Swinging London

June 24, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm

THEY aren't dancing in the streets, but something's sparkling in London this summer. They say it's "Swinging London" again, as it was in the 1960s when the Beatles were all the rage.

On a recent visit, this American found London a dramatically different place than it was 10 years ago when I lived there.

Wherever I went, from the Houses of Parliament to the Chelsea Flower Show to the new Globe Theatre, never had I seen England in such a merry mood.

I first noticed the change during a taxi ride from the airport. The driver and I had a lively discussion about politics and the Anglo-American alliance.

The next day, a British Telecom operator helped me out when I lost a coin. At Paddington Station, a platform manager offered to page my missing friend Caroline. And the man at the money exchange bureau wished me a nice day. Back in the 1980s, the British generally believed the customer was always wrong. The key difference now is that the British seem more friendly and expressive, more at home with their emotions showing through their manners. Some are even smiling in public. Good heavens!

The baroness

Take my visit to the Houses of Parliament, where I met a gracious lady while I was mailing postcards. She turned out to be a member of the House of Lords -- a baroness, no less -- who showed me the way to the "strangers gallery." There, the public may watch the political theater, where the House of Commons is never mentioned except as "another place."

Baroness McCloud also introduced me to another member as "a friend from Baltimore." He remarked upon the marble steps characteristic of our rowhouses. A small thing, but it made my day.

This was not the England I remembered, where a British Broadcasting Corp. producer once told me that all Americans were part of one class: "foreigners." Back then, the country seemed like "another place" to this stranger. And Margaret Thatcher's policy of making the medicine go down sometimes showed on the faces of citizens.

The new Globe

As a final piece of proof, I went to see the new Globe Theatre across the Thames River from St. Paul's Cathedral, standing on the very ground of the Elizabethan Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's plays were performed.

In 1988, it was only a gleam in the eye of the American expatriate dTC actor Sam Wanamaker, who was running up against obstacles in his quest to rebuild the theater. Raising money wasn't easy, but overcoming the skeptics was even harder.

Sam Wanamaker died a few years ago, but I think he knew his dream would come true. He is one person who gave London a new face. There are two others: Tony Blair and Princess Diana. His election and her death, both in 1997, brought about a sea change.

Tom Fenton, the Baltimore native and veteran correspondent at CBS News in London, wrote of the reaction to the princess' death: "Weeping, hugging each other. The English. Imagine! It has been evident for some time that this country has undergone a number of fundamental changes, but it took her tragic death to put it into sharp relief."

Mr. Blair, on the other hand, represents the dynamic spirit I felt as I walked the streets from Covent Garden through Trafalgar Square to Knightsbridge. His New Labor government is building a dome to mark the millennium. When I asked a former English colleague, Kay Jackson, what the animation was all about, she said she'd seen this Zeitgeist before: "It's just like the '60s!"

Jamie Stiehm is a reporter for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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