ABOUT this time of year we London locals are gearing ourselves for our unpaid summer duty, which is to give guidance, succor, and direction to the Lost Visitor. The dollar-sterling ratio being what it is, most of these will be Americans, by which we British always mean citizens of the USA only. In this context we have separate techniques for Americans and the rest. The rest will be foreigners speaking little or fractured English, and they will be given the hallowed treatment, which is to speak loudly, slowly, and clearly until they either catch on or retire, defeated, to be forever lost in the suburbs. With Americans it is different. With blithe disregard for their national origins, we still regard them as delinquent British who are going to stay that way. Furthermore, they have had the decency to learn English, and we British tend to react warmly to these little graces. Incidentally, on origins, I had an American friend whose conversation stopper was that his great grandfather had been present at the Charge of the Light Brigade -- on the other side!
I have noticed that some Americans seem a little apprehensive about accosting the British in their moment of need. It is the movies and TV that have done it. They are apt to feel that they are addressing Cockneys or plum-in-the-mouth Englishmen like Ronald Colman or Ralph Richardson, and won't understand what they are saying. Actually, in our district it is the English and not the British they will be addressing. We English speak English and like to think of ourselves as kindly and tolerant to all foreigners; or as Kipling put it so well, the ``lesser breeds without the law.'' Just so. After all, we are kind and tolerant to the Scots, Welsh, and Irish who infest our land, so why should we not be so to others?
Over the years I have also found that it is not so simple to help. It is never the main question that is difficult, but the supplementaries that follow. For instance: ``Is this the way to Buckingham Palace?'' The answer is always ``no,'' for they wouldn't be on the corner of our street if it were. Usually, we have to turn them round and send them back the way they came. Then, contact achieved, come the supplementaries.
``What time does the Queen Change the Guard?'' Well, she doesn't actually change it herself. ``Will she be there?'' It's like this: She may technically be there in that she could be inside Buckingham Palace. But she will not see the guard being changed, unless possibly she is peeping from behind the curtains. ``But then, when will she come out?'' A nasty one, this, since we don't know her program and, for all I know, she may appear in the next 10 minutes or not at all. A policeman who did duty outside the palace once told me that he had a standard reply to questions like this. He always said, ``If you will just stand on the pavement over there, madam,'' at which the questioner would trot happily away, quite unconscious of the non sequitur.
Most strangely, people seem to think that because we live near Buckingham Palace -- or nearabouts -- we are on chatty terms with the Queen. In fact, although we have lived 11/2 miles from the palace, I have never even seen the Queen. But what about the Trooping the Colour, Opening of Parliament, visit of President Reagan, etc.? The truth is that when these occasions occur we locals make a point of getting out of town, for the simple reason that when the Queen goes around in London the traffic gets snarled up for miles, and there is nothing like an overheated engine in a London traffic jam to arouse latent republican feelings in one.
However, should you arrive on our corner of the street please feel free to ask me the way to Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Parliament, the Royal Albert Hall, the National Gallery, etc., etc. If there is one thing we locals know, it is the way to these places. We can even tell you what bus or tube (subway) to take, how long it will take you, and where to get off. All this despite the fact that we ourselves have not been to any of these places since we were children. But then you know how it is. How many Bostonians visit Bunker Hill? (All right! Breed's Hill if you are a purist.)
But there is one question that is impossible. It is: ``How can I find my way back to the hotel?'' We locals don't really know. You see, we never stay in hotels in London. The only answer is ``Ask a policeman.'' Curiously, Americans seem loath to do that. I suggested this once, when there was a policeman to hand. As I knew he would, he got out a road map, then a booklet with a list of hotels, and wrote it all down. They were amazed at the service. They said they wouldn't have dared to do that back in New York. I can't think why. On TV those cops always seem so -- so decent. Well, don't they?