Peter Steward's Web Site
A London visit 1997
London has been a recurring theme/subject in my writings and thoughts for a number of years.
A few years ago I wrote a poem entitled London 1960, 1990 which was published in an anthology of poetry published by Hethersett Methodist Church.
The theme of this poem was the decay of the capital and the disillusionment that sets in as one gets older, as dreams and hopes die.
The poem is reproduced below.
London 1960, London 1990
Arriving at 10.30 a.m Spewed forth from smoke into smoke, The seemingly endless walk down Villiers Street Gateway to a thousand hopes, Death row of a thousand dreams. The dirty station buffet The lazy coloured cleaner The images of the rich Mingling with the realities of the poor London in the sixties, London of my youth, London of a starry eyed eight year old. Guest house rooms with wash basins. Do I really have to eat the mushrooms? Can we go to Trafalgar Square today Or shall we leave it until tomorrow? Battersea Pleasure Beach A short boat trip across the Thames A coke and a packet of crisps At the end of a long and happy day. Images of lovers embracing on a bridge, My first images of death. Death to an eight year old Is sinister but so real Dark balmy end of August nights Which lead into tomorrow. Can we go to Trafalgar Square today Or shall we leave it until next year?
Thirty years on And I bring my own sons to the capital. Villiers Street is being developed And I still have indigestion from the congestion. The station buffet is spotless But characterless in its cleanliness. There are no cleaners They come out at night Yesterday there was a bomb alert, Today just suspicion and mistrust. The images of the rich Are destroyed by the realities of the poor. London in the nineties London of my children's youth London of starry eyed eight year olds. They eat the mushrooms without questioning They still ask for Trafalgar Square, I prefer the National Gallery. Battersea Pleasure Beach has been destroyed, A dream driven into the sea, No big dipper, no water splash. The lovers no longer embrace. Now in their fifties They sit and bicker Saddened and made cynical by life and each other. Light, balmy end of June nights Cutting through the filth and squalor. Can we go to Trafalgar Square today It might not be there next year.
I have written over 500 poems during my life and I am dissatisfied with most of them and only happy with a handful. London 1960, 1990 is one of my favourites and one of the few which I am reasonably happy with. To me it is full of personal images and memories and I would like to share these with you.
The poem opens with my arrival with my parents as a child of eight. As a youngster I went to very few places and so a holiday in the capital was something special. Each place in London became a personal special place to me - a part of my growing up. I am sure that on those early journeys we travelled by steam trains. I just loved those individual carriages where six to eight people could sit in their own special world. I was most upset when the long communal carriages were introduced.
So the image here in line two is of being thrown out of the comfort of the train into a massive and huge world. Travelling from Norwich our station of embarkation would have been Liverpool Street which I remember as a dark, dirty and foreboding place. On my first visit I remember how disappointed I was, expecting some bright and clean entry point. I still have a vivid memory of Charing Cross but not of making the journey between Liverpool Street and there. We must have gone on the underground, but my memory is of Villiers Street (line 3) and walking its length with its mixture of business people and ordinary citizens.
Even at that age I seemed to have the feeling that London was a mixture of the successful and the down and outs. I vividly remember the businessmen with their rolled up umbrellas whatever the weather, their bowler hats and pin striped suits. This seems to have been replaced in the 90s by younger men in shirt sleeve order talking into mobile telephones - how the times have changed.
We often had a drink and perhaps sandwich in the station buffet at Charing Cross (lines 6 to 9). There was always a couldn't care less attitude about these places which I did not understand. At the age of 8 I believed everyone worked hard. I was too young to understand the concept of people working without enthusiasm, probably because they were treated so badly and paid a monumentally small amount. The reference to a black cleaner has no racial overtones. It is simply a description of what I remember. I must say most of the workers were rude and surly.
Again I have used the comparison between the rich and the poor - living uneasily side by side in the capital. Lines 10 to 12 show that despite all this I was a starry eyed youngster eagerly gulping in all the sights and sounds.
We then move to the guest house in Clapham where we stayed. It was a very comfortable family run place. I remember particularly the individual hand basins (obviously before the days of en suite) and having mushrooms for the first time at breakfast and not liking them one little bit.
I also remember breakfast was when we made plans for the day - days that stretched out seemingly endlessly. I loved Trafalgar Square despite falling in the fountain one year. I also loved London Zoo which seemed to take hours to walk round. A few years ago I returned and found myself bored after about an hour.
