Journey Man II – Old London Town

london town (4)Words and Photographs by Chris Marais

February 1993 – London Town in the death rattle of winter, shot through with gunmetal-grey tones and a silk-soft drizzle that settles on the herringbone-coat and crawls right in, to nuzzle up to the soul.

This is London like I’ve never seen her: moody, brooding and nervous down here in the Tube, my favourite English playground where people scurry like polite ants past show posters, and policemen mutter into their walkie-talkies.

Where the wind blows like billy-ho down the tunnels and valiant buskers sing three-chord Neil Young classics in near-perfect subterranean acoustics, nodding thank-you at the drop of a 50p coin into their Camden cloth caps.

It’s nearly six o’clock and, as the poet said, time for refuge in a warm English flat with a cup of Darjeeling, a chip butty and the evening news.

English folk of many hues and tones fill the tunnels at Oxford Circus for destinations all along the Central Line, the Bakerloo, Victoria, Piccadilly and the Jubilee.

I’m in this melee, heading for a connection to the District Line and an eventual stop at Kew Gardens where a pint of bitters, a pork pie and five daily newspapers await me. But first, I have to pass through South Kensington.

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The Glum of Winter ’93

And that, basically, is the problem. One of the reasons I find Londoners so winter-glum in the Feb of ’93 is the IRA have been at them right through the bleak season.

Today, they set off two bombs, one on a British Rail commuter train and the other at good old South Ken. Which throws the network into chaos just before the evening rush. Which I am now part of.

I inch forward, smelling the day-grime of the worker in front of me, the Sloane Square perfume of the young lady to my right, being shoved from behind by a stock marketer built like a Harlequins prop forward, and suddenly a furious female copper shouts out:

“Fook this!”

She yells into her Batphone:

“Control! Move the people along the line. Tell them to spread out along the platform. Now!”

Trains come by, faces jammed to the windows, old people registering panic and everyone hanging on in the dull hope of a speedy end to this nightmare.

The IRA warn the authorities but they don’t give them much time to clear and search South Ken.

God (or, simply, Good Fortune) spies a large group of school children milling about the station on their way to the Dinosaur Exhibit at the Natural History Museum and chivvies them along, a scant eight minutes before the explosion, which reverberates down the tunnel and can be heard at Gloucester Road, the next station along the line.

“Damn the IRA!” a pensioner to my left mutters as he tries to read his Daily Mirror in one square centimetre of available space.

“Where’s a busker when you really need him?” a wag behind me calls out.

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Clear de Doors

My connecting train arrives. A recorded voice drones out, like something from George Orwell’s 1984:

“Clear the doors. Clear the doors. Clear the doors. Clear the …”

To be interrupted by a very live voice with a West Indian accent:

“De people on de platform. Clear de doors. Let de passengers out, den you can go in.”

Within minutes we zoom through South Kensington, where police mill about with dogs and radios.

The next day the BBC treats the Tube chaos with contempt. It films Londoners going to work, and the voice-over goes like this:

“Their step was firm, their look defiant. There was a Wartime spirit in London as commuters took the Underground to work despite the ongoing IRA campaign.”

Then the unshakeable Beeb puts the chills on its viewers with a past quote from the IRA after the Thatcher bomb at Brighton:

“Remember: you were lucky today. But we only have to get lucky once…”

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How Would Sherlock Feel?

London, England. The scandals just keep on rolling. Prime Minister John Major’s cook is at the centre of an alleged sex adventure as the New Statesman and Scallywag have the PM sort of in the sack with her. No. 10 Downing Street is not taking this lying down.

The besieged editor of Scallywag is interviewed on telly, sitting in his favourite pub with a large beer in his hand. They say he’s bankrupt, so that’s why he can afford to smile through all the furore. Or maybe it’s the effect of that large beer.

I slope off from my Underground sojourns one day to make a phone call somewhere in the Harley Street area. It’s a grey, dank day and the temperature is low enough to make snow with.

