Easter Escapades

Lil was on her own as I entered the café the week after Easter. I hoped that all was well as Bill should have been back from an Easter visit to his family. Armando was not in sight.

I greeted Lil with a kiss on her rosy cheek. She was wearing a rather glamorous sparkling grey sweater. The pink of her hair was fading.

‘How was your Easter Lil?’ I asked.

‘It was satisfactory,’ Lil said without emotion.

‘How’s Bill?’

‘Still at his daughters. He decided to extend the visit. I don’t mind. I’ve quite enjoyed the peace and quiet. If you don’t expect anything from anyone then they can’t disappoint you.’ Lil pursed her lips and I knew it would not be wise to pursue this topic of conversation.

Armando appeared and explained that he wouldn’t be able to join us today as the main oven was on the blink, or rather ‘in the blink’ as he said. Don’t you just love it when those who don’t have English as their first language pick up little phrases and then get a word or two wrong?

‘Did you enjoy your chocolate Easter Bunny Lil that Armando and I got you?’

‘Ooooo yes thanks, I ate it on Sunday. In fact I ate it all. It left me feeling queasy. I forgot to ask whether you and Michael have a good time in Hastings? Did you go and see that author friend of yours again?’

‘Yes it was great. Shall we order breakfast and then I’ll tell you all about it?’

‘I suppose so,’ Lil answered. I was starting to get the impression that she hadn’t had a good Easter, but there was no real reason why. Armando had invited her to eat at the café which she declined, and her Age Group also had lots of pre-arranged Easter activities.

With breakfast ordered – a full English for Lil and porridge with blackberries for me – we settled.

‘We arrived mid-afternoon Friday and went straight to the front to get a late lunch. We were desperate for fish and chips. What is it about arriving at the seaside, hearing the rush of the tide and the vile gulls and needing to satisfy a need for fish and chips irrespective of the time of day?’

I laughed at my comment, which I thought was quite funny. Lil looked down and stirred her tea. I wasn’t being silenced that easily.

‘I think it’s because you hope the fish was caught minutes before it’s fried. It’s almost an involuntary action. Although it was quite funny when I visited my aunt in Norfolk a couple of years back and we went for fish and chips on the front to find a sign informing us that the ‘fresh sustainable fish’ was ‘from Iceland.’’

‘They only sell frozen fish in Iceland,’ said Lil with a smirk. She was toying with me and I’d play along.

‘The country not the shop you ninny.’

Lil cackled.

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‘We then drove up to the West Hill and went for a lovely walk across its expanse and the neighbouring streets.’

Lil made a ‘hmmm’ sound, and while she wasn’t encouraging me to continue she was at least listening and so on I went.

‘The people are so friendly and everyone says “hello” and shares a little story – ’

‘What do you mean?’ interrupted Lil.

‘Well for instance there was an unusual display in a big bay window along St Mary’s Terrace and Michael and I were pondering whether it was a shop, a home or something else. A lady appeared from next door and explained that the residents liked to have a big display window at the front of the house for passers-by to appreciate. She also said that it used to be a pub, hence the large display window at the front. We wished each other a happy Easter and carried on our walk.’

‘Hmmmm. I see,’ said Li. I’m not sure Lil was enjoying my story much as it didn’t involve her. Her face changed and she looked happier as her breakfast arrived.

‘Shall I continue?’ I asked. Lil nodded, head down as she salted her steaming plate.

‘We then went to Val’s house.’

‘Is she the author?’ asked Lil.

‘Yes, and she lives on the West Hill. We enjoyed drinks and a vegetarian feast.’

‘With a sausage?’ Lil asked and let out an enormous cackle.

‘No sausages Lil thank you very much. After a fine night’s sleep we left Val and took the West Hill Funicular down to the Old Town and walked along the seafront to St Leonards. There is a massive block of flats on the front called Marine Court which is built to look like a ship from the beach. We walked onto the beach and I asked Michael if he thought it looked like a ship and he said “no” and that was that.

