In the depths of the Second World War, radio journalist Edward R. Murrow used to open a microphone as German bombs and rockets whistled through the air and exploded on the ground. Then, with those frightful sounds echoing in his listeners' ears, Murrow would intone, "This...is London."
I arrived in London today for the Olympics. Some things I saw would have seemed familiar to Murrow and even to earlier visitors. The buildings around Bedford Square, for example, still have their handsome Georgian facades and discreet doorways with polished brass accents. Flowers still bloom in carefully tended boxes in Bloomsbury. (I am not sure why the doorway at No. 1 Bedford Square, at left, is further decorated with wrought-iron spears. But it is--one of the nice little quirks of the city. Maybe the building was once owned by a viceroy to Kenya.) Bedford Square is still private--an oasis perfect for a mid-day picnic lunch complete with champagne--but for keyholders only.
The changes are often for the better. London used to be renowned for its patient queues. But when I arrived at Heathrow this morning, there were no queues. Maybe this is just a garnish for the Olympics, but I moved through the airport like beer through a fraternity boy. Immigration control officers seemed to outnumber tourists at the passport check. There was no one manning the green corridor at Customs.
The city has seen some great innovations--Boris's bikes, for one. These are blue rental bikes, sponsored by Barclay's Bank, but popularly named after Mayor Boris Johnson, under whose aegis the program began in 2010. After you pay your $8 access fee, you're charged by the ride, with rides under a half an hour being free. It's a brilliant way to see the city, and if I can remember that traffic stays to the left and avoid being crushed by an oncoming bus, I plan to get my $8 worth.
Johnson, by the way, is a Conservative, but evidently not of the American variety. It's difficult to imagine an American conservative sponsoring a municipal bike rental program. Sounds like socialism to the American conservative ear. And our conservatives are too busy forestalling a tax increase for millionaires to think of something so practical.
London has also joined the worldwide war on tobacco. I can understand this. But I still find it unsettling to see a couple of guys having to take their pints to the sidewalk if they want to have a smoke to go with them. I thought some things in British culture were sacred--the smoke-filled pub being one. But I guess not. The next thing you know, the Queen will be appearing in James Bond movies.
Oh, yeah. She did that for the Opening Ceremonies last week.