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London: Fog and Other Disorienting Things

Tonight, I drove across Tower Bridge in a thick fog.  You couldn't see the tower tops, visibility in any direction along the Thames was about twenty yards. It suited the situation in London.

For almost a quarter of a century I've been filing stories from this city. I started doing pieces on the art sales market, moved on to the Royal Family and the arts, then by a simple twist of fate found myself doing hard news and loving the adrenaline rush of deadline. I know this Britain inside out and if I may be immodest I know it more intimately than most other American correspondents, so believe me when I tell you in this first notebook:

This is easily the weirdest, most obscure time I have lived through in this country. The economy is kaput but in London the restaurants are still full. People are still smiling. I was in New York two months ago. You could feel the recession slicing the life out of the city. Not here. The bad numbers arrive daily: major brand businesses laying off workers by the tens of thousands. The pound has collapsed against the euro. The housing market was down 16 percent in 2008 and every one expects that number to be matched in 2009. The Bank of England has lowered interest rates to 1.5 percent,  the lowest in its 300 year history but the low cost of borrowing is not being passed along to anyone. Yet there is a "what me worry?" feel everywhere you go.

Maybe it was like this in the autumn of 1939, after war was declared but before much had really happened. I don't know. But as GlobalPost launches Britain is in a truly strange place.  Linked economically since the days of Reagan and Thatcher, linked on the battlefield. Britain is almost the 51st State (title of a book, by the way). Yet people here, unlike in the U.S., seem in some kind of denial about what is happening. 

I suppose the image to have in mind if you want to understand what I'm talking about is one you may have seen from the Tsunami that hit Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka at Christmas 2004.  There is a man standing on the beach alone as the water races out to sea.  He is being filmed from a hotel, I guess.  You can hear the people on the home video screaming at the guy, although he has to be several hundred yards away to run so he couldn't possibly hear them. He is staring at something out of shot. It's the tidal wave rushing towards him and he is paralyzed by the sight of it. Suddenly it arrives and he is inundated and disappears. I think the Brits are a bit like that at the moment. Staring out at something enormous and unexpected and rooted to the spot trying to figure out what to do.

Anyway, for much of the last decade I've been on the road in the Middle East, and it seems like a good time to be returning my focus to this city and this country. I look forward to telling GlobalPost readers everything I can find out about the economic crisis and everything else that goes on here.