I once came across a swarthy gentleman wearing a sign around his neck emblazoned with the words, “The Secret of Happiness".
Obviously a palmed pound coin could loosen his lips. Even if the “secret” was passed down generation to generation by word of mouth within an elaborately ritualed Da Vinci Code-like secret society as a smokescreen, I wanted to know what was up. Even with the pound coin in hand, the gentleman, a relic of a faraway outpost of the waning British Empire, seemed reluctant to part with the secret.
With startling clarity, I realized the gentleman should have been sporting a pith helmet.
“Come on, what’s the secret of happiness then,” I egged him on, par for the course in how to heckle prophets of any ilk at Speakers’ Corner.
At last the too-tan gentleman glumly admitted, “Uh, take a cold shower!”
Unfortunately it was.
Wandering under the slate-gray sky I felt like I was in the London of The Clash, filled with mohawked squatters stomping around in Doc Martins. When you think you have this city down cold, it comes back at you, makes you feel like a monkey’s uncle. What do you expect in a city with the worst food in the world, unless you’re a fan of greasy fryups, bangers and mash, or “meat” curries. (There is, at least, master chef, Gordon Ramsey).
That awesome statue I saw out of nowhere was actually King George III, not George Washington, I realized, feeling like Benedict Arnold (still a hero here) watching the Changing of the Guard and scarfing down scones and tea at overly touristic Covent Garden.
Big Ben bummed me out.
The Parliament building seemed past its prime.
St. Paul’s paled in comparison to St. Peter’s.
And who isn’t disappointed when they find out that Piccadilly Circus is not a circus and that London Bridge never fell down – it was moved long ago piece by piece to the United States, on a whim of an eccentric millionaire.
Since one of my ancestors was a Revolutionary War hero, Mad Anthony Wayne, I liked to affect a healthy Yankee skepticism about the “Redcoats” with their Weetabix and Royal We’s.
Still, I somehow felt flat out inferior in Jolly Olde England, my elongated vowels mangling the mother tongue. With their posh British accents, Londoners just sounded so darn smart.
Back at my accommodation I really knew I was on Shakespeare’s “sceptr’d isle” when the dignified-looking concierge (a dead ringer for Alfred on “Batman”) told me I’d gotten a message in a smart RP accent: “Your friends will be at Cowgirl in the Sand at half past eight and” – he adjusted his spectacles – “Fungus Mungus at ten". He deadpanned these titular extravagancies as if he were narrating “Masterpiece Theater".
Like a soul-searching Anglo-Celt American influenced by English literature (check out Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner – they are all there), I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Secret of Happiness bloke hadn’t actually come clean with the goods. Certainly the secret of happiness was something more along the lines of “My Fair Lady”! I decided to return to Hyde Park to interrogate the coffee-complected soothsayer again and take him to account.
Stopping at a red phone box along the way to make a quick call, I noticed a powerfully built Londoner standing at the bus stop waiting for a doubledecker. As I jingled and jangled the unfamiliar coins and fumbled with the phone box, the Londoner kept looking askance at me and shuffling around on his feet.
Aha! A Cockney, I thought.
As I watched casually, I noticed the Cockney surreptitiously put one glove on his right hand.
Why only one glove? I wondered absentmindedly, until I realized it might be one weighted glove to give yours truly a drubbing.
I walked briskly away from the phone box down the street, pretending to whistle.
Unfortunately, Conan the Glovearian was close at my heels.
I took up jogging.
Every time I looked over my shoulder there was Tar Heels Jack running two blocks behind, waving at me with his gloved hand. Finally I found an open Indian grocery and popped inside. Conan stopped outside the shop, briefly looked in. Then after a quick doubletake, he took off running down the street.
“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun!” I thought, feeling more cowardly than Noel Coward.
Strangely, up close Conan looked more scared of me than I of him. Plus, he looked familiar. His expression resembled that of an old friend who’d recognized someone in a crowd and chased him down. Maybe I had him all wrong. Maybe he just wanted to ask me a question or steer me toward the right sights. Perhaps he was a distant relative who just wanted to say hello.
I had gotten away all too easily. He hadn’t put enough effort into it. It was almost as if, sort of unsatisfied with his brick-laying or chimney-sweeping job, the Clockwork Orangey Cockney had switched to a life of crime on a lark. An Agatha Christie enthusiast might have speculated that he was hired by the tourist bureau so I’d have a story to tell in my hometown pub. In London, even attempted muggings make good theater, I guess?
But I was secretly thrilled to have so easily evaded a dangerous “sitch".
I wondered if Conan was a real live “football hooligan", written about so well in Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs. Almost getting mugged in England seemed a relatively safe experience compared to getting rolled in the ex-Colonies, since none of the criminals carry guns. One thwack by a bobbie’s club and a dastardly villain would be laid low.
It was almost like a stroll through Hyde Park in search of the secret of happiness. At least, almost getting robbed and clobbered by a Cockney, for an enthusiastic “East Enders” fan, warranted an excited phone call home to the States. Collect.