4. Living in London

I have lived in Camden Town, north London, for most of the years since I moved there first in the summer of 1974.

From 1974 to 1979, my brother Mark and I rented a flat on the top of a house in Albert Street, a street which had, even by the time we got there, almost completed its passage from shabbiness to elegance, a passage which had taken it, and other fortunate streets nearby, little more than a decade. The plumbing being installed in the house we lived in, and in houses up and down that street, was smarter and more reliable by far than that which John Betjeman had described in Business Girls:

From the geyser ventilators
Autumn winds are blowing down
On a thousand business women
Having baths in Camden Town.

Waste pipes chuckle into runnels,
Steam’s escaping here and there,
Morning trains through Camden cutting
Shake the Crescent and the Square.

Tradesmen of all kinds, not just plumbers, were profitably busy in Albert Street in the 70s. You could climb on to the asphalted roof of our wooden penthouse loft, and survey the street below. There were never fewer than a dozen skips to be seen at one time, such was the scale of the work in hand to convert houses from multi-occupancy by those without much money, who had paid rent for a single floor or a single room, to single occupancy by prosperous new owners. It was an entertainment to my brother and me to see how people — not the new owners — who wished to dispose of unwanted items would come apparently casually along beside a skip, carrying an old television set or a bag full of utility crockery, and at the last moment, after a quick furtive glance at the house whose owners had hired the skip, lob their waste into it, immediately accelerating away from the scene of their crime. Quite often, other people — also not the new owners — would then come dandering by, whistling and glancing into the skips, like men in a Soho street taking a peek into the doorways of the choice of strip clubs. After a reconnaissance up and down both pavements, having made their choice, these people would return to one or two of the skips and, with the same quick furtive glance at the house whose owners they were in a sense about to rob, would remove an item, more than once the very same thing that from our vantage point we had seen deposited only ten minutes previously.

London, like any city I think, is a wonderfully interesting, cluttered sight at roof-top level, where chimney pots and television aerials in their jagged multiplicity make the skyline. If you raise your eyes further and do a 360-degree turn, you can take in the great green slabs of Regent’s Park, Hampstead and Highgate, the Essex hills (these only on clear winter days with no heat haze), the tall blocks of the City and the Barbican with St Paul’s wedged between them, the southern hills of Sydenham and Norwood with their two television masts, the aeroplanes taking off and landing at Heathrow. You can concentrate on a thing as small as a starling, or as big as a city of eight million people. I would hate to live only at street level.

Frederick Seymour lived in the two-room flat below ours at number 63 Albert Street. He found it extraordinary that a flat which he and his wife had rented, back in the 1950s, for a few shillings a week, was now part of a house in a street where houses changed hands for six-figure sums. His accommodation remained basic. Apart from his two rooms, he had a toilet at the turn of the stairs. He kept his milk in a bowl of water on the landing. His heating in winter came from a paraffin stove. There was electric light, but no power points. He had no bathroom, and he courteously refused the offer of using a bath elsewhere in the house, preferring to go to Kentish Town, to the municipals, where he said hot water was ample. He resisted the installation of gas fires, whose fuel costs, he thought but did not say, would take too much of his old-age pension. He was an independent man, difficult to help.

He had been born not far away, in Somers Town, in 1895. I knew him for the last seven years of his life, in the course of which time I spent many hours in his living room, drinking his tea and hearing him talk. He was a great raconteur, and his speech was full of London mannerisms; not the same as dialect features (which he also used, though occasionally, not the full Cockney), which are easier to record, but choices of vocabulary and phraseology which signalled the pride but also the deference of a certain type of working-class Londoner of his generation: spirited, nobody’s fool, knowing his place. Harold Pinter has caught the tone of these mannerisms in his great early plays better than anyone else I know.

