To Be Back in England – A Flemish take on London

A week or so ago, Bertin Deneire told us of his first trip to England to take part in a Toc H project. Now Bertin is back with a further guest blog about a trip to London in 1971. Although Toc H doesn’t feature heavily, I think this is a lovely, evocative story of one of our Belgian friends discovering the English capital for the first time. This article has been posted in the Toc H facebook group previously, but I felt it deserved another airing. Over to you Bertin………

London, here we come!

Although my first visit to England (1969) had been a wonderful eye-opener, to say the least, it took me another two years to finally visit the capital of my new adoptive homeland: London! The reason for this being purely financial, as any trip abroad was – certainly in those days of economic recession – a fairly costly undertaking.

In that particular year (1971) I was in my first year at Teacher Training College, and as I hadn’t had a summer holiday of any meaning, I managed to coax my parents into making a trip to the City, something that had been strongly recommended by my professor of English at the TTC, I stressed. And so, in early November of that year I decided to cross the Channel for the second time, with a view to visiting ‘the capital of my dreams’. The mid-term break looked the perfect time for five days in the City, and so we left Poperinge full of ‘burning’ anticipation. ‘We’, that was Ray, Marc, Julian and myself: four mates from the TTC, hoping to spend a visit at a minimum cost but with a maximum in return. Apart from being prospective English teachers, we all had the same thing in common: we were confirmed anglophiles and… raring to go.

Unlike on my first visit to the UK, we decided to cross the Channel from Calais to Ramsgate using the novel hovercraft, thinking that was to be an experience in itself. We booked our outward journey on the first flight of the day, planning to return on the last one scheduled, which gave us a substantial discount.

On the eve of our departure, I gave my battered leather holdall a liberal sweep from the dubbin tin and packed a minimum of luggage: my striped pyjamas, some spare clothes, my trusted shaving gear plus a few city maps I had received from BTA Belgium. On the morning of our departure, Marc’s father took us to Calais and the journey to London was to be completed by train, the four of us having bought a BritRail Junior Pass.

The ‘flight’ proved quite a disappointment as the weather was rough and there was an ominous swell in the Channel. I was most disappointed that you couldn’t walk around in the craft and besides, looking through the portholes was almost impossible, as the whipped-up spray made visibility almost nil. Somewhere in the middle of the Channel, the sea became dangerously turbulent, and all you could see on both sides were two walls of green, as if the craft was caught between two soaring waves of seawater. Each time the hovercraft reached the crest of a wave, it plummeted nose-first into the dark dip shaped by the towering rollers, the seatbelt holding you in place and preventing you from hitting the low ceiling. Rolling on the swell, all you could see from the portholes was – only sea this moment and only sky the next.

I started swallowing more frequently and managed only just to keep my food down. One of the female passengers sitting at the far end of my bay was so violently sick that she fainted and fell head-first on the floor in the central alley. Two flight attendants rushed to pick her up and tried to bring her round by dampening her brow with cologne tissues, the stench of vomit mingling with the smell of cheap eau-de-toilette. Fortunately, the crossing took only 45 minutes and so we were glad when we finally arrived at Ramsgate terminal where we boarded a shuttle bus to the local railway station.

I can still remember the dragging train journey through the bleak Kentish landscape followed by the tedious trundle through the grey suburbs of Greater London, showing the untidy backyards of endless terraced-houses. What a difference from my first drive through the Kentish landscape, two years before!

As the train slowed down, following the banks of the River and passing the Oxo Tower on the South Bank, we got our first glimpse of Westminster: the impressive Houses of Parliament, The Mother of all Parliaments, as we had been taught, and of course the slender Big Ben tower, famous for its legendary chimes.

We got off at a bustling Victoria Station where we bought ourselves a Go-As-You-Please ticket, a pass that would entitle us to limitless use of the underground and other London Transport for three full days. This, we first used for the trip to our accommodation, which was in Kennington Park Road in the South West.

