Some highlights from the early part of my recent trip to the UK.
Walking from my sister Rachel’s Greenwich home along the River Thames to the Cutty Sark in her large blue woolen jumper, a jumper which I proceeded to wear for the next six days. She tried to persuade me to take the boat to Westminster but I wasn’t game; it was too cold, I was in a rush. These days The Cutty Sark hides invisibly within a reconstructing enclosure. It burnt down last year. Some say as part of an insurance scam because existing funds were not sufficient. Presently ‘The History Channel’ boasts its involvement in the restoration.
Buying an Oyster card. The first time for me. My welcome to the world of pre-paid London Transportation. You might think it saved you money if you ignore how inflated the undiscounted prices are.
Sitting next to, chatting with a young, posh, rich, well-connected Englishman, mid twenties, public school educated almost certainly, on an outside table at a pub in Pimlico, while smoking one of the rare cigarettes I smoke these days. It reminded me of the life I abandoned and left behind. Made me think of the sort of character I could have become if I hadn’t been me. He and his friends, when they arrived, spoke at our table of upcoming parties and private dramas involving women; but also of politics, intriguingly enough. I guessed they might all work for the Conservative party in some respect. I’d spoken to the original guy about India for awhile, before the others arrived. Then I sat there feeling excluded, but stubbornly comfortable in my seating entitlement, since I’d arrived first. They were, it must be said, exquisitely English in the politeness of their ignoring me, as was I in the control of my eye movements and discreet manner of my eavesdropping. We were both very English in the ways we said goodbye.
Seeing Liz, being with Liz – always vivid, always poignant. By all accounts she’s the life and soul of many a party, and very popular. She has a marvellous sellectionn of random collectibles in her flat, as well as mountains of books. She invited me off the cuff to go with her by train to her Parents home near Durham, but alas this was impossible because of….
My trip to Northampton (famous for shoes I hear) to visit Lee, someone I’d call my ‘best friend’ if I were in Prep School Mode. Why? Because he has a mind with which mine can express itself and expand; in a way that makes it feel it hasn’t compromised or been misunderstood, be that the case or not. Or maybe we just go back along way, to 1991, to University. Smiles and laughter always are interspersed in our talks. This keeps the sometimes random or stratospheric range of our ramblings earthed in the soil of the familiar. Over the years, he’s been famously impossible to contact, on times too numerous to mention. Not only I but his mother have again and again had no idea where he was. But he always comes back in the end. He now wears a beard, which I’d never have expected.
On the way to Lee’s house, to which I was walking, I got boringly lost so went into a Newsagents to ask for directions. The shopkeeper didn’t know where Edinburgh Road was, which was a shame –for me – but did have an array of A-Z’s for sale, either one of which would have helped in my quest. Still, I didn’t want to buy a map I wouldn’t need in about 45 seconds so asked if I could possibly have a quick look. He said no, I couldn’t. I’d have to buy a copy. I asked him why, which I suppose was rude. After all, it contravenes the apparently sacred rules of individual ownership whereby the owner of a given thing need give no explanation as to why he uses, or fails to use it, in any given way at any given time. Still, I felt like being rude, having been startled by his refusal. He had just refused me a simple, harmless request in my hour of darkness. Did he really expect me to buy a book for a simple solitary piece of information such as where one road is? Presumably yes, he did. He was shocked I’d questioned his sovereign right to refuse. He said he couldn’t just let people read his books, that it wasn’t a library. Maybe he had a point, but how often do people roll into his shop with ruck sacks, lost, I wonder? Is it a regular occurrence? Anyway, I assured him I only needed the book briefly, that I’d just arrived in town and wouldn’t be staying long; but he still said no. Really? Yes, really. I think he thought that I was going to get angry or even violent. I could see the defensiveness in his eyes, but I was just too stunned and anyway don’t like arguments. My voice was measured throughout. As I left I said I was never going to buy the book anyway but that now I’m not going to buy anything else either; to which he replied “I’m sorry, I cannot help you”, to which I replied “of course you can”, and left.