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The Global Zeitgeist Checklist: England


Her. (No, not the Queen.) Ronald Reagan changed American politics; Margaret Thatcher changed British life. And she's still here, with no end in sight. But on her tenth anniversary, she is perceived as suffering from folie de grandeur, symbolized by her already immortal announcement of a recent family arrival with the words, "We are a grandmother." Her latest free market reforms of the medical and legal professions are seen as either courageous or reckless (take your pick) exercises in intellectual consistency: giving Tories a taste of her favorite medicine. But even the zealously free market Economist can't figure  out why she wants to privatize the water system.


Royal bonking. The Sun, Rupert Murdoch's tabloid, obtained but ostentatiously didn't publish "intimate letters" to Princess Anne from the Queen's equerry (whatever that is), a "debonair" naval officer. The implication is that they are, in the Britishism, "bonking." The nation asks: What does this portend for the royal marriage to Captain Mark Phillips, who has been linked—not very plausibly— to Pamella Bordes (see below)?


Harrods. A roguish entrepreneur named Roland "Tiny" Rowland and two mysterious Egyptians named the Al-Fayed brothers struggled for ownership of the famous department store. The Al-Fayeds won, in 1985. Rowland says they cheated. The Observer, a Sunday newspaper Rowland owns, published excerpts of a secret government report saying, basically, that he's right. Within hours, the government got a judge to forbid the Observer and everyone else from discussing the report—even these sentences could get you arrested for bringing this copy of TNR through customs at Heathrow—and the media complied, even though copies of the pre-injunction Observer are all over town. Very eerie, to an American.


Pamella Bordes. So far the former Miss India and high-class hooker (£500 a pop) has been "linked" with two Conservative members of Parliament (who hired her as a "researcher"), two prominent newspaper editors, and a Libyan intelligence officer. According to Private Eye, when the editor of the Sunday Times dropped her, she went to his apartment (to which she had a key) and cut the crotches and armpits out of all his suits. At first it seemed a strange coincidence that this story emerged at the same time as a movie about the similar Profumo affair 26 years ago. It turns out that the sudden explosion of publicity was engineered by a public-relations consultant whom Bordes had paid £10,000. You can think of that as 20 nights' hard work, or as a modest fee on the reported £300,000 a tabloid bas paid her for her story.


Traffic. The downside of the Thatcher boom, for its yuppie beneficiaries, is sharing the boom with everyone else. Commuting horror is the main subject of office chat. Everyone cites statistics to the effect that it took less time to get across London in the Pleistocene era. Meanwhile, down in the tube (subway), the human density has reached Tokyo levels, though the squalor and filth they complain of are nothing compared with New York. At least there are polite signs saying things like: "WHY IS THIS ESCALATOR NOT FUNCTIONING? This escalator is not functioning because it is under repair." Oh.


Architecture. Hatred of architects is becoming a national passion, comparable to Americans' hatred of lawyers. Prince Charles has made outspoken attacks on modern architecture his special cause. They're about to tear down a horrible public housing project aptly nicknamed "Legoland" (designed by James Stirling), an event that is taking on the same symbolic value as the blowing up of the Pruitt-Igo high-rise project in St. Louis two decades ago, except that Legoland was only completed in 1975.


Interest rates. They're up more than five percentage points in a year (to over 13 percent), in a country where all mortgages are floating-rate, so most people are directly affected. Yet the griping is remarkably subdued, even though there is no independent Federal Reserve and the elected government is directly responsible. The Chancellor of the Exchequer went out of his way last week to say he would raise interest rates further if necessary to curb inflation (now up to eight percent). There, in a nutshell, is the difference between Thatcher and Reagan-Bush. Imagine any American politician, for that matter, delivering unpleasant news so forthrightly.


Wealth. The Sunday Times, in a rip-off of Forbes, recently published a list of the 200 richest Britons. Despite the Thatcher revolution, old money still rules. The most startling statistic: 55 of the 200 actually went to Eton.


The new Oxford English Dictionary. A complete record of the English language? Pshaw. Volume One, brought to you by the letter "A" (as they say on "Sesame Street"), was on display in a local bookshop. I tried to think of a word with both classical and modern meaning, to check out their nuances. But "asshole" is unlisted. Now I don't know what to think about Newt Gingrich.


The Satanic Verses. This one's almost off the charts. Some say the author's in Pimlico, some say he's in another London neighborhood called Chalk Farm, but most have forgotten all about him. The Ayatollah's genius was in knowing not just bow quickly a firestorm of publicity can be ignited, but also how quickly it can die out. The story's over, for everyone except Rushdie, trapped inside a very good novel he can never write.