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Algora Publishing - Run of Bad Luck Tests Britons' Stiff Upper Lip
                                               For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Tuesday,
Run of Bad Luck Tests Britons' Stiff Upper Lip
Sarah Lyall New York Times Service U.K. on Verge of 'Nervous Breakdown'

LONDON The news was not good. Nine hundred decomposing sheep and cattle carcasses buried because of foot-and-mouth disease had to be dug up in northeast England so they would not contaminate the underground drinking water. Twenty children were stricken with tuberculosis at a school in Leicester. And a top official in the disaster-plagued railroad industry announced that in his opinion Britain was suffering from "rail cancer."
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And that was only this week.
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Is anything going right in Britain these days? If so, it's hard to tell. While all countries experience occasional streaks of bad luck and unfortunate confluences of events, Britain has had a worse run than usual lately - a combination of natural disasters and human bungling that has left many beset by a malaise as they wonder what dreadful thing might befall them next.
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"Well, that's the way Britain is," said James Edwards, who works at the Web site of MORI, a polling organization. "You just never know what's going to happen."
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But even the phlegmatic Mr. Edwards conceded that Britain has been "quite unlucky" lately in an alarming number of ways.
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The weather? Far more hideous than usual. In the past 12 months, more rain has teemed down on this always soggy country than in any year since records were first kept, in 1766. People traveling by train to the countryside - an iffy proposition these days, since a series of crashes and other mishaps has left many lines crippled by cancellations and delays - can see fields denuded of their usual complement of livestock and small lakes where grass used to be.
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Some parts of the country - like the quaint village of Yalding, which sits unhappily at the intersection of three rivers in Kent - have flooded so frequently that some residents have had to move out.
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The health service? In the past year, a mild-mannered country doctor was convicted of murdering 15 elderly patients, with prosecutors saying he might have killed 250 more. A doctor in Liverpool was discovered to have secretly removed and stockpiled thousands of organs - including heads and hearts - from dead children.
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And although the National Health Service is still considered by some to provide better service per dollar than is available in almost any other country, it is also true that a prostate-cancer patient has a better chance of surviving five years after diagnosis in Poland than he does in the United Kingdom.
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Nor have things been so great in London, proclaimed by Vanity Fair magazine in the late 1990s to be the swinging, rocking heart of Cool Britannia. A subway strike over safety last week paralyzed transportation throughout the city; the strikers promised that there would be more to come. The Millennium Dome, meant to be a towering symbol of Britain's prosperity, closed in January in an ignominious cloud of deficits and finger-pointing.
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And the Millennium Bridge - a gorgeous pedestrian span across the Thames - shut down for repairs on the day it opened, after it wobbled so much that people crossing it became dizzy and fell down. It is still closed.
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It has been hard to miss the collective underlying dread whispering through the country.
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"A country on the verge of a nervous breakdown," said Polly Toynbee of the Guardian. Teresa Wickham, chairwoman of the London Tourist Board, recently traveled to the United States in an effort, she said, to spread the word that London had not been consumed in one big animal funeral pyre.
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But tourists are not shunning Britain simply because of foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease, "but also because of high prices and the creaking service," Alice Thomson, a columnist, wrote recently in the conservative Daily Telegraph. "We are once again seen as clammy, dark and expensive."
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According to Jonathan Freedland, a Guardian columnist and the author of "Bring Home the Revolution: The Case for a British Republic," Britain's apparently boundless tolerance for multifaceted wretchedness is an atavistic echo of the country's roots as a feudal society - deferential to authority and grateful for what its rulers deign to dole out.
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This passivity, combined with the widespread view that the current Conservative opposition is spectacularly inadequate, is reflected in public opinion polls indicating that the Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair will retain power in the general election in June, barring any damaging scandal.
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That is hardly surprising, said the actor and writer, Stephen Fry, in an interview by e-mail. "To be honest, I can't remember a time where one couldn't say with authority that 'the wheels have come off' or 'it's all gone pear-shaped,'" he said.