Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Where I got my love of dirt, noise and the hustle bustle of London

Through the heart of our city, we have a deadly river. If you fall in, you will die and they won't find your body for a month and that's if you're lucky. My mother told me this once, as I crossed the river on the top of a Routemaster double decker bus.

My mother loved London double decker buses. She worked for Barclays Bank at their Lombard Street head office during the war, on the telephone switchboard. It is interesting to think that until the day she died, she got an enhanced pension, as she'd worked in a key industry during the war (I wonder if todays front line workers will receive the same recognition?).

Every day, going to work was a risk, as a plane, a V1 or a V2 might end your life. When she got married and left Barclays, to have my twin brothers, she got  a gift and a card from the chairman, thanking her for her efforts during the blitz. I recall her telling me this in around 1998, over a Guinness. She told me how she'd walked past the famous blown up bus, that is one of the most powerful images of the war. I asked if she was ever scared, her response was instructive, she said she probably had been on many occasions, but couldn't really remember it. Her memories were largely of the good times, the fun, the coming together of people. The boundaries of society were more rigid, so the present from the chair of the bank was the biggest surprise for her.

We are now living through the nearest thing I've experienced to those times. The deaths are not caused by bombs, the fear isn't of aeroplanes and rockets. There are no sirens to alert us to any impending death. It is a far lonelier sort of war. We don't huddle together in tube stations, quite the opposite. From what my mother told me, the war was an amazing, if perilous time in central London for a young woman. The city was full of handsome men from every corner of the planet. She was an attractive woman, so clearly got much attention. My father was a handsome officer of the Royal Air Force. As well as being good looking, he was  full of charm and fun. He was scared of nothing and no one.  He was a  bomber pilot, he put his life on the line 38 times, embarking on bombing missions over enemy territory. On the 38th, the last of his tour, he was shot down over Ploesti, in Rumania. My mother received  a telegram stating that he was missing presumed dead. Another crew had seen his plane go down in flames. She said that she knew he'd survived. My father had promised her that nothing would happen to him, he'd survive his tour and marry her. Furthermore, he'd never leave her.

When he finally died in 1987, of a heart attack, she told me her abiding emotion was anger, for breaking his word to always be by her side. It took her a long time to get over that. The way she got through the grief was to use her pensioners bus pass to tour London. She would get the 113 bus to the West End, then simply go around, visiting spots from her youth. She would religiously do this every Tuesday. In truth, I didn't understand this at all at the time. I always hated buses. I preferred the tube and the Thameslink trains from Mill Hill. Mum would say 'you don't see London from a train'.

I had never really understood her love of buses until now. I love London, my London. My London is different to my mothers. I wish I'd asked her the bars, clubs, pubs that she loved, but I didn't. My London is different. My London is The Roundhouse, Bar Italia, Ronnie Scotts, The 100 Club, The Jazz Cafe, The Great Nepalese restaurant, The Globe pub in Borough Market, The Rake (around the corner from there), The Artillery Arms near Royal Artillery Court, Whitecross Street and Borough food markets, The pubs and Indian restaurants around Euston and Victoria. Perhaps my favourite areas are Fitzrovia (I worked around there for a couple of years) and Soho. I love Won Keys, The Coach and Horses, Gerard Street, but it is ever changing. Whilst my mum's teenage fun was to the backdrop of the war and ended when she was nineteen with the birth of my twin brothers, mine was the summer when two sevens clashed and punk took over London. I was fourteen when I saw the Ramones at The Roundhouse, within a year, the Marquee, The Music Machine, The Nashville, The Moonight Club, Dingwalls, etc were my stomping ground. In those days, ID was not required. My life would have been very different had I been asked to prove I was eighteen to get in. I was lucky, my sister was also a fan and she was old enough. As she was short and had ID, it was never a problem for me.

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My favourite club was the Marquee in Wardour Street. It was full of liggers (google it if you don't know what it means), industry types, wannabees and herberts like me. It was smelly and sweaty. The girls had thick, badly applied make up and smelled of cheap perfume or bath salts. Their hair was badly bleached, but they seemed as divine goddesses to me. Until I was fourteen, I hadn't had a great deal of interest in girls, but these punk goddesses would fascinate me. One night, my rather clumsy attempts to interest them took a very lucky turn. I was out with Pete Conway, we were chatting to a couple of these beauties, who seemed rather bored and and disinterested, hoping to catch the eye of slightly older boys. I said "Me and Pete have a band". They suddenly became enraptured. This wasn't a complete lie. We'd spent the last four years saying we would put a band together, but neither of us could play, or had an instrument. This moment was a pivotal moment in our lives. We realised that we needed to put the band together as a matter of urgency. The prettier of the girls asked if we had any songs. On the spot, I wrote "The Mill Hill Song". It comprised of two verses.

