London calling

Like many an English major, I go to the motherland for the language. I am never disappointed

Published August 19, 2009 10:16AM (EDT)

A night flight to London crammed into seat 29A but asleep thanks to modern pharmaceuticals and fairly fresh and bright on arrival at Heathrow. Wrestled the bags aboard the train and cruised into the city and lugged the luggage upstairs and into a lovely quiet hotel. It's in the financial district, near St. Paul's.

Enormous anonymous buildings like filing cabinets nearby, and tucked in between is a pleasant little park on Newgate Street made from an old graveyard, some of the gravestones leaning against the wall like scrap lumber, and here is a lovely memorial to ordinary persons who lost their lives in attempting to save the lives of others. Joseph Ford, aged 30, who in 1871 "saved six persons from fire in Gray's Inn Road but in his last heroic act he was scorched to death," and Edmund Ferry, who in 1874 "leapt from a Thames steamboat to rescue a child and was drowned," and William Donald, who "drowned in the lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weeds," and a boy who "supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms," and a man who "saved a lunatic woman from suicide but was himself run over by the train."

The big record stores are mostly gone, and the book business looks chancy with stores offering three books for the price of one, but the newspaper business seems in good health, the Daily Telegraph still preying on politicians of all stripes, and stationery stores abound where you can purchase beautiful writing tablets of every size and texture and roller-ball pens that write smooth as butter, and as long as people still care to put their hand to paper, then the old craft has a future.

Like a good many English majors, I go to the motherland for the language. The sign in the backseat of the cab, "Please keep your feet off the seats," is something my own mother might have said, but nothing you'd find in any public conveyance in America, where a sign like that would only stimulate certain people to plant their shoes directly on the seats. Better not to mention it. Beside it is another warning sign: "If you soil this vehicle, a charge will be made." This one is certainly aimed at drunks who climb into the cab with unsettled stomachs at 1 a.m. with a long ride ahead over rough streets. The sign doesn't tell you, "No Hurling, Puking, Or Yorking." It simply reminds you that actions have consequences and that if you disgorge your gorge on the floor or seats, you will have to pay for someone to clean it up.

I am an American and certain things irritate me extremely, such as British flight attendants asking to see your boarding pass as you board. You hold it up and they peer at it and smile and say, "Twenty-six D -- that's straight ahead and on your left," as if you were an utter demented drooling feckless idjit unaware that the low-numbered seats are up front and the higher numbers toward the rear.

And yet I am descended from these people, as I found out in the Dublin airport Saturday morning, standing in an endless line at security that wound back and forth and moved slowly slowly slowly between the poles and the plastic tapes, and there I was, far back in line, at 9:05 a.m. when my flight to Glasgow was boarding. Anxiety builds, and then I see a short quick route to jump the line and go straight to the passport control -- I wouldn't have to jostle anybody or apologize, just duck down under two tapes and I'd be home free -- AND I COULD NOT DO THIS. I could not jump the line. I told myself to and I refused. It was deep-seated upbringing and also it was the fact that the people behind me in line had introduced themselves as being from Minnesota. They might judge me harshly for this and word would get back: He did not wait his turn.

Now you ask, "Had you known the extreme misery the airline would inflict on you for missing the flight and had you known that it would take you nine hours to get to where you were scheduled to arrive in two -- would you then have jumped the line?" Yes, of course. But down deep, I am a good boy. I do not soil vehicles nor do I jump lines. My feet are on the floor. I will now take my seat and face forward.

(Garrison Keillor is the author of "77 Love Sonnets," published by Common Good Books.)

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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