End of April 10 Column
Start of April 10 Column

Larry King: Letter From Lesser Britain

The finest light humor writer alive today and working in the English language is Larry King. He is my former colleague and editor at CMP and is now an ex-patriate journalist working in the London office of an American news company. Regular readers of this column are already familiar with his work, which I usually excerpt in the main column and print in full behind a link. Since I spent the whole prior week on vacation, I'm turning my column this week over to the best writer I know (next to my mother).

By Larry King

[you can send your comments to me at the usual address below and I'll forward them to Larry, or else print them in the column]

2 April 2000

Spring arrived in London two weeks ago last Wednesday, some time around midday. Until then, it had been late winter. The sky was generally gray and rain would fall at unpredictable intervals, keeping the air damp and chill. Then for a few days a brisk wind blew, brisk enough to make you think winter had quit fighting a rear-guard action and staged a counter-attack. But then the wind died down and when I walked outside that Wednesday for my mid-morning cigarette, I realized I wasn’t hunching over against the cold and the damp. Since then, it’s been house-to-house fighting, one day’s gain giving way to the next day’s losses, but each day getting closer to the objective, which is a reasonable chance that on any day the sun will be shining and the temperature mild.

I’m a little ambivalent about spring. On the one hand, no one can regret seeing the end of a British winter. We don’t get much snow, and that we do get falls in derisory quantities. (Although you’d never know it from the over-excited prose in the tabloids whenever a storm does drop a few flakes. One memorable story a couple of years ago in, I believe, the Evening Standard, described beleaguered hikers forced to fight their way to safety through drifts as high as six inches.) No, what we get is that damp, pervasive chill, and nightfall that comes about four in the afternoon, and dawn that straggles in some time past eight in the morning. What daylight we have is filtered through the leaden clouds that hang over London like a threat. After a few months spent never quite dry, seldom really warm, and huddled more or less in darkness, your spirit has contracted to the size of George Bush’s intellect and your soul shriveled to something as grim and ugly as Al Gore trying to be spontaneous.

On the other hand, when Spring arrives, the tourists can’t be far behind, and nothing breeds mixed emotions in an American living in London like hearing a group of his countrymen and women at a nearby table in a restaurant. You can’t help but feel a little thrill of recognition and homesickness at the sound of an American accent. You also can’t help wishing they’d lower their voices and stop making fools of themselves.

Americans always seem surprised to find that by going abroad, they end up in a foreign country. When they visit England, they talk at length among themselves about how odd the English are: you push the light switches down to make them work! You pay cab drivers after you get out of the cab! But they also appear to believe this particular foreign country is a lot more foreign than it is. Specifically, they seem curiously unaware the people speak English, so everyone within earshot can understand them. And damn near everyone in the Home Counties is within earshot – Americans conduct conversations at a volume the English reserve for attracting attention when they’re drowning. Americans tourists in England are like parents at a children’s birthday party, talking about little Johnny’s bedwetting problems and blithely ignoring the fact little Johnny is standing right there. He’s taking in every word and storing up the kind of animosity that in years to come he’ll spend a great deal of time and money discussing in a quiet room with a bearded man who at infrequent intervals will ask how that made him feel.

Complaining about the oddities and inconveniences of another country is at least half the fun of travel and nothing I’d want to stop. Americans go one step further, though. They honestly seem to believe other countries want to be American, but haven’t quite figured out how, yet. I’ve heard an American man – he was queuing for the National Gallery; I was seated in a café in Frith Street, as I recall – describing what an improvement it would be for ``downtown’’ London to adopt a system of alternating one-way streets, like Topeka or Akron or wherever it was he was proposing as the epitome of urban development. I’ve listened while an American woman told her companions how disappointed she was not to find her favorite cosmetics in Harrods, leaving unexplained why on earth she went to Harrods hoping to buy the same warpaint she could have found back home at the Rite-Aid.

Americans are unique in that regard, in my experience. The French and the Germans are equally sure of their own superiority; the French assume everyone knows it and the Germans are irritable because no one else seems to see it. But the French don’t act as if they believe the Italians or the Swiss are hoping one day to become Frenchmen. Germans don’t show any sign they feel the Dutch and the Belgians are looking to turn themselves into Deutschelanders, although I grant you Germany occasionally will try to make the conversion for them.

The unthinking assumption that other countries are just works in progress, and what they’re progressing toward is the kind of generic U.S. suburb where Steven Spielberg filmed E.T., is the cause of the low-grade anti-Americanism that often puzzles and distresses the tourist, incidentally. ``Yankee go home’’ really means ``Yankee, don’t try to make yourself at home.’’