Our lodgings were in a place called The Brothers’ House, a Victorian edifice smack between the famous Oval Cricket Ground and the busy Elephant & Castle crossroads. The hostel, which was run by Neville Minas (a wartime friend of Ray’s aunt), was one of several establishments owned by the Toc H movement. Actually, it was not meant for tourists but – in line with the caring nature of Toc H – it served as a ‘social’ hostel for long-time residents who had no home of their own. As an exception to the strict house rules, Neville had been found prepared to put us up for four nights. We could even have half-board for a small extra charge, something we gladly accepted.

Mr Minas’s agreement, however, came at a price. We were supposed to share multi-bedded rooms with other guests who seemed to be either minor office clerks or junior shop assistants, with a few social ‘outcasts’ thrown in. I found myself allocated to the basement in a dank room with three other portly, middle-aged men.

On the first night of our stay, I couldn’t get my sleep as their snoring – in different keys and rhythms – kept me wide-awake. Sometimes, it seemed to mingle with the rattling noise of the late underground trains, winding their way somewhere deep beneath us. Outside, you could hear the slowing-down of black cabs, their screeching brakes eerily tearing up the still of the night, a noise only to be exceeded by the blaring siren of the odd ambulance going by. To top it all, a brisk wind made the small sash-window next to my bed produce an erratic but most annoying jangling noise.

Early in the morning, after I had finally dropped off, one of the men stumbled out of his creaking bed and – scratching his body like a rousing gorilla – made his way across the squeaky lino to the washstand. While the tap was running, he undressed and started washing with no obvious inhibition. Stock-still, I peered from under the blankets at this slightly hunchbacked man, hung like a baboon. The scraping sound of his razor cut through the eerie silence like sandpaper on stone. Now I knew for certain that I wasn’t going to get any more sleep… Half an hour later another of the men got out of bed and went through the same motions, his neighbour following suit shortly after.

When they had all left the room I got up myself, had a quick wash and made my way to the ground-floor where the kitchen was. Some of the guests were already having their breakfast: thin crispy rashers of bacon with eggs, followed by slices of toast and Robertson’s marmalade. Mrs Brierly, the charlady, gave me a cup of her strong brew, something that picked me up in no time. It looked pitch-black but smelled like creamy malt. After my erstwhile rather unpleasant encounter with tea, it now seemed to do me a world of good, and I became a tea addict there and then.

By now, my friends had come down and apparently they too had spent more or less the same kind of restless night. Only they didn’t care much for tea, and settled for a steaming mug of Nestlé instead (referred to by Mrs Brierly as ‘Nestles’). Not being used to instant coffee, we joked behind her back that was she really meant was ‘Nettles’.

After breakfast we decided to ‘hit the town’ in pairs. Marc and Julian would go together, while Ray and I would visit something different, each comparing notes in the evening on what we had seen. We were pretty sure this would work, since we shared more or less the same interests: history and war, museums and art galleries, statues and monuments, music and fashion…

An icy draught struck us in the face as we left on our first outing that morning. The air was thin and crisp, as it seemed to come down straight from a cloudless sky. Streams of dead leaves lined the gutters, and freak winds scurried them up into the air, the universal reminder of a windy autumn. Kennington tube station was only a few minutes’ walk from our lodgings but the biting wind added a mean chill factor.

At the station, a black attendant working the lift (and who looked not unlike Uncle Tom) took us down to the platform. From here we took the Northern Line to the intersection with the Circle Line. The smell of carbolic acid was all around and each time a train arrived, a metallic voice called out “Mind the gap! Mind the gap!” It struck me that passengers were so stoically silent, as everybody seemed to be immersed in their newspapers or books.

In the big, glazed-tile hall leading to the different platforms a lone busker was playing ‘Cry me a river’ on his tenor saxophone, his instrument case serving as a collection box. The melancholic tune echoed wonderfully in the arched hall as we hurried past to the eastbound escalator. I was quite impressed by the man’s obvious talent, but we were reluctant to stop and listen to him as everybody was rushing by, and apparently nobody paid attention to this brilliant young singer.

I found it a great shame that we didn’t stop to listen but we were simply dragged along with the maelstrom of hurrying commuters. As we passed him by, Marc and I pretended to search our pockets for some coppers, which gave us a fleeting moment to enjoy the man’s impromptu performance. As we left rather reluctantly, I thought to myself – what is an artist like you doing in a place like this? You should be in the studios making records!