Battersea Pleasure Beach (line 16) was a particularly vivid memory and one of the most important parts of the poem. We crossed the Thames in a rowing boat for some reason and spent some time at the Pleasure Beach mainly watching the water chute without actually going on it.
Perhaps I didn't like the rides but I cannot remember going on any. One great treat was a coca cola and a packet of crisps. Why did coca cola taste so much better in the 60s than it does today? The important point about the lines here is how contented and happy I ended up at the end of the day. The following lines are vivid memories to me. Here I was as an eight year old growing up rapidly and within this poem are two images of great power.
The lovers embracing on the bridge, living within their own world. Their passion struck me, but also so did the vision of death for some reason. The thought that one day I would no longer exist. Neither would the lovers or my parents. This was a very strong and frightening thought - almost a nightmare. Why it came or where it came from I cannot remember. Perhaps it was the fear that some day my happiness would be destroyed. I didn't realise that adulthood would destroy this equally successfully.
The lines then return to happiness with the long August nights - one
day leading to the next. The last two lines of this section again suggest
that time stretches ahead. If we miss out on Trafalgar Square this year we
can go again next year. It will still be there and we will be there as
London 1990 starts with the world having moved on 30 years. I am now approaching my 40th birthday. I have a wife and two sons of my own and one of them is aged eight. It has often been said that an adult relives the past through his children. So here I am bringing my sons to London to see just what they get out of it. My life has changed beyond recognition - I want to see whether the world has as well and I have an eight year old to act as a yardstick.
The main difference is that I am now a well travelled person, having been all over the world. My sons have travelled extensively as well and I am aware that I am using them in this section to look at how my own perceptions of London have changed over 30 years. I can only do this by re-tracing the steps of my own eight year old life.
I don't remember whether we got the train, bus or took the car this time, but I do remember insisting that we started from Villiers Street and Charing Cross. Villiers Street is being developed (line 3) and I find the hustle and bustle rather disturbing and indigestible. Perhaps my fantasies are being destroyed in front of my eyes. There is a cleanliness about Charing Cross that has destroyed the character. There are no cleaners - now they are forced to work at night, presumably for very little money. We have been homogonised, and some of the character has been lost. Perhaps I liked the surliness and rudeness of the cleaners. At least it was human.
A bomb alert has made the capital suspicious and the realities of poverty are all around and maybe now outweigh the images of the rich. My children seem to accept all this without questioning ("They eat the mushrooms without questioning"). My desires have been changed . I no longer want to stand out in Trafalgar Square, but would prefer to go to the National Gallery. My life has changed.
It is not possible to go to Battersea Pleasure Beach as it has long been pulled down. Economics obviously won out against fun! The lovers are long gone. Now they would probably be in their late 40s. Maybe they are no longer together, maybe they married and became disillusioned. Maybe one of them is dead. Maybe! I envisage them still together, sitting bickering, made sad by the cynicism of life.
We have chosen to come to London in June rather than August and there is a deep underlying sadness about the final verse where Trafalgar Square stands for general beauty. The message is you have to grab beauty today before, after a fleeting stay, it goes.
The poem ends with a question mark over what life will be like in London in 2020 - another 30 years on. Who knows before that time I might bring grandchildren to the capital and maybe write another poem.
In October of this year (1997) I spent a day in London. I didn't enjoy it one little bit - thoughts have gone full circle. We arrived just before lunch after having crammed on an underground train. The centre seemed to be cheap and tacky - a tourist trap. During the afternoon we queued for 15 minutes to get a cup of drink in one of the museums. The coffee tasted of little more than hot flavoured water making a lie of the joke signs in the cafe extolling the virtues of their own special brand of coffee with the words "treat yourself to a cup of our special coffee made fresh every day." These places need to acknowledge just what they are - an excuse for a refreshment stop on the tourist round. They provide a service badly and should not have the pretentions of having any culinary importance. Similarly we ate early evening at a pizza restaurant where the buffet was full of cold pasta and indigestible pizzas. Fast food - crap food aimed at children with no efforts to make it palatable.
In the evening I attended a concert by the rock band Del Amitri at the Royal Albert Hall which remains one of this country's great gems. It was a good evening apart from half-time when we joined the rugby scrum at the bar to pay ridiculous amounts of money for luke warm beer. We queued for 15 minutes and then had just over a minute to enjoy? them. The customer may always be right but in London they are always being ripped off.
©Peter Steward - November 1997