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St Leonards has a very upandcoming young artist vibe, perhaps akin to Dalston about ten years ago. We had coffee in a delightful small gallery.

“Two Americanos please. Do you have skimmed milk?” I’d asked.

“No we don’t, sorry,” the young server dressed like a Hackney boy with a chequered quilted jacket and floppy hair had answered.

“Semi-skimmed then.”

“We don’t have that either.”

After I’d said that full milk would have to do the server had exclaimed “Oh no.” and had clutched his hands over his mouth.

“Please don’t tell me you’ve no milk,” I’d asked.

“I’ve got milk, but I just realised the guy I just served asked for soya milk and I gave him normal milk. What if he’s allergic?” the server continued.

“Well at least you have some milk,” I’d said. The server hadn’t looked best pleased at my lack of compassion for the poor man who was probably lying in the street clutching his throat.’

‘Well you could have shown a little more empathy Boulevardier,’ said Lil and chortled with a subterranean tone.

‘Hmmmm.’ I moved on with my story. ‘The curiosity and antique shops are amazing Lil. Think of Camden Lock Market 15 years ago. I actually said so to one of the owners and she’d said it was what they were going for. Despite this she didn’t have a decent antique gravy boat and my hunt continues.

We checked into the Swan House, a beautiful Bed and Breakfast in the Old Town and after resting, and looking in more Curiosity Shops, despite Michael suggesting that I’d looked in plenty, we went to Webbes, a fish restaurant on the front with Val for dinner –‘

‘Why did you meet her again? I thought you’d seen her the previous day,’ Lil said as she put down her cutlery with a clank.

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‘We did but we were also having dinner on the Saturday evening too. The restaurant is lovely – ’

‘How old is she again?’ interrupted Lil.

‘Early sixties I think. Why?’

‘I don’t understand why you had to go away at Easter…’ Lil faded away.

I’d pushed my stories too far. I did have something for Lil and I’d left it too long in presenting her with it. I reached into my manbag and pulled out a copy of VG Lee’s Always You Edina and pushed it across the table.

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‘Val asked me to give you a copy of her latest novel Lil.’

Lil picked up the book and looked at the cover. She looked up at me and asked ‘How does she know who I am?’

‘She reads my blog Lil.’

‘Then she doesn’t really know as you have a tendency to extend the truth.’

‘Michael always says I exaggerate stories,’ I said.

‘He sounds sensible. Perhaps I’ll meet him,’ said Lil.

Lil pursed her lips, put the book down and took out her reading glasses. She opened the first couple of pages and read a few lines and smiled. She then immediately put the book down again, but carefully, by the side of her bag and looked at me.

‘What is that silly flouncy item around your neck?’

‘It’s a spring scarf,’ I said.

‘Is it new?’

‘Yes, I got it in Hastings. Don’t you like it?’

‘Humph! Did VG help you choose it?’

Arty Farty Lovey!

A good Boulevardier, however displaced, still views the arts as the air he breaths, and as such, I’m pleased to report a recent few days full of such activity.

I attended Boy George’s concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre earlier in the year when he trialled some new music. He mentioned that he would be doing some more concerts later in the year once the new album was released, and that is how I found myself at Koko, formally Camden Palace.

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It was a rather cold evening which is expected in November, but still a little disappointing. Dressing for a concert is never easy as there will invariably be queuing outside, but you want to be able to remove outer layers as the auditorium heats up, without either resembling the Michelin man, queuing for the cloakroom or having them all draped over your arm. I settled on punk zip black and white trousers with a half denim half jersey jacket (sleeves are jersey), desert boots and a long woolly scarf. The scarf kept me warm when queuing and could be tied around my midriff once inside the venue. I hope you are impressed with my foresight and practicality! I bumped into a few people I knew in the queue and was able to gossip the wait to enter away.

