Our final jolly in old London Town at the end of 2019 was a trip to see Wicked – the stage prequel to The Wizard of Oz and a show every friend of Dorothy should see before they reach the end of the rainbow.
Bizarrely, neither Liam nor I had seen the musical before even though it’s been a firm West End fixture for donkey’s years and one of the rare few that just go on and on, pulling in the punters night after night. The trouble with many a classic on a long run is it can all get a bit tired. Fine wine to vinegar? Actually, no. The big scenes are still big and the current lead – Nikki Bentley, as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the East – has a belting voice. And the political subplot – the rise of fascism – is as relevant now as it’s ever been. There was a standing ovation at the end. All in all, not a bad gig.
I’m not a big Andrew Lloyd Webber fan and didn’t rate ‘Cats’ when I saw it in the West End. I remember thinking it was okay, that’s all. But when I saw the trailer for the new film version I was amazed. Amazed by its exquisite beauty and amazed by the critical storm that followed. Reviews were overwhelmingly bad and just got worse when the alley cats finally hit the streets of post-war Soho. It must be the most slagged-off release in living memory. It made us determined to judge it for ourselves. Was is that terrible?
Not even close. With a top drawer cast – including Judi Dench doing her regal number and a clowder of superb dancers from the Royal Ballet – ‘Cats’ is a sight for sore eyes on a lousy winter’s day – energetic, inventive, atmospheric and visually stunning. I’m not sure what the catty critics saw but it wasn’t the same film I watched.
Despite the decidedly mixed reviews, we threw ourselves into the festive spirit by seeing ‘Last Christmas’, starring among others, the fabulous Emma Thompson (who also co-wrote the screenplay). Set to the music of the late, great George Michael and Wham!, it’s a bitter-sweet quick-witted story of tragedy and hope. It’s a very British film with very British humour which, perhaps, doesn’t always travel. We laughed and we cried – a good sign of a good time in my book.
A rom-com with a subplot for our dark times, there’s a twist in the tail which I really didn’t see coming. And anyone who can make George Michael’s glorious but sometimes gloomy lyrics work romantically is a genius. Despite the bah humbug-ers, I’ve a feeling it’ll become a Christmas classic.
We arrived early in Chelsea for our close encounter with Tut’s bling giving us the chance to wander round my old manor where, back in the day, I was the money counter in Habitat. Come Saturday afternoons, I used to hang out at the Markham Arms with punters spilling out onto the pavement, trying to catch the eye of a likely lad who might. And many did. The King’s Road was where London swung in the sixties and, in the seventies, glam rockers minced and punks strutted. These days the unique boutiques and the avant garde have given way to chic shops for the filthy rich surrounded by some of the most expensive property on the planet. The Markham Arms is now a bank.
Another pub where my youth was gloriously misspent was the Queen’s Head in (wait for it) Tryon Street. The scene of my undoing was probably Britain’s oldest gay pub, with a pink lineage stretching back to the buttoned-up fifties. Last time I looked back in 2013, the pub had been saved from developers wanting to make a mint converting the handsome building into luxury flats. Alas, it was a pyrrhic victory as this image confirms.
Still, it wasn’t all doom and gloom on my trip down memory lane. Liam got to stand outside the former home of PL Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. It made his day.
I was eleven when, in 1972, Tutankhamun last came to town. I queued for hours at the British Museum to get just a fleeting glimpse of that death mask as I filed past with all the other kids bussed in from the four corners of the realm. 47 years later, King Tut’s on tour again – probably his last – and Liam and I caught the London gig at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. Sadly, this time Tut left his extraordinary mask at home but there were plenty of other astonishing riches to gasp at. Let the bling speak for itself.
The exhibition – Tutankhamun, Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh – was very, very busy with lots of polite jostling, reflecting, perhaps, an eternal fascination with the antiquarian boy king and his burial booty. Apparently, ancient Eqyptians believed we all die twice – first with our final breath, and then the last time our name is mentioned. At this rate, young Tut really will live for ever.
This year, Liam and I jollied in London for our birthdays. A state of the art, hi-tech micro-room in St James’ was the perfect base for our foraging. We arrived on Remembrance Sunday and the centre of town was buzzing with blazers, badges and bling under a canopy of Christmas lights. It was fun being tourists with time on our hands to roam and drink it all in, something we rarely did when we were worker bees on the treadmill.
Talking of drinking it all in, no trip to the West End is quite the same without a jar or two in a local hostelry. As seems to be our habit these days, we ended up at Halfway to Heaven, a gay bar just off Trafalgar Square and the splendid den of iniquity where Liam first caught my roving eye 13 years ago. Quite by chance, we arrived just in time to catch their annual Remembrance Day show.
The pub was rammed with military veterans – men and women, young and old, straight, gay and everything in between, all in their Sunday best – enjoying a convivial mingle with the regulars.
Halfway to Heaven has become something of a safe and welcoming place for ex-military LGBT people. Who knew? But it was a wonder to behold. When we were at the bar ordering drinks, a middle-aged woman was chatting to the manager.
“Thank you for being so nice to my dad and his husband,”
she said, pointing at two old soldiers in the corner.
I’ve moved a lot in my time – more than most, I reckon. I dropped from the womb in utilitarian army digs in Canterbury then on to a central London military tenement, lots of fun in the sun in tropical Malaysia, down with a bump in damp and grey Hounslow (west London) and onwards to civvy street Wandsworth (south London). And all before I could vote. My flight from the nest took me on a swinging tour of London postcodes – W6, W14, W4, SW19, SW18, E7, E17, interrupted midway by a five-year residency in royal Windsor with a moustachioed man called Mike. Then came the Turkey years – Yalıkavak and Bodrum – before finally wading ashore in old Norwich town. I’ve done old build, new build, Charles the First to Barratt box. When Liam and I embarked on the latest move – my nineteenth – it was a fond farewell to the flash city centre micro-loft and a nervous hello to the village micro-cottage. As Liam said, paraphrasing the indomitable Bette Davis in Now, Voyager,
‘Oh, Jack, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.’