Reflections on a knife – a stupid Yank’s tale

airranger.jpgI’ve learned two crucial things about living in London, in the most interesting and dangerous ways possible, since arriving for a month-long visit three weeks ago.

Indulge a dim American tourist for a second, if you will …

Sure, I’ve visited London before. One of the great cities of the world, and probably a close second to NYC for my favorite.

I stayed four summers with my parents when I was 6, 9, 12 and 18, and once about 23 years ago) and I have to say that I enjoyed just as much fun and gut-splurching fear climbing the gnarly spiral staircases up to the Golden Gallery at St. Paul’s on Monday as I did back then.

I also have a faint memory of my dad cursing at the top of his lungs when he accidentally shaved some paint off his hired Fiat with the back end of a lorry back then (bad turn). (Hang on – I do have a point, and I am getting to it …)

But that’s not so real as the moment I managed on my very first UK drive last month to make a right in our borrowed Vauxhall Zafira onto a quiet little street in East Dulwich – and then spent a good three or four seconds wondering why everyone was driving straight at me and honking … before I figured it out …

That’s lesson one: THEY DRIVE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET HERE. I mean, I knew that, but my decades of ‘Merican-honed highway instinct still scream “WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!” with every left-handed shift of the gears, so I’m still getting the hang of it.

Lesson two: knives = illegal to carry and possibly worse than guns.

Why, when I was a kid (picture me in shorts, a lame T-shirt and filthy Chuck Taylors) my dad actually bought me a little folding penknife in Portobello Road so I could learn how to whittle.

It had a mock-deerhorn handle and probably a good 2-1/2-inch blade. I loved the thing, and only managed to cut myself once. Since then, I’ve always carried a knife for opening packages, scraping battery terminals, camping, cutting underbrush in a pinch, cleaning my teeth, etc.

Fast forward to last week:

I’m sauntering through security to enter enter Windsor Castle, dumping the ridiculous amount of hardware I carry into the little bowl for the trip through the metal detector.

It’s like the “weapons, please” scene in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: CLANK. THUD. TINKLE. CLONK.

It takes almost 45 seconds to get all the metal off me. I’m a pathetic tool geek. Sorry.

Anyway, rather than try anything funny with my pocketknife (and completely ignorant of the ban) I genteelly hand it over (closed, of course) to the uniformed policewoman and say something like, “I should probably leave this with you until I come back out, yes?”

If she’d been carrying a service pistol, would have flipped off the safety and put the barrel point-blank to my forehead – that was the look she gave me.

She hands it to her superior, who opens it with a crisp snick, gives me a grim glare, and hands it back to her with a murmured order.

She turns to me: “You can’t carry this, sir.”

Steel in her voice. Uh-oh

“I’m confiscating it. It’s against the law to possess this!”

“I – the blade itself is less than 3 inches, I …”

Oh, crap. Vaguely, I remember some tabloid squib I read two weeks earlier about a laborer arrested for carrying a steak knife in his lunchpail , and some talk of jail …

“It’s a fixed blade sir, over five inches.”

“Confiscating … I’m sorry, I had no idea. It’s just a tool. Do you have to confiscate it?” I bleat, reality dawning at last. “That’s a ₤35 knife,” I add, in a fit of complete stupidity.

“D’you know if you’d been found with this on the street, the police could arrest you immediately?”

“Yes, I mean, no, I really wasn’t aware. I’m so sorry, I certainly wouldn’t have …”

“You’ll need to close it for me, sir, I can’t close this.”

Gingerly she hands it back. I close it swiftly – it’s a simple liner lock – and hand it back to her.

“You’ll need to sign for it, sir.” She hands me some terrifying looking document, and I’m already steeling myself for a trip to explain my shit to the men in the powdered wigs.

“I … do I need to answer in court for this?”

“No sir, just sign that you’ve surrendered it to us, that’s all.”

Thank God.

I stagger on, glad to be entering Windsor Castle with my wife and kids instead of some nasty Ritchiean cellblock populated with grimy tattooed 3-time losers who’ll enjoy playing “poke the Yank” for two years while the jailers look the other way.


So – dear Britons – I’m sorry. Really, really, really sorry.

It was only after Ruby explained that 21 Londoners have been stabbed so far in 2008, after I read the newspaper headlines with police-ultimatum headlines like “ABANDON KNIVES OR ROT IN PRISON” that I truly got it.

They’re not simple tools here. They’re murder weapons.

Sorry to be so dumb. Back home, a knife is just a tool, for the most part.

It’s guns that cause most of the unwanted mortality in the U.S. (actually a frightening amount of it completely accidental, but that’s another rant).

And our government does such a crappy job of regulating that that it’s nothing for average guys to carry knives to open boxes, cut steaks at the campsite, and pick their teeth afterwards. With total impunity.

Without a second thought.

Unless they’re dumb enough to travel overseas without doing their homework.

2 Comments so far

  1. Daneeta Loretta (daneeta) on August 6th, 2008 @ 9:29 am

    I just love how you were, like, "I should probably leave this with you until I come back." Hilarious!

  2. Mack Reed (mackreed) on August 6th, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

    I couldn’t get a clue if you dressed me up as a clue, smeared me with clue pheromones, sent me into a field of wild clues and made me do the clue mating dance.

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