Back in 2008, the eccentric old fella next door bought my London Victorian terrace in Walthamstow. One fateful evening he popped round with his chequebook and asked, “How much?” And just like that the deal was done and we were on our way to Turkey for a new life in a foreign field. I wrote about it in that book. Cue the shameless plug.
I’ve been pretty lucky with buyers. My gaff before Walthamstow was also flogged off to a neighbour. Both sales saved me a king’s ransom in estate agent fees.
Last year, my old Walthamstow house came back onto the market for the first time since I sold it. Despite being in a very sorry state, it went for more than double the 2008 price tag. London prices really are crazy. I don’t know what happened to the eccentric old fella next door but it was really sad to see my pretty Victorian terrace with all the vivid memories of good times past looking so unloved and unlived in. I really hope whoever’s got it now will sprinkle a little fairy dust to bring it back to life. Because it’s a cracking little place for the right person.
The weather outside is dull and drizzly so it must be pantomime season, just the thing to chase away those winter blues. Panto is a centuries-old theatrical tradition which has evolved into a totally OTT cross-dressing, saucy song and dance piss-take loosely based on a fairy tale, fable or folklore. Kids love it and, for many, it’s their first taste of live theatre. Grown-ups love it too, catching the ripe gags that fly over the heads of the little ‘uns. Often a little bit naff, Panto is always great fun. And it’s profitable, keeping many a local theatre in the black for the rest of the year.
We’ve done two pantos this season – both versions of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. The first beanfeast was at the glorious London Palladium starring the incomparable Julian Clary as the Spirit of the Beans, brought up the rear by a host of top notch familiar faces. The Palladium gig is the annual headliner, panto-wise – getting the full-on West End treatment with no sequin spared. Julian stole every scene with one outrageous costume after another and all the best lines. It was a glorious belly-laugh of the lewd, the crude and the rude. All in the best possible taste – not.
The second interpretation, at the Fisher Theatre in nearby Bungay, was a more modest affair. It was surprisingly good; a few missteps, the odd fluffed line and an emergency stand in due to illness but that’s par for the course in amdram-land. None of that mattered, especially to the army of kiddies in the audience who lapped up every silly joke and every slapstick moment. Great fun for all the family in a cute local theatre with a fab little bar attached. Wonderful.
Last year New Year’s Eve pyrotechnics were all big bangs but no punters. The pandemic saw to that. This year, punters were back in force, lining the banks of the Thames. To mark their return, London Mayor Sadiq Khan put on a show of shock and awe. There were nods to various events from 2022 – the lionesses’ historic win in the Euros, fifty years of London Pride, standing tall with Ukraine and, of course, remembering Her Maj. The sky exploded like a million party poppers, a spectacular musical extravaganza to celebrate London’s extraordinary diversity and strong sense of inclusion – a city for all – and it was a marvellous sight to behold.
Once upon a time a long time ago, a pretty girl was swept off her feet by a dashing young corporal in a smart uniform and a devilish twinkle in his eye. Plucked from a small town in Ireland, she began army life on the move. Babies landed here and there – Northern Ireland, Germany, Malaysia, England and Malaysia again. My mother lapped it up, throwing herself in at the deep end as the perfect army wife. She loved the friendships and the sense of belonging, and she really loved the parties – especially the posh frocks.
After demob, my parents ran a backstreet shop – selling booze and bread and all things in between. It was a good little earner. Even during the dark days of the 1974 three-day week, they kept the lights on with candles from the cash and carry. And for the late Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations, Mum helped throw a street party. The till rang non-stop as the bunting fluttered in the summer breeze.
After a few happy and fruitful years on Civvy Street, Dad died, quite suddenly. Mum lost her husband, her living and her home – all at once. What did she do? She picked herself up, dusted herself down and soldiered on alone as a single mother.
After Dad died, Mum remained resolutely single for the rest of her long life. In fact, she was a widow for much longer than she was a wife. She called herself ‘the only virgin in London’, without the slightest hint of bitterness or irony. Liam called her ‘One hell of a woman’. He wasn’t wrong.
Mum was a grafter too. Not many people would catch a night bus into London’s West End five days a week to clean offices – something she did well into her seventies.
At 81 years young, she came to Turkey for my surprise 50th birthday party. She was the belle of the ball, a big flirt in a long blonde nylon wig, dragging up the fellas for a turn around the floor. But flirt was all she ever did, preferring to share her bed with a mug of tea, her puzzle books and a pack of cigarettes. ‘Keeps my brain active,’ she said. The puzzles that is, not the fags.
And she loved nothing more than recalling the stories of her flirty days of old when her dashing corporal fought for her affections with Alec, a Scotsman of some considerable means.
But Mum married for love.
When she turned 90 we threw her a bit of a do – a full house to honour our grand old dame. Despite being a bit mutton and increasingly frail, she was in fine fettle, loving all the fuss and fun, surrounded by family. The big pile of scratch cards went down well too.
Mum’s boogie nights may have been well behind her but she and I still shared a slow smooch at the end of play.
Truth be told, my mother was a bit of a fraud. How so? Well, a while back, I ordered her birth certificate. Turns out Mum was registered in the name of Dora, not Doreen. Who knew? Certainly not Doreen.
How can I describe Dora? Stubborn and contrary? Fiery and maddening? Or maybe feisty and canny, loyal and wise? Truth is, she was all these things and much, much more. An extraordinary woman, who lived an extraordinary life. A life lived in technicolor; the last of her siblings.
One thing I can say with absolute certainty: our old girl was never boring.
She would have loved her send-off – the service, the tributes, the tears and, in particular, the boozy do afterwards.
Another year passes, another joint birthday to mark. These days we prefer doing rather than giving so this year we decided to do a bit more of London by taking in a big wheel, a few sharks and a West End show. First up was the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel on London’s South Bank and the most popular paid tourist attraction in the land. I’ve ridden the Eye a couple of times before but, remarkably, this was Liam’s first ever flight. He loved it and I’d forgotten just how good it is. Our weather is predictably unpredictable and it was a bit overcast when we joined the international queue. But as our pod slowly glided above the city skyline, the clouds parted giving us an almost picture-perfect panorama. It’s not called the London Eye for nothing.
The Eye’s neighbour is old County Hall, formerly the seat of London’s government but now home to a couple of hotels and a mishmash of attractions, one of which is Sea Life at the London Aquarium. The exhibition occupies much of the basement. The shelves of dusty old archives have been replaced by bubbling tanks of sea creatures swimming about to amuse and amaze the thousands of curious gawpers who pass by each day. It was another first for Liam. And as for the platoons of over-excited school kids who overwhelmed us, I have no words.
Quite rightly, flash photography is forbidden so photo opportunities were limited but we did what we could. There really were sharks – honest.
Lastly, we took our seats for ‘Dear Evan Hansen’, a song and dance show for the digital age. We slipped in just before it reached the end of its West End run. With a theme of teenage angst and anger, it’s very of the moment. While the set and staging were slick and inventive, we thought the big songs were well beyond the cast, particularly ‘Evan’ himself, which was disappointing. Still, the largely youthful crowd lapped it up and gave an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end, so what do we know? And anything that gets young bums on seats gets my vote. At least the bar was empty during the interval.