Last time I wrote the “Diary,” I worked at Slate. Times have changed: Eight months ago I quit my job as Fray editor and soon afterwards moved back from Seattle to my native England. My family and I had lived in the USA for six years. On our return I met a neighbor who, meaning to be welcoming, said, “Oh, haven’t seen you for ages. Did you have a nice time?”—a question that seems appropriate for a weekend in Paris but not perhaps for such a large chunk of life. In fact of course I had a very nice time, I loved living in America. Coming home wasn’t a hard decision to make—we had never wavered in our determination that our children should attend secondary school in the U.K., and recent family events had made it even more obvious that we should come home—but leaving our friends was hard.
I’m now living outside London in a small town called Winchester. (Depending on your age, this may make you sing a 1960s pop song: “Winchester Cathedral, you’re bringing me doooown …” For such older readers, I present a picture of the city’s pride and joy.) I work part-time at the Guardian in London. It’s a national newspaper with a huge Web site—one with an unusually large presence in the United States, and, I would guess, particularly high name recognition among Slate readers (you’re all so cosmopolitan and literate, such political and media junkies).
This weekend I made an extra trip to London to attend the massive anti-war demonstration there—estimates vary between 1 million and 2 million taking part, but it was certainly the biggest political protest ever in Britain. I’m not sure I’ve got anything to add to the arguments about the war, but it is extraordinary the way Prime Minister Tony Blair has failed so completely to unite the country behind him. And I have never known a political controversy in which it was so hard to find the other side: You can talk to friends, acquaintances, chance-met fellow shoppers or other passengers on the train, and you will never meet anyone who supports the war whole-heartedly. The general view is that Blair and Bush haven’t produced the evidence, either of weapons infractions or links with terrorism, and people are suspicious of the motives for war.
The rest of the weekend was quiet. We had some friends over for lunch and after the usual discussion about politics (short because, see above, everyone always agrees …) we moved on to differences between American and British life—we like to bore people with our important views on this topic. I particularly like to drone on about the fact that mobile phones are in more widespread use here (didn’t think it was possible, did you?), approaching saturation among teenagers. Almost everyone has the same phone—Nokia—which means any passing 14-year-old can help out when you (well, I say “you,” I mean “I”) have a problem picking up messages. My main reaction to this is “Thank goodness I never bothered learning how to use my U.S. phone properly, as now I have to start all over again.” Everyone sends text messages by phone all the time, which I had scarcely heard of in the States, and all teenagers can do it with incredible speed and dexterity.
I’m also relearning that in the U.K. everybody jaywalks. It’s quite shocking driving along and suddenly seeing an old lady with a wheelie shopping bag doing a suicide dive from between parked cars. In Seattle in contrast I remember waiting with a group of obvious murderers, pimps, and drug dealers near Pioneer Square on a Sunday morning, with not a car in sight, none of us apparently able to cross the road until the light changed. Jaywalking is legal in England, although its prevalence is probably more to do with roads being narrower and drivers more used to pedestrians. Another little difference—I have practically the same Honda Civic here as I had in the United States, but it costs me approx $45 to fill it with gas, compared with $18 stateside. On the other hand, I fill it up about once a month—it was once a week in Seattle. A car tragedy is that this newer model only has a CD player, so my collection of 20 years’ worth of mix tapes—truly a national treasure—is no longer available to me when driving. I know I could burn CDs, but morale is too low, I cannot face the thought of finding the tracks that I need to replicate those perfect tapes I enjoyed for so long.
Other old habits also die hard: I’m still a Fray reader, so if you have any questions, put ‘em in the Fray and I’ll try to answer them during the week.