It’s 1984 on a Friday afternoon in Aberdeen, Scotland. After fourteen 12-hour shifts of offshore servitude you have two weeks to unleash the restless gene. Now with receipt of your paycheque your priorities are as simple as:
- Make a deposit and get some cash at the Barclays on Union Street,
- Slip into an off license for a bottle of whisky from one of this country’s 130 or so distilleries; one that you have yet to try,
- Secure a train ticket before joining your southbound crewmates in the railway bar and – “Here’s to the unwinnable race” – raising a glass to the station clock.
Departing at 2030 and stopping in Edinburgh, Newcastle (“So long Geordie lads!”), York, and Peterborough, British Rail’s Nightrider will be half-empty by the time it completes the ten-hour journey to London.
At £19 you can’t beat the inter-city fare, which is why the train is often packed on a Friday night with a mishmash of simpering geriatrics (bless them) and drunken ruffians. Occasionally this has included you, though your antics will never come close to the rugby players a few trips back who drank the bar car dry and rampaged through the carriage in the nude. A wild scene, they never made it beyond York.
Tonight you’re happy to stick to a few beers, unless the conversation turns philosophical and that whisky somehow maneuvers its way out of your duffle and around the compartment. In which case you’ll doze a bit after your lolling head thunks against the vibrating window.
And dozing is as good as it gets. At dawn the train pulls into King’s Cross Station and you take the Tube to South Kensington to catch a Number 45 bus, or a 49 if that appears first. Like most London busses, yours is a classic London Routemaster double-decker and at any other time you’d head straight upstairs to grab a front seat and observe the sceptered city from on high.
But with your work gear bulking out the duffle – along with some duty free perfume for your girlfriend and, hopefully, that bottle of single malt – you sprawl instead on an aisle-facing seat near the exit, trying to get comfortable as the bored conductor collects your fare and the “tick-tick-ticking” engine forever idles at the station. It’s early Saturday morning. You’re the only passenger. The world is in no hurry.
While the 49 trundles down the King’s Road past the Roebuck (where Johnny Rotten joined the Sex Pistols), the preferred 45 lumbers up Fulham Road by the ABC Cinema, which allows you to see what’s playing. Either bus will then cross over the Battersea Bridge and past a pub fittingly named the Prodigal’s Return. Nearly there, you grab the pole on the rear platform, lean out into the brisk air like Gene Kelly on a lamppost and – careful now – prepare to hop off when the bus brakes for a turn near the top of your street.
Home at last. Though you mean to spend this downtime profitably, to secure your future perhaps, that dopamine-deficient/ADHD tag team in your head, which won’t be diagnosed until some time in the next century, rarely recognizes such circumspection.
Instead it’s time to start the music – in this case the opening track to the Penguin Café Orchestra’s 1981 self-titled album – because nothing imparts the glorious, carefree sensation of going nowhere-and-everywhere while time rushes by like Air a Danser.
You’re 25. There’s money in your pocket, this is London and – oh what a mad existence – the world’s your oyster.
Canoodling with your sweetheart takes first priority of course, with the promise of evening strolls through the park and leisurely brunching over Sunday papers; and of experimentation in the kitchen after you re-acquaint yourself with the local butcher, baker, greengrocer, fishmonger, and deli man. Tonight there’s a party at Lesley’s. Tomorrow it’s tea at Trish and Michael’s. Nobody throws an afternoon tea like Trish.
There will be dinners with Heidi and Jürgen; maybe a fringe production with John and Jo; or a jazz performance in Brixton with Ann and Hans; and you’ve vowed to see that Cubist exhibit at the Victoria & Albert with Wendy and Lawrence.
Singly, there will be pints aplenty with Giles, a kindred spirit who once took an inebriated observation [“Why do you suppose lampposts have crossbars?”] and turned it into a two-man acrobatic act [“Not sure, but you know a chap’s not a chap until he hangs upside down by his knees from a crossbar. Shall we?”]
And Tony, who can adroitly hold fourth on topics ranging from folk music, to space travel, to the dynastic succession of China’s emperors, and whose cryptic ability to write backward was once featured on a national television programme;
And Terry who, in a rush to catch his train after last call at the Maple Leaf, gladly accepts a lift down the Mall on the handlebars of your bike while smoking a hand-rolled cigarette [“Oh look the Queen’s in. That’s her standard flying above the Palace. Hallo Ma’am.”]
One and all these are among the finest friends you’ll ever have. But they all have day jobs and your weekdays are free. So taking your cue from the copious listings in Time Out, and your 3-Speed Hercules Commuter (once a Metropolitan Police bike) from out of the shed, you live each day anew.
