London and I don’t really get on.
Oh we’ve tried, believe me, we’ve tried.
But, like an interfering mother in law, it’s best if I visit only infrequently and for no more than a few days at a time.
There are only two reasons why I ever go there: business and cricket. The thought of spending any more than a couple of nights in our capital city fills me with dread. Those of you who know me well or who have read my blog before will know by now that I am not A City Person. I’m temporarily living and working in Manchester; being offered drugs and almost being run over by a tram in the space of 5 minutes has not enamoured me of city life. Small-town girl or country bumpkin, that’s me. I’ve only just discovered Uber.
I hate traffic. I abhor noise and crowds. I loathe skyscrapers and office blocks and tube stations. I hate shopping. I detest the ridiculous pretentiousness of it all, the money for money’s sake. Most of all, I don’t like Other People – especially those that consider it impossible to walk any distance without being attached to a Starbucks coffee cup or a plastic water bottle. (They only left the house 30 minutes ago – how thirsty can they be?)
It wasn’t always this way. As a child growing up in a small-mining town on the North East coast, I was desperate to experience the glamour and the bright lights. I still remember my first glimpse of London, as clear as day. Aged 12, I’d gone on a 2 week visit to the capital with my Girl Guide company. For some reason we were staying in the heart of the East End, in Stepney Green, which in the Summer of 1982 was extremely run down and shabby.
The nearby docklands were still largely derelict (the mid-80s property boom seemed a very long way off) and London was still recovering from the aftermath of widespread riots in Brixton and Tottenham the year before. Just a few weeks prior to our trip, the IRA had detonated bombs in Hyde Park and Regents Park, murdering 11 soldiers and killing 7 horses. (What WERE my parents thinking? Mind you they also packed me off to Israel in 1983 when it was all kicking off there.)
Our accommodation for the fortnight was in a large dormitory building to the rear of Roland House, just up the street from the Jewish Hospital, in a property donated to the Boy Scout movement by The Honourable Captain Roland Erasmus Phillipps. A British cavalry officer, and friend of Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell, he had been killed on the Somme in 1916. The building itself had fallen into disrepair and was on the point of being closed down; there were still blackout curtains up at some of the windows, a reminder of the distant dark days of the Blitz.
As a very excited 12 year old, with an obsessive love of history and a tendency toward the romantic, I can’t say that I was in the slightest bit phased by the threat of riots or terrorist plots. However, as were driven in our mini-bus for a whistle-stop tour of the sights that first evening, I have to confess I was desperately disappointed. You see, St Paul’s wasn’t next to the Houses of Parliament, which were nowhere near the Tower of London or Tower Bridge. The Thames Television people had lied!! As a child I’d genuinely thought that the Thames Television ident was an ACTUAL photograph of the city. What a swizz…
I returned with my family the following year, a finalist in the National Junior Mastermind Competition. Invited to a big charity bash at the Ritz, we mixed with a very random collection of royalty and celebrities of the day – where else would you find Princess Margaret, Trevor Brooking and Keith Harris (with Orville) in the same room? What 13-year-old could fail to be impressed by that? Even one with a Princess Diana haircut?
I didn’t return for many years, and when I did, my perception of the city quickly changed. As a kid you just don’t notice the extremes of wealth and poverty, the dirt, the pollution, the traffic, the tourist tat, the ridiculous prices nor the rudeness. I’m from the North East. We talk to people we meet, whether we know them or not. We say hello. We start conversations with random strangers. It’s called “friendliness”. We’re rather good at it.
These days, by and large, I can’t stand the place. Yes, there’s magnificent architecture and nice parks, and if you know where to look, fascinating little snippets of the medieval city remain. It’s just not…me.
That said, there are two areas I do genuinely like. The first is Southbank, the area around the Globe Theatre (do the tour, it’s excellent). I’d wanted to explore that area ever since I read Gillian Tindall’s book, The House by the Thames, which tells the history of a house which has stood overlooking the river for the best part of a thousand years.