We got out at Trafalgar Square, the nucleus of the City. The grandness of the place with its clover-shaped fountains and its grand statues was positively overwhelming. This, I pondered, was where the big political rallies and CND marches had taken place, the place where the likes of Bernadette Devlin and Bertrand Russell had addressed big crowds with their inspiring speeches. As we emerged from the pedestrian subway, a flock of pigeons flew up, almost darkening the sky as they swirled towards Nelson’s Column. Here and there we spotted something that we had never seen in Belgium: graffiti – scribbled on office buildings and public walls. One of the slogans that seemed to reoccur all over the city was ‘Clapton is God’ and also the unfathomable scribble ‘Kilroy was here’. But who the heck was Kilroy, we wondered.

The streets were much busier than I had expected with an endless stream of red double-decker buses and boxy black cabs gingerly snaking their way through the congested traffic. Again there was that eerie noise of braking taxis adding to the juddering engine noise of the stationary Routemasters… endlessly idling in neutral.

It was much colder than I had expected for the time of the year, and it struck me how many tramps and young people could be seen huddling up in bundles of tattered blankets. Others were sleeping rough in big cardboard boxes, the ones that come with washing machines or tumble driers. I kidded that a couple of tramps had a row over who had the best box. I imagined one said to the other “It’s not a fair world; yours is a Miele; I only have a Philips!” All joking apart, it was a sad sight: some of the young men – barely a few years older than us – were lying in porticos, cuddling some thin mongrel; others in a desperate bid to keep warm were stretched out on the central heating grids of some office building.

Although it was only early November, you could already see the bemittened chestnut men with their charcoal fires, the acrid smoke from their blackened braziers hitting your nostrils like the proverbial ‘punch on the hooter’.

We found it rather difficult to decide where to start our sightseeing tour, as obviously there was so much to choose from. Only now did I understand the full meaning of Samuel Johnson’s famous quotation When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. Naturally, we would go for the free museums such as the Science Museum, the V&A, the National and Portrait Galleries.

The big tourist attractions such as Madame Tussaud’s and The Tower we would keep optional, as these were rather expensive for our narrow student’s budget. And of course, there was Cricklewood Green in the North West, which we deemed a ‘must see’ as it featured on the famous Ten Years After rock album…

After some discussion we made our way up north to the British Museum for our first proper visit. On entering the forecourt we felt absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer size of the museum. We just stood there for some time in sheer awe at the extensive choice of rooms and galleries. After some careful consideration I picked out the Sutton Hoo collection and the Lewis chess players while Ray went to see the Egyptian rooms and other classic highlights like the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone.

By lunchtime we felt positively peckish, and managed to find a cheap snack bar in Manette Street, a cul-de-sac off Charing Cross Road. With its gaudy colours and Formica tops it still had the atmosphere of the Swinging Sixties. As we went in, a sickening smell of over-cooked frying oil struck us in the face. But that didn’t ruin our appetites. We managed a hot meal for under a pound, and you could still get a cuppa there for only 10 (new) pence then. Ray now suggested nearby Foyle’s for our next visit, but I said that we had better keep that for our last day, as I didn’t want to spend too much of my meagre pocket money on the very first day of my holiday.

The bustling streets were now very busy with hurrying passers-by. Some of them – presumably civil servants – were dressed in posh pinstriped suits, topped with the archetypal British bowler and the universal black brolly. But the sight of the young men living rough seemed to haunt me and, was it imagination or was it the cold, but I felt shivering all over, despite our hot lunch. Ray suggested going back to our lodgings and putting on more clothes but I said that I had only brought my nylon school anorak, which was obviously a bit thin for these icy conditions.

Instead, we took the tube to the other side of the river and visited the Imperial War Museum. It struck us that whenever you entered a museum the attendants would check your bags as in those days, security measures (IRA terrorist threats?) were already quite prominent. Anyway, that didn’t take long and at least it was warm and cosy there. We thought the Imperial was superb and we marvelled at the fabulous displays of weaponry and other military artefacts.

When we got home that evening, I asked Neville what the cheapest clothes shop was in London. He replied that Marks & Sparks offered good value and that British Home Stores might be an alternative. After some hesitation, he added that Petticoat Lane often had good second-hand winter coats that could be had for a third of the price, if you could settle for such a compromise, he concluded dryly.