Mr Seymour told me how, when he was a boy, he often ran down in the morning from Somers Town to Oxford Street and queued with other children outside a high-class baker and confectioner for a pillowcase-full of stale loaves and cakes. This cost six pence. His mother, a widow with a large family, found the loaves and cakes useful in her household management. After returning with the pillowcase, Fred did a milk round before school. This work yielded two pence and a free pint every day. On Saturdays and Sundays the pay was double, and the milkman stood him a full breakfast, whatever he wanted, in the coffee house. These weekend rounds were the luxury of Fred’s week. He said he felt stylish up behind the pony. He groomed it in the stable after work.

His first job, after leaving school at 14, was as junior waiter at the Naval and Military Club, Pall Mall, where he helped the senior staff who waited on Churchill, Kitchener, Jellicoe and their like. He was taught about varieties of Havana cigar and different vintages of port. After a year he was promoted to the billiard room, where he kept the score for the waistcoated players. This was his favourite job. It required a good knowledge of the rules of billiards and snooker. He took pride in recording a score before a player had even turned to check that he’d done it. Tips were generous in that room, especially late in the evening.

Then the war came, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and survived in France for nearly three years. He was treated for the wound which brought him back to England in a hospital at St Leonard’s-on-Sea. ‘Glad to be out of it, I was, I don’t mind telling you. The lovely nurses, clean sheets every day. It felt like heaven after where I’d been.’

Once the simple fact of being still alive had lost its special glamour, he enquired about discharge. ‘No chance of that,’ he was told. ‘We’ll find a job for you.’ He was sent to another hospital, in the Nottinghamshire countryside, by the Trent, which housed some of the mental casualties of the war: men inside whose heads the most unbearable sights replayed themselves, time and again, which their imaginations, as if having eyeballs without eyelids, were compelled to see. On night shift by the telephone, he listened to the damage and the waste, revealed in weeping and howls of madness.

I often thought: to have been one of those to whom all that had happened by the age of 23; an ordinary board-school Londoner, to be plucked up and shown such sights.

His life after the war included: forty years as a bus conductor with London Transport; the General Strike, in support of which, he was proud to say, the crews at Chalk Farm garage were solid; the Blitz, in which he and his wife lost several friends, randomly annihilated by bombs happening to fall on their terraced house rather than someone else’s; a happy though childless marriage; enjoyment of days off from the buses when he and his wife would go to the West End, see a show, eat lunch and tea at a Lyons Corner House; a tendency to move from rented accommodation to rented accommodation because his wife liked a change of scene every so often; the death of his dear wife from cancer a year after he retired and just as they were looking forward to spending more time together; a largely solitary old age, made somewhat sociable by his willingness to serve whoever else was living in the house by giving them tea, cooking them breakfast, doing their laundry, feeding their cats.

‘Funny thing, these nights I find I dream a lot. There was this farm where I was billeted, not far from St Quentin, and a girl called Yvonne. She wanted me to stay and help them on the farm. I think she liked me, you know, lovely girl. But I was more or less engaged to Dolly and, well, it wouldn’t have been right. Anyway, last night I dreamt of both of them. There was Yvonne, crying her eyes out, telling me to come back when the war was over, and Dolly in her wedding dress kept coming in and saying, “Fred, I’ll never be a bride Fred, I’ll never be a bride.” Kept on saying it like that. Makes you think, don’t it, after all these years, to see their faces just as they were then.

And then I saw my sister. She was a lovely person my sister, kind, good hearted, do anything for you. She died of peritonitis in 1935. The doctor said the only chance for her would be a bottle of the best champagne. Course, that was before the NHS. Funny, you wouldn’t think champagne, but anyway, we went to Justerini and Brooks and bought the best. We didn’t study expense. We took it up the hospital, and it worked, well I say it worked, it bucked her up, she lived another ten days, never complained.

Yes, I dreamt about all three of them. When you get to be my age, dreams make you think about the things you done in life, and whether you was right, and what if you had acted different. You know. Here, sit down at the table and I’ll make a pot. You want a piece of toast? No extra charge!’

