Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Friday, 2 January 2009

Onward with trepidation to Great Queen Street

As I approached the end of Long Acre, and as the angular and domineering white exterior of Freemason's Hall slowly came into view, I quivered. I thought I saw the grand master milling around outside in full dress, but maybe it was paranoia, I forgot how hilarious some of these folks look in their garb; middle aged old men playing fancy dress. Almost wanting to run away, panicking, I ducked and spun into the entrance of the Freemason’s Arms pub, on Long Acre, a pub which had been familiar to me, and had a quick jar. Mainly full of local office workers, they had procured some excellent ales and a lovely Orangeboom, the décor was different to when I was last there: minimalist, but strangely reassuring and pleasing. Needing a sharp kick, rather than warmth and re - assurance, I opted for the lager rather than my usual ale. The Orangeboom was cold, crisp and much needed after my long journey and my impending reunion and possible interrogation with my old friends of the order. The staff are helpful and polite. Although, as I remember so many pubs in Covent Garden, it can get crowded, noisy and a tad aggressive from late afternoon. Upon leaving, I turned left into Great Queen Street.

I approach the brutal, imposing grandiosity of the art - deco based Freemasons Hall on Great Queen Street. Squeezing past some members of the order milling about in their black suits outside, I ponder that, on entering the main hall my former brothers may decide that I am not welcome and maybe I’ll be told that I should leave. Hiding my nervousness, I nonchalantly passed through the main entrance, and once my identity was confirmed by security, walked up the gorgeous marble stair case up to the main hall, greeted by the All Seeing Eye on the ceiling. On furtively entering the main hall, I was, to my huge relief, approached and embraced by an old friend who, for the purpose of this blog, we shall call Daniel. We sat and chatted for a while and the usual small - talk gave way to me explaining to him that I wanted to find Willow, that I believed her to still be alive. He seemed concerned, gently rubbing my forearm and saying that I had clearly had trouble dealing with my grief, before swiftly moving on to talk about the cricket! Another fellow, Gabriel, ran up to me and put his arms around me, shouting my name repeatedly as though he didn’t really believe it was me and I had to reassure him that it was. Although being acquainted, I remember not knowing him as well as I would have liked and wandered if senility had got the better of him in his old age!

At that moment, I could not reconcile that one of the reasons I left London was because of these people; they seemed genuinely pleased to see me… I then realized it was a game, they were playing ‘good cop, bad cop’, a well rehearsed routine, which I would like to think I am far too experienced to fall for. On cue came the bad cop… literally, a well known and senior policeman in the public eye, who shall of course remain nameless, but we shall call Henderson, asked me about my whereabouts for the past twenty – seven years and I told him a carefully thought through fabrication without batting an eyelid. The dinner was very pleasant, and for a while I was rather pleased to be back in the old place. I momentarily forgot why I had left them. The meal was interrupted by us having to sing typical rubbish in Latin about how much we revere the Queen, even though very few of us here have actually even met her, followed by a lot of handclapping… the rituals now seem silly and quaint rather than sinister. For a moment, I began to think we might start a food fight. Still quite a lot of fun though.

On the whole, apart from some of the now elderly fellows who still seemed to believe strongly in their archaic calling from God to protect Queen and country, at this point in the evening I felt re – assured that the rumors I had heard were indeed correct and that the London Freemasons were now a harmless old gentleman’s club, a place for the aspiring lower middle classes to indulge in a spot of brown nosing and nothing more… rather than how I remember them, which was, shall we say… differently.

In a previous life, as a member of the security service during the cold war, I acquired many skills, including learning to drink vast quantities of alcohol and not give away any information about my true activities and so concluded that I would use these skills as well as I could after dinner. I was as vague as I could be and after some drinks with my newly rediscovered old friends at the Center for Acts and Actors, where we now have our official quarterly meetings… we discussed my return to London. And then went down stairs into the main hall, which is a lovely dusty old assembly style hall with a stage at the back and a grand piano; almost like an old music hall. It seemed very strange, even forbidden. I was returning to sacred ground which I had already desecrated, returning to the scene of the crime.

I had already decided that there was not much point trying to deceive myself over the fact that I had committed a betrayal of trust towards my brothers, and if I wanted to re - acquaint myself and procure money, I came to the conclusion and the acceptance of the fact when deciding to make this journey to London that I might be ‘traditionally’ interrogated by some of the older boys.

I was right.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

At the Lamb and Flag

Rupert kindly took my suitcase and we walked into Neal’s Yard together, which has been a center for astrology and occultism since the 17th century, and continues to be ‘til this day. He offered to buy me late lunch. I re – counted to him my less than welcoming introduction to London, which he seemed to take as being par for the course, and believed this to be some kind of brutal, mass sub – conscious initiation ceremony that all returnees to London are put through; a kind of belated punishment for traitors. We immediately began to discuss the Willow situation, retracing everything we had discussed via post. Willow, you see, was his aunt.