The next morning, after a much better night’s rest and a full English breakfast, we set out for Middlesex Road where indeed we found several such clothes stalls. The offer was quite extensive and included half-long Monty coats, worn black donkey-jackets, gabardine trench-coats, long, sand-coloured cashmeres and old army greatcoats. I knew my fussy mother would never have approved of such a dubious purchase but the understanding Ray promised to keep ‘mum’. After some browsing around I went for a camel duffel-coat that looked as if it had hardly been worn, though it did smell a bit of mothballs.

I must admit that it was rather oversized, but Ray said that was the fashion, and – fair enough – with its big pockets and warm hood it was exactly what I needed. The stallholder didn’t even have a mirror but I gloated at myself in a nearby shop window. In my naïve imagination I thought I looked like a CND protestor ready for the next Aldermaston march.

As it happened, the bearded Ray found something for himself: an old Navy jumper, which made him look a bit like the HMS Hero sailor in the famous Players’ advert, I joked. The jumper sported the letters RTC Fleet, but none of the benumbed stallholders seemed to know what the abbreviation stood for (we filthily joked that it meant ‘Randy Tits and Cunt’), but at least we were now ready to brave the cold. That afternoon we visited Carnaby Street and The Kings Road, hoping to somehow get ourselves in a Sixties mood. However, it seemed obvious that it wasn’t anymore like in the days when The Fab Four were setting the scene (well it wouldn’t, as they had recently broken up). No Twiggys or Shrimps to be spotted either, and very few hotpants or miniskirts (not surprisingly in this kind of weather).

As a matter of fact, we had difficulty finding where Mary Quant once had her famous shop. Since it was a Saturday, Portobello Road street market was on, and like Petticoat Lane that seemed to be our thing. I bought myself a tiny, solid brass Churchill statuette, a fine paperweight that would grace my study desk at TTC, I imagined. Ray for his part managed to find several fine second-hand LPs: Jimi Hendrix, Carole King, Neil Young, King Crimson, Rod Stewart and the Faces…

On our third day, we visited Downing Street where we had our picture taken at the world-famous No 10 (a far cry from the stringent security measures these days). Then it was up to the Changing of the Guard, which was then still performed outside Buckingham Palace gates. After that, we had lunch in a kitschy Wimpy Bar (I particularly liked their plastic tomato-shaped ketchup bottles). The meal seemed to be a repetition of breakfast, as – allegedly – you could eat well in Britain by “having English breakfast three times a day”.

That afternoon we visited a number of bookshops including the big W.H. Smith & Son on Oxford Street and a few second-hand shops off Tottenham Court Road. Still, we decided to save our money for the last day and settled for some window-shopping in the boutiques and posh arcades of the West End. To me, Fortnum & Mason with its gloved servants and thick-carpeted floors was the cream of the crop. I thought it looked more like a boudoir than a shop. Still, no purchases here!

That evening we decided to go and see a play. As we crossed Leicester Square, I was hoping to see the likes of Roger Moore and Julie Christie but the only people we saw were shivering tourists who, like ourselves, were queuing up impatiently at the box-offices. It was to be either Agatha Christie’s ‘Mousetrap’, Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ or Harold Pinter’s ‘Caretaker’. We finally settled for the latter but the play proved to be slightly more difficult for us to comprehend than we had expected. In order to make good our disappointment we returned to our lodgings by making a detour through Soho, hoping to get a glimpse of the ‘window women’ (we later heard that this was a continental custom – not a British one) but apart from a few leering Chinamen and the odd rowdy drunk there was little that attracted our attention.

On the final day of our stay, we decided to do a spot of shopping. In fact, after having scrimped and saved for three days we thought we might ‘splash out’ a bit now. As agreed, Ray and I decided to visit Foyle’s, whereas Julian and Marc wanted to buy something fanciful from Harrods.

On entering the famous shop I almost lost heart. I had never seen anything like this in my life. Six floors of bulging shelves, books stacked up to the ceiling, piles of volumes dumped in every nook and cranny… (I later learned that the shop boasted some five million volumes).