I moved away from Camden Town in 1979, so I saw Mr Seymour less frequently during the last two years of his life. He died at the good age of 86, of malnutrition, hypothermia, dehydration, gangrene of the right leg and other complications. During the last two weeks he was cared for in dignity and with love by the nurses of University College Hospital. For the costs of his funeral he had paid into a fund. Flowers brought to the funeral were sent to enliven a children’s home. Over refreshments in his room after the funeral, relatives who had made no contact with him for many years spoke familiarly of Uncle Fred. Those with uneasiest consciences gave out most noise.

For six and a half years, Helen and I lived on the thirteenth floor of a tower block in the East End. The flat was south facing, and gave an even more impressive view of London, in particular of the sweep of the Thames between Tower Bridge and Greenwich, than we had had from the Camden Town rooftop.

In January 1986, we bought a new flat back in Camden Town, on an estate built on reclaimed railway land north of St Pancras station. We still live there.

I like the fact that I am a long-term resident of one particular district of London. It takes years, in a great city, to build up a network of friends and acquaintances in an immediate locality; most fast-growing friendships spring from work, and we are prepared to travel all over the city and across the country in order to maintain them. To know simultaneously that you are known, and that in some cases your name is known, in local shops, restaurants, at the pub, at the dry cleaner, at the travel agent, at your hairdresser, is a complementary pleasure. This is my patch, my manor, you think to yourself with pride. People wave from across the street or through a shop window; not, of course, as frequently as they would if you lived in a village or small town; indeed, the ratio of people who greet you or even recognise you to people who ignore you during an average shopping trip in Camden Town on a Saturday must be one in several hundred, or less. But that one is all-important.

A particular joy of Camden Town is its proximity to Regent’s Park, which is the best urban park I know in the world. I also love the Jardin du Luxembourg, with its uncomfortable green metal chairs, its formality, its intense association, for me as for millions of others, with youth, our youth, with romance, the sense of being emotionally and sexually alive. Parc Guell delights me as an expression of Gaudi’s great and whimsical genius, and the bench seats, adorned with bright tessellation, are beautifully comfortable despite being made of concrete. (I remember reading that Gaudi asked a workman to take all his clothes off and sit down in a natural posture, so he could draw and then sculpt the ideal shape for receiving and holding the buttocks and the back.) I respect and admire Central Park and Hyde Park, the openness they offer to New Yorkers and Londoners, but they are both a bit too big for me, too straightforwardly rectangular. Regent’s Park is perfect: big enough, with a full diversity of spaces, places and ways. There is the open playing field to the north, by the zoo, and when I walk across it amongst teams of young men of all nationalities and ethnicities playing football, I allow a sentimental voice to murmur inside my head that the more parks there are in the world where teams of young men of all nationalities and ethnicities can play football, the less likely it is that we will obliterate ourselves some time this coming century, and then I think more sternly of Iraq and Afghanistan and Sudan and Israel and Palestine, and I’m not so sure, and I walk on. There is the rose garden, glorious of course from June onwards but somehow also satisfying in January, with its many beds of neatly pruned and manured rose bushes. There is the handsome Broad Walk, long enough for the sedentary flat-dweller and office-worker in need of exercise to get up a stride which makes the heart beat faster and harder. There are narrow, secret-feeling paths which lead nowhere, in spring and summer overhung with trailing, flowering plants. And, most wonderful of all for me, there are the trees.

I have wandered amongst the trees of Regent’s Park hundreds of times in the last 30 years. One of those hundreds of times was a Saturday afternoon in April 1998. I had gone to Tullio de Nardis, my hairdresser, for a haircut. He was busy and asked me to come back in an hour. I walked up to the park. It was intensely green after the previous night’s solid rain, and bright. I strayed amongst the chestnuts, ashes, beeches, alders and oaks near the Parkway entrance, seeing how the chestnut flowers were tight and hard, how the ash flowers were spindly and frothy, with magenta points at the ends of their fronds. The young beeches were in sturdy health, their trunks smooth to the touch. The trees stood in the deep green spread of new spring grass, and the wind was strong, the clouds moved fast.

