On one of our rare visits to the home counties, my sister-in-law fished out an ancient, long-forgotten photo of me from a biscuit tin she keeps under the stairs. I’m guessing I was about 14. I look older, I think. I matured young – so young, in fact, that at the tender age of 12 I used my Dad’s razor to shave my legs in the bath. No, not because I fancied slipping on my sister’s tights (just in case you were wondering) but because I was embarrassed. Most of my contemporaries at school hardly had a short and curly between them.
The backdrop to the image is a perfect picture of naff seventies-chic. Our south London parlour was a riot of clashing colours and patterns – orange floral flock wallpaper, red faux-velvet curtains, an orange and brown three piece suite in synthetic wool and a swirly carpet in reds, blues and greens. It made my old girl proud. Nowadays, it would make everyone else feel nauseous.
As for me, what are those goggles about? And the shocking locks? They had a will all of their own until tamed by creeping male pattern baldness. Still, I was cute – even if I do say so myself – with raging hormones, a 26-inch waist and cheekbones that could slice cheese. Happy days. The grim, buttoned-up decade never held me back. And what was my chopper doing behind that sofa? Now that would be telling.
The world may be going to Hell in a handcart but the Pansies keep on blooming – year in, year out. I keep them fed and watered and I’m grateful to those who pass by to admire the display. As the New Year dawns and more dark clouds lurk on the horizon, it’s a good time to look back at the pansies that perked the most in 2018. Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum, romped home by a mile. Who knew a drag show in a circus tent could strike such a chord?
As for the also-rans, it’s the usual eclectic bunch – as befits my random rants and ramblings from daily life: cowboys, cross-dressers, the curse of modern parlance, movie misses, gym bunnies, Hellenic heaven, and stories old and new from the Land of the Sunrise.
And what better place to have one than Brick Lane in London, the curry capital of the UK and popularly known as Banglatown? The area has seen successive waves of immigrants down the centuries – French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution, East European Jews escaping murderous pogroms and, more recently, Bangladeshis seeking work in the sweat shops of the rag trade. There’s no greater symbol of this evolution than the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, a Grade II listed Georgian building which has gone from church to synagogue and now to mosque. Forget the messy Brexit, for me, it represents what London is all about.
The changes are still a-ringing. Brick Lane is rapidly becoming a magnet for creatives and fashionistas, trend-setters and tourists, and the streets provide a canvas for some stunning wall art. We added to the chaotic throng, day trippers on a mission for ‘authentic’ South Asian grub and a catch-up with two old friends. We nattered so much, I hardly took any photos but I did manage to snap this quirky sculpture near Spitalfields Market as we meandered back to Liverpool Street Station to catch our train home. What’s it about? Beats me but I love it.
On the second day of our London jolly, we were planning to take in the view from the Shard, until we realised it was thirty quid a piece. So it was enough to see the tallest building in the European Union (not for much longer, of course) from the window of our hotel room. Instead we opted for a slow stroll through the City to the Museum of London. Well, it was free.
Along the way we crossed the Millennium Bridge, skirted around the magnificent St Paul’s, walked beneath Temple Bar and took a snap of Channel Four’s First Dates restaurant.
The Square Mile may be a throbbing epicentre of money and modernity, but the street plan is distinctly medieval and there was a surprise up every alley.
The Museum of London is one of my favourites – quirky, informative and well worth the free entrance!
After a couple of hours travelling from pre-history to the filthy lucre, the West End beckoned and we jumped on a bus to Soho, our spiritual home.
Late lunch was a bowl of Thai at the Tuk Tuk Noodle Bar on Old Compton Street – delicious and still ridiculously cheap – followed by a happy hour or two with the brethren outside the Duke of Wellington. As the warming sun began to set, we headed back to Bankside for an early evening cuddle.
And so ended a glorious few days in the big metropolis. As writer and clergyman Donald Lupton said of London in 1632,
‘…she swarms with all ages, natures, sexes, callings… she seems to be a glutton, for she desires always to be full.’
