British diary: a correspondent comes in from the cold

It wasn't so much the royal coat of arms on the glossy invitation (instead of a phone call) or the sleek gold and blue inter-city train at King's Cross (instead of a dirty, swaying, ancient East German train jammed with Uzbeks and watermelons) -- or even the words "breakfast is now served" over the intercom as the train shot through this green and pleasant countryside at 75 m.p.h. (instead of eating my own sandwiches to avoid a substandard restaurant car with grimy tableclothes and inedible food).

No, it was something else that finally drove home the lesson that, although I was indeed on a government-sponsored trip, it was not in the country where I have been taking similar trips for the last 4 1/2 years: the Soviet Union.

"So sorry," said the official from the Central Office of Information at the ticket barrier. "We're shorthanded in the office today, so I can't come with you to York. I have to go back and help. I'm sure you'll be all right on your own."

On my own? A government officer allowing me and seven other foreign correspondents to go off unescorted, untrammeled, unwatched? Able to talk to anyone we pleased? No, it couldn't be the Soviet Union, where the Communist Party officials watch the foreign press like hawks. It must be Britain.

Newspaper, TV, and radio bulletins and daily conversations here are filled with unemployment, doom, gloom, recession, and doubt. But to someone just arrived from the world's first socialist state, from the world according to Lenin, England is a welcome sight indeed.

It is an expensive sight, I hasten to add: My return ticket to historic York, 190 miles north of London and a mere 2 1/2 hours in a blue and gold train, was L 48.50 ($116.40). That's about half the cost of a budget-price air ticket to New York.

On the other hand, the train was quiet. My seat was comfortable. The picture windows were clean. And when a West German colleague and I (both veterans of Moscow) made our way to the dining car, the sight of properly laid tables, each complete with cutlery and a jar of Frand Cooper's Oxford coarse-cut marmalade on a white tablecloth, was enough to bring tears to our eyes.

Pushing aside memories of cold meat, cold potatoes, and servingwomen with no interest in serving you at all, we consulted the "Gold Star" menu. "The great British breakfast," it was headlined, and so it proved to be. Speeding up and down the aisle were waiters in red-lapeled blue uniforms, white shirts, and black bow ties. They cheerfully manipulated hot trays of bacon, sausages, fried eggs, mushrooms, toast, and rolls -- or, if you preferred, fried kippers, and smoked haddock poached in milk and topped with a poached egg.

As this cornucopia of treasures (we took the sausages, not the fish) began to fill our plates, and another waiter filled our cups with coffee, we both tried to remember who it was that said that if you want to eat well in England, you should eat breakfast three times a day. The food was superior.

So was the price: L5.20, including the controversial and heartily disliked "value added tax" or VAT. That's $12.48 for breakfast on a train.

We could have chosen the continental breakfast at L2.20 ($5.28). I plucked up courage, nodded to the Englishman in the blue suit sharing our table, tried not to think about the iron rule that Englishmen don't talk on trains, and inquired if the L5.20 price was, in fact, more than in a good restaurant.

"Mmm, yes," said the Englishman affably (so much for not talking on trains). "About L3 [$7.20] is usual for breakfast in an good hotel. This is steep." He smiled. "But you are on a train. And it is good." He was right.

The purpose of the trip was to inspect five kinds of civil defense shelters prepared at Britain's only home defense college at Easingwold, just outside York , to take part in a press conference with the home office minister in charge of home defense, Patrick Mayhew, and to be told about Margaret Thatcher's government's efforts to tell the British people how to protect themselves against nuclear attack.

But for me, it was an introduction to England, fair England, and to the striking contrasts of working here and in the Soviet Union. No officials followed me everywhere I went. The program was pleasantly elastic, without a constant demand that we hurry up and wait. Lunch was a mere hlf-hour, straightforward gammon and fruit pie, rather than the 10-course feast that Soviet officials use to fill up time as well as to demonstrate Slavic hospitality.

Mr. Mayhew's press conference was another contrast: No, he said firmly, (hands on hips in exactly the way my Latin and math masters used to stand at school in Australia), no, the government was not instructing anyone to build civil defense shelters. Where I have been living, the government always instructs.

All the government was doing, said Mr. Mayhew in an accent that symbolized every upper-class felicity of phrase I have ever heard, was giving people information. People were then free to choose. The government was not warmongering or conditioning people to accept the idea of nuclear war.

Britain was a target. (It was odd, too, to be sitting on the potential receiving end of Soviet missiles, when for so long I and my family had lived on the potential receiving end of American ones.) The government devoutly hoped nuclear war would never come about. I did not think it would.

But people had the right to know what they could do, if they wanted to do it. If Mr. Mayhew had been a Communist Party functionary in the Soviet Union, he would have been out of a job -- and would have lost most of his privileges of rank as well.

I was also reminded how well people like Mr. Mayhew talk -- how mellifluous is their phrasing, how well constructed their sentences.

Then back into the bus and to the station. No snow anywhere, no ice, no biting wind, no lumbering gray trolleybuses, no long lines of people waiting outside shops for meat and fruit and vegetables. (A Soviet official just back from the West once explained to a friend of mine in Moscow that no one could afford to shop in London and New York. How could he tell? "There were no lines outside the stores," he said triumphantly. "People can't afford to go in."

The train back to King's Cross was delayed -- trouble on the line north of Newcastle, we were told. But I didn't mind. I saw the ramparts of old York, walked around the cavernous station rich in atmosphere and history, chatted to others waiting for the train. Two and a half hours later, London again, and home via subway and suburban train.

Never in 4 1/2 years had a government trip been so well organized, so easy to take.

My advice to anyone unhappy with Britain is simple. It is the same that the Marquis de Custine of France gave to Frenchmen 140 years ago, after the Marquis had spent six months in czarist Russia:

Go to Russia, he wrote. You wi ll never be unhappy with your own country again.

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