Holiday Day seven (March 8th) London
Sunday was to be our last day in London before setting off to Canada on Monday morning, and it was to be a day of past-blasts and a reunion, so please forgive the rambling reminiscences that follow.
Morning dawned early and surprisingly headache-free. The day had been set aside for one main event, a small reunion of friends and family at the Punch & Judy pub in Covent Garden at 2 pm, and as we’re early risers, we had the entire morning to ourselves. That was, apart from breakfast where we skulked around hoping to avoid ‘mistaken identity busty broad from Bradford’, or wherever it was, and her ‘still in shock’ husband, in case they favoured house red for breakfast rather than tea. Apparently, they didn’t favour breakfast at all, and we managed a circuit of the buffet and a couple of trips to the coffee machine without incident. Having walked over 10 miles the day before, we opted for a localised wander and headed out into another clear but chilly morning.
The peaceful West End
Everyone should experience the West End early on a Sunday morning, there’s an air of peace that’s pleasantly out of place. Maybe it’s the feeling of tall, old and sturdy buildings looking down on you, or the emptiness of wide roads, but you get a sense of ‘something happened last night, and now it’s gone.’ What you knew to be teaming streets, glittering theatres, crowded bars and steaming food stalls are still there, but they’re not doing anything. They’re not exactly asleep either, as you know they will come alive again in a few hours, and soon, you won’t be able to amble across a road, you’ll have to look both ways and hope for the best. The air smells fresher, though is still tinted with ‘city’, and as if some magic wand has been waved, what were littered gutters and choked roads are miraculously clean and deserted.
When I first moved to London in the 80s and was waiting to start a job with Lambeth Council, I had three months with little money and plenty of free time. I used to wake early and wander from Clapham towards the river and over, and keep walking. One morning, I found myself in Baker Street by about eight, and it must have been a Sunday because everywhere was similarly deserted, and I felt like I had the whole city to myself. Well, it was a similar feeling on our last day in London.
We’d heard of a Steampunk market held in the grounds of St James’ Church, Piccadilly, and thought we may as well wander down there to take a look. The route took us through Leicester Square where we stumbled upon a practically perfect statue of Mary Poppins and stopped for a photo-op.
Wandering in the Past
That’s another thing about returning to a place you used to know well; I still did. I can’t remember how long it took me to find my way around London when I was 24, not long, I think, and somehow, when you live in a city, you absorb the place, and understand how it works without question. That’s why I knew where I was going, and couldn’t help but point out places of interest as we walked. The Swiss Centre was on that corner, and that’s where I saw my first Liam Neesom film, ‘Lamb’, many years ago. The Hippodrome was ‘The Talk of the Town’, and there’s a Sunday Times magazine somewhere with photos of my uncle and godmother taking cocktails there, her in her tiara, him in his dinner suit. That was sometime in the 1960s, I think, and they went home afterwards on his 900cc motorbike. ‘That’s where I saw ‘City of Angels in 1993,’ was another on my guided reminiscence tour.
It got kinda weird as we walked Piccadilly towards the church. My godfather (not related to Her Ladyship, the godmother), used to ‘Work the Dilly’ in the 1930s, taking his patch along the south side, while opposite worked a ‘Nasty queen, we never liked her’, Quentin Crisp. They were both, at the time, what we’d now call rent boys. As I walked, I remembered interviewing Uncle Bob (‘Babs’ was his professional name both on the Dilly and, later, in the Royal Navy and after that, as the head housekeeper of the Hyde Park Hotel). He wanted to write down his life story and, as he got older, I ended up compiling his memoirs with him. He even came to Symi for two weeks and worked on telling me the stories. But I am, again, digressing.
Anyway, the Steampunk market wasn’t open; we were far too early anyway, but we were very pleased to read this sign on the church gates.
Photo-ops and Odd Connections
We wandered the Dilly (similarly to my godfather but not for the same reason), and headed back towards Covent Garden for a coffee at Tuttons. By then, Neil had posted Mary Poppins on Facebook, and as we walked, we had a message from Sall who you met at the theatre the other evening. She directed us back to Leicester Square where, if we cared to hunt, we would find other fun statues. And guess what? We did.
‘There’s a lovely old street I want to walk down,’ I declared afterwards. ‘It’s on our way, just over the road… Oh!’ And here comes another Symi connection story.
Showing at the Garrick Theatre back in March, was a production of City of Angels. The original London run was in 1993, as I mentioned just now, and appearing in it was a very fine actress/singer/dancer called Jeanette Ranger. I didn’t know it at the time, as I watched, enthralled, that 20 years later, she and I would be living on the same Greek island, and I would have the pleasure of playing piano for her when she came to the house regularly to keep up her singing.
And, if you want more of these odd connections (this is, after all, a day for reminisces and reunions), how about this one? In 1986, I went to one of the previews for ‘Chess’ the Tim Rice/Benny and Bjorn musical at the Prince Edward Theatre. Great show and I went back a couple of weeks after the run opened. Again, I didn’t know it then, but 20 or so years later, I’d be dancing in the Jean & Tonic bar with one of the dancers I saw on the stage that night (and later in a production of West Side Story at her Majesty’s), Jane, who used to have the Sunflower in Yialos.
Another connection. Uncle Bob of the Dilly later bought a house in Clapham and used to throw parties. I think he was still, surreptitiously, doing his ‘old job’, but let’s not go there. One famous party he threw was for the dancers from the original London run of West Side Story (1959 to 1961, also at Her Majesty’s) – and that’s as much as I am allowed to tell you.
