Mr F and I have just been to London; we saw lovely friends, lots of art and ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ at the Almeida, which was fabulous: so clever with James McArdle playing Macbeth as a gauche, anxious, brave, captain of the rugby team way out of his depth, and Saoirse Ronan (whom I have loved since ‘Brooklyn’) as his sexually charged, much cleverer, Irish debater Lady on the road to being entirely bonkers. But we really went to see our friend Emun Elliott as Macduff who, despite a bad chest, made the ladies on both sides of me cry on hearing that his family had been murdered. I myself did not cry but only because I am infamously very rugged. He was wonderful – a butch man of feeling.
London was crisp and very cold; we had a lovely time. On the way back we had the novelty of the new Lumo train service from Kings Cross. As we stood on the chilly platform outside the train, waiting for the doors of the sleek blue tube to open, half an hour late, we were amused by its branded catchphrase – ‘Travel Well Beyond Expectations’. I suppose it depends what your expectations of the East Coast mainline are; after 50 years of travel on it, mine are pretty low. Still, there was much to amuse on the new service, in particular the ‘brand new catering solution’ which involves ordering your food at least ten hours in advance. Certainly innovative. There is also very little luggage space, there are very few tables and it was boiling throughout. The train guards, now rechristened ‘on board ambassadors’ (fab!) were hysterically happy and polite, which was nice, and anyway the whole experience (‘unrivalled’ according to the website) only cost me £13, due to my possession of an ancient person’s Railcard, bless it.
I have always liked London, and have been a frequent visitor since I was 18, when my brother lived there and looked after me very well. I grew up, of course, in a household where London was regarded as Hell, being the source of all privileged Englishmen, a distant capitalist black hole from which our proud nation was ruled by people who thought the North started at Barnet. However, during our visit last week, I kept thinking about the first time I was there, with my family in 1968. I am not good with dates and times but I know it was 1968 because as we entered the home of Mr and Mrs Messider, the latter being a friend of my mother’s from Kirkliston, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown were on the telly, singing ‘Fire’, which I liked very much, but Mr Messider, a very good fellow, did not.
Weirdly, neither my brother Jimmy or I can remember how we got there, but the chances are we drove, in which case the entire episode will have been so traumatic as to be blocked out of our memories, what with our dad’s terrible driving, the likely state of our car, his equally poor sense of direction, motorway food in the 60’s, my childish tendency to travel sickness and, above all, our mother’s impatience and general bad temper.
However, she was, in my memory, relatively mellow during our time there, with all of us obviously on best behaviour when with the Messiders and there being plenty to do, my father having planned and planned. Here are the things we did, or at least some of them: we were shown round the House of Commons by a gracious and generous Tam Dalyell, who was our MP (my father couldn’t stand ‘Tory Tam, the Labour man’ and Tam probably knew this, but breeding will out). In the public gallery, my mother, wearing an SNP badge of enormous proportions made of solid silver, caught the eye of Winnie Ewing, and the ladies waved excitedly to each other. Brave Winnie, flying a lonely flag – I am glad she is still here, at 92, to see the party in power. We saw ‘The Mousetrap’ which I loved; revisiting it fifty years later it was deliciously creaky and silly and dated. We saw ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ with Alfie Bass and we saw ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ on a huge screen – well, we saw about a third of it before our mother decided she didn’t like it which inevitably meant we were all out. Oddly, much as I love Kubrick, I have never seen it since, which I guess is a sort of tribute to Janet Wyllie’s particular tastes! We went to the funfair at Battersea Park, where Jimmy played on a video machine – the first of their kind in the UK – while the rest of us ate doughnuts. All this while, it should be said, Jimmy and I were, most of the time, wearing school uniform – was that something people did? Or was it just our mother? Hmmmmm.
Anyway, one resounding memory is this. On the last day we were there, mum and Jimmy went to the cinema, tired of walking about. My dad was pleased, I think, not to watch a film on a beautiful sunny day, so he took me to Patisserie Valerie for a cream cake of huge proportions – and huge expense, I suspect. Then we went for a walk around the Serpentine. That was very good indeed: the cake, the sunshine, the lake and old George Wyllie – well he was only 43 then, but still.
This is what I thought about, in autumnal London, 53 years on.
PS Some kind person in Ecuador reads my blog very regularly. I know I know someone in Ecuador but I can’t remember who, and each time Ecuador lights up on the map of my readership it makes me wonder again. So, friend in Ecuador, please identify yourself and thank you!