My parents loved visiting London. In the 50s and 60s, you dressed up for a visit and it was where all the good shops were found. My mother had accounts at a number of them. She was not an extravagant woman generally, but she loved nice clothes and both she and my father were enthusiastic about good food. As a result, whilst many of my school contemporaries in deepest Lowestoft had never visited London, we went regularly.
My father’s grandparents lived in London and, after his parents’ marriage broke up when he was a small child, he went to stay with them until he was old enough to start boarding at prep school, which he did from a painfully early age. I don’t know anything about his life there except that he developed a Cockney accent from spending much of his time in the servants’ quarters, which was (I speak euphemistically) *teased* out of him when he started school in Oxfordshire. But he always felt at home in the capital.
The train journey from Lowestoft was a long one, because it stopped at all the little stations on the way to Ipswich. I remember it as taking something like 2 hours, 45 minutes, compared to 2 hours from Norwich, though I suppose the track distance is much the same. When Wink and I went with our mother, we tended to go shopping – occasionally we might go to Madame Tussauds (always pronounced firmly in English, ‘two-swords’, don’t make the mistake of saying it in French – unless you are French, I suppose, in which case you can’t help it) the Natural History Museum, the Planetarium or another child-friendly educational establishment. Since I had little interest in clothes shopping, I trailed along quite cheerfully but with no great attention and don’t remember a lot about it. Come to think of it, we probably ‘saw the sights’ when we had visitors with us, such as our au pairs. Although I remember Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and so on, I’m hazy on when and why we went to such places.
When my father came too, lunch was more likely to be a focal point of the day. We might have gone to a Lyon’s Corner House or to a grander establishment. They were fond of the Trocadero before it closed in the mid 60s and I remember excitedly writing to my sister about a meal I’d enjoyed there – all I remember about the meal itself is a massive meringue, filled with ice cream, strawberries and cream. I also remember the Turkish coffee waiter (perhaps it isn’t surprising that it folded in the end, having a specialist coffee waiter), a small dark man wearing a red uniform, complete with fez. After serving the coffee (to be clear, he was Turkish and so was the coffee), he produced a sprinkler of rosewater. One cupped one’s hands and he sprinkled the water, wishing you health, long life and happiness. I didn’t have the coffee but I did get the rosewater and I remember rubbing my hands and sniffing deeply, to the amusement of my parents. I was probably ten or eleven then.
No shopping visit was complete without a visit to Fortnum’s, where my parents would check out the latest foodstuffs, which they would have read about in the glossy food magazines (to be clear, the magazines were glossy, not necessarily the food) or might spot in the Food Hall.
I remember only one solo expedition with my father – we had all gone together but my mother had taken my sister shopping and I went with Daddy. This was a huge treat, a real stand-out moment from my childhood as I didn’t often have him to myself. I remember skipping along the pavement, hand in hand with him (to be clear, I was skipping, he wasn’t), avoiding the cracks in the pavement. We went to an ice cream parlour, something I’d never have done with Mummy, and then to the cinema. Astonishingly, for I had no idea that such a thing existed, it showed only cartoons and I wallowed in Walt Disney shows for a couple of happy hours.
Once in a while, we stayed for a couple of nights so that we could go to the theatre. My parents did this fairly regularly, but it was a rare treat for me. I remember going to see Camelot, with Laurence Harvey as King Arthur, Robert and Elizabeth, with Keith Michell and June Bronhill, Charley Girl, with Derek Nimmo – as you see, it was felt that musicals were most suitable for a child, though they weren’t children’s shows as such. There were others, I know, my mother being very fond of Viennese operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan and Rogers and Hammerstein (especially Oklahoma) and we went to straight plays too, where I was introduced to Shakespeare in performance at an early age, but I can’t remember what we saw in London and what was in Norwich or elsewhere.