It is a terribly gauche thing to say, I know, but London was never really “my thing”. In the 1960s colleagues all flocked to London. They camped in Earl’s Court in such numbers that the locals nicknamed it “Kangaroo Valley”.
And some got good jobs on Fleet Street (when newspapers actually were on Fleet Street) and some did it tough. I know of one Aussie journo whose daily diet was a pile of boiled rice and a trace of canned tuna through it.
They lived in “bed-sits”, shared a bathroom, put a coin in the slot for hot water and dreamed of making it big time. And some did. As you will read in my next book— “Human Headlines, My nearly fifty years as a frontline journalist.”
I didn’t go to Kangaroo Valley. Didn’t even go to London. Instead I took the unusual (for an Aussie journo) North American route and got jobs in Montrealand Toronto and Ottawa and finally, the Crown Jewels, New York City.Gotham. Metropolis.
That’s why my visits to London over the past forty years or so have been sparse. I vividly remember one trip. I had just got married to a TWA American flight attendant. On a whim I decided to go “against the grain” and fly to Londonen route to Australia rather than take the shorter NY-LA- Hawaii- Sydney route.
The fact that the new American wife got a hefty discount on my ticket didn’t hurt. And she worked the flight and served dinner at 37,000 feet to her new husband.
(Our bliss in the clouds turned dark the next day when she had her bag and passport and money snatched on a popular London Street).
London is pretty easy and obvious for a tourist. Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral, Buck House, Piccadilly Circus, the Houses of Parliament, The Tower, Covent Garden.
Speaking of Piccadilly Circus. The memory bank must play tricks. I took a friend, on her first visit to London, to Piccadilly Circus to see the statue of Eros fountain and Lord Nelson’s column.
I always remembered it as a huge space. Like the square in front of the DogesPalace in Venice. It’s not. It is tiny. And, as my cynical guest remarked, the fountain was smaller “than the one in Rundle Mall in Adelaide”. But then she also asked if there would be elephants at the circus.
Covent Garden was interesting. The night we were there hundreds of people, sitting and standing, crowded in front of a huge screen watching a filmed opera. Being the theatre district the string of restaurants all had quick “pre-theatre dinner specials”.
I had been warned in Paris, when I mentioned how the Euro had exploded costs in Greece and France and how there was a movement in Italy to “bring back the Lira”, that I should wait until I got to London and see what has happened to the pound.
Cor blimey! Was that the truth. Especially for Australians where a pound swallows up three Aussie dollars. That means a short trip on the Underground, on “the tube”, costs more than eight dollars Australian.
I complained about the high cost of taxis in an earlier feature. Our 100-dollar cab ride from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the city cost 55 Euro. It was 110 Aussie dollars on the way back).
From Heathrow to Kensington in London the fare was nearly fifty quid. Around 135 dollars. And they don’t take credit cards. Cash only. The cabs are traditional and built specifically as British taxis. Comfy, practical. Expensively comfy and practical.
Unlike Australia, where sometimes you think you are being driven by Helen Keller, London cabbies have an immersion course before they get behind the wheel. I’m told they have to ride a bicycle around London streets for two weeks in a familiarisation course.
Of course you can take The Underground – as we did a lot. Fast, regular, clean, easy to use. And cheap when you compare a subway ride to a taxi fare.
Only one downside. Unlike the Metro in Paris no air seems to get into theLondon carriages. Several times we stopped in a tunnel for umpteen minutes. The airless conditions in a crowded carriage were health-threatening.
In fact, on a day I was trapped in a sweat box, a London newspaper ran a survey of Tube conditions. They clocked some carriages at 46 degrees C and said the heat was comparable to a mid-summer’s day in Hanoi or India.
And remember some Poms think that deodorant is the name of a racehorse and only bathe or shower once a week. It wasn’t that long ago that office workers didn’t change their shirts every day. They just changed their detachable white collars.
But the pubs are good. The beer is good – if you go for foreign brews on tap and not flat, warm misnomers like “London’s Pride”. And you can munch away at the bar (in a pub several hundred years old) on things like a Ploughman’s lunch, or pickled onions or hard-boiled eggs.
The pub in London is like the brasserie in Paris. We tried and I enjoyed them both.
Postscript: An Underground nightmare. My friend got her head jammed in relentlessly fast closing doors. There were two relentless sets. On the platform and on the train. It’s amazing how the adrenalin kicks in. I could see her head staying in Kensington while her body went off to Earl’s Court as the train took off. Adrenalin-pumping, I played superman and managed to drag both sets of doors open. It was really scary. Welcome to London.