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.
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.
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.
The tail end of August saw us in old London Town to commemorate what would have been the 59th birthday of an old friend who died unexpectedly in January this year. It was our first trip to the Smoke since lockdown and we were understandably anxious. It’s only about 100 miles from here to there but it might as well be another country.
The shiny new train wasn’t busy. We almost had the carriage to ourselves and most passengers complied with the ‘new normal’ – face mask-wise. Booking into a hotel for a couple of nights gave us the chance to test the waters. We rode the Tube and drank in familiar Soho haunts. It was fine.
The early August heatwave gave us hope that we might have a picnic in St James’s Park – a fun and fabulous tradition developed over many years – but, alas, the weather turned blustery so we made do with a restaurant as ‘Storm Clive’ passed overhead. We came together under the shadow of Eros on Piccadilly Circus – except of course, it’s actually a statue of Eros’ less well-known sibling, Anteros, but everyone calls it Eros anyway.
I can’t share any images of the actual birthday bash. Some of the assembled are social media shy and don’t want their images online. And who can blame them? Suffice it to say it was a joyous occasion – old friends talking old times through a jolly, drunken haze. And Clive was there in spirit.