In the days before we leave home for the tour of Britain, Giristroula and I try to cram in as many London-centred things we can think of as possible. We set off first to walk the city – wandering each chartered street. Down the Regents Canal from Paddington Basin to the pubs backing onto the Thames at Wapping and Limehouse, behind which Walter Raleigh took off to find his New World. We see the submerged shopping trolleys, broken pallets, floating condoms marinated in a sheen of petrol in the Bethnal Green stretch of the canal, and then the large white multi-million pound houses backing onto the water at Primrose Hill. The bridges and tunnels around Camden have ostentatious graffiti – painted to grandstand for the hipsters, rather than classical ‘Chalky is Innocent’ or someone declaring his love for Julie (later updated to “Julie is a slag”) graffiti as on other London walls. A good-looking couple in matching soft cashmere sweaters amble a pushchair along down the towpath, past a young boy urinating into the canal – pissing in one long arc, looking like one of those baroque water features you see on a grand fountain. The boy’s father stands up to his waist in the canal, throwing rocks into the unhealthy water, trying to hit fish that surely can’t exist in there.
Up and down the Kingsland Road, round and round Arnold Circus and through Shoreditch, where the spread of the mega-buildings – the City skyline increasingly looking like a shelf of ugly trophies – seems to have just about halted and the two world exists rather awkwardly. We visit in turn all six of Hawksmoors’ London churches, from Spitalfields to Bloomsbury to Greenwich, following the lines between each one and wondering if they really do make some Satanic pentagram-type pattern as the stories I’ve heard say. I then take Giristroula to watch a slow county cricket match – the Greek sits still for hours, remaining utterly perplexed – in cool silence at the Oval in the middle of the seething city, as the working week went on, a constant distant throb and hum outside.
Walking past the stone dinosaurs of Crystal Palace, the green loud parakeets explode out of the trees like fireworks. How and when did these foreign migrants first invade this city? I’ve heard rumours that it was Jimi Hendrix who released just a pair of them in Carnaby Street in 1968. Or was it during the filming of Bogart and Hepburn’s The African Queen on the River Crane in Isleworth in 1951? Or a rare-bird enthusiast whose cages tipped over in the Great Storm of ’87? Whatever it was, I’m glad they’re here brightening up the city slate-grey skies… I look up and see above me, sat in one of the trees, there is a small bald middle aged man in a short-sleeve shirt and tie, smart shoes, a briefcase resting over his crossed legs.
“Oh.” I say.”What are you doing up there?”
“Not much,” he replies.
“But…why are you in that tree?” I say.
“Just finished work,” he says. “I like to come here after work. Peaceful, you know.”
“You like to sit in trees?” I say, still tilting my neck to look up into the branches.
“Yeah, it’s not bad. Been doing it a long time now…”
“Bit strange isn’t it?” I say, peering up at the man’s round face looking down at us.
“Nah, not really,” he says “The other day I climbed up a tree… and I found another geezer up there. Just looking at me. I goes to him ‘You sitting in this tree mate?’ He goes ”Yeah’. Just like that. You know, like: occupied, taken. I had to go and find another bloody tree.”
I say goodbye to the man and we walk on.
“What was he saying?” says Giristroula. “I couldn’t understand. Everyone mumbles in this country. Why was he in that tree?”
I look at her for moment, but can’t think of how to explain it. I shake my head and we carry walking on through the park, with the Victorian dinosaurs and the man in his tree.
We sit and look at maps and plot our way round the country in the black and white tiled Regency Cafe in Westminster. The deep-voiced bellow of the tiny lady behind the counter pouring tea from the urn, buttering the doorsteps – “Two teas, bacon, eggs and beans…” – rattling the red plastic sauce bottles, the sturdy glass sugar pourers and the framed black and white Tottenham Hotspur pictures hung on the walls over the formica tables and lino floors. More plans are made over dinner at the India Club on the Strand: hidden away up two flights of stairs of a down-and-out hotel, a flaking sign still advertising rooms for £1 a night. The India Club has been there since 1946. It was a hotbed for political debate with Indian political thinkers and Whitehall civil servants arguing independence under the grand oil painting of Indian warriors. It hasn’t really changed. The food is fairly thin fare, to be honest, but the faded rooms are a museum piece. The bill comes to us on a scribbled yellowing piece of paper.
Giristroula has made it a point of principal never to go to Moscow Road in Bayswater – the ‘High Street’ for the old first-generation Greek immigrants in London, with its Orthodox church and blue and white striped 1950s style Athenian grocery. I can’t coax her to Green Lanes in North London either, with its big Greek and Cypriot communities. “What, I came all the way to London to see Greeks?” she says to me, a face full of distaste.
I rack my brain for other typical London things for us to do before we leave my hometown. I’m not sure I’d ever really been in a museum in the city in my adult life. Surely they’re just meant for the plodding elderly tourist or hyperactive school groups? But we now visit the British Museum to see, and feel aggrieved, at the Parthenon treasures hacked from their old home – my soon-to-be new home; and then, even better, the London Museum; and then, better even still, the stuffed walrus, musical instruments and totem pole of the Horniman Museum hidden away in Forest Hill. Then to the Tate Britain to take in all the landscapes big and bare and painted in oil, to see The Resurrection in Cookham and the moral tales of Augustus Egg. Cheerful travellers to the grave, we take a visit to the cemetery which hangs on Highgate Hill and visit the sanctuary garden of Bunhill Fields where we sit soberly at William Blake’s tomb in the middle of the heaving Square Mile. John Bunyan, chronicler of Pilgrim’s Progress, is buried near-by. I listen to hear if they’re talking to each other.