In fact, these days a lot of Europeans are strenuously trying to prevent anyone else’s making himself at home, at least if that involves actually moving next door. Just about every country in Europe, from the excitable Italians to friendly little Denmark, has a far-right party that’s making a great deal of noise and gaining a certain amount of support by insisting most of their problems stem from the presence of too many damned foreign immigrants. Pat Buchanan would feel right at home, except for all the foreigners.

The Austrians went so far as to form a government that included the Freedom Party, an enchanting group run until recently by a grasping opportunist named Jorg Haider. Herr Haider got a lot of attention by suggesting from time to time a certain amount of sympathy for another Austrian with political ambitions and extreme opinions. The comparison between Haider and Hitler was wildly overblown, not least because Haider showed little evidence of being an anti-Semite, and nobody thought he was foolish enough to entertain thoughts of expanding Austria’s frontiers by force. What resonated with Austrians, and chilled other Europeans, was his xenophobia.

Haider and his crowd don’t much like anyone who’s not Austrian, and their definition of ``Austrian’’ is pretty strict. It’s someone whose ancestors were good, Teutonic Austrians themselves, with ancestry stretch back until roughly the time the Hapsburgs were getting so upset over the defenestration of Prague. Anyone else is a foreigner, and they’re not welcome. This is not an attitude confined to the kind of knuckle-dragging, pilsner-swilling louts who in the U.S. would be hanging around filling stations or getting elected to Congress as Republicans. A friend of mine, an Irishwoman who lives in Vienna, told me during the election campaign that she called a doctor’s office to try to make an appointment. The doctor’s nurse barked, ``He doesn’t treat foreigners,’’ and hung up.

The excitement over Austria’s new government has died down some it took office in February. Haider first declined to seek a position in the new government, then resigned as head of the Freedom Party, although no one thinks he’s not still in charge behind the scenes. People also seem to be having second thoughts about a decision by the rest of the European Union to cut back ties with Austria, which after all had held a perfectly legal, democratic election that happened to elevate a party not everyone felt comfortable having in an E.U. government. The maneuver looked like bullying to a lot of people, as if the rest of the U.S. had ganged up on New Hampshire for backing McCain. It also carried a whiff of hypocrisy. Both the French and the Italian governments include what used to be Communist parties, and nobody was talking about ostracizing them for any lurking sympathies they might feel toward Josef Stalin. Finally, the angry reaction of a bunch of foreigners to anti-foreign politics in Austria seemed self-defeating, since it served mostly to cause Austrians to dislike foreigners.

Here in Britain, the tabloid press and the less-attractive elements of the Conservative party are going through one of their periodic spasms of indignation at foreigners, specifically asylum-seekers. Among the great myths of the brainless-twit wing of the Tories – a phrase that may be redundant – is that great hordes of foreigners are steadily pushing north and west toward the Channel. It seems they are hoping to sneak into the U.K. and claim refugee status, so they can take advantage of the British welfare state, in the process bleeding white the honest, hardworking Anglo-Saxon taxpayer. In fact, the U.K. welfare system is one of the more parsimonious in western Europe, and the concept of the hardworking Anglo-Saxon would provoke disbelieving laughter in anyone who ever tried to catch an Englishman in his office much before nine or a few minutes past five. Any bogus asylum-seeker with half a brain heads for Germany.

What’s provoked the latest round of outrage at the wogs, however, has got some truth in it. A steady stream of Gypsies has been slipping into the U.K. and making a nuisance of themselves. One must tread carefully here. Gypsies are the subject of a great deal of bigotry and occasionally violence throughout Europe. Hitler rounded them up, and today various skinheads and free-lance thugs enthusiastically engage in Gypsy-bashing at regular intervals. Discrimination against the Roma, as they’re more accurately known, in jobs and education is as rank as anything in the deep South of the U.S. during the Jim Crow days.

But the fact is, a certain number of Gypsies – I have no way of knowing how many – actually are thieves, pickpockets, and beggars. One of their more odious habits is sending kids out to do the dirty work. It’s hard to keep in mind grand concepts about how we’re all children of God in the brotherhood of man when an actual child has just lifted your wallet. I was walking across the Piazzo del Duomo in Milan once when a knot of Gypsy children surrounded me, ostensibly trying to sell a two-day-old copy of La Republica. Frustrated by my refusal to stand still long enough to be plucked, the ringleader, a dirty-cheeked little girl about nine or ten, stepped in front of me and with no effort at deceit thrust her hand deep into my inside jacket pocket. Startled, I put my hands on her shoulders and pushed her back gently. An Italian walking nearby said in accented but accurate English, ``It’s no good . . . you’ve got to belt them,’’ and swung his hand, miming an open-handed slap. The little gang saw the odds were shifting against them and turned and bolted across the piazza. I don’t think I could bear to strike a child unless he were coming at me with a knife in his hand and murder in his eye, but I have to admit the prospect of violence got results in this case.

