It was all planned, like most of the rest of the past couple of months, well in advance. I was coming back to Britain for the last part of this section of my voyage, to spend some few quiet days with my old friend Andrew Lamb, outside of London, whilst awaiting my departure on the SS Tikeibank, from Dunkerque via Tower Hill, on 13 May.
I was not going to brave London. I knew it would all be horribly changed, since the happy days of the 1970s and 1980s, and that I would not like it at all. Nor was I going to rush around trying to catch up with friends, old and newer. Not this time. It was just going to be a gentle fade into my five weeks of otiosity on the ocean wave.
I arrived in England in the middle of a rainstorm, negotiated the voyage Waterloo-Clapham Junction-East Croydon with suitcases and laso with now practised ease, and arrived chez Andrew and Wendy in Shirley duly draggled and damp.
My ship ticket was awaiting me. And a surprise. The departure southwards of the SS Tikeibank was now scheduled for 22 May. Now, cargo ships often – nay, usually – sail later than originally planned. Mostly a day or three late. But … nine days? Oh, dear. Two full weeks of gentle fading?
Andrew had arranged some suitably gentle activities.
First of all, of course, a visit to Emily.
Well, I don’t suppose everyone knows about me and Emily, so I’d better explain.
Emily Soldene (1838-1912) is the subject of the very large and important theatrical and musical biography which has occupied much of my writing time over the last twenty years and which was published in Wellington just before I left New Zealand. I’ve tacked in some copy about it and her (and me) alongside this item.
And you can, of course, purchase a copy for $390NZ (postage and packing included) from firstname.lastname@example.org for I suspect the form in the blog doesn’t work.
Anyway, Andrew was my ally in uncovering the story of Emily Soldene, from day one on, and by one of those rare coincidences in life, one of the things he discovered was that Emily sleeps her last long sleep in the graveyard of Shirley Church, within walking distance of the house where I now sit writing this. He has visited her, of course, on a number of occasions. I, only previously, once.
So a second call, post publication, with photograph of course de rigueur, was in order.
After Emily, we lunched with Tony. Tony Locantro, EMI producer, whom I had previously known at the period when I was writing my Musical Theatre on Record. I don’t know what I’d been thinking. Had I thought that our lunch dates of the days to come were to be in Croydon? I suppose so. But they weren’t. I, who had so firmly concluded that I ‘wasn’t going to London’, was doing just that. And more than that, I was going back fairly and squarely to ‘home ground’.
Waterloo, Embankment … a walk up the road where the old Players’ Theatre used to be (and where the new but different Players Theatre is now, under a railway arch which used to be a dust-heap), past Charing Cross Station, Coutts’ Bank, Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery to .. Cecil Court and David Drummond’s ‘Pleasures of Past Times’ book-and-ephemera shop. Still there. And David too still there. And not noticeably older.
And London too. Or this part of London anyway, which I have known so long and so well. Not noticeably older. Maybe even younger. Everything looks lighter somehow. Cleaner. Is this possible? Improbable, I know, but yes, it IS.
The theatres too. They all look in fine fettle. A bit dispiriting to find that, twenty or thirty years on, so many of them seem to be housing revivals of the smaller musicals of my era, but at least they are open, and seemingly healthy. More healthy, perhaps, than Paris.
Across the road to the Palace Theatre, avoiding a bendy bus (ah! something new!) which decides to stop bang on the pedestrian crossing. And something else new. No “Les Miserables” at the Palace. “Spamalot” instead. “Les Miserables” has shrunken and shifted down the street to the Queen’s. Imagine, I never thought there’d be a musical in the little Queen’s again.
And into Soho.
Soho. Oh, my God. I’m 21 again. But Soho is different. To start with, there doesn’t seem to be any rubbish in the gutters. Or piled up against walls. In fact, Soho looks more like Shepherd’s Market than the grotty old Soho where we used to come to shop for our vegetables in the 1970s.
We lunch at Bistro One, a semi-Turkish place where Tony is ensconced like a Pacha in the corner accepting the homages of all. He clearly eats here daily. The food is good, the company delightful, the bill amazingly small (28 pounds for three in Soho!), and the gents’ loo is the most wonderful I have ever seen anywhere in the world, including the old State Theatre in Sydney.
To get to Victoria Station, we take a bus down Shaftesbury Avenue, along Piccadilly, past where Jackson’s used to be, past Green Park tube station – for twenty years of my life, my ‘home’ tube station – past Albermarle Street where I loitered for half an hour prior to my first ever luncheon with Ian, thirty-one years ago, afraid of arriving early and looking .. um .. too keen. Past Apsley House, and ex-St George’s Hospital from where Emily wanted to watch King Edward’s Coronation go by, and Park Lane where I lived in 1969 with Cliff and Hilda Paray. So many places, so many memories. And they didn’t bring any pain with them, as I’d feared they might.
Perhaps partly because it all seemed a little unreal. Everything, but everything looked so bright and fair. Not grey nor dingy at all. Did it use to be dingy? And if it did, why isn’t it now? So maybe it didn’t.
