Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.
Wandering London: to stop, to stare, to compare
August 25, 2009
A pleasant late-August Sunday in London, bright and breezy, the bells of St. Paul's ringing wildly for 11:30 Sung Eucharist, like a sacred pinball machine announcing you've won ten bonus games, the square busy with people including Americans like me, whose business is being tourists. As the poet W.H. Davies wrote:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
It's my ideal vacation, to wander freely in a great city, no schedule, no check-off list, and on my way to church, I passed the true English church, the great Smithfield Market, a grand Victorian warehouse of 1868 as large as two football fields, with a majestic dome worthy of any church, where refrigerated trucks sit idling, carrying beef, pig and lamb carcasses. The meat is trucked in by night and shipped around to butchers and restaurants. Inside the truck entrance is a big marble plaque with the names of 200 meat market workers who died in World War I, the worst and most worthless war ever fought in our time. You pause and ponder and onward go.
Sunday is a day for parents to bring their children into the city to see where the parents might be living had they not had children, in the posh flats above the smart shops, leading the cool life. The children look irritated, bored, the parents thoughtful. If you're 40 and have three whiny children, 25 looks awfully good. But late last night I hiked around Chelsea and the cool life looked thin to me, the sorrows of intoxication evident everywhere, people whose big night out turned out too small, people with people they were wanting to not be with right now, the lonely late-night walkers like me.
When you walk alone, you soak up the sorrow around you until it's not bearable and you must return to the hotel, and then comes morning, a sunny day in a rainy summer, and you attend Mr. Christopher Wren's church and then hike up to Regents Park and Primrose Hill for a view of the great city, a grassy hillside populated by hundreds of Londoners sunning themselves, and you feel a sort of rarefied blessedness and lightness.
It helps that, an hour before, your sins were forgiven and the priest waved her hand and blessed you, and it also helps to be far away from America and the mounting drumbeat of Democratic defeatism on healthcare reform. Nobody is so ready to embrace martyrdom as my fellow liberals, and here they are, seven months after Mr. Obama took the oath, crying out, "Where did it go, the glory and the dream?" Get a grip. Solid majorities in the House and Senate and yet a few puffs of smoke from the other side and Democrats are full of consternation. If they back out on this young president, and if this Congress cannot pass the public option and meet the basic human needs of our people, what does this say about us?
Here in London, people are amused at the wild paranoid fantasies of the right. I don't care about that, I hold weak-kneed Democrats responsible, and if they get spooked by a few hecklers, then it's time to find replacements.
Standing in stark contrast was the simple humane decision of the Scottish government to release the Libyan Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi from prison on compassionate grounds, a man near death from prostate cancer, who was convicted in 2001 on the basis of thin circumstantial evidence and the testimony of a paid witness for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. A shaky conviction of a man for a crime that had to have involved many others who, it would seem, Britain and the U.S. have little interest in finding, what with Libyan oil in the balance. Mr. al-Megrahi had "patsy" written all over him. The Scots did the right thing. And caused a public uproar, and so what? Right is right.
Justice is what makes a great city like London bustle and thrive, a polyglot metropolis full of minorities and escapees from authoritarian lands it isn't the excellent Underground or the plays of Shakespeare so much as it is the expectation of justice. If you come here, this society will go to some length to do the right thing by you. You will not be snatched up and thrown in a hole and forgotten. If you're sick, you'll be cared for. Right is right.
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