Saturday, June 30, 2007

Au revoir, Britain

I’m on my way.

I’m writing this curled up in a nice maroon chair in the foyer of the office of Andrew Weir Shipping, the agents for the Bank Line and its SS Tikeibank in London. No, I’m not here to take my departure. Merely to drop off my encumbrant suitcase before heading on to Stoke Newington to spend the last night of my stay in England with Jane Wynn Owen, the current (and always, since the days of Ian and I) incarnation of Talent Artists Ltd and one of my oldest and dearest friends in this country.

I left Shirley, and Andrew and Wendy, on Sunday and headed off to Wokingham to spend a few days with another pair of friends from long ago, Peter and Jane Joslin. For some reason, I got myself in a frightful lather about what is a perfectly straightforward East Croydon-Clapham Junction (1 station!)-Wokingham (one comfortable hour plus) train trip and, when we came to an unscheduled halt for some ten minutes at Balham, I had visions of missing my connection. It would really not have mattered if I had – except that Peter was waiting for me at the station – but it was just a lather day, and I duly lathered.

I suspect that the real problem was that I’d expected to have left London for the ship by now, and having to recharge my failing batteries for the extra time now existing before my departure was simply making a few arcs in my brain.

Well, I couldn’t have fallen into a better spot in which to do the recharging. Peter – who runs a web-based picture agency named Cadenza Archive -- is one of the world’s most enthusiastic collectors of theatrical memorabilia, with an accent on Gilbert and Sullivan, classical composers and the Victorian musical world in general, and his library is something to marvel at.
So I spent much of Monday and Tuesday curled up on the living room sofa, like some library-mad Pasha, being served up with end-to-end heaps and piles of the most wonderful Victoriana. Playbills, programmes, music, photographs, lithographs .. simply everything. And treasure after treasure. You can imagine, I was in my element. My computer flashed and grinned for hour upon hour, as I pounded page after page of hitherto unfindable information into my files. It reminded me of nothing less than my famous trip to Vienna, in the 1980s, when, researching for my ‘Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre’, I spent a week in the local Theatre Museum, and was allotted a personal librarian to serve me with, and photocopy, the hundreds and hundreds of Theaterzetteln I needed.

Just to add to the feeling of Pachadom, in between the ‘study sessions’, we were served up with breakfast, lunch and tea as well …

I slept four nights in succession without even a shaving of a sleeping pill.

On Wednesday we went for a jaunt down to Henley-on-Thames. I don’t think I’ve ever been there (although of course Emily went, and I described it), but we’ve all seen pictures of the pretty town and of its famous regatta, and the boating scenes of ‘Half a Sixpence’ were filmed there.
We strolled by the Thames, across its bridges and up to the lock at Marsh Weir, watching the boats and barges go by, through in the drizzling rain, and marvelling at the funny mixture of beautiful and shacky-weekender houses on the island in the river’s middle. We took in the local second-hand bookshops (I resisted, Peter didn’t), the local antique shops, the pretty local streets where much of the old-time charm is retained but which nevertheless sport their Chinese takeaways, their Tandooris, their Thais (oh! those inevitable dreary Thais!) and other such features of modern life.
We, of course, didn’t go for any one of those when lunchtime came. Instead we visited one of the Loch Fyne chain, an attractive, airy fish restaurant on the Market Place where the fresh fish is laid out on ice on the counter, the fish chef is nicely in view, and everything is done in a most encouragingly attractive way. We had a delightful, lanky, quadrilingual waitress who was a specialist in Guinness, so, of course, I had to break my three day booze-pause and sample her recommendation.
Loch Fyne is not only attractive, it serves damn’ good food. I had a really delicious fish stew which sent me out into the drizzle of the day very nicely warmed inside indeed. Well, I suppose the Guinness helped too. Anyway: At 68 pounds for three, definitely recommended.
We drove home via the eternally lovely little village of Sonning, where so long ago I used to visit the dinner theatre. The roads, and the famous bridge at Sonning are, however, not exactly made for two large vehicles abreast, so we encountered a good old-fashioned English traffic jam as well.