Inside the jolly red phone booth I see an orange card with the number 935-1785 and the following invitation: Spanking, Submissive Schoolgirl Needs Punishment. 18 Yr Old Off Baker St.

Hmm. Now what would Sherlock Holmes have made of this?

Another friendly notice:

“’Come Into My Parlour’ Said The Mistress To Her Slave. Available 7 Days A Week. 935-0455.”

I read an Independent someone’s left behind at the Tower Hill stop.

I find out that the Stanley Kubrick film classic, A Clockwork Orange, was banned a long time ago by the director himself because it incited youths to go around dressed in bovver boots, engrossed in Gene Kelly musicals and kicking people to death.

And now someone has been nicked for showing the film in her cinema.

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Sojourn in Soho

In Soho, Raymond’s Revuebar is still humming along merrily. Amidst the 80-quid-a-drink (dance with me, darlin’) dives and barrow lanes, the sign is a tourist beacon.

Paul Raymond made no less than 50 million pounds out of soft porn in his day, but his daughter Debbie has died of a lethal cocktail of drugs and alcohol.

At the Coroner’s Court in St Pancras, Raymond weeps when confronted with the facts surrounding her death. His son Howard, who stands to inherit the famous girlie empire, says he’ll probably tear the whole lot down when his time comes.

“I don’t have a moral stance against my father’s business, but if I took it over I would be less sentimental,” he says.

Back on the Underground, this time the Circle Line to Paddington, housewives have their noses stuck deep in the News of the World. Schoolgirls giggle and a group of black-clad teenage boys saunter into the carriage, all flash and silver buckles.

Just as the doors begin to close, the Outlaw Busker dives in, guitar first, followed by his able assistant. This is like modern-day Dickens. The Outlaw Busker is not allowed to play his music on a moving train, so his assistant keeps a sharp eye out for railway coppers.

“Right then, everybody! Today we will entertain and delight you with songs from the past. So please give generously when me mate comes around with ‘is ‘at.”

A Dick van Dyke of the ‘90s. He launches into song:

“When Oi gets older, losing moi hair,

Many ‘ears from now,

Will ya still be sendin’ me a Valentoin,

Birfday greetin’s bottle a woin…”

All too soon, the busker and his assistant hop off at Bayswater and everyone settles back into English literature of a kind.

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Busking on the Tube

Across town, rock star Sting grabs a greatcoat, a 12-string guitar and, just for laughs, goes busking at Ladbroke Grove Tube station. Sting hangs about for the entire evening rush hour, singing old Police hits, with his open guitar case as a collection box.

His haul for the day? A measly 75p.

Sting packs up, joins his old mate Bob Geldof for a beer at the local and they have a laugh about it.

At Bayswater, three Grungers climb on, looking like rich little hoboes. Their faces are Brit-punk and scrubbed, but their clothes speak of Salvation Army and beyond.

For less than thirty pounds, you too can dress like a tramp: tatty jeans, workman’s boots, heavyweight overcoat, Nirvana T-shirt, backward-posted baseball cap and frayed jumper. That’s how you grunge.

(Which sounds pretty much like the way I dress here in the Karoo in winter. For Nirvana T-shirt, read Silver Creek Mountain Band T-shirt. For baseball cap read beanie.)

I skid out of the Piccadilly Line at Leicester Square and it is evening time. Which is to say, about four in the afternoon. Light rain has slicked up the roads, and the neons are lovely tonight.

At Piccadilly I catch the Rock Circus, a Madame Tussaud’s of music. Fred Mercury is at the door to greet me. Inside, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Geldof, Little Richard, Robert Plant, Clapton, The Beatles, Tina Turner and many others perform in wax robotics. As a Baby Boomer, it presses all my buttons.

I am now in the mood for some live music, so I consult the gig list in Melody Maker.

