On our recent trip to London we strolled past the Greenwich Tavern, just outside the gates to Greenwich Park. Before it went all gastro-pub with real ales and posh nosh, it used to be a spit and fairy-dust bar called The Gloucester, with weekend drag to amuse the boozers and cruisers. I went a couple of times back in the day. It was fun.
The Gloucester of old featured in Beautiful Thing, a 1996 Channel 4 film. Shot on a rough and ready South London council estate during a heatwave, the screenplay was written by Jonathan Harvey based on his play of the same name and had a fantastic cast of newbies, many of whom have gone on to bigger things. It’s my favourite coming out tale – warm, grounded, gritty and witty – played to a soundtrack of The Mamas and the Papas. Here’s the trailer:
When we got back to the village, I dusted off the DVD and we watched it all over again for the umpteenth time. A beautiful thing indeed.
Last Christmas, our gift from the in-laws was a fancy meal in a top-notch Indian eatery in old London Town – at a time and date of our choosing. We waited ’til spring to combine our lunchtime curry with a nautical-themed long weekend, staying in Greenwich, home to the Prime Meridian – of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) fame.
Our first day was spent following the crowds along the tourist trail around the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, popping in and out of the museums. Unlike my last trip as a young whippersnapper, we didn’t make it up the hill to the Royal Observatory. Liam was crest-fallen that he didn’t get a chance to stand astride the Prime Meridian.
On day two we cruised the riverboat from Greenwich pier to Battersea Power Station, which once lit much of London but has since been redeveloped into well-appointed rabbit hutches with obscene price tags. We were hoping to look around the massive power station itself but it wasn’t to be; it’s still a work in progress. The Cinnamon Kitchen – the chic venue for our meal – more than made up for our disappointment. The nine-course taster menu was probably the best Indian food I’ve ever had. And the mango sour cocktails weren’t bad either.
Our final full day in the Smoke saw us taking in the sights, sounds and exotic smells of Borough (up)Market followed by a quick gander round Shad Thames, the uber-trendy South Bank district, and a troll along the riverside Queen’s Walk. It’s an area I know fairly well and was the venue for my jury service at Southwark Crown Court back in the day. Eventually we docked at the best-guess replica of the Golden Hind, the first English ship to circumnavigate the globe, captained by Francis Drake – hero, buccaneer, pirate, thief (delete according to taste). After all that exertion, who could refuse us a restorative tonic and gin at an old riverside inn?
In November 2020, quite by chance, we were asked to participate in a national COVID-19 study being run jointly by the Office for National Statistics and Oxford University. Initially this involved regular doorstep PCR tests – a tonsil-tickling, snotty choke-and-sneeze fest. After a while we were asked to provide blood samples too – a messy affair until we got the hang of the prick, squeeze and drip routine. Despite the fuss and tissue mountain, we were glad to oblige – doing our bit and all that.
In between PCR tests, we’ve also been taking regular lateral flow tests. Unlike friends, family and neighbours, so far we’ve dodged the COVID bullet. We can’t quite believe it. It’s not like we spend our days huddled under the dining table waiting for the all-clear from the Home Guard. Normal services have long been resumed and we’ve been out and about a lot – around the village, around Norwich and, particularly, around London with jostling crowds and busy (sometimes incredibly busy) public transport. Let’s face it, the London Tube is rammed much of the time.
COVID infection rates remain stubbornly high and we’re under no illusions. We’ve been lucky, very lucky. Touch wood, as they say. I’ve been hugging the entire forest.
Who knew that there’s an Italian brand of pizza oven briquettes called ‘Faggetto’? We didn’t until the waitress sat us next to a stack of them at Franco Manco, a pizza parlour in South London. We weren’t offended. The waitress wasn’t making some sort of point (in fact, she was delightful). Besides, the casual use of ‘faggot’ and ‘fag’ doesn’t carry the same meaning here as it does over the pond, at least not for my generation. For us, faggot is a traditional British meatball made from pork, and a fag is slang for a cigarette – giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘sucking on a fag’, something I used to do several times a day. Until I quit smoking, that is.
After tripping the light fantastic along Tooting High Street, I took Liam even further down my memory lane with a short hop to Wandsworth Town. I showed him where I was a shoe shop Saturday boy, the primary school where I was a knotty-haired happy chappy, and finally, my digs from the age of ten until I ventured out into the wicked world – my ‘days on the tills, nights on the tiles’ moment before marriage and a mortgage.
After my Dad retired from the British Army, my parents ran a backstreet shop, one of a parade of four. Ours was a ‘bottle and basket’ selling booze and bread and all things in between, and we lived above and behind. It was a good little earner. Even during the dark days of the 1974 three-day week, Dad kept the lights on with candles from the cash and carry. It was a cold and miserable time and people hit the hard stuff to get through it – a bit like the recent lockdowns. On a happier note, as part of Her Maj’s 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations, Mum helped organise a street party. The till rang non-stop as the red, white and blue bunting fluttered in the summer breeze.
Of the other shops, next door was a butcher’s with a newsagent’s at the end. I can’t remember what the third shop in the parade was. It hardly matters now as they’re all gone – long-since converted into gentrified houses that fetch a king’s ransom.
Here’s a very rare picture of me from that bygone era. Our first-floor parlour was a riot of clashing colours and patterns – very de rigueur at the time. I’m sure it’s much more tasteful today. But why was my chopper bike propped up against the sofa?