How I visited London, and survived

ZOE HELLER IN AMERICA

WHAT with New Year and so on, I didn't get to describing my Christmas visit to London. In December, a kindly English newspaper editor who wishes me to be better acquainted with the tenets of conservative thought sent me a copy of Rationalism in P olitics, by Michael Ratcliffe. I also started reading Nancy Mitford's Collected Letters, and the two books together had the effect of making me feel rather wistful for England. (The Mitford idiolect is so powerful, you find yourself, in the middle of pho ne conversations, slipping unconsciously into bad imitations of that flip, sing-song ennui. "Darling Boggle, it's too unutterably dull here at the moment. Gobs and Wiffy are going through some sort of stage, and there's not a Guerlain lipstick to be foun d at the chemist.") By 21 December I was bursting to be in Blighty.

Before leaving I had to exchange Christmas presents with friends in New York. The man I love turned out to have got me a wallet, and this was something of a disappointment. It is a frightfully grand, expensive wallet - made, according to the note in the box, out of Italian goats. (Imagine! I thought goats were only good for milk and cheese and the odd peasant stew. I had no idea they were such useful little beasts.) It is a sort of cherry black colour and really rather handsome. But as a rom antic gift,a wallet, of any sort, just isn't on. It doesn't do to criticise presents, I know - "It's the thought that counts," people drone. But that's exactly my point. Just what was the thought going through my companion's head when, from all the deli ghtful, baubly, bangly, diamondy little tokens of affection he might have picked out for me, he chose a goaty old wallet? Still, it could have been a lot worse. A very good friend of mine once received the Vogue Book of Health and Beauty from her boyfrie nd at Christmas. This held the record for the most depressing gift from a boyfriend ever, until last year, when the boyfriend of another friend of ours celebrated Yuletide by giving her a super fold-up laundry bag from John Lewis. I don't think anything will everbeat that.

I returned to England with three vast cases groaning with festive gifties. Everyone else at JFK was doing the same thing, and so there were fantastic check-in lines curling round and round the airport. I queued for about an hour in a filthy temper, made filthier by the creepy young man standing behind me. He was one of those people who are desperate to tell you about themselves. He kept throwing out sentences like, "Hmm, this is going to be a very interesting Christmas for me." I steadfastl y ignored him, but another man ended up taking the bait. "Oh really?" he said. "Why's that?" And the young man was off and running.

He was going to Switzerland, he explained, to see his fiancee. "Oh, that's nice," the dupe said. "Well," the young man replied, with a nasty little grin, "not really. I'm going to break off the engagement. I've realised I'm just a young guy - I can't possibly get married." To demonstrate how ludicrous it was for a groovy young gun like him to be trapped in stifling coupledom, he took off his baseball cap and put it on backwards.

He was a Rhodes scholar, he went on to explain, who had majored in English Literature and was now taking a Masters in Comparative Lit at Columbia University. "I was going to do the PhD, but . . . well, actually, I've just had my first novel bought. As ofnext year, I shall be devoting myself to writing." The dupe smiled pleasantly. "Good for you!" he said. "Oh thanks," the young man replied, obviously a little disappointed with this low-key response. "I guess it's going to be the lonely writer's life for me . . . Ha! The only thing I'm ever going to get married to is my potted geranium!"

Oh, how cute, you callow little troll. Just as I was about to turn around and stab him, I got to the front of the queue and was told that the smoking seat I'd booked was unavailable. "That's the way things are going, I'm afraid," the man at the check-outdesk said. "There are fewer and fewer smoking seats. Pretty soon, all transatlantic flights will be completely non-smoking."

"But I have paid preposterous amounts of money for this ticket," I protested, a little hysterically. "I should be allowed to take intravenous drugs on the plane, if I so wish." Then I went off to board, and, seven hours of sleepless horror later, I arrived in London.

I stayed for just over a week - a predictable blur of excessive feeding, present-unwrapping (I got a karaoke machine! Yay!) and catching up on gossip. Goodness, the way we English talk about one another! People say mean things behind each other's backs in New York, of course, but the acceptable pitch of public nastiness is set much lower, and there's nothing like the same sort of unabashed vituperation. I wasn't half an hour in London before I started drinking deep draughts of concentrated spleen. X's b aby is really fathered by Y, not Z, as X had claimed. A's brother is a kleptomaniac. B is having it off with M, and tout London says his writing has gone terribly stale. When I went into the Independent offices, I met a woman in the loo who said, "Hmm,I wouldn't want to write a column like yours. It's far too personal. Now we all know that you've got slimming disease, you can't get a boyfriend and you're really pathetic." I longed to say, "Wrong on all counts, you horrible old moo," but instead I mutte red something ineffectual about not reading things too literally and slunk away to board the nasty little choo-choo train that takes you from Canary Wharf back to civilisation.

On the flight back to New York, I sat next to a young Namibian woman who was flying for the first time. Twenty minutes before landing she vomited suddenly and copiously all over herself, her six-year-old charge, the people in the seats in front. And me.

It was an amazing thing to behold - you could have hired this woman to spray crops. At JFK, I was met by a friend. "You look tired," he said. Then, just as we were embracing, he sprang away as if he'd been stung. "Jesus," he shouted, so that everyone looked round. "What is that smell of puke?"

I don't think I'll try another visit to England for a while.

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