And, for another name-drop, I once interviewed Michael Cashman at the Garrick Theatre. I was doing some volunteer writing work for what was then NALGO, and the insidious Section 28 was in place, so it was a political interview. Very nice chap he is too, Barron Cashman as he is now, and Sir Ian (just Ian, as he was then), popped his head into the dressing room to say hello. But, again, I digress.
Mad Hatters and Paddington ready for his close-up
Meanwhile, on our way to Covent Garden, we walked down Great Newport Street (I think it’s called), the one where there are antiquarian bookshops and a rather Dickensian feel. It was still early, and so deserted, apart from Alice and the Mad Hatter. Well, one always expects the unexpected in London, but I didn’t expect to see these two life-sized characters taking tea outside a bookshop at nine on a Sunday morning. We had to stop and ask if Little Pad could have a photo-op with them, and they obliged. They also did a fair amount of looking beyond us to the other side of the street, and I couldn’t work out why, until a film director tapped us on the shoulder with a cameraman hovering behind.
Apparently, they were making a promo or music video or maybe just a fetish flick, I don’t know, but we were apologetic as we’d not seen them lurking in a doorway, but they were charming. Actually, the director said, ‘Would you mind if we filmed you two walking with your Paddingtons? Only body-shots, so no need to sign any release forms.’ ‘As long as we can keep our clothes on.’ ‘Sorry?’ ‘Never mind. Yes, do.’ So, we wandered Great Newport Street with the Paddingtons poking out of our pockets and, somewhere in the world, there’s a video of the boys being carried towards morning coffee.
After which, we did more aimless wandering, admired shop fronts, and slowly, Covent Garden market came to life. We ‘did’ that, checked out the Punch & Judy to see what time it opened, and finally, around 1.30, called in and found an upstairs banquette where we and our expected party could spend the afternoon.
Friends old and new
I am now very much in danger of falling too far down the rabbit hole that is memory lane and boring you (if I haven’t already), so I’ll keep it brief. Ha!
As we were only in London for a couple of days, we’d said, rather generally, ‘We’re going to be here at this time if anyone wants to meet up.’ That’s much easier than trying to allot slots and whiz from A to Z meeting someone here for ten minutes and someone there for five.
One by one, friends and family arrived. My nephew George, who some of you might know from when he briefly worked at To Spitiko in Yialos, his partner came too. Then Neil’s sister, who, again, is a fairly regular Symi visitor, and her partner. Sall from the other night whose husband, sadly, couldn’t make it because he’d just come off a three-day (or longer), non-stop shift in the virus ward, after working 24 hours a day, as hospital staff do. Then came Neil’s first ever girlfriend from junior school, Tanya, and two of my best friends from my school days, Simon and Andrew. Oh, and there was also a stray woman whose name I can’t remember, but who slipped into our banquette, presumably wanting company or warmth, and joined in our reunion even though no-one had a clue who she was. She was very understanding though, and ended up taking blurred photos for us in return for the occasional drink. Bless.
What can you say when you meet up with your old best-buds from when you were 16? Apart, that is, from ‘Oh my God, how old are we now?’ and ‘Has it really been 40 years?’
Actually, it hadn’t been that long since we last met. I saw Simon a couple of years ago back on Romney Marsh, and Andrew and I last saw each other in the 90s when he had a recording studio in West London. Since then (he writes, beaming with pride) Andrew’s been working as a producer/composer at Abbey Road, and in India where his company is at the forefront of booking, producing and arranging for, some of India’s top musicians. He also recently wrote the music for the stage production of ‘The Life of Pi’ which was staged at The Crucible, Sheffield in 2019. It was set to transfer to the West End in June 2020, but the bloody virus brought the curtain down on that, for now at least. When at school, I always thought that I’d get to the West End before he did, but clearly, I was pleasantly wrong. (You can’t count a week-long run of a dreadful cabaret musical I was involved in at the Actors’ Centre off Cambridge Circus in the 90s, where often there were more of us on stage than there were in the audience. It had a cast of three.)
It was a fabulous afternoon of catching up, staring at each other in disbelief, and gulping gin and tonic. Rather, gulping at the price of a gin and tonic; London’s not Symi, is it? As the afternoon continued, and some people had to leave, we said farewells to all but family. Six of us went for an Italian meal at a restaurant in St Martin’s Lane where I’d once been brought forward from the back of the queue because the doorman thought I was Bruno Brookes. I know, I’m full of these kinds of name-drop tales, but when you live in London and hang out ‘up west’ these things are bound to happen.
After dinner, us ‘boys’ went to Village Soho. Us, to pretend we were 25 again, and George and Ian to pretend we werent with them.
Towards Canada – almost
Okay, so I’m going to have to leave you now, and you leave us wandering back to our hotel for packing and an early night as our taxi is booked, and we’re due at Heathrow at 8.30 tomorrow. Yes, we are finally, after one week on the road, heading off to Canada. We must meet our Great Rail Journeys tour guide by nine at the latest as our flight is at midday.
Before I go, I will mention that, at this point, the West End streets were still teeming, life was going on as usual apart from more hand washing and being aware of door handles, and although cases were rising around the world, there was still only one in Canada. Had we cancelled, our insurance company would not have covered us. It was too late by then anyway, Paddington had already packed himself away.