Letters From London


Hours Away

Even five time zones removed, last week’s election returns carried an electricity felt by locals and expats alike. An absentee voter watches an ocean shrink to a pond.

The woman coordinating the flu shots wore a bone-white pharmacist’s smock over a maroon sweater and black trousers. About 50, she spoke with an Indian or Bangladeshi accent as she apologized for the wait at a pharmacy.

It was no worry, we assured her. It was 6:15 in the evening and my wife’s and my plans for the night were to watch the results of the U.S. presidential election. We were going to a local bar that would be open all night but its doors wouldn’t open for almost two hours. Plus, we were in London, five hours ahead of the East Coast. We wouldn’t learn anything until midnight and the final result until at least 4 a.m. So if it took a few more minutes to get our flu shots—or, flu jabs, as they’re called here—no big deal. We were settled in chairs in a waiting area smelling faintly of an antiseptic cleaner, reading news and predictions of the election.

Within 15 minutes, Carolee and I were inoculated and began sliding our arms into our coats, adjusting our collars, tightening our scarves, and picking up our bags and newspapers. The flu shot coordinator said, with exuberance, “Tonight is the election in America!”

“It is!” Carolee said, beaming. “Are you excited?”

“Oh, yes,” the woman said. “I’m so hopeful that Obama wins. He’s such a good man. He’s smart and very presidential. He’s what the world needs now.”

We couldn’t argue with her.

“He’s going to win it,” I said.

“We’re electing a new president tonight,” said another flu shot-recipient, a black-haired woman in her mid-30s in a rose-red sweater and speaking with a British accent. “Obama seems like the much better choice, a real world leader.”

“I just wish I could vote for him,” the woman with the clipboard said. “But we’re all cheering for him.”

While they didn’t say who “we” was—and I didn’t ask—it seemed unnecessary. At pharmacies, at work, on the bus, and in newspapers, the election had been big news and the pro-Obama sentiment in London seemed strong.

Carolee and I walked down Regent Street, one of the main shopping areas in London. For blocks, Christmas decorations—giant stars made of interwoven strings of lights—were suspended across the width of the street but not yet lit. We ran a few errands and our route led us through the blaring lights of Piccadilly Circus then to Leicester Square, which was uncommonly subdued at 8 p.m.

Aside from an ongoing, as-yet-unsuccessful quest to find a U.S.-style diner in London, we’ve tried to integrate ourselves during the six months we have lived in England. We work for British organizations and are the sole Americans in our offices. We live in the home of a Londoner who has graciously introduced us to several of her friends and taken us for walks in the English countryside. I pour milk in my tea. I sometimes describe mild hunger pangs as “feeling peckish.” But on election day we tried to reconnect to America and D.C.—Carolee’s and my home for 10 years up until May—from 2,000 miles away. The election was something we cared deeply about and felt that this could be a chance for our country to elect someone who could correct its course.

“I’ve got a tip for you,” he said. “McCain’s going to win.” The bar in Leicester Square was an odd oasis of presidential politics set within the confines of a crude club. Stretching some 200 feet from its front door to the coat check in the rear, it was lubricated by two bars and supported by a handful of partitioned areas punctuated with televisions tuned to U.S. news channels and scores of campaign signs. Uniting the entire space was music that hinted at politics—Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses”—that was blasted until just before the election results arrived at 11:30, when it was replaced by the equally loud narration of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

When the first results trickled in, any positive sign for Obama, even a slim lead after a sliver of a state’s votes had been tallied, provoked boisterous cheers from the crowd. From a table with a spot-on view of a CNN-tuned TV, Carolee and I talked with fellow Americans, as well as Brits and a man from Ireland, and waited for the results to arrive. At a shade after 1 a.m., when Obama’s lead was 81 electoral college votes to McCain’s 33, I explained a bit of the electoral college to a German man who asked, “So, who is winning?”

At about 2 a.m., Carolee said, “Let’s stay until we see news about Missouri and then we’ll go.” Within 15 minutes, we saw the early returns, bundled up and made our way toward the exit. About 30 feet from the door, a man in a slate-gray suit slipped away from a bar, walked straight to me and leaned in, ready to share information.

“I’ve got a tip for you,” he said. “McCain’s going to win.”

I patted him on the shoulder and wished him a good night.

The night was crisp with a spit of rain. We caught a bus and at about 3 a.m., arrived home, where our landlady, Marlowe, was in the living room. She’d nodded off to sleep then woken when Carolee and I straggled through the front door. We joined Marlowe on a nearby sofa and caught the latest news from the BBC.

The British election coverage featured five commentators seated along a crescent-shaped table, including BBC correspondents and John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who suggested that the BBC fire a correspondent (he was asking tough questions of a Republican official in Colorado, who questioned the reporter’s grasp of the state’s history). Aside from Bolton’s outbursts (“He called for someone else to be fired earlier in the show,” Marlowe said), it wasn’t as dynamic as the CNN coverage—no hologrammatic correspondents—but was more culturally broad. The American novelist Erica Jong and British comedian Eddie Izzard were interviewed about the importance of the impending Obama victory and how it would affect them.

At a quarter to four, Carolee and I said goodnight to Marlowe and trundled upstairs. We switched on our TV and climbed into bed. By then, the key states that Obama had needed to win had been awarded to him. His victory was all but official. “Wake me when you hear the news,” said Carolee as she rolled away from the TV and pulled a blanket over her head.

A few minutes later, at 4 a.m., the BBC declared the winner of the election. I turned to Carolee, who was under the covers, asleep. “Carolee,” I whispered, pulling a blanket from her ear, ready to roust her and tell her the news.