Not many Londoners are native. That’s even more the case with New York or Los Angeles, but London I know personally. When I was a child my parents, my brother and sister and I lived in the Surrey hills and would engage in Ivy Compton Burnett-like bombing raids on the capital, “up to Town”, always in our best clothes; I was nearly in my twenties before I attempted London without a tie.
Sometimes it was for a Test Match at the Oval. My father preferred the Oval to Lords as it was closer to home and I preferred it because I was a Surrey supporter during the county’s glory days of the 1950s. Just as my father retained his childhood loyalty to Kent, having been born there – well, Deptford was in Kent once – so have I retained my preference for Surrey CCC and the Oval, even though both have been transformed utterly from the gruff, pipe-smoking geniality of my youth.
Sometimes it was a play. My parents reckoned to see everything that they put on at the National Theatre, which in those days was still located at the Old Vic and nearly every play seemed to star the young Maggie Smith. I remember Shaw’s St Joan, where in the last act Joan herself (not, I think, played by Dame Maggie) reappears on stage, long after her iconic death, to general admiration in which I was unable to share as there was a pillar in the way.
Shaw always reduces me to tears. It’s not just the clunky lines he gave his actors to speak but the fact that he was a music critic and he still didn’t realise what clunky lines they were. Star Trek has the same effect.
At the end of the day we would go and eat: always in that Chinese place just off Piccadilly Circus. It lasted for decades and disappeared only recently. There was a principled absence of chopsticks, or indeed anything that an unbiased observer would class as Chinese food, which it must have taken a heroic effort to maintain, with Chinatown so close.
The first time I went to London without my parents was with my friend Sidney to see Ben Hur on an enormous screen (I was only half-size myself then, so it was even bigger, relatively) in a first-run cinema in Leicester Square. I have seen Ben Hur many times since, in different flea-pits including my own front rooms over the years, but nothing equals the original experience. It had a profound effect on me. For years afterwards, when either Sidney or I emerged from the school locker rooms the other would put on a deep portentous voice and intone:
You’ve changed, Judah Ben Hur.
The other memorable thing about that adventure was the train journey up. We were two school boys with ties and across us in the little carriage were three mathematicians. All the way to Waterloo they talked entirely in mathematics, for forty minutes and with passion and hand gestures. It was a path not to be taken, but a one vividly indicated nonetheless.
Although I was brought up away from London in the Surrey hills, my ancestors had lived in the city. My grandfather moved to London from Barbados in the Nineteenth Century with his widowed mother and his brothers and sisters. They clung together for warmth with two other Bajan families, thirty of them altogether if the 1901 Census is anything to go by, in a house north of Euston, furiously marrying each other. After a generation they spread their wings, thus enabling my father to be born in Deptford and in due course to move to the country and me to become the second wave of immigration. I too spent my first five years or so in London living in various flats but all on the same page of the A to Z. So it’s easy to understand why people newly arrived in our capital want to stick to the haunts that they are comfortable with, like the shy creatures you sometimes see scuttling from One Hyde Park to Harrods and back.
I know that it is a challenge coming to a strange city but it is a challenge that it is easier to face if one finds love. That was why I was so much uplifted to overhear the telephone conversation of the young Chinese man that I related earlier. Unsurprisingly I never saw him again so I don’t know if he found his experiments with sodomy reassuring, but I do hope so.
Curiously enough there was a similar episode the other day, again on the bus but this time downstairs. A man sat opposite me. His legs were wide apart, which is often a sign of self-confidence. He telephoned a succession of women, most of whom appeared not to want to pass the time of day on the phone with him. One however did.
You meet me at my work, he said, after some preliminaries. Where I work. I work at Oxford Circus. You know Oxford Circus?
Apparently this location was unknown to her.
It is by the Regent Street. You know the Regent Street?
This also appeared to be drawing a blank. I thought fondly back to my early days. Central London, I then worked out in my mind, is a circle described by the Circle Line. It is bisected laterally by the Central Line. The Central Line corresponds to a street that runs east to west. It has various names but it is the same street. Oxford Circus is right in the middle. It is on the Central Line and it is also on the Bakerloo Line, which goes north and south, as does Regent Street. London, therefore, is a hot cross bun and Oxford Circus is where the cherry would be if cherries were permitted in Lent.
I might have imparted this valuable information to him, but it had became apparent that he had a different solution.
Not know Oxford Circus. Not know the Regent Street. Is very difficult, very difficult.
His voice took on a tone of infinite lubricity.
Is best you come my house then.
He settled back in his seat and spread his legs even further apart. Then he embarked on a lengthy description of how to find where he lived. When it became obvious that it wasn’t One Hyde Park, I returned to my book.