Come Thursday, and it was time to set out for London. I had decided not to attempt to get from Wokingham to Tower Hill in the early rush hours of Friday morning, but rather to take an hotel room near the shipping line offices for the night previous. However, Fate and the British hotel industry decided otherwise. Peter and I spent two hours on the Internet and the telephone, attempting to find me a respectable room in EC3, or in EC2 or EC1, or almost anywhere in London City at all, without any joy. The prices advertised on the web didn’t bear any resemblance to the prices quoted if you actually rang an hotel – the first one we tried, for example, allegedly 85 pounds a night, turned out to be what sounded like 225 pounds. I say ‘sounded like’ for, during our phone tour of London hotels, we did not meet with one single clerk who spoke acceptable or – to me – even comprehensible English. So, in the end, we gave up.
And that was when my friend Jane came to the rescue with the offer of a sofa in Stoke Newington.
After lunch on Thursday, Peter drove me to Twyford station, from where I caught an agreeable and fast train – less than an hour -- to Paddington. From there, I had decided to pop down to Tower Hill and leave the heavier of my suitcases, rather than lug it all the way to Jane’s and then back the following morning. Pop? My appreciative comments about the present-day British transport system stop short when it comes to the Circle Line. It was always awful, grubby, infrequent and inefficient. It is still awful, grubby, infrequent and inefficient. It took me four separate trains (the first three ‘terminated’, unannouncedly part way round the incorrectly named ‘circle’) to get to Tower Hill. It took me as long to do Paddington-Tower Hill as it had to get to London.
Then I had to find Royal Mint Court. My Internet map was pretty grossly inaccurate, but I got there, and to the enormously grand Dexter House, by the good old fashioned method of asking a doorman. I am glad to have done this, for at least in the morning I will know to where I am coming.

The morrow.

From the Andrew Weir office, I was to head for Liverpool Street (2 stops) and take the suburban train to Stoke Newington (4 stops). However, as I went down the tube stairs, I noticed that one stop away was Aldgate East. Now, Aldgate East was once ‘my’ tube station. In my very first months in London, when I was a student at the London Opera Centre, it was to Aldgate East that I had to come each morning to catch the bus down the Commercial Road. Since I had plenty of time until my rendezvous with Jane, I thought that I would spend five minutes to go there and have a nostalgic glimpse. Bad decision. The station probably hasn’t been cleaned up since I was last there in 1968. It was not pretty, nor was it even nostalgic. And then, having glimpsed, I had to wait 40 minutes for a tube train to take me the one stop to Liverpool Street! Why I didn’t go out and walk….?
So, in the end, my 2pm departure from Wokingham/Twford got me to Stoke Newington at 6pm, with most of the four hours having been wasted on the Circle and Hammersmith lines.

Jane and I had a wonderful reminiscing-and-catching-up evening, over roast chicken and several bottles of wine, at the end of which I sank gratefully on to the sofa, altogether content that the so-called hotel industry of London had failed to find me a room.


It is now Friday 12 noon, and I am sitting in a mini-bus in the car park at Folkestone where one awaits one’s turn to go through the Channel Tunnel. And I imagined you just drove through! It appears we get loaded on to a train.

With the previous days tubular horrors in mind, I caught the 8am train from Rectory Road (Jane’s station) and was at Liverpool Street within 12 minutes. Samantha at the office had told me that it was only a ten minutes walk from Liverpool Street, down Bishopsgate, Houndsditch and the Minories, to Tower Hill, so rather than risk the rush hour tube I decided to use my feet. I am very glad I did. I had a really nice walk through some of the many beautiful spots in the eastern part of London .. there is a really splendid new building at St Botoplh’s, Aldgate … and I even remembered (which I hadn’t before!) to use my little platinum card to get some cash for the ship out of a hole in the wall.
The walk, even with stops, took me a just quarter of an hour, so I arrived at the office a least an hour and a half early. Oh well, I guess some days it works, some days it doesn’t.

At 10am we set out … me (N.Z-ish), Graham (a former fisherman, of Eastbourne, UK), Hugh and Biddy (neighbours from Zimbabwe) and Lyndall (USA). We, along with one French lady, are to be the ship’s complement for the voyage…
A voyage which moves at this very moment into its next stage, as we head for our place on the train and – given the number of sleeping policemen and other hazards over which we are bouncing – I now close down this delicate piece of machinery as we say ‘Au revoir, Grande-Bretagne’.

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