A drink in the Mitre Tavern.
“Alwight Treacle,” says the barman. “What can I do you for Princess…?”
Giristroula stares back, hands resting on the bar, dumbly open mouthed. Not sure what is being asked of her.
The Mitre, with its withered tree trunk which Queen Elizabeth the First danced round as a little girl, was built on land belonging to the Bishops of Ely and so is – some say – technically in Cambridgeshire. Stories are told of villains robbing the near-by Hatton Garden jewellery shops and fleeing into this pub as London police had no jurisdiction there and so would have to call the Cambridge police to come and make any arrest. As with most things I will hear on the Britain tour, I wish it true. We sit a while in the quiet, sad, Postman’s Park round the corner from Little Britain and St Paul’s Cathedral, where everyday, ordinary, forgotten folk are commemorated on a Victorian-era tiled wall for their heroic self-sacrifice – saving others just in the routine course of their everyday lives.
London, of course, has a million scenes and a million tales – hidden and known. Just like the secret streets under the city. The rumoured ghost of Oxford Street: an abandoned Victorian shopping street – cobbled road and shop fronts – that people swear they have seen running deep under the basements of the grand department stores now on Oxford Street. The street, so they say, ran along the old Tyburn River – also covered and gone from the city now – where London’s criminals were hung up to die. Does it exist? And did I really see – having got drunk in the now sadly cleaned and anaesthetised and seedless Soho, drinking in the little hidden bar under the Phoenix Theatre, and then pints on Greek Street, appropriately enough – another street underneath Charing Cross Road? As I swayed unsteadily back and forth dodging the traffic trying to get to the Underground, I’m sure I saw it: a road sign below my feet ‘Little Compton Street’ and an old road, 20 meters down. Is there a subterranean, undiscovered, London running under our feet? Christ, I don’t have time to explore another London…
And thinking of ghosts, I wondered whatever happened to some of the characters and places I remembered from years past? Whatever happened to the Troy Club, up a narrow dirty flight of stairs on Hanway Street which, before 24-hour drinking was allowed in the capital, was the place for the old London’s soaks and rummies to come and drink after hours? Named after the formidable owner Helen (i.e of ‘Troy’), it was as far away as you can get from the open, sun-drugged Greece I will soon be making home. Bohemians, writers, actors, fakes and pseuds among the dark mouldy walls, all either slumped on the bar or slipping off stools, telling the same story for the umpteenth time that night with grotesque contorted faces and glassy eyes. And which felt to me like a magical world I’d been let into when I first was taken there. Where did the Liverpudlian who stood on Oxford Circus with his loudhailer telling people all about God and telling them to “be a winner, not a sinner” go? Surely he felt to us as intrinsic to the city as Nelson up on his column? Or what happened the old man with his little black cap and overcoat who walked up and down Oxford Street with his sandwich board strapped round him advising people not to eat too much protein as it would make them randy. And God didn’t approve of randiness. Well, perhaps its more than just me leaving this city…
Of course London already has everything anyway. All the ebb and flow on its shore. Seeing London, you’ve seen as much as life can afford, from the Russian billionaires in Kensington Palace Road, to the other immigrants of the city, forgotten and shunted away in tower blocks in Kensington North. But I have lived within its borders and terrain all my life, the rest of Britain is now what’s calling out to be seen, and more importantly it was calling out to my travelling companion. She had spent all of her 5 years in Britain in the capital, save for a few odd day-breaks here and there out in the countryside. It was time for us to see what else was on offer in this country.
Giristroula talks often of the loneliness that she felt when she first came to London. How isolating it was. The solitude. London’s invisible social life. “But it’s good in its way. All Greek when they get to a certain age should be sent to London. We’re so spoilt, we’re told we’re the very centre of the universe by our parents. Every Greek should be sent to live in London for a few months just so they can realise, in the great scheme of things, you really don’t matter at all. London certainly gives you that lesson. The one thing it gives you for free.”
We take a final city ramble round the homes of London: Hogarth’s House in Chiswick, small and delicate on the traffic-heaving roundabout; the fake-fronted houses of Leinster Gardens; we go looking for the lopsided Ladykillers’ house in Argyle Street in St Pancras. And then, before one final picnic up on Parliament Hill, I suggest we take a walk past the home of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s resident neighbourly, evening time traveller, Michael Palin. It’s a house that I’ve read were four different properties acquired over time and knocked into an eccentric-looking one. It would be good to pass-by and get the feeling of some sort of consecration from a fellow voyager… As I’m round the side of the house, looking at his bins, Palin himself comes out the front door and smiles and waves at Giristroula, stood outside, uncaring, uninterested, impatiently waiting for me. Well at least one of us has a wayfarer’s blessing, I suppose. And so, with that, London is done. It’s time that we’re off – striking out on the road to explore Britain and whatever we will find on the way.