Interviews in the Rain


I was still groggy when we landed, but it didn't last. As soon as the rusty wheels of my luggage hit an uncarpeted spot on the jetway, every soldier within earshot spun towards me to identify what that hideous sound was. The one closest to me smelled my panic.

"Uh... sorry. Welcome to Britain" he said, lowering his pet submachine gun.

You have to nod politely and move on at times like these, because there's no need to appear irritated when an anxious British paratrooper decides to be cordial to you. When your average pale, seven-foot tall military serviceman is often edgy about how many pints he gets to the Euro, these kind of pleasantries are becoming more rare at Heathrow International.

This was the new London after all. Freshly incorporated into the European Union and a people still in transition. Even customs officials are feeling the strain.

"And the purpose of your visit?"


"Profession?" the woman asks who's briskly stamping my passport.

"I'm a journalist. I'm here to interview a few of your pop stars."

"Which ones?"

"Oh, you know...what are they called? The Spice Girls."

"Really?!!" she says. It's 7 AM, but her eyes are finally showing signs of life.

"No. Just kidding."

Her enthusiasm immediately fades and she begins to scrutinize my papers with renewed interest.

"Sir, did you realize your passport is not signed? I can refuse you entry into the United Kingdom for incomplete credentials. I suggest you do that now while I witness your signature or you can be detained by customs."

By the time I hit the Underground and was heading to London proper, my writing hand had finally quit shaking. This is still the cheap, fast way to get around the city, but the pair of spikey, pink and purple-haired citizens giving me the evil eye made me uncomfortable. What was worse though was that just as we begin to pick up speed, I spied two water towers with "R.E.M.!!" spray-painted on them. Here I had traveled across an entire ocean to seek out a handful of British pop legends and I'm instantly faced with Georgia-based graffiti thousands of miles from home. I'm beginning to feel a wee bit uneasy at this point.

The weather wasn't helping. For all the folks who had assured me that I was heading over at the best time of the year, hadn't counted on any residual effects of El Niño reaching Old Blighty. Apparently, the British were experiencing the coldest and wettest July in all of recorded history. Some say it was divine punishment for losing the nation's bid for the World Cup and that the cold rain would not let up until Manchester United's David Beckham was sacrificed to the angry God's in a suitably grisly ceremony at high noon in Trafalgar Square (that might have been just the unchecked, wishful thinking, however, of the blood-crazed masses who had to sit and endure watching the French unseat Brazil...). But as I was making the transition from the subway to the Intercity Railway system, I saw scores of people walking through the streets completely drenched.

"There's no point in trying to keep dry in this country mate," someone offered when they saw me trying to balance luggage, umbrella, and rail pass. "It don't make no sense. Better just to get nice and dry like when you get 'ome."

This is confirmed for me by the cab driver who whisks me from my hotel out to my meeting with the members of XTC - the seemingly long-lost English band that scared America with the song "Dear God" in the mid-eighties. We are just outside of the city of Swindon, which is north west of London, when he begins to fill me in on the weather and the British attitude concerning the environment.

"That's why this place is so green, you know," he says as we wind down an impossibly narrow strip of country lane. "The constant rain keeps things growing all the time. The earth is so fertile here that you could spit on the ground and grow salivary glands." Hmmm.

When I get to the makeshift studio setup that XTC has arranged in bass player Colin Moulding's living room, they are in the midst of putting the finishing touches on their first album in four years. While they started this project more than a year ago in a proper studio, budget constraints have forced them to round out the recording at home. Finally inking a deal with TVT records here in the States, the as-yet-untitled LP will probably see release by January 1999.

Singer and semi-professional hermit Andy Partridge is fairly sympathetic to my being trapped in Swindon during the bad spell of weather and offers me sandwiches and ginger beer to help me fend off the sniffles during my visit.

"My God, stranded in Swindon on a rainy weekend! How did you manage?"

"Well I wandered the train stations asking for directions mostly," I answered glibly. "Trouble is, virtually no one would answer my questions as to whether I was waiting on the right platform."