The main activity of the Gypsies now making their way to London seems to be begging on the Tube. This deeply offends the English. A traveler here is not supposed to acknowledge the presence of all those other travelers in any fashion except to say ``sorry’’ if one of them steps on his toe. An instructive story circulated here not long ago about eight passengers seated in the compartment of an inter-city train. Most were strangers to one another, but two were a male and female in late adolescence, traveling together and evidently reaching that feverish state of lust achievable only by teenagers in heat and the upper echelons of the executive branch of the U.S. government. Eventually, the girl threw off all restraint, opened the fly of her companion, and performed upon him a sexual act that kept her as speechless as the rest of the passengers. Upon its completion, he leaned back and lit the traditional cigarette. Only then did anyone else speak: one of the others reminded the youth he was in a non-smoking carriage. The youth meekly put out the cigarette. He and his petite cherie got out at the next station and the rest of the group continued their journey, in silence.

Nobody really knows whether the story is true; the point is, everybody assumes it could be. With that in mind, perhaps you can understand just how put out the average London commuter gets when he’s accosted by a young, foreign-looking woman, who’s wearing a Romany dress and shawl, carrying an infant, and imploring him in broken English for enough spare change to feed the poor urchin. It’s not that he’s opposed to feeding children. He’s opposed to being addressed by a foreigner to whom he has not been introduced.

What I don’t understand is how the Gypsies get into the country in the first place. The U.K. makes it harder to cross its borders than most of western Europe, where passport control now is usually limited to a half-asleep border guard glancing at your passport and waving you through the barrier in the same motion. The U.K. immigration officials take their time, examining your passport, you, the passport, you again, until they’re satisfied the photo is a fair likeness. They often consult some list of suspected terrorists or smugglers or possibly chefs, to intercept subversives opposed to boiling the life out of every vegetable intended for human consumption. How can they miss whole families of Gypsies? They look like Gypsies – they’re dark-complected, they wear sashes and shawls and baggy dresses and trousers. Short of banging on tambourines and slaughtering sheep in the baggage-claim area, it’s hard to see how they could be more distinctive.

Several of the right-wing newspapers have set out to answer that question. Intrepid reporters duly uncovered whole villages in Romania organized to smuggle the younger members of the tribe into the U.K. in order – you guessed it – to take advantage of the British welfare state, in the process bleeding white the honest, hardworking Anglo-Saxon taxpayer. I am skeptical. For one thing, their accounts always elided the mechanics of the trip, avoiding any description of how the young Gypsies got from the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains to Terminal Four at Heathrow Airport and past the gimlet-eyed immigration officials. For another thing, the Gypsies they found in Romania were both articulate and forthcoming, freely admitting their intention to bilk that honest Anglo-Saxon. I don’t know much about Gypsy culture, but my impression is they frown on loose talk with outsiders. More generally, I have lived too long in the U.K. not to believe that any intrepid British reporter sent out to find thieving Gypsies would pay for his own drinks before he’d straggle back to London without filing several colorful dispatches, complete with tambourine banging and sheep slaughtering. The more intrepid could gather the necessary details without leaving the cocktail lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Bucharest. The most intrepid wouldn’t leave Hampstead.

My own theory is the Brits are victims of their singular approach to bureaucracy. They must be the last people on earth who assume, when a government functionary tells them they’ll just have to fill out the necessary forms and be patient, that they should fill out the necessary forms and be patient. Bureaucrats are accustomed to their sheep-like docility and treat asylum-seekers accordingly: they pop them into public housing and tell them to stay put while their claim is sorted out. The bureaucrats then return several months later to tell the asylum-seeker, sorry, we find no evidence to support your claim you’ll be the victim of ethnic, religious, and political persecution if you return to your homeland. They assume the asylum-seeker will still be there, because a Brit would still be there. They are continually surprised to learn the asylum-seeker was last seen approximately fifteen minutes after the bureaucrat dropped her off a few months back. She was hurrying into the nearest Tube station, carrying an infant and imploring some stony-faced Brit to give her enough spare change to feed her baby.

I also suspect the legions of immigration bureaucrats aren’t paying too much attention to wandering bands of Gypsies, because that would distract them from their real purpose – keeping both British citizens and foreign visitors from smuggling rabid animals into the country. Gypsy beggars, Irish terrorists, and Madonna come and go without much let or hindrance, but no dog or cat gets past the guardians of the approaches to this scepter’d isle. Well, they can get through, but they’ve got to spend six months in quarantine first.

