I changed my mind about this one!
I changed my mind about this one!
London has been good to me since I first lived here at the age of nine, and since returning at the age of 11 to stay, probably now for ever in one form or another. I totted up how many addresses I have lived at here, and it comes to thirteen roads, not counting hotels/B&B and not counting the second and third homes I lived in in the same road in NW6, back in 1963 or thereabouts. It’s complicated. Expressed in terms of railway stations, that’s eight, which doesn’t sound too bad. In school terms, that’s just three, and in terms of workplaces it’s nine of which three no longer exist, having being redeveloped, with a couple more converted to something else. One school is almost exactly the same, one has become an academy and one has changed religion but remains recognisable inside and out. I get some sense of continuity from all this, which makes up for not being a native of the town.
London has done me no harm. I’ve not been hurt, though I have been scared several times – bombs within earshot, narrow squeaks on road and rail, a burglary, dodgy geezers being threatening now and again, with one or two acts of mild violence. A speck of London dust got in my eye once and I had to go to A&E. That’s just the once in all that time. So I have nothing to complain about, and a great deal of memory and human experience invested in the bricks and paving slabs, green swards and streams, woodlands and tunnels, museums and pubs. I cannot go anywhere much in London without it stirring one recollection or another, dim or vivid, of people I have known or events or situations. London is a friend then, rather more than a casual acquaintance.
But I’m becoming neglectful and lazy, and failing to maintain a relationship that has gone on nearly 60 years, let alone taking it to new levels of intimacy as one should strive to do – according to some anyway. I can feel my horizons closing in a bit, so that a trip ‘up London’ is more of an adventure than it was, more eye-opening, but slightly more alien It’s harder to keep up. I am not tired of Lodnod, nor of life. Yes, I should get out more!
It had to happen one day, but today of all days? A party political manifesto is published that includes a proposal that some have described as a dementia tax, and while musing about this in the kitchen I pour boiling water into the tea caddy and thereby waste 20 or so teabags at a stroke. I can only hope the worms in the compost heap get something out of the sudden influx of caffeine.
I do not wish to make light of dementia, unlike those who absurdly dismiss the Tory proposal in those ignorant terms. I’ve watched relatives and in-laws deteriorate through formally diagnosed dementia and am well aware that absent-mindedness is not a sign of its imminent onset, or indeed anything else much except the fact that it becomes a bit harder to do two things at once as one gets on a bit. I long ago stopped enjoying music or speech radio while trying to work, and I am best not to talk while driving because I will miss a turning or forget where I am going momentarily. It’s simply a bit more difficult to concentrate, and harder to screen out distractions or to switch in an instant from one thought to another. I gather this is almost normal as one ages, though we age variably of course.
Anyhoo, this is London-related only in the sense that me and my compost bin are somewhere in Greater London. The sun is going down to my right, and a lad who knocked at the door has just persuaded me to sponsor him for a run round Hyde Park five times tomorrow, for the princely sum of £5. Such is life that I struggled to believe him, and still have doubts that this is genuine, especially as he ended the conversation by seeking the cash in advance. I persuaded him to come back when he had completed the run, but even so I have a residual feeling that I am the fool on the hill.*
And did you know that the very engaging Beatles song of that name is about 50 years old? It was the first track on the second record of the double EP released not long before Christmas 1967, which I listened to rapt with my first girlfriend at her home, over and over again. It remains one of the best releases of the era (ignore the accompanying film, which was unduly self-indulgent). Fifty years ago was some year for me.
* He came back. I paid him the fiver I had carefully saved in case he did.
We began walking from the new Blackfriars Station, high up there above the River. It’s now possible to sit at a table and look down on the Thames and the passing road and river trafiic in a rare example of a station cafe in central London that is ‘train-side’ of the barriers. I have fond memories of the two other examples I can think of, namely the bars that once graced Baker Street and Sloane Square stations, but there are also one or two refreshment rooms on platforms , notably at Waterloo East. I doubt if the London Bridge ones will be back, sadly.
Outside, The Blackfriars survives as a relic of the golden age of pubs. It is a gem of a place, a triangular pub squeezed up against a viaduct which has now shrunk away, making it look like a solitary tooth. Not far to the west is Whitefriars Street, crossing Tudor Lane – a whole set of images conjured up in these names. A little further lies Bouverie Street, once at the heart of the newspaper industry and still nominally home to The Sun. It wasn’t possible to walk through The Temple so we ducked up the cobbled lane on its eastern edge to emerge into The Strand. Though heading north, we couldn’t resist seeing what church that was just to the left, and inside the porch we were amazed to find it impossibly packed with congregation, all the more strange because the singing emerging from St Dunstan-in-the-West sounded very much eastern in flavour. It proved to be the spritual home of the Romainian Orthodox Church, and it’s dedicated itself to promoting Christian unity and is known as the Church for Europe.
