Emerald fields against a backdrop of urban decay

What an astounding series of contrasts Britain offers the traveling onlooker these rainy summer days as he shuttles between riots and royal wedding, city and farm.

My train to Manchester and Liverpool slid from Euston Station northward through the Britain of memory and storybook: freshly shorn sheep white against fields of emerald and velvet, clumps of dark and ancient trees bordering expanses of yellow and brown, fluffy clouds dappling John Constable scenes with fleeting shade.

A stone church spire beyond stubble and grass, the stone arches of a Roman aqueduct marching into the distance, a square Norman tower poking from trees just the other side of Rugby.

Yet, as the train slowed and sped in and out of Watford and Rugby, Crewe and Stoke- on-Trent, the bleaker face of urban decline blotted out the beauty: tenements, dilapidated brick, shabbiness, and debris.

In once solidly prosperous Manchester, shoppers throng downtown streets. The Arndale shopping center and its fawn exterior is big enough. But the Kendal-Mill department store has closed down its annex across the road from its main store. The old Royal Cotton Exchange is now a stage theater.

Like many other cities in the north of England, Manchester is hard hit by recession, strikes, high wages, low productivity, the competition of synthetic fibers and Southeast Asian producers.

Once Manchester had 800,000 people. Today it is down to around half a million. The one trace I saw of its former position as cotton capital of the world was the old quotation board still on the wall of the Royal Exchange. "Menoufi" and "Ashmouni" read the signboards, reminders of the Indian cotton traded here. "New York," "American."

A local businessman tried to sound cheery, but added, "When you telephone a small business in Manchester these days, you don't know if there will be anyone there on the other end. A lot of people are going broke. The recession. . . ."

Fifty minutes to the west by train, and the liver (pronounced lie-ver) birds still spread their stone wings on an insurance building overlooking the Mersey River in Liverpool.

The Isle of Man ferry and larger car ferries to Dublin and Belfast nose in and out, along with the local ferries that cross the river to the Wirral, the stretch of land beyond which lies Wales.

Gray stone insurance buildings and glasssided government blocks dot the riverfront.

Yet just a few minutes drive away is Upper Parliament Street and Lodge Lane in Toxteth -- the burned out shell of the old Rialto Building, the gutted Unigate Diary, the dozens of shops smashed and looted along Lodge Lane during the first two weeks of July 6.

Toxteth borders on the once-famous Liverpool docks, which are now silted up. Once American troop carriers and fast steamers tied up at the mouth of the Mersey for the Atlantic crossing. Now container freight lines are moving across to the other side of Britain to be closer to European Community ports.

Industry keeps leaving the north of England: Liverpool has just lost a big Tate & Lyle sugar refinery.

The nightly car ferry to Belfast has been losing L600,000 ($1.2 million) a year, raising a question mark about its future.

Middle- and upper-class Manchester and Liverpool is started at the rioting in urban slum areas. One company director in Manchester said his son was talking to a group of working-class youngsters after the first night of Toxteth riots in Liverpool.

"Oh, aye we'd join in if the riots started here," they all said -- yet they were fairly well off compared with Toxteth. Then riots started on Manchester's Moss Side.

Why?

"The kids are bored and frustrated," said one Liverpudlian. "they can't find work. Fighting the police is something to do, something to look forward to. A spark, violence, and the kids are there, and the vandals follow. We've had so many unemployed for so long now, with no end in sight"

Controversial member of Parliament Enoch Powell blames large-scale racial immigration for urban and social ills. Few here agree with him in public. No one knows how many support him in private.

His critics point out that a hallmark of British society until now has been racial harmony -- and that only Southall rioting July 3 showed racial overtones. (White "skinhead" youths wearing swastikas provoked and then attacked Indians and Pakistanis, who for years have taken a line of passive resistance to such loutish behavior).

Indians and Pakistanis, joined in the '70s by emigres from Kenya and Uganda, have lived peacefully in Southall for years. They comprise 30,000 of the 70,000 in the area. Many own their own homes and businesses.

In Wood Green, in north London, where some "copycat" rioting broke out July 7 , whites live beside blacks, Cypriots, and other minorities.

In Liverpool's Toxteth, Africans from Somalia and elsewhere settled after arriving on the big trading ships between 50 and 100 years ago. In Brixton, West Indians predominate.

Mr. Powell is convinced racial enmity underlies all else. Others say racial feeling is a part of the total picture, but by no means all of it. Britain's ethnic map looks, on the whole, an enviable one -- at least, so far.

And then the contrast of returning from the north to find London deep in preparations for the royal wedding. The city is abuzz with the details.

It took four men two days to sort the fruit for the royal wedding cake. The couple designing the royal wedding dress have two children, aged 3 and 1 1/2. Prince Charle's naval uniform for the wedding has 12 brass buttons. The silkworms which spun the silk for the royal wedding dress were bred in Dorset.

The Mall has 42 flagpoles. The carpet at St. Paul's is 652 feet long. But f ewer than hoped for American tourists are showing up.

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