Spending a few unhurried days in London, my long ago home town, brings back many interesting memories. As Samuel Johnson said: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” And then there’s all the shopping we can afford, as well.
We’ve arrived on a brilliant Sunday afternoon in mid-October, unseasonably warm and sunny. Wife, daughter, luggage and I crammed into the mighty Corsa — about the size of a shoe box. We’ve travelled up from Sussex where we’ve been celebrating, rather well I thought, my Mum’s 100th birthday. We had bubbly, cake and the letter from The Queen. My last blog was recycled to the local paper, where she made the front page under the headline: ‘Lippy loving Lush at 100.’
First trial in town is to park the car. In Chelsea, it seems, all spots are reserved for residents and the traffic warden arrives as quickly as flies to a corpse. Before we can say hello to our hosts, we have a £60 ticket, and the man is adamant. He’s written the ticket and it’s a done deal. But at least he won’t radio for a tow truck after my friends have a little chat with him. Nice fellow. If only the copper on the beat responded as quickly to real crimes being committed.**
Round the corner is an underground parking garage where we decide to leave the car for the few days of our stay. It’s only £25 for 24 hours, which is a bargain for London. As we drive in, there’s a big sign reading “Take your ticket with you.” When I park the car between a dust sheeted Roller and a dust sheeted Ferrari, there’s another reminder sign, but I’m distracted and tuck the ticket behind the sun visor.
As we leave the place the security door shuts tightly behind us and we see that there’s a ticket reader to get back in. No ticket. No entry. We phone the emergency number. They’re on voice mail. We phone the information number. They have no clue and hang up on us. We’ll have to figure this out after lunch.
Lunch is at one of those marvellously friendly Italian restaurants which abound in London. La Famiglia welcomes families, babies and us. I determine to have food I’ve not tried before and settle for coda di rospo or sliced monkfish in a delicate lemon, garlic and parsley sauce. Folks say the fish is the ugliest in the ocean and tastes a little like lobster. I’m not sure, but it’s more interesting than most white fish and has the texture of crustacean. Dessert tiramasu is transcendent: light enough to float away on my taste buds. Our generous host is one of my oldest friends and it is grand to spend a bibulous afternoon in his company.
Later a text message arrives on my daughter’s BlackBerry. It’s from a former Canadian colleague, with whom we’ve both worked, and she’s staying at The Ritz. A black cab takes us through a maze of back streets that an Uber driver’s sat-nav could never equal. London black cabs are an institution and drivers have to spend years acquiring ‘The Knowledge’ — of every twist and turn of London’s back streets and every hotel and institution — before they get their licence. They deserve our support and for once I’m on the side of London’s new Mayor, who is trying to have Uber banned.
We’re in the Ritz’s Art Deco Rivoli bar, where a couple of rounds of drinks is as pricey as a week’s wages for many people.We’re having a jolly time when a party of northerners arrive. The ladies have obviously been shopping and the blokes look ready for a drink, but the somewhat dismissive m’d refuses them a table. There’s a table for two on one side of us and a table for two on the other but sensitive to the fact that we are already in situ, the waiter doesn’t ask to move us over. My wife Diane, a fellow northerner, leaps to the rescue and we all move to allow room for them. They are grateful and friendly.
The northern ladies have done some damage at Hermès and bought a Birkin bag each — and how many thousand pounds are they, I wonder — and the good looking blonde from Alderley Edge, on the posh side of Manchester, confesses her feet are killing her. She’d take her gladiator-themed high heels off if she’d have any chance of getting them back on again, she says with a moan. They insist on buying us more rounds of drinks, which I certainly didn’t need. A silly hour or two ensues before they run for their train home. One of the chaps is a very successful exotic car dealer and the other a ship builder with yards all over Britain. I admire their fancy sports jackets, without which they would not have gained entry to the bar. By now it is getting late and we’re starving.
In another black cab, the driver reasonably asks: “Where to, guv?” We need to get back to Chelsea, and the only resto I can recall at a moment’s notice is the Bluebird on the King’s Road. That’s where we end up. It’s undergone a complete renovation and a change of ownership since I was last here. But enough is the same that I feel at home in the art deco landmark, formerly a garage, where once Donald Campbell’s record breaking Bluebird was built.
The kitchen is closing in five minutes says the guardian at the desk, but chef agrees we can be seated if we order chop-chop. I decide on steak tartare and my beloved chooses tuna tartare, so no cooking involved there. Our French-Canadian waiter — what a coincidence — prepares my steak with the toppings at the table. It’s delicious. The frites help to absorb the excess of good whisky and we are well satisfied.
A brisk 10 minute walk brings us to our lodgings for the night and as I sink onto the pillows, I wonder if I can stand the pace of the big city. Day 1 has been hectic and hilarious. On Day 2 we plan to shop. First, to Bond Street, to pick up a new monogrammed diary at Smythson’s and thence to Jermyn Street to look for new shirts or Harrods to buy almost anything. And finally to rescue the mighty Corsa from the clutches of the evil car park.
* Samuel Johnson said this 240 years ago on September 20, 1777. He hated to spend time alone and was always going out and enjoying what London had to offer. It’s hard to disagree with him.
** The day after we arrive in London, new crime figures show London is more dangerous for street crime than New York. Trump tweets that is is because of the spread of radical Islam, but he’s off base. The report doesn’t mention terrorists of any ilk, anywhere. The former head of Labour, Ed Miliband, tweets back that Trump is an “absolute moron.” Who can argue with that? Walking around London over the next few days, we never at any time felt threatened, although we are confining ourselves to Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Chelsea, very posh areas. I warn my ladies to keep their handbags zipped closed and their mobile phones tucked away, as many street crimes involve scooter-mounted purse and phone snatchers.