You see that Allen Ginsberg will be reciting a selection of William Blake poems while accompanying himself on squeezebox at Covent Garden. Can’t miss that. There’s a new Bergman film at the Chelsea Cinema, and – Boom! Crash! – the latest Spielberg blockbuster shown in 70mm Dolby Stereo at one of the massive Leicester Square movie houses.
Around and between your 14 offshore stints you’ll watch more than 60 films here in London, with evening extravaganzas like Abel Gance’s Napoleon (in triptych) at the Barbican Centre, and various screenings (such as the Brighton Film School 1895-1906) at the National Film Theatre and Institute of Contemporary Arts, along with retrospectives at the Ciné Lumière, Minema, and Gate Notting Hill, and late-night features at the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road.
While every day begins as a reading and writing day, there’s often incentive to take in a matinee at one of the ABC/Classic/Cannon/Odeon cinemas around town. You’ve come to know them well, along with any notable public houses in their vicinity. Because there are few better ways to set the stage for viewing indulgence than a ploughman’s lunch and an (Imperial) pint of premium bitter in a venerated English pub.
Starting with your local, the Latchmere, and including such enduring haunts as the Lamb & Flag, the Grenadier, and the Windsor Castle on Campden Hill Road, you’ll visit upwards of 70 London pubs during your 18 months as a rig worker. Most of them named for some blood sport, distinguished Englishman, popular myth, heraldic badge, legendary countenance, celebrated fauna, time-honored vocation, religious symbol, exalted figure, historic event, found object, or whatever other folk rendering graces its signage.
But man cannot live by a ploughman’s and ale alone. Whether cockles and whelks at a stand in Cambridge Circus, or whitebait and roes-on-toast at Sweetings in the City, when you see seafood you like to partake. The same goes for Chinese takeaway – as at the superbly named Ho Lee Fook on King’s Road – and various dishes from the far reaches of the Empire, as those found at Eve’s Singapore Curry, Old Rangoon, The Last Days of the Raj, and especially at cavernous, cheap and bountiful Khan’s.
Relishing the restaurant reviews as readily as one might The Times Literary Supplement, you divine gastronomic themes, such as the “Cold War cuisine” enjoyed at Nikita’s (caviar and vodka), Luba’s (goulash and vodka), and Daquise (borscht, herring, and … vodka); and the “Franglais fare” found in London’s bistros (like Le Café du Jardin), patisseries (the Richoux chain), brasseries (the Dôme chain), and brassieres-that-serve-pizza (Kettner’s).
And though you occasionally resort to Anglicized takes on what you ate in college (Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, Café Pacifico) you firmly believe that the best way to experience a place and time is to dine like a local, especially if he or she happens to be among the London cabbies sitting down to a fry-up at Peter’s of Pimlico, or a serving of eels, pie, and mash at Harrington’s in Tooting.
By the arrival of a new weekend you’re truly steeped in the Englishness of it all, heading downriver for Thames Day at the Waterloo Bridge, or upriver for the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race with a side trip to Geale’s for the best fish and chips in town.
Now you’re off to Hyde Park for the sunrise start of the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. And now you’re lazing in your local park – once part of Battersea Fields where the Duke of Wellington famously dueled the Earl of Winchilsea – for any number of cultural festivals (“Penny for the guy?”) within the shade of the iconic brick power station featured with a flying pig on the cover of that Pink Floyd album.
Here you’ve purchased return tickets from Paddington for a weekend in the Cotswolds. With rucksacks and bicycles stowed in the luggage car, your Ordinance Survey map is duly marked for a journey through the “Land of Counterpane” and its attendant farmhouse breakfasts, cream teas, and pub suppers.
And here you’ve purchased return tickets for the boat train from Victoria to Dieppe, for a long weekend in Rouen or Paris. Easily done when there’s a bank holiday and your girlfriend has Monday off.
Scotland too has its charms. You’ve wandered many of its city streets and, from the Kyle of Lochalsh, taken a bonnie boat to Skye. Just as you’ve rambled lonely in the Highlands and, in a leaky pup tent, camped across from Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness.
You did the same in Orkney but (tied to some lobster pots on Stromness Point) the old tent sadly succumbed to a deluge, vividly reminding you of the drudgery you’ve experienced – and will anew – beneath those Caledonian skies. No, you much prefer the Home Counties of England where life is good … ’til the music ends and your time ticks away.
It’s 1984. Yours is a rotational shift. In the words of Orwell’s doomed protagonist, Winston Smith, “the end was contained in the beginning.” And while the 2230 Nightrider – half-empty on a Thursday night – pulls out of King’s Cross bound for Aberdeen, you contemplate the near-dystopian days ahead.
But not for long. This spinning through time has its merits for one who can rarely keep still. A world in a whirl can be your oyster again.