All was calm in the House of Commons Friday, the business of the British government being conducted in a quiet manner.

Outside, one tour bus after another pulled up to the curb, spitting out camera-toting tourists. Some headed straight for Westminster Abbey. Others peeled off to take pictures of Big Ben. A few brave ones ignored the cold drizzle and joined the queue to get in and view the Commons at work.

Several yards away, traffic had stopped. Billowing black smoke was mixing with the rain and, as it cleared slightly, one could see a small truck sitting in the road. The front end was on fire. Many tourists on both sides of the street stopped and began taking pictures, apparently oblivious to the possibility that the engine might blow up.

The curious pushed forward, even as fire trucks fought their way through the chaos on Parliament Square to get to the burning truck. As one bobby tried to shout the spectators back, he suddenly found a camera in his face.

"Bloody American tourists!" he screamed in frustration. "They think this is part of the show or something. Every bloody June it's the same thing."

The fire was put out. The tourists got their pictures. The rain continued. Big Ben read 11:42.

London. Summer. Tourists. Rain.



At 1:05 p.m. today, after a morning of rain and an hour of sunshine, they removed the tarpaulin at Centre Court of the All England Tennis and Croquet Club. A lone mower was brought out to trim the court, on which there had been no play since last July 8.

Tradition holds that on the Saturday before the championships begin, exactly 48 hours before the first match, four female club members test the court with a set of doubles. Their match gets the grass "patted down" for play on Monday.

Because of the rain, it was 2:52 p.m. when Mrs. I. Hume and Mrs. H. MacPherson took the court to play Mrs. A.R. Mills and Mrs. B. Peerless.

First names? "Not available," an official said.

As the women began their match, complete with chair umpire and ball boys, the 15,000 Centre Court seats were empty. The scoreboard kept score, the umpire called the points but no one was there -- until, at 1-all, four reporters wandered in near the top of the stands.

At 2-all, a security guard climbed through to the top row of stands where the reporters were seated. He couldn't have been more than 20 and his voice was soft and apologetic.

"I'm terribly sorry," he said. "But this is a private game. Members only." He glanced down toward the court. "Those are the orders I was given. It's just their tradition."

Of course. Tradition. Wimbledon. Strawberries and cream. Rain. Private game on Saturday.

Bulletin, as seen from an alley underneath the stands: At 6-6, it began to rain and the match was stopped. Not because the ladies were getting wet but because the court had to be kept completely dry.


From the front page of Friday's Guardian: "Conservative peers yesterday staged a four-hour filibuster in the House of Lords to delay a crucial vote on the GLC abolition bill until their colleagues had returned from Gold Cup Day at Ascot."

In the House of Lords, the running of the government does not interfere with Gold Cup Day at Ascot. If Princess Diana can bring Prince William to the races on his third birthday, if the queen and Prince Philip can make it on the same day that Prince Edward is to have his 21st birthday celebrated at Windsor Castle, then certainly the Peers from the Lords are not going to be absent.

Tradition. Whether at Royal Ascot or at Buckingham Palace or at the All England Club, one simply does not tinker with tradition.

Ask a tennis player about the grand traditions of Wimbledon and you are apt to get a sneer in return. If it is the tradition that makes this the premier tennis tournament in all the world, it also is the tradition that makes it a strange time of year for many players.

No tennis player can fantasize a moment more consummate than accepting Wimbledon's trophy from a member of the royal family. And yet, because this is Wimbledon, many of the amenities players take for granted around the world do not exist here.

Most notable is the problem of practice time. There are only 17 courts on the grounds themselves, and Centre Court and Court 1 are never used for practice. If you are a seeded player, you are granted -- weather permitting -- 30 minutes to practice on an outside court. If two seeds practice together, they can get 60 minutes.

If, as has been the case this year, there is little sunshine in the two weeks leading up to the tournament, the courts almost always are covered (as they were today except for the ladies' brief session on Centre Court), and everyone must scramble to find practice courts.

"I've driven 1,700 miles since we got here (two weeks ago) just looking for places we can practice," said Ian Barclay, coach of sixth-seeded Pat Cash, a semifinalist here last year. "I think we may have used every grass court in England. The way it's been, the players who stayed away until late may have done the best thing."

One who stayed away, arriving only on Friday evening, was three-time men's champion John McEnroe. His late arrival had little to do with practice time, though. McEnroe and the British press have been at odds since he first made the semifinals in 1977.

This morning, one of the British tabloids ran a front-page picture of McEnroe arriving at Heathrow Airport under a headline that read: "Mac the Miserable."

Why did they deem Mac so Miserable? "He refused," the caption read, "to even reveal when girlfriend Tatum O'Neal would be arriving in London."

For the women, the week leading up to the championships isn't so difficult. Most play in a grass tournament at Eastbourne, about an hour outside London. There, the practice courts are plentiful, the atmosphere is country-like and relaxed.

"I love the week at Eastbourne," said Martina Navratilova, who today won the tournament for the fifth time. "I especially like it because every time I've won it, I've gone on to win Wimbledon (including the last three). It's important to me."

Next week may not be so easy for Navratilova. Undoubtedly, she will breeze through her matches as she always does the first week at Wimbledon. But with her autobiography having just hit the shops here, Navratilova will be questioned about the book -- in which she talks about her bisexuality and her current relationship with Judy Nelson, a divorced Texas mother of two. She won't hear many tennis questions.

Another tennis book is coming out this week. Chris Evert Lloyd and husband John have co-authored their own book, much of it about their six years of marriage, which included last year's much publicized (though temporary) separation.

The Lloyds also are the subject of a huge piece in Sunday's London Times, "The Lloyds of Wimbledon," a much-ballyhooed and publicized "tell-all" about their lives on and off the tennis court.

Wimbledon. Rain. Strawberries and cream. Private game on Saturday. Rain.

Gossipy books? Ludicrous tabloid headlines?