Wednesday we ventured to the big city again, this time to meet up with Chris Webber. Chris and I have corresponded intermittently over the years about his speciality, the zarzuela, and about our shared interest in horses, but we’ve never met. Suitably, we met up in a Spanish tapas restaurant. Which was something new for me, at least. Also it was down The Cut, past the brand new Southwark tube station, which may again have been new for me. It’s not an area where I ventured very often in my past life. No further than the Old Vic anyway. The Old Vic was, today, at least not playing an old musical.
Tapas, especially when preceded by manzanilla sherry and accompanied by fresh Basque white wine, is an experience definitely to be repeated! Down The Cut, for heaven’s sake. Whatever next…
Thursday I was on slightly better-known ground, for Thursday we ventured to Richmond to lunch with Patrick O’Connor, another friend whom I have not seen for longer than either of us would care to remember. Patrick is moving out of his long time home in Richmond as it turns itself from something that was always a little special into just another suburb. I could see that he was right. Green Park and Soho may have been given a fresh life, but Richmond ... maybe it was because it was raining, but it seemed less lovely.
Our conversation was such as you might expect when three connoisseurs of ancient musical exotica get together, and resulted in the triumphant exhuming of a handful of facts concerning a minor northern-British tenor by name Ronald Murgatroyd. You see, I knew you wouldn’t be interested, so the rest of the conversation can go ‘unrecorded’.
On the way back from Richmond to home base, we took a little time out to visit Barnes Common. Why? Because it’s a place with a significance for Emily Soldene and thus for me. We wandered from the station, to the common, to what we are now pretty sure was the ‘Mill Hill Cottage’ (it’s a vast Victorian mansion) where Emily’s sister and brother-in-law lived, paid our respects and squelched back to the train.
Friday was our farthermost venture of all. Following a quick re-visit to Emily (in our earlier photo, she was fine but I had blinked), we went on to have a look at what we think may very well be the only remnant of a Gerogian to early Victorian pleasure garden extant in modern London. It is the gatehouse and carriage entrance to what was known as the Royal Beulah Spa. I photographed the house (which was billed as ‘1830’ but seems much more modern) and we wandered down the leafy tracks where the carriages of the 1830s would have rolled on their way to the various enjoyments the Spa offered. A strange and rather peaceful feeling.
From Beulah Spa, we continued on to the vast Norwood Cemetery. There are quite a few theatrical and musical folk buried in this cemetery, and in fact the subject has a website devoted to it. But the person I was interested in hasn’t made it that far. Probably not famous enough. Except to me.
The bad news was that Norwood Cemetery has undergone a ‘cleansing’ and many, many, many of the gravestones (including the one I wanted) have been swept away. So no gravestone, which meant no hoped-for date of birth.
But there was good news. The registers of the Cemetery are beautifully intact, beautifully preserved, beautifully accurate .. and therein was to be found my man, sharing a grave with an eight year-old boy. His illegitimate son by a celebrated vocalist of the nineteenth century. Well! I’d wondered, I’d suspected .. and now I knew. It’s things like that that really make an historian’s day!
After a somewhat struggleful car journey via the South Circular Road, we arrived at Greenwich and lunched at the Mitre Hotel. The barman was French, the Guinness was warm and frothy, and you can’t get an ordinary sandwich. Nowadays its all ciabatta which, to me, is the name of one of my Victorian Vocalists. I now know its also a very nice, light theoretically Italian bread, which on this occasion was stuffed with roasted peppers, goat’s cheese, olive tapenade et al, and served with a vast plate of almost hot enough chips. A veritable 21st century pub lunch, but perhaps a little vast for someone born in the first half of the 20th century.
After lunch, we visited the local market, which is the natural habitat of a gentleman named John Carter. Mr Carter runs the sort of market stall business which certainly isn’t characteristic of the new century. He sells recordings, music, libretti – all the stuff Ian and I once collected so avidly – but with a speciality of C19th English opera. My own personal new passion. I lashed out a tenner for a home-made, taken-from-the-1960s-Irish-radio recording of Wallace’s “Lurline” which was irresistible (and which predictably was pretty mediocre, but who cares?).
We peeked at good old Greenwich Theatre, the Greenwich Observatory, Blackheath, and my eventful day in Kent also took in one more and unexpected ‘Victorian experience’. I never knew that you could walk under the Thames. But you can. Those enterprising Victorians dug a tunnel between Greenwich and ‘the other side’. Later and lazier generations have installed lifts at either end, but we took the staircase. From the other side you get the classic view back towards the Greenwich Naval College and the place where ‘Cutty Sark’ ought to be (were it not being restored) and where ‘Gipsy Moth’ used to be. Now there is just the pub of the same name.
Well, For a man who was not going to go to London, I seem to have got round a good part of it, don’t I.
And now that my stay on British soil has been extended – till the 18th May, according to the latest revision, rather than the 22nd – I daresay there may be more memories due for revision.