Nothing to do, nothing to see
Nothing for you, nothing for me
Mill Hill, Mill Hill, It's lovely.

No nightspots, no dayspots,
no fun, just shops
Mill Hill, Mill Hill, it's lovely

To my amazement, they were even more impressed. One lived in Colindale and said "That is true of all the suburbs". In actual fact, I was slightly jealous of Colindale. They had pubs and a cinema. Compared to Mill Hill, it was like Las Vegas!

That very much summed up my view of the West End. It was where it all happened. Us suburban types couldn't get enough of the dirt, noise and hustle bustle. As my journey continued, I discovered the book shops. Whilst my interest was then more or less exclusively sci fi, in a vain attempt to impress young ladies, I found that knowing that you could get good left wing books at Colletts was a quick pass to intellectual acceptance. By mid 1978, I was very caught up in Rock against Racism and The Anti Nazi League. Knowing a few things about political though and history was rather useful. I'd procure information, and sit reading it in the cafe's and bars. It was a violent time. I was once having a bacon sarnie in a Soho cafe, when a bunch of National Front Skinheads piled in. They saw me on my own, a couple of years younger, reading the Communist manifesto. I realised that I was going to get rather badly duffed up. Without time to prepare for this, I was cornered and realised that this would end badly, when the Italian owner and his kitchen staff came flying out and chased off the Fascists. I was amazed, it never occurred to me that anyone would stand up for me. It turned out that they were Italian socialists, who hated Franco. They insisted I had the tea and the sandwich for free.
Dads war record

When I went home, I spoke to my Dad. His squadron had been stationed in Foggia in Southern Italy in 1944. He loved the Italians and their culture. The next day, on his insistence, we drove to the West End, found the cafe and he gave the owner a large bottle of wine for looking after me. In return, we were given some tasty treats. Dad spent a couple of hours chatting about Italy. We left with three bottles of their home made wine and cakes for my mum. For a couple of years, I was treated like royalty there. Like much of Soho, it has long gone.

A couple of weeks later, my Dad drove me down to Bar Italia, which he told me was the best Italian cafe in London. We had a beer and a custard tart. My dad then took me on a tour of the places he liked in London. He just liked a good excuse to drive around. Sadly, I wasn't overly interested, although it was a fun day out. Stories of long gone clubs and pubs, staging tea dances etc, seemed terribly dull to me. But he was equally bemused by my tastes. We saw a group of young punk girls on a corner. He said "you can't find that attractive, they all look like they need a bath". And told me to check out Hedi Lamarr and Ingrid Bergmann, who were real women!

We had a discussion, agreeing to disagree. A few days later, Casablanca was shown on TV. My Dad insisted I watch it. He said that as I was interested in music and bars, it was the nearest I'd get to understanding what real life was like in times of war. He was right, it was a brilliant film.  Shortly after, we were watching Top of The Pops and Debbie Harry appeared. My Dad was duly impressed and said that maybe not all punk women were unattractive. I never ventured into the West End with my Dad again. Unlike myself and my mum, as an Aussie outbacker, he didn't like cities. I'm sorry to say that my mum only passed her love of London on to me. Of my five sinblings, only my eldest Brother still has a London post code. He doesn't really venture into town much.
For most of my working career, I worked in London offices. My mum would regularly get the bus down and we'd have lunch. She'd tell me stories of the war. She briefly had a job in a shop in Bond Street, selling ladies clothes. She took a day off, and a bomb struck the shop killing all of her co-workers. She told me how the Fitzroy pub, where we met, had been a haunt for 'artistic types'. I asked her if that bothered her. She replied that it was a nice pub, but for her a young girl, there was little of interest there. I think that being raised in the suburbs, the city has a strange magnetic attraction for me. People don't say "we are going up the West End" any more. Camden seems to have displaced this for young people. But for me, Soho will always be where my heart lies.

You may wonder the point of this rather long, rambling blog. Today, my Dad would be 103. I miss him, there is nothing I'd love more than to be able to take him out for a drive around London. Sadly at the moment, we can only reminsce about all of these things. As soon as the curfew is listed, I will be back into town. It has already been too long.

Happy Birthday Dad

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