"That's the British for you, you see," he answered, putting a reel onto the massive tape deck. "They'd rather leap in front of a moving train, than be outwardly helpful."

The owner of the small Bed and Breakfast that I'm staying in backs up Andy's assertion. I had been up in the small 8'x12' closet I'd rented practicing how to sleep upright, when I thought I might run down and ask the manager how to turn on the radiator near my window.

"Well, you're not cold are you?" she asked me with a pale and incredulous look on her face.

"Oh no no no." I stammer "It's just that it's been so ungodly hot in Atlanta this summer and..."

"I could give you another blanket if you'd like!"

"No, it's just that it gets a bit chilly when I come back from the shower down the hall and I'm changing clothes. You see, I forgot to pack a robe and..."

"Well we generally turn off the heat in Britain in July, Mr Silva," she says in an incredibly polite but unmerciful tone. "Obviously we are made of hardier stuff in this part of the 'round 'ere."

At this point I return to my room and hope to be able to wrench my tail out from between my legs.

Not all of the British are so poignantly blunt. On one of the few days that I spent truly idling, I took one of the Intercity lines down to County Devon to have a look 'round the lovely southwestern coast. From Swindon, the trip runs somewhere near two hours. Should you leave early enough, let's say 8 a.m., there's plenty of time to spend the entire day sightseeing and be back to your chilled closet at a respectable hour. Or so I thought.

I'd made a fairly standard practice of getting off one train and checking with the local station as to what time I could catch the last train back. So after a delightful trip skidding along the rails down to Devon where the route gives you a super view of the sea, I stopped to check with the railway staff as to how late I could count on a train back.

"What's that sir?" asked the railway employee. He was a tall fellow who sat behind a six-inch thick terrorist-ready plate of plexi-glass so as not to have his large handle-bar mustache disturbed by an unruly breeze.

"Swindon! The last train..." I repeated.

"Oh, sorry sir. Last train from Swindon just arrived five minutes ago."

"No, no. I want to know what time the last train to Swindon leaves from here." I said in a slight shout.

"Oh yes... right, sorry sir. 11:17 sir. Platform three."

So off I went on a carefree tour of the picturesque village of Totness, Dartmouth Castle (oldest surviving coastal fortress designed for guns, in 1480s), and Slapton Sands (where Allied forces rehearsed for the Normandy gig and lost 693 men when a couple of German torpedo boats got wind of this elaborate soundcheck...). After a full day and several pub stops, I returned to what was now a largely abandoned railway station a half an hour before my departure time. After a cursory look around, I seemed to be the only person on any of the platforms hoping to travel that evening. The timetable monitors were all blank and the sole sign of life appeared as I began to pound (in a horribly un-English fashion) on the night conductor's office window.

"No need to rattle the glass sir. Can I help?"

"Is the 11:17 to Swindon still on time?"

"Oh yes, sir. Hasn't been late as long as I can remember."

"Great. I was just a bit worried since no one else seemed to be waiting for it besides myself."

"Well it's a bit early sir. You've got nearly twelve hours yet."


"Oh... did you think it was 11:17 p.m. sir? That's a morning service sir. The last train to Swindon left here just after eight o'clock this evening. Guess you'll have to make a go of it in town for the night."

Low on local currency, tired, and with a fistful of interviews to tend to on the following day, I was reduced for the moment to a speechless bit of tourist jelly. Turning to go, I stopped and figured that if nothing else, I should probably take the appropriately British course of action given the circumstances. I decided to hazard one last inquiry.

"Could you at least tell me where the closest pub is?"

"Oh, certainly sir. That'd be the Kingsway Arms - out the station, quarter mile down the road on your right."

"Thanks much." I said collecting my bag and heading off down platform three.

"Better hurry though sir!" he called after me. "Pubs in England close at 11:00 you know. Gives you just about twenty minutes to get a quick pint in."

Rule Britannia.

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