Once inside I purchased a warming and revitalising large red wine and looked for my friend Tony who was there with his brother. Camden Palace really is an amazing building. It was originally a theatre built in the early 20th century and became a music venue in the late 1970s. It hosted legendary nights by Steve Strange, and Madonna’s first UK gig. My first visit was in the late 1980s when it was a busy and innovative nightclub. We went for a friend’s birthday. The main area which had previously accommodated the theatre stalls was now a vast dance floor. The upper levels containing all the boxes were areas to sit, dance and drink. I am pretty sure there was also a massive inflatable pink pig which hung from the ceiling but this could have been the effects of the large quantities of sherry consumed.

The venue has been overhauled since my first visit but still retains a lot of charm, character and the essence of a theatre. The warm-up band came on and other friends of Tony arrived and I had the chance to meet the lovely, gorgeous and fun Fiona, Monique and Emma. We stayed together for the entire concert and danced, laughed, clapped and whooped at all the appropriate moments.

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Boy George was excellent. His voice has matured and sounds very different to the earlier Culture Club records. I like both. He looked great and oozed style from the stage and peppered his performance with witty (and sometimes slightly bitchy) quips. This is Boy George after all. The new tracks sounded great among the classics such as Church of the Poison Mind, Karma Chameleon, and Bow Down Mister.

The concert was all too soon over and we were on a high. It was a great time for further chat and to catch up with other friends I had seen in the queue earlier.

The following evening I was due to meet Tony again as we had purchased tickets to see Ferret Up The Arts starring Miss Eve Ferret with Hazel O’Connor and a couple of other performance artists. This was held at The Arts Theatre in the West End. After a day’s work I quickly preened and re-quiffed my hair and journeyed to central London to meet Tony for a drink before the show. We tripped down the outside steps to the basement which houses the private members’ Covent Garden Cocktail Club. After being validated at the entrance as worthy patrons we entered the dimly lit, atmospheric bar full with West End trendsetters and Boulevardiers. These however, didn’t look displaced.

Cocktails were two for one on a Monday evening and it would have been rude not to partake. We enjoyed several ‘London Calling’ which were gin, Fino Sherry, bitters with a strip of orange zest for garnish soaked glasses, at a high bistro style table. Even the route to the conveniences was signed by Old Gin Street. It is a secret haven and a great modern speakeasy hidden from tourists in the West End.

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The show was a powerhouse of Eve Ferret’s quirky brilliance. Eve called it a Fabaret and it certainly had her stamp all over it. A mixture of song, dance and anecdote where peignoirs are once again the height of fashion (as long as they’re nylon according to Eve), mange tout are scattered at the audience like confetti, as a life size child doll is passed by Eve to crowd surf. Hazel O’Connor joined Eve on stage for several numbers, which was a real treat. Hazel finished with Will You. Her voice still holds the melancholy tune and it was inspirational to hear her sing it in a smaller venue, having already enjoyed her at Chillfest in the summer. Crazy Horses with Hobby-horses as props was genius.

This is what theatre really should be about – live cabaret steeped in tradition and talent, brought up-to-date. It hits you between the eyes and makes you sing along, laugh out loud and jump from your seat to applaud louder at the end of each number.

We had bumped into a couple of other friends; Jon and Paul, who seemed to have consumed a few more cocktails than Tony and I and we chatted with them in the upstairs bar after the show when all the performers (aside from Hazel who had an early recording session the following day) came to say hello. Eve is as engaging and witty in person as she is on stage a true West End diva. High on the evening, and after another drink, we said our goodbyes and travelled back to our various corners of London totally sated.

So the next day, fortunately not working, I awoke in my cold bedroom, lit a fire and climbed back into bed with a warming, revitalising cup of Assam tea and decadently watched the flames jump as they warmed the room. All Tuesdays should be days for just staying in bed, don’t you think?

TNW

Phone box of my youth

Change is always in the air, and as we mature there are more layers of transformation to observe.

When I lived in Hackney in the mid to late 1990s regeneration was in the early stages of gestation. I lived on Richmond Road, overlooking London Fields. As I walked along Richmond Road to Mare Street I would pass Flowers East Gallery, and an old factory, which became derelict while I lived there.

