IN THE INNOCENTS ABROAD, Mark Twain observed, “They spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce.” Twain didn’t mention it, but they also spell better than they smell. All in all, very little seems to have changed since his time. There’s nothing like a trip across the old herring pond to make you glad that you live in the good ol’ USA.
I knew that early March wasn’t the best time to be a cowboy in Europe, yet I felt I had to honor a commitment I’d made to address an event in London with an unfortunate title: “Murder at Jewish Book Week.” Everyone told me it was sheer idiocy to travel overseas with the triple threats of war, terror, and customs inspectors taking away my Cuban cigars. Yet, strangely, it wasn’t courage that compelled me to go. It was simply that I was afraid at that late date to tell the lady I was canceling.
The flight was nine and a half hours long. It seemed as if almost every passenger besides myself was dressed in some form or other of Middle Eastern garb. One young man who spoke English was wearing a Muslim prayer cap and robe over a University of Texas sweatshirt. He told me there was really nothing to be concerned about. “You have gangsta chic,” he explained. “We have terrorist chic.” I found his calm analysis oddly comforting.
I was totally jet-lagged when I arrived at London’s Gatwick Airport at 6:55 in the morning. My ride into town was arranged by Robert MacNeil of the old MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. (The day before, I’d been filming a PBS show with Robert in Bandera and had warned him about crossing the busy streets of the little cowboy town. “It’d seem quite ridiculous,” I’d told him, “for a cosmopolitan figure like yourself to get run over in Bandera.” MacNeil just said that he didn’t want the headline to read “Kinky Friedman Sees Man Killed.”) As I walked the cobbled streets, visited pubs and restaurants, played songs, and did interviews with the BBC, the subject of President Bush and Iraq popped up often, sometimes acrimoniously. I found myself defending my president, my country, and my cowboy hat. Soon I was going on the preemptive attack myself, calling every mild-mannered Brit who engaged me in conversation a “crumpet-chomping Neville Chamberlain surrender monkey.” After a while I realized the futility of this approach and merely told people that I was from a mental hospital and was going to kill them.
Bright and early the next morning, my journalist friend Ned Temko took me on a quest for Cuban cigars, which are legal in London, if expensive (everything is legal in London, if expensive). Phil the Tobacconist mentioned that Fidel Castro personally supplies Cuban cigars to Saddam Hussein. “I wouldn’t write about that,” said Ned. “George W. might nuke Fidel.” As the three of us entered the walk-in humidor, Ned revealed that he’d once covered Iraq for the Christian Science Monitor in the late seventies. “Saddam’s a thug with an excellent tailor,” Ned said.
“I know his tailor,” Phil said. “He’s right down the street, in Savile Row.”
Meeting Saddam’s tailor is almost as special as meeting Gandhi’s barber, but I felt I had to try. Ned, my Virgil of Savile Row, led us down the winding streets to a discreet-looking row of shops where tweeds were being measured for dukes and dictators behind closed shutters. Maybe it was the cowboy hat and high rodeo drag that prevented entry, or maybe it was simply the lack of an appointment, but at the designated address, no one came to the door. My outfit did get an enthusiastic response, however, from a group of city workers repairing the street nearby. They stopped what they were doing and sang cheerfully together, “I’m a rhinestone cowboy!”
“Since we didn’t see Saddam’s tailor,” Ned said, “why don’t we try to meet Tony Blair?”
“Jesus,” I said.
“That’s what the Yanks may think,” said Ned. “Over here they’re about to crucify him.”
Twenty minutes later we were standing next to a Wimbledon-style grass tennis court hidden in the heart of London. “We may be in luck,” said Ned. “There’s Mike Levy.” (It may be cosmic, or it may be coincidence, that the publisher of this magazine is also named Mike Levy. At last sighting, however, he was definitely not wearing a derby hat or eating mushy peas.) The British Levy, Ned explained, was a former record producer who’d given the world early-seventies glam rocker Alvin Stardust. “What’s he done for us lately?” I wanted to know.
“He’s Tony Blair’s tennis partner,” he said.
Levy was in a hurry, and it didn’t seem likely that Blair had played tennis that morning. Still, ever the innocent American, I stepped forward as Levy was climbing into his roadster. “Anything you’d like to say about Tony Blair?” I asked.
“Yes,” Levy said. “He needs to work on his backhand.”
On my last night in London, I walked through the fog until I came to the most famous address in the world, 221B Baker Street. On the door was a small bronze plaque that read “Visitors for Mr. Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Watson please ring the bell.” I rang the bell, walked up one flight of seventeen steps, and suddenly I was standing in Sherlock Holmes’s living room. There was a cheery fire in the fireplace. Holmes’s violin stood poignantly nearby, along with the old Persian slipper where he kept his Turkish tobacco. And in the room were Japanese, Russians, Africans, people from seemingly every nation on earth, all bound together by a common, passionate belief that Sherlock Holmes was real. It was, I thought, a perfect United Nations.
The next morning I was waiting in line at the airport to board a plane back to the States. Behind me was a proper British couple with a shy little girl clutching her teddy bear and staring intently at my hat. “Ever seen a real cowboy before?” I asked.