That’s right. If you want to bring your household pet into the U.K., or if you’re a British resident who takes your pet with you on your summer holiday in the south of France, when you enter the country you’ve got to put the animal into a licensed kennel for six months, at your own expense. The expense is not inconsiderable, either. It averages about £1,500 and can run as high as £3,000 if you own something the size of an Irish setter.

Now, rabies is a horrible disease and any reasonable effort to prevent it can only be applauded. The operative word in that sentence is ``reasonable.’’ The British are not reasonable on this subject. They’re wild-eyed fanatics, impervious to argument, unswayed by evidence. In a word, they’re rabid about rabies.

You may think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. When the Channel Tunnel was being built, one of the arguments against the project in the U.K. – an argument made and heard in all seriousness – was that rabid animals could come through it and invade the countryside. To combat the threat, at least one group proposed that an electrified grid be laid down at the entrance to the tunnel in France, to electrocute the slavering French beasts determined to make their way to the U.K.

I don’t know what happened eventually to that idea, but I can guess. My guess is the French listened with every outward sign of courtesy and attention. They nodded gravely as the British contended that seriously ill animals were going to climb a chain-link fence, make their way down a steep embankment, stroll along a stretch of gravel roadbed and iron tracks, past the railroad workers and noise and confusion at Calais, then enter a large, forbidding hole and walk through 20-odd miles of harshly-lit tunnel, all the while evading trains roaring toward them every thirty minutes at speeds up to a hundred and eighty miles an hour, and finally emerge fresh and fit in the Kentish countryside, ready to sink their fangs into the first Anglo animal or human they encountered. Then the British delegation left, and the French fell on the floor, sobbing with laughter.

Being French, though, they were both immensely practical and deeply cynical. So they strung some wires around the tunnel entrance and attached some switches to nearby telephone poles. When the British came by a few weeks later, they pointed out the arrangement and swore on the graves of their mothers it carried enough voltage to flash-fry a mastodon, much less a cocker spaniel intent on using la belle France as the jumping-off point for an invasion of Angleterre.

The French, by the way, are not careless about rabies. They drop food impregnated with anti-rabies vaccine in rural areas, a practice that has virtually wiped out rabies in foxes, the main carriers in the French countryside. In 1996, the last year I could find statistics for, ten foxes were diagnosed with rabies in France, along with no dogs and two cats.

That same year, an infected bat was found in England, near Newhaven, down on the Channel coast, so Britain is not quite the pristine, rabies-free land it would like to think itself. The British reacted predictably: they blamed the French. The bat had either sneaked ashore off a ferry from France or flown across the Channel under its own power, the local authorities concluded, on the basis of no evidence I can discover. I’ve never noticed flocks of bats flying west across the Channel, foam dripping from their tiny jaws. However a bat might get here, by the way, it’s as safe as a Gypsy pickpocket. Safer, in fact. Bats are protected by law. It’s illegal not only to kill one – except, presumably, in self-defense – it’s illegal to disturb their roost, even if the roost is your garage. The Bat Conservancy Trust maintains a vigilant watch for any would-be bat disturbers.

You might think it makes little sense to maintain a quarantine law passed in 1904 to prevent the spread of rabies, then prosecute anyone who so much as disturbs the sleep of the only creature known to have carried rabies into the country in the past several decades. You’re right; I told you people are irrational on the subject. What truly elevates the entire situation to the level of the absurd, though, is how pointless it is. Since 1970, when the modern rabies vaccine for animals became available, the sum total of the household pets incarcerated for six months at a cost of up to £3,000 each who have during that time been discovered to be infected with rabies is . . . none. The entire system is an elaborate defense against a threat that for all practical purposes no longer exists. It's as if the United States was maintaining a huge defense establishment geared essentially toward preventing the invasion of western Europe by the armies of the Soviet Union and . . . never mind.

The good news is that the system being modified to provide ``pet passports.’’ A pilot project got underway in February. If your puppy is properly vaccinated, and a microchip is implanted under his hide so he can't be smuggled in with some other dog's papers, he'll be let in without quarantining. The bad news is getting a pet passport means vaccinating the animal – regardless of whether it’s been vaccinated, as I read the law – testing him thirty days later, then re-testing him six month later, and then getting a somnolent British bureaucracy to certify the various steps have occurred. So if you were hoping to take your holiday this year, you’re just about out of time. It takes a peculiar sort of bureaucratic genius to replace a scheme quarantining animals for six months with one that effectively hobbles their owners for at least seven.

British bureaucracies are both a vast subject and one that right now is just about guaranteed to kindle in me the kind of smoldering rage usually associated with moody loners carrying assault rifles and an assortment of grudges, because I am in the process of acquiring a British driver’s license. I’m out of time, though, and I’m sure you’re about out of patience, so I’ll save that rant for another time.

God shave the Queen,



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