Here in the airport lounge waiting for my morning flight, the television is full of imprisoned British sailors in Iran - the sentiment here is that a small incident has now been saber-rattled into a massive stand-off, that Britain has been hoovered into Washington's drive towards a quick confrontation with Tehran. Quick as in before the Bush term is up, before Cheney must leave the Vice-Presidential manse, before the Democratic president (whomever she may be) is sworn in.
We seem to be hell-bent once again into taking on another enemy in rapid force, and the Bush Administration appears thrilled at the stand-in Tonkin hostages in royal blue.
During my brief but enjoyable visit to Westminster on Monday, you could sense change in the air. I'd never been behind the scenes in Parliament before, but I've spent enough time in City Hall, Congress, and the Bronx County Courthouse to easily sense the rill of political shift flowing through the hallways. Blair's government is now measured in weeks here, and there is the glow of opportunity and change glistening on the gold leaf throughout the House of Commons. Will the long-standing Labour Partner in Waiting Gordon Brown come to power as expected, and for how long? What about the young upstarts in Labour? What about the newly-minted, blog-savvy Conservatives and their YouTubian leader David Cameron?
I posed few of these questions to young Tom Watson, MP (and I say young, because it's relative...to me) - after all, Tom's my friend, not an interview subject, and he was standing me to lunch besides. This was the first time I've met Tom in person, though we've corresponded now as well-named bloggers for three years. Needless to say, we hit it off - funny how that is with bloggers. Correspond first, meet later. Already a familiar voice. In any case, Mr. Watson arranged for the kind of tour that is a dream for PBS junkies from America - all Robing Room and paneled hallways, members' balcony and tea room. Slightly fevered though I was with sad American flu, I loved it.
I must be careful here, but I will attempt an observation on behalf of my Right Honorable Labour friend. It seemed to me, as we breezed about, that Tom Watson is seen by his colleagues as a man who will return to government in some prominent role in the near future. His resignation as assistant defense minister was quite the story last year - all intrigue and rumor - and it helped start the exit door opening for Tony Blair. But this old political reporter could see in the greetings, in some of the hints,handshakes, and by-play - and frankly, in the enthusiasm that greeted his American guest - that Tom is reckoned as a man to be reckoned with.
That's a good thing, as is the "special relationship" gone horribly awry under George Bush; it's worth renewing, and not just militarily. At Oxford, where I spent the bulk of the week, the Skoll Forum for Social Entrepreneurship brought together some of the best minds in devising new models to help the world's poor. Resolutely international, it was nonetheless a clear product of a British-American partnership and the energy there was palpable (my blog posts are here).
Taking a break from the all the good-doing, I wandered happily into the past for two hours or so mid-week, just after the fever finally broke. Oxford is a beautiful place, of course, especially if you love old buildings and gardens as I do. Some of the old Norman walls to this town still exist, and the colleges have sprung up inside of them. These things happen slowly over the course of a thousand years. But Oxford's no museum piece - it's busy, loud, and smoggy (every bus in the Midlands seems to cram its sheet metal shell down the High Street). I stayed at the very fine Cotswold Lodge Hotel, old-fashioned in a good way - Victorian building, walk up, old woodwork, helpful staff.
Walking into town brought me past the Eagle and Child pub, the local for JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis back in the day (locals call it the Bird and the Bastard). On my walking break, I wandered down one particularly antique lane and found myself at the gate of New College - they call it "new," of course, because it was established in 1379 by William of Wykeham. Inside, I walked through the old cloister, and had a look in the chapel, with its El Greco painting of St James and Jacob Epstein statue of Lazarus Rising from the Dead. Some of the key scenes in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire were filmed here.
But the gardens knocked me over. Inside the ancient city walls, the lawn meanders around a giant ivy-engulfed mound in the center, where students (Hugh Grant attended here) climb to a perch that gives them a giant's view of the trees. This was a work day, and the garden staff was busy in its early-spring work - pruning and cultivation were on the list. Brilliant clumps of daffodils caught the sun. And a pair of young students lazed on the grass. He read Proust, the pretty one had Joyce: I noticed as I clodded by.
And it occurred to me again that Oxford is a city of lovers, really. Concentrated with students in full, young bloom, it is an utterly romantic place - not so much for its past, as for its youthful present. This got me thinking of my own college years, and the excitement of books and a tiny room to be shared. Lots of pairs here. Lots of books, and tiny rooms, and corner seats in pubs and tea shops. A very romantic place.
Think I'll head home.