A memory for London

Terror and the UK - Ariel Dorfman recalls the moment when a stubborn city gave inspiration to a futu

It was the summer of 1951 and London took me by storm. It was gentle, that storm, sweeping a child barely nine years old on his first trip to Europe into a love affair that has lasted more than half a century. Some of that charm was, no doubt, the enchantment that London exercises on any first-time visitor, young or old: the postcard moments of double-decker buses and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and Lon- don Bridge, which was not falling down, and the dreaded Tower, and those swans and ancient oaks in majestic parks. But it is one experience that softly burned itself into my memory and has remained there, which returns now to comfort me as I grieve and rage over the violation that has just been inflicted on the city which gave me such an extraordinary welcome.

I use that word, welcome, on purpose, because there was one thing in that metropolis which disappointed and indeed disgusted me, and made me yearn for my home in New York. Unsurprisingly, it was the food. For an Argentine brat reared in the United States, used to whole milk and Rice Krispies and perfect catsup on juicy hamburgers and amazing buns, English meals were excruciating. My parents had patiently explained that there was still rationing in this country, that the ravages of war could still be seen in the streets, and when we had gone down into the Tube ("Why do they call it a tube and not a subway, like in Manhattan?") my father had told me about how the Londoners had sought refuge there during the Blitz. So I was to be on my best behaviour and not complain. But my taste buds knew nothing yet about the aftermath of terror; the days of the Chilean coup and the wanderings and shortages of exile were in a far and entirely unimaginable future, and that sausage I had eagerly bitten into was not a hot dog, but a mixture of sawdust and fat, so that each meal had become an occasion for whining and revulsion.

And then had come a magic evening in Regent's Park, an open-air performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare! I had never seen - let alone read - anything by him, but I was well aware that nobody had done more for the language I had chosen as my own, the English in which - yes, I was already determined to be a writer - I intended to scribble my complete works. My excitement was compounded by a solemn promise from my father: that he would buy me something sweet before the show . . . And there we were, in front of the food stand, queuing up (I had learned that strange word, queue, to stand in line, which the Brits did quite phlegmatically and almost as if they enjoyed it), and there it was, chocolate, more than heavenly for a boy who had for days starved himself rather than swallow the drab and dreary English fare.

"Right-o," said the man who was selling all those goodies, "all I'll need then is your ration card." I didn't understand. I again pushed towards him the coins my dad had deposited in my hand and insisted that what I wanted was that bar of chocolate. The concessionaire was adamant and my mother had to intervene to explain that chocolate on this side of the Atlantic was not for sale and could be obtained only with coupons or tickets, and that each citizen of this isle had the right to one bar of chocolate a month. Before I could express my utter dismay, before I could pout and carp and feel sorry for myself, an elderly English lady who had been waiting in line behind us offered to get me that chocolate out of her own rations. My parents demurred but she was insistent. "I'm delighted," she said, "to give this to a young American boy. After all you did for our people during the war." And added, when our thanks became embarrassing: "I'd like him to always think well of us."

And so it was that my first glorious meeting with Puck and Bottom, with Oberon and Titania, with the foolish lovers asleep and astray in the woods, was sweetened by that other gift, by what my tongue greeted and my throat celebrated and what rejoiced my tummy. In the city where Shakespeare had written those words, "If we shadows have offended,/Think but this - and all is mended", where human ears had originally listened to those words and applauded them and taken them home and into their hearts, there I was, in the night that was turning chilly, there I was, warmed by the chocolate as much as by the verse and the antics and the actors among the trees.

This memory, then, is all I can offer London in its time of need. That old woman gave me more than a small bar of chocolate as the sun set on Regent's Park. She provided a glimpse into how she and her people had survived the years of terror, the bombs from above, the streets in rubble, the sirens in the night. I may not have understood it immediately back then, but now what doubt can there be, she is telling me all these years later - that woman who cannot possibly be alive today - she is assuring me from her London, devastated by sorrow and blood, that when death calls all we have is one another and our acts of sheer, deliberate solidarity, all we have is the certainty of our compassion.

Copyright Ariel Dorfman, 2005

Ariel Dorfman's latest books are Other Septembers, Many Americas (essays) and The Burning City, a novel written with his youngest son, Joaquin