When Liam planned our ‘jolly’ down memory lane, he wasn’t to know it would be the hottest May Day holiday on record. The Sun puts a smile on everyone’s face, doesn’t it? And we smiled our way round Bankside, my favourite district of London. Back when the first Elizabeth was on the throne, old Southwark was a riot of licentiousness – playhouses, brothels and taverns – beyond the jurisdiction of the City of London’s buttoned-up elders who wagged their fingers from the other side of the Thames. This is where Will Shakespeare plied his trade among the players, the prostitutes and the drunks. That’s my kind of town.
Not that there are many ne’er-do-wells milling around these days. The area has cleaned up its act and is now home to over-priced flats, over-priced eateries, over-priced bars, world-class modern art and a working replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It certainly pulls in the crowds.
I went all thespian and began to recite the only lines I could remember from my part in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1976…
You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear
The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,
May now perchance both quake and tremble here,
When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.
And roar I did, when Snug the Joiner became the lion in a rabbit costume smelling of mothballs and accessorised with an improvised mane. Times were hard in the seventies.
Liam decided my hammy Shakespeare was putting off the tourists and bundled me onto a riverboat and took me to a different kind of theatrical show – a little fairy dusting of trad drag.
It was an eventful afternoon made all the more eventful by the delightful boys from the Abbey Rugby Club in Reading. They were on a ‘Monopoly board tour’ and had landed on Trafalgar Square for a queer beer. Well fancy that. And I did.
It’s an old joke and I tell it every year to groans from Liam.
Liam slipped his ring on my finger two years later. It’s been stuck there ever since.
We ‘formed’ a civil partnership, which always sounded like a firm of solicitors to me. We called it ‘a bit of a do’ and invited our nearest and dearest to the party. Six years later, same sex marriage was legalised and we upgraded to equality class as soon as we were able. Due to a bit of legal hocus pocus, our civil partnership was struck from the record like it never existed and replaced by our marriage.
On the day of our anniversary – our tin anniversary according to tradition – we decided on some posh lunchtime nosh followed by a mini pub-crawl. A meal at Bishop’s had been on our bucket list for a while and we weren’t disappointed. It was divine. The fancy gin aperitif was a great starter. Then we hit the bars.
We didn’t actually sup in all of these establishments, just selected the best from the menu as we meandered round town. Nevertheless, we were a tad tipsy by the time we fell into bed. Pity poor Liam who had work the next day.
Next month, Liam’s planned an anniversary tour of the Smoke to relive that fateful moment when our eyes first met across a crowded bar of after-work desperados.
Following a boozy afternoon on the tiles, I had no memory of making it back to our hotel in East London. This is despite staggering from Soho to Piccadilly Circus to get the Tube, changing at Oxford Circus, taking the Central Line to Stratford, finding the hotel and checking in. I was thankful to wake up in the right room in the right hotel with the right person. Liam couldn’t remember anything either.
I rolled out of bed and peered through the window. The first thing I noticed was how high up we were. It was quite a view, with the London 2012 Olympic Stadium – now home to West Ham Football Club – in the foreground and the city skyline beyond. There were cranes everywhere – saluting the ever-evolving cityscape. The sky was winter bright and the sun hurt my eyes; I drew the curtains and clambered back under the duvet.
After a couple of hours’ dozing and dossing, it was time to drag our weary carcasses back home to little old Norwich to nest and rest. Easier said than done. The Schindler’s lifts were on a go slow and it took ages to get down to the first floor reception to check out. Rather than wait for another sulky lift, we decided to take the stairs to street level. What we didn’t know was that the hotel was perched on top of a high-rise car park and the stairwell just went down, down and down. Our heads thumped in sync with every step into the abyss. For some inexplicable reason, the treads were numbered with felt-tip pen.
And there were the directions just in case we lost our way. Clearly, the cleaners didn’t make it down very often. And who could blame them?
We had an hour or so to kill before our train, so we settled on the best hangover cure – a full English in a fancy restaurant. Yes, that’s a dead tree behind Liam. Very fancy.