it’s quite possible I could end up being marooned over here indefinitely. The weather has been awful, too, or, should I say, it’s been pretty typical, i.e., temperatures in the 40s and 50s (or barely out of single digits, as non-Americans would see it), with the good days being those when the winds sweeping down from the North Sea didn’t carry too terribly much rain with them. However, I haven’t complained much, if at all, until now, except to feebly point out that the entire time I’ve been here New York has been enjoying midsummer-type weather. Well, I really don’t mind that much, to tell the truth; one doesn’t live here as long as I did without acquiring some of the almost perverse English delight at bad weather (and poor rail service and incompetent public services and shocking prices and football teams that are better than your own), without which survival in this rainy and windswept islands would be difficult indeed.
Speaking of which, it’s now time to plumb another depth of London life: a journey to North London after the witching hour of 11:30 on a Sunday night, which means no trains and only occasional night buses, none of which will bring me closer than a half mile to my destination. If you’re wondering why there would be no trains after 11:30, you only need know that train closing times were set long ago to coordinate with pub closing times, as well as with the apparent belief that no decent citizen would have occasion to be on the streets later than that on a Sunday. The fact that London has managed to acquire a million or two indecent citizens seems to be of little interest to those in charge of providing public transport or other accommodation.
And speaking of the most public accommodation of all, Number 10 Downing Street, I ran across this passage in the Times today: “[His] monomania was never more clearly seen than in the days after the general election when, a ludicrous and broken figure, he clung with grubby fingers tot he crumbling precipice of his power. The spectacle was ludicrous; it was pathetic; it was contemptible. And, having been over the weekend a squalid nuisance, remains as leader of [his] party just that.”
The preceding appeared in the Spectator after the 1974 election left then-prime minister Ted Heath facing a predicament remarkably similar to that confronting Gordon Brown today: nearly the entire country was unified by the desire to see the back of him, but in the absence of anyone having figured out how to actually make it happen, was determined to hang around being “a squalid nuisance” for as long as possible. And lest I be accused of doing the same, let me say good night for now.