We spent three days in London, staying close to Soho’s Berwick Street Market. How things have moved on since I was a likely lad about town. The traditional stalls flogging fruit and veg, cheap knickers, household tat and knock-off have been supplanted by international street food, and the old Wimpy burger bar at the top of the street is now a trendy restaurant.
We lunched in Old Compton Street, Soho’s main drag, picking a table at an open window so we could people watch. Sat in front of us at a pavement table were a couple of well-heeled young ladies getting well-oiled – all flicky hair, painted pouts and posh frocks – necking upmarket cocktails. When they weren’t checking their iPhones, they chatted loudly and expressively in what I thought might be Farsi. There was a lot of gesticulating going on. It reminded me so much of our Turkey days watching po-faced Turkish princesses bitch and gossip.
Sitting quietly in the corner of the restaurant was their minder, watching and sipping coffee. Without warning, they signalled they were done and he whisked them and their fancy handbags off, presumably back to the Ritz or some other top-drawer dormitory for the filthy rich.
If anything positive has come out of this terrible pandemic, it has to be the explosion in café culture and al fresco dining. Come 5pm, up go the road barriers, out come the tables and Soho floods with punters. Well, if it’s good enough for Paris.
Last month saw us in London for a very special commemoration. An old friend died suddenly in early 2020 and it would have been his sixtieth birthday on 25th August. We couldn’t let the day go unmarked so we threw him a boozy late lunch in Soho attended by twenty of his nearest and dearest. It was a bittersweet gala of drunken gossip and giggles tinged with huge sadness. Much wine was consumed.
Some in attendance are social media phobics and who can blame them? Social media has a great deal to answer for. But it means I can’t share any images of the party which is a shame so here’s a picture of him and me in happy times less than a year before he died.
We were to meet up with the fragrant Roving Jay for one of our regular bloggers’ food-and-drink conventions but our plans were scuppered at the last minute. As we’d already bought the bus ticket, we went into town anyway for a wander around. Tombland, Norwich’s historic heart, is looking splendid after a recent wash and brush up. You might think the name comes from something spooky but it’s actually old English for ‘open ground’ (or such like) and is where the old market was held until those dastardly all-conquering Normans moved it to its present location a little after 1066 and all that.
It was a great day for a stroll so we decided to check out Cathedral Close, the substantial grounds of the grand Norman church. The Close is full of statues – of men mostly, as is the norm. However, one woman, Edith Cavell, has pride of place at the entrance. Ms Cavell was a British nurse in German-occupied Belgium during the Great War. She is remembered for tending to soldiers from both sides of the trenches and for helping about 200 Allied soldiers escape. Arrested by the Germans, she was tried for treason and shot by firing squad. It caused quite an international incident at the time as it wasn’t the done thing to shoot women – only horses. As she was a Norfolk lass, Edith Cavell is buried in the cathedral.
Doubtless, someone will discover something about Ms Cavell’s words, views or deeds that wouldn’t quite be cricket by today’s standards and demand she’s knocked off her plinth. That would be a shame.
Naturally, a chilled bottle was waiting for us at the end of the trail. We settled down at the Red Lion Pub on the river next to the Bishop Bridge, built in 1340 and the city’s oldest, to watch people messing about in canoes. Bottoms up!
We can’t complain. Village life is calm and cuddly. But when the easing of lockdown let us travel further afield for the first time in around seven months, we packed our bags and were off like a shot. The bright lights of London beckoned and not even lousy weather could dampen our spirits. Travelling across the city was a slightly unnerving experience. In normal times, whatever the time of day, the Tube is nose to nipple. But we don’t live in normal times. It was like Old London Town was just waking up from a long hibernation – which, in a way, it was. Then we got to eat inside a restaurant so we supped a gin fizz to celebrate. We felt like naughty truants bunking off school.
It was a whirlwind four-day tour seeing my mother in the flesh for the first time since December 2019. These days she’s as deaf as a post but otherwise in fine fettle. She refuses to get her hearing tested which makes phone calls a bit of a challenge but it’s the kind of contrariness that has got her to 92 – that and the tea and the fags.
We caught up with other family too for a bite and a long natter, and with a gaggle of vintage pals to bid our final farewells to one of our own who died suddenly just before the pandemic placed us all under house arrest. His is a nice spot in Highgate Cemetery, made famous as the last resting place of Karl Marx and a host of other worthies, so he’s in illustrious company. It was a sweet and simple ceremony. We laughed, we cried. Then we got drunk.
To misquote Mark Twain, ‘The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.’ And I hope that’s also true of the long-anticipated demise of the high street. The great shift to online shopping may have been accelerated by the pandemic but I, for one, relish the experience of grazing and browsing in the real world. And so do many others judging by the queues of masked punters we saw shuffling towards the entrances of various Norwich stores when we ventured into town. Sure, some retailers have gone to the wall while others limp on but a little imagination and a lot of fairy dust might be all it takes to stop the rot and save our city centres from becoming ghost towns. People are nothing if not inventive and fairy dust is plentiful in the retail trade.
One thing an online shop can’t provide is the conviviality of a post-shop bottle and bite. This we sought in the Lamb Inn, our favourite city centre watering hole. The delightful lady at the gate recognised us. ‘One white, one red,’ she said. She’s Spanish and I was delighted that Brexit hadn’t put her off from sticking around. What she didn’t know is I had a brand-new axe in my man bag. I’ve never gone tooled up before. I felt like a criminal. And that’s another thing you can’t get online – an offensive weapon. Well, not legally anyway. Rest assured I bought the axe to chop up firewood, not run amok. Norfolk isn’t Midsomer.
As we took our seats for the bus home, I looked through the window at the YMCA opposite. I began to wonder if ‘it’s fun to stay at the YMCA’, as suggestively sung by the Village People. I doubt it. This is Norwich not New York and these village people have long since hung up their leathers and feathers.