I did mention to him that i wished to re – aquaint myself with the London I knew as a child via letter. But maybe he had forgotten as he took me to Detroit restaurant in Neal’s Yard, which had a pleasant enough yet exotic sounding continental menu but the decor was a bit too modern for my liking, and certainly the area of Neal’s Yard was glass and steel rather than traditional, and thereby re – assuring, bricks and mortar of yore. Still, the lunch was much appreciated after the appaling food on the plane. I reminded him about my letter. He conceded this would not be difficult, and that he would try his best to help me, re – aquiant myself with the city although being a thrusting, young, cutting edge, super - post modern graduate of Central Saint Martins College he didn’t seem impressed by my wallowing in olde worlde post – Empire nostalgia and snorted depressingly beneath his breath, “you’re too old for silly dreams”. When I told him I wanted to visit Westminster to look at a small pile of old bricks, he exploded, “what the hell for??”. “bricks, dear boy, are mankind’s most important creation”. Rupert seemed to think this made me a racist although I am not sure about his reasoning here as the link between bricks and racism seems tenuous. He seemed to cheer up when I explained I would be re – visiting a lot of old pubs.

We left and went for a pint at the Lamb and Flag in Rose Street as I didn’t have an opportunity to finish my IPA in the Crown and I wanted to see if the old landlord, Peter was still there. This is the pub which in 1679 the poet John Dryden was attacked by thugs hired by King Charles the second after Dryden insulted his mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth in one of his satirical verses. Once known as the Bucket of Blood because of its reputation as a popular bare knuckle prize fighting venue, thankfully, nowadays it is mainly known for its Morris Dancers providing the entertainment and the last few metophorical dying twitches of English culture to be found in London are to be found here rather than extreme violence, of the seventeenth century although Rupert thought they looked “like a bunch of pillocks” and “would rather see a boxing match any day”. I thought for a moment that Rupert might get his wish when one of the dancers accidentally hit a local office worker with one of his sticks. London is always, and ever since the Romans arrived here, has always been a city built on violence. And one does not have to scratch deeply beneath it’s surface to find it there still.

The Lamb was and still is an exellent purveyor of ales. I settled for a Youngs which went down nicely after the cous – cous and ginseng pie, or whatever the hell it was i ate at Detroit. But i was told by the current manager that Peter died a long time ago.

I told Rupert that I was expected at Freemason’s Hall for dinner and he agreed to take my bag to the Hotel Russell near Russell Square where we would be staying. I finished my pint and began to walk down Long Acre towards Freemason’s Hall, feeling like I was walking the plank. As many thought me a traitor to Queen and country, (which I will discuss later), I knew that my return may not go down well. And they would find me if I did not go to them first.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

At Seven Dials

I made my way towards my contact point to look for Rupert. He would be standing underneath the needle at the Seven Dials, in Covent Garden, a pillar which acts as a massive sundial, and would be directly under the shadow of the needle when it hit 3 o’ clock.

The Seven Dials is a meeting point of six roads and in the middle, the Seven Dials sundial pillar towers over the inhabitants of the city, an unmovable reminder that although the changes in London are constant, time can never erode London’s history. Although initially being re- designed by Thomas Neale in the early 1690s as a gentifified area, it deteriorated and quickly became a byword for poverty, unsuccessfully patroled by the predecesors of the Bow – Street – Runners, and remaining that way until the second half of the twentieth century. Although it now appears to be an extension of the shopping district area of Neal Street, the odd bit of old London remains, including the Crown pub and some of the buildings themselves. Confusingly, the sundial has six faces, and it is often suggested that the seventh face is the shadow on the floor itself.

I was slightly early upon arriving and walked into the Crown for an afternoon pint, a cozy place with a real fire and a terrific selection of ales. I lit up my pipe and was immediately approached by a member of staff. Apart from being delighted about bumping into an English barman (Rupert had told me that they were all Australian), I felt a fool for forgetting Rupert's warning that a smoking ban had been imposed on the whole country since last year, which frankly, I feel is a disgrace; as the one thing that every Englishman should have the right to in my opinion is the right to sit by a fire with his pint and enjoy a smoke on his pipe. I ended our conversation by saying loudly, “I am English, Sir!”.