We strolled up Fetter Lane, the origins of the name being a matter of dispute. I rather like the idea that a Fetter or Feutor was a worthless fellow. We passed the site of Clifford’s Inn, one of London’s slightly mysterious Inns of Court, dissolved in 1903. New Fetter Lane brought us onto High Holborn, somewhere west of the old Fleet River, and we continued north up Leather Lane, which runs parallel to the more famous Hatton Garden. Somewhere north we pass Dickens House and the little museum there. Now there was someone who could write!
A further few twists and turns and I am confonted by my past life, or to be more precise the life of nearly 50 years ago, still vivid today in my internalities. Judd Street, just south of St Pancras, where right next to the lovely jolly cafe where we stopped to eat outside in the sun is a basement window, behind which I spent many formative teenage hours which led in a year or two to marriage and the first of my two lives. That confrontation was not anything I’d expected on this pleasant Sunday morning walk. London is like that now…full of memories and some unexpected connections. That’s all good then.
I am not a Londoner, just like most peope who live here. We’ve mostly come from somewhere else, and stayed on. In a city as dynamic and dominant as this, it’s not surprising. And it’s fair to say that with a surrounding area of about some 100 miles across (I am guessing), many former londoners have simply shifted out beyond the boundaries to live in what are quaintly called the Home Counties. Though it’s been a while since I saw that term used. These are the various counties which abut London, suh as Surrey or Essex, or lie at one remove such as Sussex or Berkshire. All are full of emigres from London, as well as many people whose economic lives have depended or still depend on London in some way. I imagine most major cities have such a layer around them. The true natives of such counties needless to say slighly resent the outward migration of Londoners, and indeed resent too the outward expansion of the city’s boundaries though it’s now many years since the last (1963 in fact was the last time this happened).
I digress though. My point if there is one is to say that while not born here, I have lived here all my adult life and some of my younger life too. In fact, on a quick calculation I have spent about 55 of my 65 years here in the capital which makes for a strong connection, added to which is the fact that my mother was born and bred in London, as I think were her parents, which gets us back to the 1880s or thereabouts. So when many years ago I was chatting to a former boss about our respective backgrounds – his being more thoroughbred Londonish than mine – he came up with the idea that my standing was that of an ‘honorary Londoner’, a kind of grudging recognition.
To be frank, only a born Londoner – a very rare animal these days – would even think in such terms. Most people in the UK would regard London as a necessary evil, and not a place one would imagine aspiring to be a full native of…an indigene. Even a Londoner might think twice before boasting of being a true Londoner, except to make the point that one is a member of a shrinking minority, outnumbered by ever larger numbers of incomers or various kinds. Many people in the UK are happy to claim that they have either never been to London, or went once but never again. Many who live here wish they didn’t, or are here merely to get themselves to a position where they can return home again for good, wherever ‘home’ may be. I’ve not felt for a very long time that my birthplace is home. In fact I feel distictly uncomfortable there. I cannot sing ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner‘ with full conviction; but London is my home, and I never want to live anywhere else – and I think this confirms me as a born-again Londoner.
One benefit of having a rather vague theme like ‘London Miscellany’ is that almost anything can be squeezed in, since a London connection can be found in so many things. So it is that the film ‘Mr Turner’, released last November in the UK, finally gets a mention here. Happily coinciding with a major exhibition of JMW Turner’s late paintings at the old Tate Gallery, located on the Thames, the film revealed to me at least that Mr Turner was a Londoner, and ended his days a couple of miles upstream of the Tate at Cremorne Road, Chelsea. In fact, he lived at various addresses up and down the Thames in his time including lodgings near Syon Park and Hammersmith Mall and of course in Margate – way downstream in North Kent. He lived too in Queen Anne Street in Westminster, a little further from the river, and for some street scenes here the film uses some beautifully preserved roads behind Westminster Abbey which often pop up in films, so perfect are they for filming 18th or 19th century scenes.
