More and more, London is turning into a city of memory.
That concept first took root in my mind when I played volunteer auxiliary tour guide to 10 Japanese women in Boston circa 1998. Ten years had already passed since the nine I lived there. Wherever I took those women, wherever I looked – every attraction, every restaurant, seemingly every street corner — I could mentally replay a significant scene from my life. A few years ago, I realized the same was becoming true of New York, where I’ve now been a native for 22 years. Last week, London joined the list.
Except for the occasional day trip to New York in my teens and college years, London predates both those cities in my life. I made my first two forays down from Manchester in the spring of 1975 – an incredible 35 years ago – and that doesn’t even count the many times I had already encountered London through literature. Then I was a 20-year-old college student on her study-abroad, with, she presumed, a brilliant career in journalism ahead. I return now as woman well into middle age, that career behind her and not quite so brilliant as her younger self expected.
It’s already been six years since my last time in London, which was the first time I felt the city had finally shaken off its postwar mentality of stoically making do and jumped into the contemporary world of gleaming glass towers by Norman Foster and breakfasts where yogurt with granola and fruit have replaced the baked beans. (I missed the Swinging ‘60s and thus can’t speak for the zeitgeist back then.) Some things about the new London are easily recognizable, some barely at all – in the city and in me.
For one thing, I’m no longer willing to tackle the stairs and escalators of the Underground system with Big Blue. so I let myself be whisked to Paddintgon Station in 15 minutes on the Heathrow Express ($50 round trip, and worth every penny). I also seem to have abandoned my traditional walk: I would start at Westminster, stop to pay tribute at the statue of the suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst where she used to chain herself to the fence, stroll through the Parliament Gardens, cross Lambeth Bridge and finally head east along the South Bank directly across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament. Now that my baggage includes a mild but chronic disc problem and possibly a bone spur in one foot, it seems advisable to save my strength for a long day ahead, in this case a theatrical double-header. So I alight from the Tube at Westminster as usual but go straight over that bridge, walking east along the entertainment center that is the “new” South Bank, past the old London County Hall that now houses the aquarium, past — or to — the London Eye, the National Theater, the OXO Tower, the Tate Modern, perhaps as far as Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.
I still navigate using Geographia’s “Pocket Guide to London,” the tiny book I bought 35 years ago. It carves central London into a grid of small maps, each numbered and marked with the numbers of those for adjacent areas; it requires no folding or unfolding, and therefore does the double service of being easy to handle and making me look somewhat less like a tourist. It has accompanied me on every trip to London and even made the trip a few times without me, with people – once my brother, once an unusually reliable friend – who swore a blood oath that they would bring it back safely, and did. Notations may date back to anytime since 1975. “Strand station closed for construction” on the Underground map in the back is from either that year or 1978, I forget which, and refers to a station that, to the best of my knowledge, no longer exists, having been subsumed by Charing Cross and Embankment. There is no Jubilee Line. (A small folding Tube map dated 2004 fits neatly into the book.) The National Theater does not exist, though the nearby Royal Festival Hall does; nor does the Globe, which was reconstructed only in 1997. The Tate Modern is there, but identified merely as “power station,” which it was before it was converted into a showcase for art. The London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel visible from Trafalgar Square, was not even thought of. Never mind; I know where everything is.
Kings Road in Chelsea is circled, from the time I was to meet a colleague in the London bureau for lunch; was he was there for The Boston Globe in 1984, or The New York Times in 1996? I can just as easily locate hotels where I’ve stayed over the years: the Royal National near Russell Square, from my student and young-adult (read: poor) days; the very traditional No. 16 Cadogan Gardens near Sloane Square and my poshest London lodging to date, the Pelham in South Kensington, from my employed days; the Vicarage Gate from 2004; and now a B&B on Pembridge Square in Notting Hill.
As I made my progress through the city, I could see signs of my past everywhere, even – perhaps especially – where they no longer existed. Off Leicester Square, I passed Wyndham’s Theater, where I saw Paul Scofield’s Prospero in 1975 from a 50-pence balcony seat. Chez Solange, which made the world’s best chicken in cream sauce, has long since disappeared from Cranbourn Street; so has Cadbury’s Old Jamaica from the newsstand where I used to stock up on 10 large bars at a time. (And so has my Wedgwood shop in Piccadilly.) At Seven Dials near the Donmar stands the theater where I saw “Jerry Springer — The Opera” six years ago, when it seemed destined for Broadway that fall and I, being the conscientious worker bee I was back then, thought I should see it to have some story ideas ready. Heading back to the Tube after the show, I looked across Charing Cross Road to see the Prince Edward Theater, where I was probably one of the first Americans to see “Evita” in 1978 and took in a matinee of the original production of “Chess” on Thanksgiving Day 1986.
Dining at the Ivy that evening on my favorite menu item, a kedgeree of smoked haddock and salmon in curry sauce, I had already thought back to lunch there that same Thanksgiving Day. Then it was the old Ivy of dark wood paneling and businessmen in suits, being served roast beef and Yorkshire from a silver tray on a rolling cart, rather than the new Ivy, updated into an light-toned, airy hangout for the media set. Outside, I tried to find the exact spot where I stood to snap a picture that is in my living room today, the golden twilight photo of the Ivy and the Ambassador Theatre across the street, its marquee dominated by a giant V for “Vita and Virginia,” when my friend Lois and I were in town around 1993. Then I headed for Monmouth Street and Dress Circle, the theatrical music-and-souvenir shop where I’ve make a point of looking in ever since it was in Covent Garden — back in 1984, I think. That stretch between Covent Garden and Seven Dials, once a warren of vacant storefronts, is now one café and boutique after another – one of them purveying fashion in women’s, i.e. larger, sizes with prices to match — as the shopping mall born of the old market buildings spreads to the streets beyond.
I can’t say I love everything about shiny new London; being American, I still want my England to look old and quaint. But I can comfortably contemplate the passage of time from the terrace at a seafood restaurant along the Thames on a sunny (yes, sunny!) late September afternoon. As I enjoyed a fine plate of fish and chips, the traditional mushy peas served neatly in a small ramekin instead of a green blob, 20 or so teenagers – clearly a school group, the latest of many seen along the South Bank that day — walked by, backpacks in tow. They probably think this is the real London. Well, I suppose it’s their turn.