I give up after five minutes of reading about the performance dates of bands like Dropzone, The Honey Buzzards, Disco Assassins, Big Boy Tomato, Bark Psychosis, Pondlife, Mr Ray’s Wig World, Automatic Daffodils, The Pig Keeper’s Daughter, Miranda Sex Garden, Fret Blanket and Anorak Lovechild.

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Nuffin’ Wrong Wi’ Vampires

Where the hell is Van Morrison tonight?

I hop back onto the Underground and settle for the Francis Ford Coppola version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula at The Odeon in Richmond. It’s an elegant piece of Gothica that has taken late-winter London by storm.

The next morning on a BBC breakfast show, a young grunger with shoe polish in her hair and on her lips announces:

“Yeah, I’m a vampire. I like the taste of blud. I only drink it three times a year, mind. There’s nuffin’ wrong wi’ vampires, we’re good people.”

Her Piglet-like companion says:

“I’m her friend and assistant. I don’t much like the taste of blood, but I can tell you vampires is a much-misunderstood group.”

Back on the Underground, and there is no eye contact. At first, one finds it strange. Then something weird and downright bloody creepy slithers onto the train and you realise that staring at floor patterns is the way to go.

There are times when being Underground is the only place to be. Right now, more than 5 000 workers are being laid off by Leyland Daf, there’s been a rape at Battersea Park and more coal pits are closing. National anger is on the rise.

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Suddenly back home

One night I am jerked out of my London Dream by a Channel 4 special on the Soweto Flying Squad. We don’t normally see this stuff back home, and I am riveted and horrified at the same time.

Under-trained white men with broken English try to deal with reality in one of the world’s most crime-ridden cities. I cringe when they say things like:

“I like it here in Soweto. There’s things you can do here that you can’t do in a white suburb.”

The next day, on the Tube to Notting Hill Gate, I read Max Davidson’s review on the show in the Daily Telegraph.

“The young, predominantly white, officers were not universally likeable, but there was no doubting their courage. Feelings of admiration were tinged, inevitably, with feelings of anger at the society which placed them in the firing line.

“The police were, by Western standards, trigger-happy. But the harsh realities of life on the beat in Soweto made it unreasonable to expect a 20-year-old police officer to exhibit the finest scruples at all times.”

That’s about the closest to fair press our police force has ever received in London, I’ll wager.

Emerging out of the Underground at Embankment, I stumble right into the middle of a pit closure march. Very Old School, this.

Faded old coal mine union flags, drawn faces, sad children and a couple of marching brass bands playing dirges bring the realities of the impending pit closures to the media and the country at large.

And here’s a mounted cop with a megaphone:

“Right. Find your place in the procession. If you don’t know where it is, ask your marshall.”

As polite as you please. Back in Jo’burg the riot squad awaits protesters with dogs, teargas and rubber bullets. But Africa is Africa and London is, well, London.

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Where’s the Queen?

After looking for famous people at Notting Hill and not finding a single one, I decide to take a connection to Windsor Castle and see if the Queen’s in today. Once I get there, they tell me she’s out of town.

On the British Rail ride back, I hear two old women discussing Sarah Ferguson.

“Did you see the Daily Mail today, Marge?”

“Yeah. You on about Fergie, then?”

“Too right. Din’ she look a right frog in that green thing of a dress?”

I have just skimmed that edition of the Daily Mail and have to concur with Marge’s friend. Fergie’s looking a “right frog” in the paper.

It seems to be open season on the Windsor mob. I’m no slavering fan of royalty, but to me the blatant bitchiness of Fleet Street towards them seems like a dog eating up its own tail.

But London, I love London. I especially love the Underground, that massive tunnelled network of corridors packed with humanity, old farts and live music.

And no matter what the IRA, the pit bosses, the Tories, the Labourites or the marauding Indian cricket team does to John Bull, London will always be, well, London…

* Chris Marais is the author of The Journey Man – A South African Reporter’s Stories.

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