I have been to London so many times that it feels a bit like coming home, especially when I’m staying with Scarlett, whose house and neighbourhood I know well. I was surprised to see a fox giving himself a good scratch in her tiny back garden yesterday; Scarlett says there are masses of them in London. Who knew?
I first came to London in 1963, when I was eight years old and fully ignorant of the world. In fact had not really computed that there WAS a world beyond the boundaries of Montreal West where I grew up. In England (land of kings and queens and Emma Peel and bobbies) everyone spoke funny, like in books. Castles rose at every corner, we rode on double-decker buses and saw the crown jewels, the Tower of London and London Bridge. We took the Underground and watched plays in gilt theatres. Which was absolutely magical – for a couple of days. After that, I got bored. One cathedral looked much like another. I loathed museums and art galleries. The food was, generally speaking, dreadful, all grease and overcooked vegetables. People used such peculiar expressions, calling sweaters cardigans, cookies biscuits, the toilet a WC (and the toilets were so cold, the chains too high to reach, the toilet paper waxy little squares that failed to dry).
A few years later, in 1970-72, I passed through London quite often, going to and from Atlantic College, where I was at boarding school doing A-levels. It had hardly changed. Wimpy burgers were still disgusting, the streets filthy & expressions odd, but as I was a teenager, it all seemed pretty romantic. I lost my virginity in an utterly seedy hotel near Victoria station. I mean, how cool was that? I learned and loved the song “The Streets of London”. All my boyfriends played guitar and had long hair. And I had boyfriends, which was definitely NOT the case when I was eight. And, because it was England, I could get served in pubs even though I was only 15. VERY civilized country, I thought, sipping my (admittedly warm) vodka and lime.
Now the food is terrific, the streets much cleaner – and I am mostly oblivious to the sites, having seen them several times – with my family as a child, and later with Jay and my children. But being here certainly brings back memories.
In the early 1980s, I did research for my PhD thesis at the Victoria and Albert Museum Theatre archive, examining Old Vic promptbooks – and at the Shakespeare Centre Library in Stratford-upon-Avon, looking at RSC productions. Fantastic stuff, being brought old, musty, carefully guarded documents, from which I slowly coaxed to life long-dead performances featuring Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, Helen Mirren and many more.
Coming to London with Jay when Mike was only 3 months old seems not so long ago (1987!). It was Jay’s first trip to Europe. We stayed with Scarlett, saw lots of sites and spent a fair bit of time in pubs – one time leaving Mike with Scarlett’s flatmate of the time, Steve. We returned a couple of jolly hours later to find Mike howling and Steve sweating buckets, his face collapsing in relief as he handed the squalling bundle over to us. We rode of the top of double-decker buses with Mike in snuggly and got stopped on the street by businesswomen who rarely got to see babies in their part of town. Jay loved the art galleries. I let him go on his own and walked Mike in the stroller, through lush green parks.
On almost every visit I’ve gone to the theatre – such gorgeous grand old buildings, great acting, inspired productions. More often than not (now as then) I’d be seated in “the gods” (uppermost balcony, the actors tiny dots down below. Fantastic.)
So, today I am being lazy, recovering from the fog of jet lag, lounging in Scarlett’s sunny kitchen and reminiscing. I took a walk through the neighbourhood this morning and saw the chemist’s, the off-license, the shops… still all very English.
Tomorrow, seeing friends and spending a night at the theatre. Ahhh…