The tourist to London can be three things: a sociologist, a miser and a gawker, either separately or all at once. On the Tube, for instance, he can watch a bewildering variety of humanity speaking dozens of obscure languages like a complex musical instrument made from the tongues of a huge former empire. The bodies and wraps belonging to these tongues span the length of fashion from Rhodesia to Abu Dhabi with a touch of Britney Spears and Master P. But lest one begins to view the Tube as an ethnic smorgasbord, the West is well represented. Two seated nuns chatter in Italian watched over by a young unisexual with a T-shirt emblazoned "Vampire." The Vampire has gotten on at Camden which, I am giving to understand, is one of the mouths of hell. (The other is Sunnydale, where Buffy the Vampire Slayer lives.) Represented also are the clerks in gray and black suits, slightly unbound (but only slightly) after the three afterafterwork hours they've put in at the pub. British clerks do not unravel easily. The pints merely oil their inner works for better productivity. The only thing that unfurls about them is their umbrellas, but on the Tube they hold these tightly between their knees. Sprinkled along the folds of the ethnic accordion, the members of the Cold Religious War, and the clerks, are vixens. The vixens' job is to unravel the clerks (impossible!) and to take full advantage of the five days of warm sunny weather that bless the island in odd-numbered years. One of them tells her girlfriend on the cell phone that she skipped work today, she did her laundry, she's afraid to go home, what she had for lunch and how great tomorrow will be if she doesn't have to go in hospital -- in short, everything. Her skirt is very short and a careful slice of sheer underwear peeks over the top of it. Her red-painted toes point languidly inside high (and I mean High!) sandals. Another vixen aims the swollen eye of her belly button at a chador-wrapped housewife making a grocery list in Arabic. The belly-button sits atop a taut globe of proud flesh no longer than two weeks away from bringing another Tube rider into the world.
Now if you've had enough sociology, you head for a feeding station and discover (again!) to your dismay, that a pound is worth two dollars, and that the prices are in pounds. A lot of pounds. In fact, you think you're seeing double. A slice of pizza is six pounds, that's 12 dollars. You go into a place with tablecloths, it's 40 pounds a piece, that's 80 dollars. If there are two of you, I can't even figure. My calculator just went dead. "Honey," I said to my consort, "let's lose a pound of flesh for every pound we spend. That way we'll survive and look like vixens when we leave." Tough chance. But then you don't have to go to restaurants, which have been notoriously atrocious in London since people started writing about them. You can always buy a barbecued chicken and all kinds of delicious dips and breads and wine at Tesco or Safeway, and take these to Westminster Park or any parky square and lay in the grass with the pigeons and the statues. You might even see that rarest of sights, an English jogger. White-fleshed, wrongly dressed and terribly self-conscious, he waddles by like the last Olympic torch relay. Must reach Everest peak by four, by God! Or maybe he runs for charity. Britons suffer en masse from diabetes and allergies, and their socialist medicine is in a shamble. The latest hay-fever epidemic nearly broke it. Run, funny jogger, run!
And lastly, you can concentrate on gawking only, which should fill your visual memory with Victorian buildings, wrought iron marvels like Brunel's Paddington Station, the scary Towers of London, the cathedral-like department stores, the super-snazzy deco flats on Notting Hill, and for a real nightmarish treat, the National Portrait Gallery, where you can view thousands of idealized heads of rich Britons from the past. I fled from the cornucopia to the peaceful solidity of the grand Reading Room at the British Library and sat at the leather desk where Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, then I moved a couple of spaces down to where Lenin, under the false name of Jacob Richter, scribbled his seditious orders (funny name, Richter! Like the earthquake scale. Lenin sure caused a big one! And Jacob! There lies a book), and then found my spot finally a bit further up where Bram Stoker studied maps when he was writing Dracula. I wrote a poem on that hollowed surface and grinned.
London is far from spent, maniac-wise.