From romance to reality, royal baby to rail strike

Romance and reality have been struggling here in Britain as the universal cooing over a new prince, not to mention the aftermath of Falklands victory, has collided with turmoil over the short-lived rail strike.

Overseas visitors suddenly appreciate the importance to English lives of the royal family. One typical group of 44 foreign tourists on a chartered bus through Devon and Cornwall, for example, felt the bewildering juxtaposition of current and past events:

Disrupted traffic. London walking to work. Two-day shut-down of the rails. Some 3 million unemployed. And, meanwhile, the close-knit family story of the royal birth.

The smallest member of the royal family now has a string of names: William, Arthur, Philip, Louis -- or just plain Prince William of Wales. But the naming process took several days longer than an eager public expected. In the interim, a columnist in the London Times wrote:

''It is absolutely essential to give the royal baby a name quite soon, as otherwise one doesn't know what to call him. He is already the Prince, of course , and later on he will often be known as such, but early on it is a little awkward to keep saying things like, 'Have you changed the Prince's nappies?' or 'Just put the Prince over your shoulder and wind him.' ''

The Times was hit by reality on its own august premises a day later, when the paper was shut by a two-day strike. A rival paper explained, ''Four electricians were dismissed when they refused to carry out certain work and eight others walked out in support of them.'' Thus one of the most prestigious papers in English journalism once again was interrupted by the action of a handful of workers.

The tourists in chartered bus number FN3 formed a kind of community of their own -- isolated from the transit turmoil around them like a space ship, but wondering if their connections were still good at Heathrow airport.

Some of the tourists cancel vacation plans as the guide tells of Stonehenge, the Romans, the English civil war, Sir Francis Drake, the Armada, and of the Pilgrims in 1620 taking their last yearning look back before the Atlantic swell finally lifts the little Mayflower.

''The old Shire Hall,'' the guide explains on the loudspeaker, ''was the scene in 1834 of the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.''

A lot of us in FN3, taking a bath in antiquity, haven't heard about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Yet, Tolpuddle, in a sense, started it all.

It was in this little town in Dorset County (on the route to Land's End) that six farm workers protested long hours and scanty pay and had the effrontery to organize for better conditions. Yes, they came together and proposed changes to their employers, for which presumption they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to be transported to Australia.

But they had also done something else. They had stirred the conscience of the English people -- one of the most powerful forces on earth. Unknown to themselves at the time, they had helped launch the trade union movement.

This week's sudden boiling over of industrial ferment startles unaccustomed outsiders. The surface mood of the country changes right before their eyes, from patriotic euphoria over the Falklands to coping with the problem of getting to work.

All the while, there is the story of the royal baby. The Daily Telegraph, for example, runs an account of his initial upbringing, and assures readers:

''His nanny, Miss Barbara Barnes, prefers to be called by her Christian name. Refuses to wear a uniform, and has so far no formal training as a nanny.''

Sir William Rees-Mogg, deputy chairman of the BBC, attempts to put the thing into perspective with ''an open letter'' to ''Your Royal Highness'' (the infant Prince):

''It is increasingly certain,'' he says, ''that the instinct of the British people is to turn with renewed loyalty to their ancient institutions in difficult times. In particular, they see their monarchy with a deep pride and loyalty as the human and personal expression of their nationhood.''

Meanwhile, millions of Londoners trudged to work. And Britain took its trials with its usual fortitude.

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