While on a business trip last year, I’d decided to take in a production at the Globe. As it was winter, there were no performances in the main theatre, which is of course entirely exposed to the elements. As it turned out, “exposure” was very much the theme of the trip.
I elected instead to see All’s Well That End’s Well in the Georgian Sam Wanamaker theatre next door. It was only after I purchased my ticket that I read the words “contains brief male nudity”. But hey, I’m a woman of the world, I’m all for a bit of nakedness in the name of art…
The Sam Wanamaker Theatre is a very small and intimate venue, lit only by candlelight to give that “authentic Georgian experience” (without the lice or the syphilis). I found myself sat on a wooden bench in the gallery, in the far right of the theatre, directly above the stage. I was sat next to a very serious young German chap in a black polo-neck jumper who’d brought with him a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. He followed every word spoken on stage, running his finger along the text, silently mouthing the script. Directly opposite was a party of around 20 female Korean students, all “oos and “aaahhs” as the candles were lit and the room began to glow.
When the performance began, I did briefly wonder which of the young chaps on stage below me would be getting their kit off, and more to the point, why?
Well. Full frontal nudity in a very compact and candlelit environment can of course be a good thing. Just not on this occasion. Imagine my horror when the chap playing the old king (who must have been 65 if he was a day) stripped off and lay on stage DIRECTLY below where I was sitting. For a good 10 minutes. There are only so many places one can put one’s eyes in these circumstances, so in the end I just shut them.
The young German lad next to me stat bolt upright, muttered something under his breath and lost his place in the text. The Korean girls opposite thought it was hilarious and began giggling and pointing. Apparently, Koreans don’t have willies. Or if they do, they don’t waft them around on stage.
I’m still mentally scarred.
My most beloved London spot though is Lord’s cricket ground, that genteel corner on the edge of St John’s Wood and Regent’s Park – the Home of Cricket. I adore that place. I love the sense of tradition, the carefully manicured lawns, the contrast between the beautiful old red-brick pavilion with its white picket fence and painted benches, and the dazzling ultra-modern media centre. There is always a sense of occasion, whether you’re attending a febrile Ashes test match with thousands of other cricket fans, or sat in the Long Room watching a genteel county game, with just a sprinkling of spectators scattered around the stands. I love to walk through the Long Room and examine all the paintings, and then inspect the portraits of famous cricketers lining the staircase. The huge painting of Sir Vivien Richards is a particular favourite – it’s jaw-droppingly good. And the food is amazing.
In December last year I was very kindly invited to the Middlesex County Cricket Club Christmas Lunch which was being held in the Long Room (of course). I was sat on a table with a selection of wonderful and hugely entertaining people from the wine trade. The Long Room sparkled, all crystal, candlelight and Christmas decorations. It was an extremely posh do, and I loved every minute.
I thought about that impressionable 12 year old girl from the North East, and wondered what she would have made of it all.
After lunch, I was chatting to a very gregarious and well-to-do lady downstairs in the powder room. She’d come over to ask me about my dress (red lace, if you’re wondering).
“Of course, my family have been in wine for GENERATIONS,” she declared.
“Oh really? My family have been in mining for generations,” I ventured.
“HOW interesting!! Gold or diamonds?”
Thames Television https://youtu.be/Z1RsgSBySXk
Gillian Tindall, The House By The Thames https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-house-by-the-thames/gillian-tindall/9781844130948
Shakespeare’s Globe – Performances and Tours https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/
Captain The Honourable Rowland Erasmus Phillipps https://www.centenarybattlefieldtours.org/somme100/captain-rowland-philipps/
You can go on a tour of Lord’s , any time of year https://apps.lords.org/lords/tours-and-museum/tours/#tm-section-item-anchor-10
MY BOOKS (NON-FICTION / HISTORY)
The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017) – a true story of 19th century migration from the mining villages of County Durham to the Queensland Rainforests.
Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story (publication date Summer 2020).