The language section alone seemed to take up almost an entire floor in itself with every kind of book available. I really didn’t know where to begin, let alone what to buy as the collection seemed to cover every aspect of the English language. An absolutely ancient lift, complete with concertina metal door, took you to the different floors but on each floor we arrived it was the same story. Truly an Aladdin’s cave!

After much hesitating, Ray went for the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, at cut-price rate, and the bulky Cassell’s Comprehensive Dictionary, both of which were hard to come by in Belgium. I too wanted something you couldn’t get in our country. But what…? Then I remembered our professor’s celebrated words that “prepositions” were “the key to a good command of the English language”. The man had added that you could assess anyone’s knowledge of the language simply by their use of prepositions… But here was so much more: grammar books, pronunciation dictionaries, reference books and – quite literally – thousands of Penguin paperbacks.

After some painful ‘soul-searching’, I finally settled for F. T. Wood’s ‘Prepositional Idioms’, a large volume on prepositions, as the wise professor had recommended. The book seemed to explain every aspect of this difficult matter: prepositional idioms and adverbial particles, phrasal verbs and collocations. From now on there were to be no more questions on the use of the correct preposition, I concluded (I could already see my marks going up at the next English test). However, this ‘pick of the basket’ cost me a grand £2.75, my steepest expense up to now.

The problem on the final day was that both our money and our travel cards had run out. From now on, our explorations were to be ‘on Shank’s pony’, as Neville had termed it. So, that morning we walked from Westminster Abbey, along Whitehall, across the Strand and by way of Fleet Street all the way down to St Paul’s. This was to be another highlight of our visit. In this ‘Cockpit of Britishness’ were the tombs of three of the most famous men in British history: Nelson, Wellington and Wren. But we were also intrigued by the mysterious Whispering Gallery, which proved its name after all.

Later that afternoon, we continued south to Trinity House, another Toc H establishment on Tower Hill. Neville had an old friend living there who had agreed to take us free of charge to The Tower, where apparently he worked in administration. So, as promised, Alec Churcher led us through the staff entrance, on the pretence that we were doing “a history study on The Tower”, the kind man managed to get us in for free. Alec then left us to our own devices while he went his way to his office. Ray and I marvelled at the colourful Beefeaters and the legendary ravens, although we were not unduly impressed by the opulent Crown Jewels, especially as it was rumoured they were fake!

As time was pressing now, we spent our very last pennies on a bus fare from Tower Hill to our lodgings. We thanked Neville profusely for his kindness and had our holdalls packed in no time.

By now, the only money left in our thin purses was some loose coppers. So we had to walk all the way from Kennington Park Road to Waterloo Station, dragging our bulging bags with us. Ray claimed he knew a shortcut that would get us there quicker. However, our map was a little too sketchy for such an undertaking, so we had to ask the way on several occasions not to get lost completely.

We fretted and nagged each other until we finally found our way back to a bustling Waterloo Station. Just in the nick of time, we managed to board the train back to Ramsgate, for the very moment we slung our holdalls into the luggage rack above our seats the train gingerly set in motion. Panting and with burning feet we stretched out for the long journey back to Belgium. I looked out of the window and saw the murky river Thames flowing wide along the railway line. The sight of this dreary part of the City gave a depressing feeling. It wasn’t difficult to imagine how the Cockneys must have lived through the dark and dangerous days of the Blitz, or indeed to conjure up the grimy squalor of Victorian days with its shabby rogues and top-hatted chimney sweeps. However, no flight of fancy could ever deduct from my lasting feelings for this British metropolis.

Little did I know then that a couple of years later, after graduating, I would find myself in Greater London employed as a French teacher in two secondary schools. Later still, that first trip to London would stand me in good stead for my future job as a tour guide in the city of my dreams. As we left the station behind us, I couldn’t help thinking of the poetic lyrics Ray Davies had written a few years before when he immortalised it in his dreamy ‘Waterloo Sunset’.

Dirty old river, must you keep rolling,
flowing into the night.

People so busy, makes me feel dizzy.
Taxi light shines so bright.

But I don’t feel afraid.
As long as I gaze at
Waterloo Sunset
I am in Paradise.

from Waterloo Sunset by Ray Davies (1967)

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