Back in June of 1969 I made my first of many trips to London. I was still very new with the airlines and our passes were not as generous as they were to become. You were given one pass a year to ever widening destinations and after three years I still had not graduated to an overseas pass. This meant I had to buy a (greatly) reduced standby ticket on another airline out of New York. The night I was to leave violent thunderstorms cancelled all the flights to JFK so I attempted to sleep in the Teletype room at Toronto International Airport (that was a long time ago) and caught the early morning flight to connect to a PanAm (a really long time ago!) daylight flight. Unfortunately a combination of fatigue, hunger, and fear (yes I’m terrified of flying) led to me passing out as we reached cruising altitude and I came to somewhere over Newfoundland with a very concerned stewardess (a really, really long time ago we called them that) applying a cold compress to my neck. It was the beginning of a very eventful 10 days.
Amongst those events was a stay at a hotel in Bayswater that was rumoured to have been built for Lily Langtry by Edward VII and included a “bijoux” theatre that was the hotel’s bar. It had been turned into a hotel a year or two before and my recollection is of a not overly commodious or commoded single room – my first experience of a bathroom down the hall. And on the way through the warren of hallways and stairs to my chamber I had to pass a room occupied by a permanent resident of the hotel. She was an ancient lady with a mittel-European accent who would open her door a crack as I passed by and mutter dire auguries and bulletins on her fading health. The hall porter said not to mind her she was slightly mad but harmless.
But it wasn’t all fainting and mad women there was also gossip, death, murder, suicide, deceit and chicanery but fortunately most of it on stage. I was there for theatre and opera. It was off to the Old Vic for The Way of the World with Geraldine McEwen, Covent Garden for Georg Solit conducting Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Glyndebourne for Werther, Pelleas et Melisande and Cosi Fan Tutte. A tuxedo was de rigueur for Glyndebourne so a trip was made to Moss Bros in Covent Garden to be tricked out in style. And for two of the performances the 1430 train to Glynde was caught at Victoria Station.
For the third performance my arrival was a trifle less traditional. I had left the Mad Lady of Bayswater behind and gone to stay with the family of a colleague across the river in Richmond. The son of the family had never been to an opera and we were able to get a last minute ticket for Cosi. Gordon owned a motor bike and thought it would be a lark to drive it down to Lewes on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Our arrival at the opera house was a source of puzzlement to the car park attendant who had no idea where to put us amongst the Bentleys and Jaguars that filled the lot. Nor as I recall did he know what to charge us. And the cloak room ladies were equally puzzled when presented with mackintoshes and helmets. After Mozart, a stroll in the gardens, dinner at the Nether Wallop restaurant we biked back to Richmond with a stop in Brighton to see the pier illuminations and the fireworks.
Being the first trip to London it meant visits to Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s, the Tower of London, Harrod’s (back when it was special and had yet to become a theme park), Fortnum and Mason, the British Museum, the Salisbury Pub in St Martin’s Lane, and Pollack’s Toy Store.
What? A toy store? Well yes but not just any old toy store! Pollack’s was a toy store and museum known for it’s antique juvenile drama – one penny plain and twopence coloured” sets and for reproductions using copper plates dating back to the 1840s. Given my fascination with toy theatres it can be safely assumed a good deal of what I put in my luggage on the return was from Pollock’s which I wrote about several years ago. Several complete coloured sets, along with several plain sheets and playbooks, and a modern (1960s) theatre sheet for the 1928 Drury Lane production of Showboat by an artist called James Hope Williams. And that theatre sheet is what began me rambling about that first visit to a city that never ceases to amaze and delight.
Henry Bessemer, the English inventor, is quoted as saying “On March 4, 1830 I arrived in London, where a new world seemed opened to me.” I could well have said the same thing of June 10, 1969.
On this day in 1665: The first joint Secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, publishes the first issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the world’s longest-running scientific journal.