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 to walk the city – to wander 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. The arrow-straight canals reflecting the clouds in the grey plate-smooth water, like some Algernon Newton painting. Submerged shopping trolleys, broken pallets, floating condoms in a sheen of petrol in the Bethnal Green stretch of the canal. 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 the classic ‘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 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 grand fountains in Belgium. 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 we go, round and round Arnold Circus. Through Shoreditch, where the spread of the mega-buildings – the City skyline increasingly looking like a crowded shelf of ugly trophies – seems to have just about halted and the two world existing rather awkwardly. The streets are all paved with the small bomb-shaped empty silver canisters of clubber’s laughing gas. I’m a south Londoner though. I always feel a little estranged being here in the East. A little out of my depth. Almost as if it’s another country.
Giristroula and I 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 take Giristroula to watch a slow county cricket match – the Greek sitting still for hours, remaining perplexed – in cool silence at the Oval in the middle of the seething city as the working week goes on, a constant distant throb and hum beyond. Later, walking past the stone dinosaurs of Crystal Palace, the green parakeets explode out of the trees like fireworks. A pandemonium of parrots, loud and indignant. Just how and when did these foreign migrants first invade this city? I’ve heard rumours that it was Jimi Hendrix who released 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 1987? Whatever it was, I’m glad they’re here brightening up the city’s 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, startled. “What are you doing up there?”
“Not much,” he says.
“But…why are you in that tree?”
“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.
“Nah, not really. 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 tree.”
I say goodbye to the man happily up in his branches and we walk on.
“What was he saying?” says Giristroula. “I couldn’t understand a word. Everyone mumbles in this country. Why was he in that tree?” We stop and I look into her face for a long moment. I 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 thick 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 here since 1946 when Indian thinkers and Whitehall civil servants argued independence under grand painting of turbaned warriors. The food is fairly thin fare, to be honest, but the faded rooms 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, pulling a face full of distaste.
But we go along to the British Museum to see, and feel aggrieved, at the Parthenon treasures hacked from their old home – my soon-to-be new home. Then, even better, we visit the London Museum. And then, better still, the stuffed walrus, musical instruments and totem pole of the Horniman Museum hidden away in Forest Hill. To the Tates and academies, the days passing like a dream. The landscapes big and bare and painted in oil, the moral tales of Augustus Egg and the Resurrection in Cookham. Cheerful travellers to the grave, we then take a walk in the cemetery which hangs on Highgate Hill. Later we visit the sanctuary garden of Bunhill Fields where we sit at William Blake’s tomb on the edge of the heaving Square Mile. A thickly bearded man in a long coat and large dark glasses and a pink Alice band in his hair rubs his hands in the soil next to the grave, runs his hands up and down a tree growing from Blake’s earth, caresses the leaves, squeezing them between his fingers.
“You see that John Bunyan is buried over there?” he says to me suddenly, pointing to the grave of the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, who lies on top in statue form, toes in the air. I tell the man of our own forthcoming pilgrimage round Britain in search of any celestial cities we might find. He ignores me and leans closer, pointing both ways at Blake and Bunyan’s resting places.
“Do you think they talk to each other at night?” he asks in a whisper.
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 here 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 Soho, drinking in the little hidden bar under the Phoenix Theatre, and appropriately enough, on Greek Street – another street underneath Charing Cross Road? As I swayed unsteadily back and forth dodging the traffic trying to get to Leicester Square 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…
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 could get from the open, sun-drugged Greece I will soon be making home. Bohemians, writers, actors, fakes and pseuds among the dark mouldy walls, slumped on the bar, slipping off stools, telling the same outrageous story for the umpteenth time that night with grotesque green contorted faces and glassy eyes. Booze and ash soaked carpets. It felt to me like a magical world when I’d been first let into it.
What happened to the white outlines of figures painted on the floor outside train stations, like crime scene murders, every anniversary of Hiroshima? 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 was intrinsic to the city as Nelson up on his column? Or the old man with his little black cap and overcoat who walked up and down Oxford Street with his billboard held high advising people not to eat too much protein as it would make them randy and to do less sitting and more standing. 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 what is now calling out to be seen, and more importantly, calling out to my travelling companion. She had spent all of her 5 years in Britain in the capital, save for a few day-breaks here and there out into the countryside. It was time for us to see what else was really 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. Becoming aware that you are no longer noticed, nobody sees you, nobody hears you.
“But it’s good in its way,” she says brightly, as if trying to forget the times she spent lost and alone in the new city.
“All Greeks, 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 gives you that lesson,” she says. “About the only thing it does give you for free…”
We take a final city ramble round the homes of London: Hogarth’s in Chiswick, small and delicate on the traffic-heaving roundabout; the fake-fronted houses of Leinster Gardens with their columned porches and painted-in sash windows, put up so the Metropolitan line could run underneath from Bayswater to Paddington and not spoil the view; 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 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 benediction 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. She gives a little, confused, half-wave back and Palin goes inside again. I round the corner just in time to see the door close. Well at least one of us has a wayfarer’s blessing. And so, with that, London is done. It’s over. We need to get off and to start really travelling. It’s time to strike out on the road, to explore Britain and to see just whatever it is we will see on the way.