A question to do with some of the trees in Regent’s Park, which perhaps a botanist could answer, but which I can’t, is this. How does it come about that two trees, of the same species, of the same age (to judge by the girth of their trunks), planted in the same kind of ground only a few yards from each other, can produce their buds, leaves, flowers and fruit, and lose the same, at widely different times? Not just a few days’ difference, but often three or four weeks’? My speculative suggestion is anthropocentric and probably foolish. Perhaps trees are individuals just as people are. Children learn to talk, to walk, to read at different ages. Some adults seem to age more quickly than others. At death, some yield easily, even willingly, while others cling determinedly to the last vestiges of life by their psychological fingernails.

One cold, clear night just before Christmas 1996 I was standing at the flower stall on the corner of Parkway and Camden High Street, buying some yellow tulips. A man whom I’d known by sight for 20 years greeted me cheerily. ‘Do you get in there much these days?’ he asked (meaning the Spread Eagle, which we both visited regularly). ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘but I’ve been away a lot recently.’ Then we talked and laughed about how the pub had become a noisy meeting place for the young, whereas it used to be an extension sitting room for the middle-aged. He said, ‘I looked around the other night, there were about a hundred people in there, and I thought, I’m the oldest person here.’ I said, ‘I went in early last Saturday evening, and these two bouncers, one male, one female, looked me up and down. They were wearing the same gear: black shirts, black trousers, black shoes, one gold earring each. They must have thought, “Old geyser wants to come in and read The Guardian. Won’t give us any trouble.”’ We had a good laugh. Standing there in the sharp winter night with our coats and hats on, I thought how satisfactory it was that I could have that conversation with a man whose name I didn’t even know, because we both qualify as old Camden Town hands who recognise each other.

The Spread Eagle, on the corner of Parkway and Albert Street, was for many years an extra sitting room for me. I could read books and the newspaper there, and write my diary without distraction, because there was no music, and the television in the corner, usually showing a football match, didn’t penetrate the pleasant, undifferentiated buzz of human conversation. There was a wooden shelf screwed to one of the walls, for people to put their drinks on; it also provided a solid rest for my notebook as I sat on a high stool and wrote.

There was always proper conversation to be had in the Spread Eagle, if I tired of reading or couldn’t think of anything else to put in the diary. A good companion was Ned Price, an Irish plumber, carpenter and all-round skilled man, whom I knew from 1975 until he died in about 2002. He used to be an absolute regular, coming in, usually with his wife Lil, at about ten o’clock. There was a period of a couple of weeks when he didn’t appear. Then there he was again, and I asked him where he had been. He had been over in Ireland; he had a house at Bray. He had been attending to the funeral of his aunt. ‘Did she live over there?’ I asked. ‘No, no, she lived in Camden Town.’ He said that a lot of London-based Irish people like to be buried in Ireland, partly for sentimental reasons and partly because the Catholic Church until quite recently disapproved of cremation, which is now the only means of disposal of bodies which can easily be arranged in London. ‘You know, John,’ he said, ‘you can go to Dublin for £59 Ryanair if you’re living. It costs a thousand pounds if you’re dead. And the body doesn’t even take up a seat. They stow it in the hold with the baggage.’

During the summer of 2005, the interior of the pub was transformed, so that it’s no longer a place for writing, and barely for reading. The television screens are brighter and more numerous, and there are vivid gambling machines. It’s hard to find a spot where they don’t distract the eye and ear. There’s more standing room, less sitting room. Crucially, the shelf has gone. It probably went into a skip, like the skips in Albert Street I used to look down on from the roof of number 63. I hope someone had the sense to come by and pull it out again, give it a next life.