London — He was a senior figure in the British government, gruff, informed, reflecting from the depths of an armchair on the sight of yet another assassination attempt against the leader of his country's major ally.
"Well, of course," he said slowly, "our own controls on sale of guns are a model for the United States. But we can't be complacent, no, not at all.
"After all, we do have the IRA [Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army]. We are by no means free from terror and violence. Who can say it couldn't happen here?
"But we are extremely concerned about violence. We don't like to see anyone carrying firearms. Our policemen don't."
This air of friendly, worried concern typified many British reactions -- sadness at another example of apparently random violence by a disturbed young man, warm praise for President Reagan's heroism and humor, and a reluctance to criticize the United States too much.
Inside the Thatcher government, there was also relief that Mr. Reagan is recovering so well and that Washington will not have another new leader at a time when events in Poland are balanced on a knife-edge.
Security around Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself is low key. She is accompanied by a lone detective when she moves around London. Another meets her wherever she arrives. A team of detectives escort her abroad.
Meanwhile, British gun laws (the Firearms Act of 1968) work reasonably well.
An ordinary citizen who wants a gun must apply to the chief police officer in his area, stating his reasons. Mere "personal protection" is not accepted: "That's what the police are for," explained a Home Office spokesman in answer to my queries.
If police permission is granted (a gun for hunting, or keeping down vermin on a farm, for instance), the citizen takes a firearms certificate to a dealer, himself registered and licensed by the police.
The sale must be registered. Only the gun specified in the certificate may be sold. The dealer's records are inspected once a year, and police also check security procedures against the dealer's stock of guns being stolen.
I say it modestly, but it remains a fact: My family has got what it counts. We must have, otherwise we would not have been counted so often.
Without us, the 1979 census conducted in the Soviet Union (our most recent post) would have turned up only 262,345,995 people, instead of the 262,346,000 recorded as living in the land of the Kremlin on Jan. 1, 1979. It was the first Soviet census for nine years.
No sooner do we move to Britain than, lo and behold, another census, a British one, the first in ten years. Now we have to fill out another form ("H Form for Private Households") delivered not by anonymous mail, but by a friendly man carrying his forms in a leather satchell slung across his chest like a bandoleer.
With the form (a tasteful green and white in color) came a leaflet explaining why I must fill it out ("the only way to count everyone.") Perhaps more to the point, it is compulsory under the Census Act of 1920. I can be fined up to L50 ($112.50) for leaving it blank or giving false information.
Unlike the Soviet version, this one told me why the numbers were needed: to estimate housing needs, and to figure out how much the government is likely to need for hospitals, schools, pensions, and allowances.
So you think you know to handle modern life with savoir faire?m Even with nonchalance? Well, how are you when it comes to tipping?
London Times columnist Bernard levin analyzed the problem of when and how to tip in recent article. This brought a penetrating reply from Lord Kingsale and Ringrone who put the entire subject into class terms, with a sidelong look at americans as well:
"It is, of course, only the middle class which worries about tipping: the lower classes, unthinking, do not tip; the upper classes, unquestioning, do. . . . The lower middle classes, haltered by their awareness of their own base origins, grumblingly under-tip; the upper middle classes, conceiving that thereby they may ape their betters, ostentatiously over-tip; the middle classes, endlessly explanatory and tiresomely discursive, award a 12 1/2 percent gratuity."
So there. The Times' headline on his letter: "Iceberg of the tip."