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 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.
I got my first jab a few weeks back but, being a tad younger than me, Liam had to wait a tad longer for his. He got his first shot in the food court at the Castle Quarter Shopping Centre in Norwich where life-saving injections rather than artery-hardening fried chicken are now on the menu.
Vaccine centres across the realm come in all shapes and sizes but none is more majestic than the soaring Gothic splendour of Westminster Abbey in London. And who better to enter stage right than Norfolk boy Stephen Fry, actor, writer, presenter, everyone’s favourite audiobook narrator and all-round gay good egg. Here he is getting his first jab by Poets’ Corner, final resting place of writers, artists and actors down the ages – Chaucer, Browning, Tennison, Dickens and Olivier, among many others.
It’s a place for national treasures like Stephen Fry.
I know it can be tough on pets and those of a nervous disposition but I do love a pyrotechnic extravaganza, especially at New Year – all that sound and fury signifying nothing but the turning of time. When London was home, I’d jump on the Tube to enjoy the spectacle from the banks of Old Father Thames along with tens of thousands of other revellers. These days I’m content to watch from the comfort of a warm sofa, glass of bubbly in hand.
For obvious reasons, we assumed the fireworks would be off this year. But the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, had other ideas. Without plug or promotion, sneaky Sadiq gave us the old razzle dazzle to cheer us up. The theatres may all be dark right now but London can still put on a show.