The huge Turner collection at the Tate is housed in the Clore Gallery. As one sees in the film, Turner left his art to the nation rather than selling it. Tate, whose wealth created the gallery that bears his name, was of course a sugar magnate, and made his money refining the produce of the sugar plantations of the West Indies in particular, which were manned by slaves for centuries. One wonders how long it will be before some publicity seeking loons seek to make an issue of the origins of the gallery and the many public libraries which Henry Tate endowed. Tate and Lyle remains a big UK company, with a large factory downstream still refining sugar.
In Turner’s day the gallery land was the site of the ghastly Millbank Penitentiary. This vast repository for the criminal and the unlucky was a curious shape, one hint of which can be found in the way the eastern boundary with the neighbouring property (in which I once worked) goes off the road at a strange angle. This is what a guide book of the day said about it:
“This important establishment was formed for the purpose of trying the effect of a system of imprisonment, founded on humane and rational principles; in which the prisoners should be separated into classes, be compelled to work, and their religious and moral habits properly attended to. The external walls form an irregular octagon, and enclose no less than eighteen acres of ground. This vast space comprehends seven distinct though conjoined masses of building, the centre being a regular hexagon, and the others branching from its respective sides. By this means the governor or overseer may, at all times, from the windows in the central part, have the power of overlooking every division of the prison. The buildings are sufficiently capacious to accommodate 1000 persons. No person can be admitted to view this prison without an order from the Home Secretary of State, or unless he is accompanied by one of the committee of management.“
I don’t know if it’s true of all other cities, but in London one can find state-owned sites recycled for a variety of purposes. For example, the site of the Bethleham hospital across the river near the Elephant and Castle later became the Imperial War Museum, while the military hospital next to the Tate has become home to Chelsea School of Art. It makes history and topography even more fascinating, to know a bit about site history. Incidentally, talking of property, Charlie Clore who endowed the wing dedicated to Turner’s Bequest was a major developer, amongst other things, and famously made money by building Centre Point and keeping it empty for decades.
He was also less well known as a client of the equally well-connected Christine Keeler, who died a while back, followed more latterly by Mandy Rice Davies, famous for her words to the judge (see below). Now there’s another story! Suffice it to say that when the official report of Lord Justice Denning into what is known as the Profumo affair came out in about 1963, my father sent me aged 12 to Her Majesty’s Stationery Office Bookshop in Holborn to purchase a copy. I think I might have it somewhere here…Apart from the Highway Code, it was HMSO’s best-selling publication of the year. Truly an eye-opener, and it more than anything else perhaps helped bring about a degree of open scepticism about the establishment and our institutions that superceded the somewhat complacent view of itself that Britain displayed in the 1950s.
Once again I find myself taken off to the theatre, the National, in a small group – this time for a full immersion in Young Chekhov. For the matinee, we were treated to Platonov, happily somewhat reduced in length from the original eight hours of material which was never staged in the author’s lifetime (he’d never finished it). All the usual themes are already in place in this first play – the rural setting, latter 19th century Russian ‘home counties’, bored brooding privileged middle-class characters with too much time on their hands, given to introspection and self-destruction through drink and debt. A doctor and a schoolmaster, landowner and retired army officers populate this first play, as with all his subsequent ones it seems. These contrast with the rich variety of female characters – wives and daughters in most cases. All beautifully observed, and even I can see how revolutionary it was for a play to consist of such a depiction of fairly ordinary people’s domestic and personal concerns. A play with no big plots, no melodrama, just friends, neighbours and families interacting, with the focus on human emotions mainly, though not without some dramatic developments including violent death.
I found myself looking for anything that might hint at or presage the horrors ahead for Russia, or provide some sort of explanation, but there isn’t much. There’s economic upheaval, but the same went on all over Europe as it adapted to the huge growth in US economic strength and the decline in rural economies as urbanisation took off. These people are not very concerned with big politcal ideas, and don’t see much amiss apart from worrying about their incomes and properties.
The three plays employ the same stunning set, with its elements regrouped and rearranged, varying just enough to keep it fresh, as do the actors. Some old cards like Brian Pettifer, Peter Egan and Anna Chancellor mix it with the younger ones. Ivanov and The Seagull present us with some similar characters once more…the doctor, the schoolmaster, the landowner, and similar dilemmas and angst, useless but engaging chaps various, and tearful or feisty women. One can see how Chekhov developed and refined his tropes by exploring them repeatedly.
Ivanov went down a treat after high tea, and The Seagull – well it just flew by (the following evening). How true to the originals these renditions are I have no idea: I suspect we would find them a bit turgid without updating of the language, plus the whole business of translation and how that works. Anyhow, all enjoyable bigly.