A LONDON CHRISTMAS

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Unless you were Maurice Saatchi, there could not have been a better place to spend the week before Christmas just past than London.

For, as Dr. Johnson once remarked, when a man tires of London, he is tired of life.

The unfortunate Mr. Saatchi was in the process of being booted out of the top job at the company he and brother Charles founded when I left New York, flying out of JFK on the morning British Air 747, transported to the airport expeditiously by a Guyanan driver who lectured me on the terrible things our CIA had done to his country's Marxist prime minister, Mr. Cheddi Jagan. At the BA terminal hundreds of West Indians milled about, heading for Barbados for the hols.

We rolled back right on sked and took off but I was somewhat shaken to read in the New York Post, while en route to jolly old England, Post columnist Neal Travis referring to the Queen Mother as "barmy" and knocking back the gin over her. Despite this calculated irreverence, we landed 15 minutes early at Heathrow and I was whisked smartly into London past football stadiums lighted up for league soccer matches. No labor unrest in British sport, apparently.

In the morning I set about looking into window displays. Fortnum & Mason was featuring tales from "The Arabian Nights" while at Harvey Nichols, there were no window decorations at all, but notices asserting all the money that might have been thus spent was going to charities. Nice, sensible idea. At Simpsons, Perry Como was singing carols.

At Harrod's, target of a Christmas bomb courtesy of the IRA several years back, there were still uniformed policemen inside the doors checking the odd package or suspicious character. I, however, breezed right through.

On the fourth floor, where they have toys and the children's ware departments, there were extraordinarily long queues of parents and little kids, with painted signs hung at intervals from the ceiling announcing, "From this point a two and a half hour wait to see Father Christmas." This seemed to discourage no one and the children, most of them, were remarkably well-behaved. I made several purchases and carried them away with me, having been informed that the package-handling docks were backed up and no delivery to the States even by airmail could be promised for the three weeks.

On a jollier note, trellised roses (Botany Bay variety) were blooming in Hyde Park and fine horses galloped along Rotten Row as London seemed to be enjoying a mild December. I stopped by John D. Wood Co., estate agents in Curzon Street, to enquire about real estate prices and was informed a flat we once occupied in Dunraven Street had recently changed hands for several hundred thousand pounds! This was the house in which Wodehouse also lived (there is a plaque to commemorate this but no mention of me).

I dropped into a pub and had several Fosters, 98 pence a half pint. In the Daily Mail an advertisement urged readers to "adopt a Gurkha family," on the grounds these fine soldiers were now "too old to fight.*.*.too proud to beg." A new item said Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's ulcer was better. I had another Fosters, toasting both the Gurkhas and Sir Andrew. The Nigel Dempster column reported "a filing cabinet heiress" was dating Princess Di's step-brother, Viscount Lewisham, and I concluded it was a slow news day indeed, when Dempster, "the scourge of the upper classes," can do no better than "filing cabinet heiress."

On the sporting pages England's greatest woman athlete was banned for drugs for four years and the local tomato can, Frank Bruno, was actually talking about winning the heavyweight championship of the world. Meanwhile, Fergie was admitting she'd been having HIV tests and Maurice Saatchi was front-page news.

I paused at the Farm Street church for a brief prayer. The recently departed Father Bermingham was laid out in a fairly plain pine box in front of a side altar. There being no one there mourning I included Father in my general prayers. In the streets, Christmas parties were letting out and many long-legged, miniskirted London birds had been set loose. So I went into the Connaught for a martini at the bar where George Woodward of The New Yorker used to sell advertising. I believe George had an office somewhere but it was at the Connaught Bar that he closed the deals. If you've never been to the Connaught Bar, I recommend it highly. Huge glasses, huge prices, splendid service. All about are comfortable leather armchairs, heads of game mounted on the walls, a fire (electric, these days, alas), and the most solid men in London (plus a few rascals). For dinner there was a steak at The Guinea in Bruton Place, just by the back door of what used to be Norman Hartnell's couture house. All about were attractive young women in black hose (no flesh-colored stockings being sold in the U.K., apparently).

In the morning, rainy but still very mild, I looked into William Evans, the gunmaker in St. James's Place (est. 1883). On display were a fine survival knife and a bag to transport your Welly's (those green rubber boots English country people wear all year `round) and many books: "The Poacher's Handbook," "More Tales of the Old Gamekeepers," and "The Glorious Grouse, A Natural and Unnatural History," with foreword by the Duke of Westminster. There were also tweed deerstalker hats and excellent leatherbound flasks (against the damp chill). By 11 I was standing under a bright sun at the Horse Guards watching one regiment take over the guard from another.

I then took off for my usual jaunt through Whitehall, passing the bronze statue of Earl Haig, that prime blockhead who butchered so many in Flanders, and another of Monty in his beret. Downing Street was securely gated off, which might have been a good thing considering the pasting the Tories took in the Dudley West by-election.

More of this to come, if I can decipher my notes, next week.

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