There was a group of shops at the Mare Street/Richmond Road junction among which was a newspaper shop, Hair By Byron (Greek barber called Vic), a rundown off licence (selling more special brew than anything), and a builders’ café.

Now the area is unrecognisable with high blocks of offices and flats with beautiful cafes and shops below. The factory and Byron are long gone.

Sometimes however, it’s not just areas that disappear and alter beyond recognition, but parts of our heritage. The change is slow and sometimes we don’t notice until something is gone. Perhaps even several years later we ponder ‘What happened to…?’

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Libraries for one are reducing in number and a recent report from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport tells us that the proportion of adults using them has fallen from 48% to 36%. How long before they become defunct, empty and destitute?

How about the humble British telephone box?

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The iconic red boxes started to disappear from our streets as far back as 1985 when BT announced modernisation and redesign. They are no longer being modernised or iconic but disappearing. The availability of mobile telephones has rendered them more redundant. Many sit derelict, vandalised and unused.

Recently while I waited for a friend outside Camden underground station I noticed two telephone boxes, side by side, keeping each other company as everyone walked by them, and didn’t even notice they were there.

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I kept focussed on the phone boxes to see if any of the multitudes of brightly coloured pedestrians even noticed or acknowledged their existence. After a few minutes a solitary, rather desperate looking, middle-aged woman went into one and attempted to make a call but was soon out to try the other. She left that swiftly too and I had to deduce that both were ‘out of service’.

These phone boxes, booths, kiosks or whatever you prefer to call them were once the centre of society. Everyone knew where their nearest was. They played a key role in social planning and events. People planned to call or to be called at a public telephone at set times so as not to miss each other. There was not the modern convenience of being able to call, and reach your friends, family and business acquaintances at will.

The mind is an odd contraption and it’s bizarre how memories are triggered. Thinking of telephone boxes in Camden took me right back to my youth…

In the Hertfordshire village, Flamstead, where I grew up there were two phone boxes. One was adjacent to the combined Post Office/grocer’s store and the second was directly outside my childhood home.

Our boundary was a privet hedge and gates across the driveway. Beyond that was a grass verge with a phone box situated on the corner. The grass verge wasn’t part of our property but Dad always mowed the grass when he cut our own. He reasoned that he didn’t want the verge to look unkempt as it affected the street side vista of our home. He would also park his van on the grass verge to keep a vehicle off the street, particularly as we lived on a sharp corner.

The phone box presented a challenge. It had been there for a significant number of years and long before the roads were so full of cars. Vehicles would frequently park directly outside the box creating a hazard, or worse, blocking our driveway. Mum acted as a great sentry and would charge out when she spotted the vehicle and demand that the vehicle be moved immediately. On a few occasions several callers actually pulled into the drive which generated a similar, if not even more, strident response.

Eventually my parents made representations to the local Council to have it removed. The response was disappointing and the letter confirmed that Trowley Hill was a public highway and unless there were yellow lines present vehicles may park at will. Our corner was not considered in need of yellow lines. Further representations concerning common courtesy and blocking points of access fell on deaf ears.

That said, Mum would also go out armed with a dustpan, brush, dishcloth (as long as it could go straight in the bin after as it wasn’t welcome back in the home after servicing the box), polish and duster to ensure that the phone box had the same level of sheen as our home.

I asked her why she would expend energy cleaning a public telephone box. She replied

‘I am not having that filthy thing outside our house!’

She would also collect stray one and two pence coins and deposit them in the charity box in the aforementioned village Post Office.

I guess it was a love-hate relationship.

Many of the village inhabitants also used the phone box and quite often there would be groups of my friends making calls to whomever. I even received a phone call once from an admirer asking if I was at home. I had no idea she was calling from the telephone box outside my house!

Do you remember your own phone box experiences? Ask anyone under 35 when they last used a phone box, and if they even know where their nearest is. I sadly now don’t know where my nearest is, or when last I used it. They are indeed confined to the past, but that doesn’t mean we should forget them and this blog shall serve as my homage to a disappearing but vital part of our social and communications past.

TNW