What I had to remember while Lawrence and London went on and on before me was that England–not Britain in general, mind you; I have nothing against the Irish, the Welsh, or the Scots–is nuts.  They drive on the wrong side of the road, of course, and they do it in laughably silly little cars (some of which have three wheels).  They park with two wheels on the sidewalk.  They put their coins into pay phones after the people they’re calling answer.  They push their kids around in strollers–“prams”!–until they’re seven or eight years old, and they take their dogs to the movies.  Their traffic lights turn yellow between going red to green, and they have coin-operated gas meters in their bedrooms.  Their toilet paper is like sandpaper, and the shower heads hang straight down from the ceiling, like light fixtures, so you can only get the top of your head wet.  They drink lemonade mixed with beer, and everything they eat–bubble and squeak, bangers and mash, spotted dick–is boiled to death and swimming in grease.  And they’re absolutely convinced that all Americans are irretrievably crazy.

The essence of England is at the Tower of London, where ravens hop around with clipped wings because, centuries ago, some witch or warlock predicted that when the ravens left the Tower, the Empire would crumble.  The English solution:  hobble the birds so they can’t go anywhere, and that way, the Empire will endure.  Perfectly sensible.

Somebody said that the sun never set on the British Empire.  Some cynical wag then pointed out that the sun therefore never rose on the Empire either.  Either way, the empire ethic continues to thrive in London, even though the sun hardly ever breaks through the clouds and the smog and the haze, and the English sun-worshippers never really get their tans.

*

I went to the London Zoo a few days later.  Lawrence worked there on a government job scheme (although a lot of Brits make more money on welfare than they would working), and he got me in for free.  I don’t remember too much about it, except for the “chimps’ tea party,” which is just a quaint way of referring to a feeding frenzy.  The day I was there, one of the chimps had a deep gash in his foot.  The other apes worried over him like avuncular chums, except for one glum orangutan, who sat on an upturned milk-crate, off in a corner by himself.  He was part of some primate educational program, and he stayed there, morose in his little nook, with scattered pieces of a kid’s Speak ‘n’ Spell toy around him.  Every now and then, he’d pick up a piece of plastic–with a letter of the alphabet, or a cartoon picture of a chicken on it–and he’d look at it for a few seconds and then drop it back on the ground, staring off into space, crossing his long arms and sighing.

The chimps’ avuncular fussing stopped the second that the attendants–including Lawrence–showed up with big conical feeders full of Purina Monkey Chow.  All of the apes–except for the lame chimp and the orangutan–rushed the funnel-shaped feeders, trampling one another to get their first.  The bigger, older ones took their time and shouldered their way through the crowd, shoving the younger, weaker apes aside.  The chimp with the cut foot had to sit and wait until the able apes were satisfied and had moved on to other things, but by then there was just Purina Monkey Chow dust and a few crumbs left.  The big orange orangutan didn’t show any interest in eating.  He watched the other apes enjoying their tea party frenzy, but didn’t participate.  He sighed, crossed his arms, and looked at the sky beyond the thick Plexiglass ceiling.  Without looking down, and in a way that looked absent-minded to me, he used his long toes to fiddle with the broken bits of the Speak ‘n’ Spell scattered in the hay around him.

On the human observer side of the partition, I stood next to an American teenager in a Mr. Potato Head t-shirt.  “Whoa,” he said.  “Awesome.  Excellent.  Whoa.  Look at that stupid fucker.”  He planted a fingertip on the Plexiglass partition and turned to his friends–a high school tour group, I guess–and laughed, squinting, tongue sticking out.

If that sounds like a deliberate attempt to point out some irony, rest assured–I was struck by it too.

I wandered around the rest of the zoo until Lawrence ended his shift at 2:30, and then we went to the Tower of London; Lawrence had never been there either.  The part that impressed me the most was Beauchamp Tower, which is generally overlooked by tourists because it doesn’t have a very interesting façade, and it’s right next to the infamous and sensational Bloody Tower.  Lawrence and I really only went into Beauchamp Tower because there was a bunch of people dressed up in Elizabethan costumes, having an Olde London Revival party on the central green.  Lawrence was somehow offended by them, and he wanted to get away, so in we went to Beauchamp Tower.

It had originally housed long-sentence prisoners.  Many of them had whiled away the years by carving on the old stone walls.  They carved family emblems, mostly–Latin mottoes and coats-of-arms.  There are also statements of innocence and complaints against the crown.  Those carvings are still there, carved deeply into that rock 500 years ago.  You would think that the prisoners were all artists too, because even the simplest coat-of-arms is an expertly rendered, flawless byzantine bas-relief.  Now they’re protected from curious souvenir-seeking hands by plates of clear plastic bolted to the walls.  Those poor people spent so much time up in that lonely cold old tower, but they were only concerned with leaving behind some noble reminder of a good family name.  I think they’d be happy, because the carvings are still there, and they still look good.

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