LONDON -- Mikhail Gorbachev, who arrived in London last night, is staying in a house behind Kensington Palace on the edge of a vast and perfect park. His neighbors in these green and leafy precincts are Prince Charles and Princess Diana, when she is in residence.
(London's popular press reports these days that the prince and princess are estranged.)
Mr. Gorbachev's digs are palatial themselves, not the kind of house you would easily find 'round every corner in Moscow. You'd have to look hard for its equal in Homeland or Guilford.
There are some unreal elements about the Soviet leader's even being here. The entertainment program, for instance, seems to have been planned by a determined ironist.
Mr. Gorbachev's original aim in coming to London was to search out a great reward, lots of money and credits to aid his flattened economy. He expected to have his life changed for the better, suddenly, maybe like Cinderella.
Cinderella! What a metaphor for this visit, a metaphor in reverse, actually. "Cinderella," by Rossini, it turns out, is the opera Mr. Gorbachev will be seeing tomorrow night at Covent Garden, before his dinner with British Prime Minister John Major.
No one regards this as serendipity, but it has been thought curious.
"Does he know the story?" asked an irreverent British reporter during a press conference at the Soviet Embassy.
The Soviet to whom this question was addressed, Vitaly Ignatenko, responded with aplomb. The translator related it, in a voice with a profound register: "The choice was made by the host."
There was a pause. Then he added, in what passes as Russian sarcasm, and just to get into the spirit of the thing, "He will probably discuss the plot of 'Cinderella' with Mr. Major at dinner."
All in all, nobody expects Mr. Gorbachev's visit here to be a Cinderella experience. He wasn't invited to the G-7 ball; he won't get pots of money. No glass slippers for Raisa. But it won't be a total loss.
He gets to visit with the queen.
The photographers covering the summit are like flies. It is with reason the Italians call them paparazzi. They buzz around the QE II center, where the press is housed, snapping everything and everyone that moves. They are at every press conference in great number, intrusive, clumsy with their equipment.
When they are not shooting pictures of events or lining up for "photo opportunities" -- staged pictures of the leaders or of their wives commiserating with sick children at hospitals -- they take pictures of the scenery: Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the bobbies around the press center.
The reporters here -- there are 4,000 of them -- are treated well enough in every way but one, the most essential. They can hardly get near any of the actual events personally, only as members of pools. These pools are held on a tight leash. Consider these instructions from the White House on how the press is to be dealt with: "ALL pools will originate in the QE II. U.S. pools will be escorted to the QE II from the Hilton in U.S.-controlled vans but then will switch to British-controlled vans to be taken to the event site."
Otherwise, it's not so bad. The reporters receive a lot of little gifts: neckties with the summit logo, cuff links, scarves, guidebooks, candy bars and lots of other junk. They are also given free food. Chefs have laid in 525 pounds of beef, 84 fresh salmon, 4,000 lettuces, 100 gallons of cream for the strawberries. There are beer and wine, soft drinks, sweets in uncountable number.
Despite the great number of reporters and photographers, and the fact that the summit is all over the London papers and on television until all hours, it hasn't made much of an impression with the common people.
Violet Demming, an elderly woman, was sitting on a bench across the street from the QE II center doing nothing in particular when she was accosted by a reporter who could find nobody else to interview.
The reporter ended up being interviewed.
"Everybody 'round here is wearing these little badges," observed Ms. Demming, fingering the plastic card hanging on a chain from the reporter's neck.
"A summit! A summit? What's a summit?"
"Oh, all the world's leaders. That's what it is. Thank you very much for telling me, dear."