What is the emotion most appropriate to the English traveler who comes back to his homeland after a visit to America? Warmth, intoxication, relief? An intricate knot of rapture and regret? No, the most suitable emotion for the returning Brit is rain. To the innocent ear, rain may sound like a climatic condition, formed whenever clouds suck on seas, or whatever filthy practice goes on up there. To the connoisseur of souls, however, dampness is all, and, as the plane landed at Heathrow last Friday night, bearing my family and myself, my presiding thought was: Into each rain some life must fall.
We had based ourselves in New York for two months, during which my wife and I had each spent two weeks touring the country. She, Allison Pearson, was promoting her novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It—a best seller, as it turned out—while I tried to interest somebody, somewhere, in a collection of mine called Nobody’s Perfect, which is about as shapely, and indeed as timely, as an old shoebox. I swear I saw an elderly gentleman buying it with ready cash at a bookstore in Minneapolis, although on closer inspection it turned out to be a manual on car maintenance, of a similar hue and design. It was hard to argue with his choice: Why wade through 10 years of closely argued film reviews when you can lie on a greasy garage floor and tinker with your camshaft?
Now we were back and trying to resist the lure of cultural comparisons. Safer, perhaps, to stay with physiognomy, and with the unmistakable doughiness, an unhappy pummeled quality, in the faces that greeted—or, at any rate, confronted—ours in the first few London days. We had, it appeared, missed an autumnal subway strike, a couple of nasty scandals, and a barrage of apocalyptic gales, but the sorry effect of these traditional British festivities was plain to see on every human map. In America, on the other hand, a local Daumier would have noted something sharper and altogether more purposeful in the Manhattan mien. Londoners barge and shamble, as if shy or weary of their destinations; New Yorkers, in profile, are more like the prows of ships, surging forward to the next haven, or toward the enticing prospect of an open sea.
Needless to say, things could have been worse for us. They could have been as they were for Arthur Clennam, absent for more than a decade, “newly arrived from Marseilles by way of Dover,” who found the streets of London clad “in a penitential garb of soot” and its river to be no more than “a deadly sewer.” Such is the congested atmosphere that prevails in the third chapter of Little Dorrit, mournfully titled “Home.” Dickens would have had discovered both more and less, in modern London, to jab and harry with his quill. Less because so many of the social impoverishments that he flayed alive, or flayed into imaginative life, have been halted or assuaged, though seldom erased for good. More because every week here throws up fresh absurdities to heat a Dickensian temper. How he would have relished the recent collapse of a trial in which the butler to a dead princess was accused of pilfering her belongings and then cleared of all charges, once it became clear that he had—oh, the thrill of it!—enjoyed a private conversation on the matter with Her Majesty the Queen. As ever, too, there are the kinds of sex scandals that ignite only in a nation that still deems sex itself to be scandalous; the sight of newspaper editors, and their numbed readers, alternately frowning and giggling over the lusts of minor celebrities recalls nothing so much as a bunch of schoolboys in the far corner of a playground, whispering breathlessly of sins that they themselves are too callow, too timid, or frankly too undesirable to commit.
Such, in a sketch, is the England in which we find ourselves once more. This is not to cast America in a soft Utopian glow; the past year, after all, has exercised the minds and nerves of its citizens with an unaccustomed harshness. Nevertheless, we sit here and ponder, with instant nostalgia, our final night in New York, when the children dressed up as a cat and a wizard, respectively, as if brainwashed by publicists for the new Harry Potter film. They roamed the streets, banging on doors in the quest for that unholiest of grails, an entire cauldron of candy. It was fun, but more to the point it was safe. In London, where Halloween is a feeble spree, only the foolish would fling wide their doors to a gaggle of neighborhood kids demanding satisfaction. And if you did open up, you would be lucky to survive the night unrobbed or unmolested. Some of those ghoulish features would not be masks at all.