I reluctantly shuffled outside into the cold to smoke my pipe to find that London’s history seems to sustain in both positive and negative ways, as a young hooded homeless man with a beard reminded me, by pressing his face up against mine when I refused to give him money. Despite knowing I could seriously hurt this heroin addicted idiot I decided not to jeopardise my misson by fighting with him and gave him my remaining change. He spat on me and threw my fifteen pence into a drain. Wiping the spittle off my face, with my hankerchief I wondered if the same thing happened to Dickens when he visited the slums at Seven Dials; another reminder that the blueprint... the psychical skeleton of history is never completely eroded and I thought of Karl Marx's quote that "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce".

I conclude for certain that I really did make the right decision when I decided to leave this city.

I walked back into the warmth, safety and crimson shades of the Crown; a womb of protection against the hordes of evil Londoners. I supped my IPA and the problems of the world dissappeared. Looking at my watch, I realised it was three o’ clock. Peering through the window of the Crown I could see a young man standing underneath the shadow of the column: about six foot tall in his late twenties, cool indifference shielding deep insecurity. I cannot give more of a description for fear of giving away his identity. It was Rupert.

At Neal Street

After arriving from Heathrow airport, I immediately made my way on the Piccadilly Line to Covent Garden Station, to meet my contact and to visit Freemasons Hall, where, after the annual Freemason's dinner, a private meeting was to take place regarding my unexpected return to London. Although privately I was also hoping to procure money from some old friends as I had only fifteen pence on my person after sparing the money for the travel card.

I wanted to re - acquaint myself with one of the places I loved: a restaurant in Neal Street, the place where I went out on my first date with Willomena.

At Covent Garden Station, upon walking into the street, I was met by florescent, multi - colored bags, coats, and shop entrances, trainers, trousers, ripping into my eyes and scarring my brain; each one of these offending images like a casual physical assault. I was keen to re - visit Covent Garden Market, a place my father would take me as a small boy to buy our groceries. The grocers have been replaced by stalls selling second rate tat including greetings cards and handmade ornaments alongside street illustrators drawing bad spoof portraits of the public.

I made my way to Neal Street to look for the restaurant, being intermittently shoved on my way there. Instinctively, I longed for austerity, a sense of identity of place, some connection with the genteel city in which I grew up. Instead I found myself in a replica of what seems to be every other street in London – heaving, loud, brash, intrusive, shabby, vacuous, soulless and empty; dominated by brand shops and chain shops… the disappointment becomes unbearable. I was hoping that London would be spared this: the replication of the indentikit, characterless high street. Part of me wishes that I had never returned: This is Neal Street in Covent Garden. The old restaurant I once knew, now gone, replaced by a place where a man can get plastic footwear from a place called ‘Footlocker’ for about fifty pounds… some of which are colored bright bloody orange.

I began feeling dizzy. Turning into a side street I found myself being violently sick, my walking stick just about managing to prop me up. People watched me, a man in his late fifties being sick… nobody presumed to ask after my health; nobody cared, nobody stopped to help.

I wanted to go back to the airport, but I needed to carry on trying to find Willomena, she would never forgive me if I gave up on her so easily and indeed I would never be able to forgive myself.

What did I want to find in London, apart from Willomena? I suppose it was hope: hope that London would be a good place with respectful, polite people; the London of my childhood, instead of the mass of tacky, aggressive, superficial and rude people that I have found myself drowning amongst this afternoon.

I don’t know what I expected despite having been away for so long. I suppose it must be difficult to understand why a man of my worldly experience would be so naïve as to think any other way about London; that it could avoid mass commercial globalization. I knew that there were parts of London lost to time which still existed and made it my mission to find them parallel to my mission to find Willomena.

I then made my way towards my contact point to find Rupert.

Sunday, 5 October 2008


The Secret Tramp

I have recently returned to London after an absence of more than thirty years, having decided to look for an ex - girlfriend whom I thought was dead but now believe may be alive.

This site is also partly a review site, as whilst looking for her, I will find some time to re - acquaint myself with the city I was born in and once loved by visiting some of my old haunts and places of interest, discovering new ones, as well as reminiscing about old establishments which are no longer there.

I will aim to document my travels and experiences, having acquired the services of a young friend to help me in my travels and who will be publishing my journal online, some of which I have already written and am continuing to write.

To make things more difficult, upon arriving I only have fifteen pence to my name. And for reasons that will become apparent later, I cannot live in the same place for more than a week.

The motivation for publishing my journal on - line is to record my efforts to find Willamina, and to document my thoughts on the changes in
London over the last thirty years.

Please bear in mind, for the purposes of storytelling convenience, some of this blog is fictional, although the names of establishments are real, or based on my memories or the memories and accounts of others which have been interwoven into the narrative. Alth
ough some elements of the story have occurred.

I want to discover a London lost to time. I'd like you to join me.

The Secret Tramp