I reached the grand old age of sixty last year. This year was Liam’s turn and I’d planned a succession of treats – for me as well as for him – in old London Town. First up was a dinner date and gossipy catch up with an old pal in a fancy French restaurant in Chelsea, the trendy part of town where I gladly misspent much of my youth – ‘Days on the tills and nights on the tiles,’ I call it. The King’s Road is my memory lane and Liam joined me on my trip down it.
Next day I whisked Liam off to Covent Garden for a full English followed by a stroll. Once London’s main fruit and veg market with an opera house attached – think Audrey Hepburn as the cockney sparrow flower girl lip-syncing to ‘Wouldn’t it be Loverly?’ in My Fair Lady – Covent Garden has long since evolved into a major magnet for tourists. And there were tourists aplenty, finally returning from home and abroad after lockdown.
Here’s the queue for Burberry. All that fuss just for a posh handbag.
We decided to take in some street opera and pavement art instead.
Our Covent Garden jolly continued with a ride around the London Transport Museum. In many ways, the story of London Transport is the story of London itself. The city couldn’t have spread like it has without the constant innovation needed to enable Londoners to go about their business. If trains, tubes, trams and trolley buses are your thing, it’s an Aladdin’s cave. We loved it.
After a brief power nap back at the hotel, we jumped on the Tube for a real indulgence – a performance of Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The musical tells of the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the (to me) lesser known American ‘Founding Fathers’, delivered in song and rap. The deliberately delicious twist is that most of the cast – including Alexander himself – is black or mixed heritage. Adorned with every gong going, the show is slick, brilliantly staged and tuneful. The rap is used as dialogue and is lyrical and clever. It’s a masterpiece, a work of genius.
The evening concluded with more posh nosh and a final snifter in our favourite dive bar in busy, buzzy Soho. The long weekend was a whirlwind with the perfect ending. We finally got to meet Fred, our newest great-nephew.
Now that live theatre is back in full flow after the lockdown drought, we’ve been lapping up the good, the bad and average. First on the bill was the fantastic Come From Away – a West End show for our times – at the aptly named Phoenix Theatre. Next up was Norwich’s cute Maddermarket Theatre for a semi-pro production of One Man, Two Guvnors, the full-on farce which made a West End and Broadway star of James Corden. We saw the London show a few years back but enjoyed our little local offering rather more.
Then there was Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks the Musical on its pre-West End run – strictly for the kiddies and needs work before it gets to London – and The Dresser starring the brilliant Matthew Kelly as the well-past-his-sell-by-date thesp and a so-so Julian Clary as his long-suffering retainer. Both productions were at Norwich’s splendid Theatre Royal.
But by far the best in show was Six – also at Norwich’s Theatre Royal – a very modern musical about Henry the Eighth’s six wives. The gig was first performed by Cambridge University students at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 and has since gone global. It’s now on its UK tour.
Presented as a concert by a girl group, the wives take turns to sing their stories to decide who should get lead vocals. It’s a right royal foot-tapping take on girl power long before the Spice Girls got in on the act. Of course, in reality they were just pawns in Henry’s matrimonial chess game – divorced, beheaded, died –divorced, beheaded, survived.
Let’s face it, we only really remember the old letch because he had six wives. Ok, there was the small matter of the break with Rome too, but honestly, Henry, all that fuss over a pretty face and the pursuit of a male heir. His daughters were much more capable. Well perhaps not Bloody Mary so much, but the Virgin Queen showed real girl power.
It is said that if you hang around Piccadilly Circus for long enough, the entire world will pass you by. In my day, working the Dilly was popular with rent boys, so hanging around could get you arrested. When we passed by it was a convenient place to convene for those taking part in the Extinction Rebellion demonstration that coincided with our visit. At the time, the circus was ringed by brightly painted lions. This animal trail malarky has really got out of hand. Apparently the King of the Jungle on his Tusk Lion Trail can be spotted all over town.
Our last night in London was a Soho pub crawl reminiscent of the good old days. Thank God we were staying local so we only needed to stagger back to our pit. Next day, headache’d and hungover, we rode the bus to Liverpool Street Station for our train back to Norwich. The Tube would have been quicker, but nothing can beat the top deck of a London bus for a bit of sightseeing. We got to the station early, so it was a spot of overpriced lunch and a hair of the dog in nearby Spitalfields. The area is graced with a series of bronze statues, mostly of cutesy baby elephants – the Herd of Hope – to highlight the plight of orphaned calves in the wild.
But the most evocative sculpture on display is of a boatload of refugees. It’s intended to reflect the history of Spitalfields as a haven for migrants down the centuries. Ironic really. These days the area is mostly given over to plush offices and fancy eateries – not a damp slum, cold-water tenement or raggéd refugee in sight. Any remaining housing is some of the most expensive on the planet.
No trip to old London Town is complete without taking in a show. At last the curtain has gone up all over the West End after a very tough time. Our musical treat was Come From Away at the aptly named Phoenix Theatre. The show tells the remarkable true story of what happened when, following 9/11, thirty-eight civilian planes were ordered to land unexpectedly in the small Newfoundland town of Gander. With North American airspace cleared, 7,000 ‘plane people’ were stranded for the duration. The residents of Gander and surrounding towns rose to the considerable challenge, freely providing board and lodgings and a warm welcome. Funny, inventive and moving, it’s a show for our times. Here’s a taste.
To be able to take our seats we had to show our NHS app and prove we were double jabbed. For the moment, so-called ‘COVID passports’ won’t be mandatory in England and I know some fools think they are an affront to their civil liberties. Tough. Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. It’s called civilisation. Stopping at a red light, wearing a seat belt and smoking restrictions are there to protect us all, including the foolish.
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.