What to read this week? Paul Theroux’s The London Embassy, of course! This day in history U.S. diplomacy with England took over a new location. Our landmark perch in Grosvenor Square is no more.
I visited the location once—an aside to the controversy going on right now, and one that makes this move feel deeply personal, a piece of myself ripped from its moorings. Will the impact be similar between Theroux and his collection of short stories? Or are the denizens of those pages transferrable to a new location on the Thames, one with all the trappings of modern security and architecture, one without the vintage icons—the presidential statues, stars and stripes, and grand eagle perched on the roof in vigil above the entrance?
My own story of the London Embassy dates to 2008. We’d flown there seeking medical help for four-month old. A frightening call from my wife on a hot day in Ghana alerted me to signs that Vikram needed serious medical attention—stat. The medical unit put us on the next flight to London.
There we were treated to the spectacularly awful medical attentions known only to those in the UK not officially registered on the public services roles, i.e. U.S. diplomats posted to Ghana. Diplomacy’s grand reputation be damned: the reality is we lurch from one crisis, danger, or inconvenience to another, always appearing well-cared for, but beneath it all enduring something akin to bloody stool.
The doctor refused to explain his recommended course. The doctor assumed our acquiescence to his judgements. The doctor took offense that we’d seek a second opinion. His arrogance would be bad enough in the confines of a normal doctor-patient relationship. But while evacuated to a strange, chilly city, our firstborn unable to digest his proteins resulting in terrifying bloody stools? This was a week of tests and torture. Of long-distance calls to Colorado and an ultimate decision to split the young family, one of us to Ghana, two to the States.
But we did have a safe house. We did have allies. We did have the medical unit at the London Embassy.
Mid-August, the place was calm and quiet. They put us up just a few blocks away at the Melia White House Hotel, with its gaudy but warm décor, its friendly staff.
Walking between appointments I carried Vikram in a sling, the boy still small enough I could zip him inside my jacket and out of the cold mists and heavy fog. We surprised a pair of Indian clerks at a nearby Starbucks: ‘Come look at the Vikram! You must come see the Vikram!’ These two craved home more than I.
Paul Theroux’s The London Embassy reveals with incisive clarity the psychological trappings of humanity at a certain time and place. That time and place has gone. But though we’ve moved operations from Grosvenor Square, for anyone who’s ever visited, for anyone who missed their chance, Theroux’s literary gems remain.