The Time of My Life
I was seduced by London
Between 1977 - 1980 I lived in London. I was 24 when I arrived in the city, single and broke. I left at 27, married and still broke. For reasons I find hard to fathom now, being broke presented no major difficulty in my life at the time. One day I had £5 to my name, the next perhaps 50p. Yet I managed not just to eat but also to smoke, have an occasional beer and - when I was flush - use the Tube. It was without a shadow of a doubt the happiest, most joyful, most optimistic time of my life. Prior to my London years, I’d been at constant war with my parents, I’d been in therapy and dreaded each day as I woke up. After my London stay, life gradually started losing spark and the next 15 years were dull and uninspiring, the only light provided by my two young daughters. But London confirmed completely, totally, unreservedly, Dr. Johnson’s bon mot: “If you’re tired of London, you are tired of life”. It was not possible to be tired of London, not for a single minute.
I had arrived on a flight from Zurich, Switzerland, where I had spent a couple of very pleasant and erotically overcharged days with a French Canadian girl called Elaine. I had been to Zurich many times before so not seeing the city didn’t bother me. If Elaine had made plans to play tourist, those plans came to naught because we didn’t leave our bedroom for 48 hours. I bid Elaine good-bye at the Zurich Central Station (famous for precision departures and arrivals and for the best hot dogs anywhere) and I headed for the airport. I had booked a charter flight with a group of Swiss tourists. The trip was supposed to include three nights’ lodgings plus flight. The old DC-10 got us to Gatwick airport safely, but when we reached the hotel I was informed by the greasy looking front desk fellow that no room had been reserved in my name. “Ever so sorry, mate. Can’t find your name on the list. Some kind of cock-up, innit?”
I didn’t care. I was in London. Beatle country. The punk and New Wave revolution were in full swing. How bad could things be? I asked the front desk fellow to use the phone, to which he reluctantly agreed. I knew three people in the city and called all three. The first one was a flat “NO”. The second one, John, whom I’d met on a previous visit two years before, was a happy “YES, BUT” He could accommodate me but not that night. He and his new wife had just moved into a new flat and were still unpacking. “Call back in a day or two”, he said. My third call came through and I was allowed a night on the couch of friend of a distant friend. It was embarrassing and noisy, with two toddlers and a dog. I stayed one night, then moved in with John for a few days and from there, I began a four month couch surfing anabasis till I found lodgings of my own. I must have had - this is no exaggeration - thirty or forty different addresses during that time. My nutrition consisted of one, sometimes two Big Macs for lunch, and a roll of McVitties chocolate cookies for dinner. No wonder my first high cholesterol diagnosis happened at age 30.
I enrolled as a part-time student of classical guitar at the Guildhall School of Music and later, as a full time Master’s degree student of Linguistics at the University of Essex in Colchester. Although my education was the ostensible reason for my stay in London, I tried to limit my studying to a minimum, to enjoy the city and all it had to offer.
I would take a random bus and ride it to the last stop on its route, then retrace the route back on foot. Anyone familiar with London knows the city is gigantic: walking a whole bus route could easily take half a day or more. This method made me very familiar with the city which was an advantage when taking a cab. I was not an easy mark for “extended journeys”.
I loved London weather: never too warm, never too cold. Always just right for a nice suit and raincoat. It’s the perfect city for dressing up - and Londoners prove it daily. I had never before lived in a place this hip, this edgy, this with-it. The music scene was second to none. Anybody who was anybody passed through London. I saw Paul McCartney play the old Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park (and Jethro Tull, at the time my favorite band, also at the same location) I saw Frank Zappa and Weather Report (twice) at the Hammersmith Odeon and The Police at the Hammersmith Palais. This was before they were international superstars and they mingled with the crowd during their break. I saw Elton John at Wembley Arena (not Wembley Stadium of Live Aid fame) The Arena was next to the stadium, probably a 7 thousand capacity venue. Elton John played NON STOP for three hours straight, including a bunch of encores, ending with Benny And The Jets. Must have been the cocaine that made him maniacally energetic. What a show. I saw YES at the same venue. I saw Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan at an outdoor festival but cannot recall the name of it now. And then there were the New Wave acts and, of course, classical guitar concerts such as the unforgettable Narciso Yepes. The museums. The galleries. The shopping: Selfridges, and the astounding Harrods. The different neighborhoods: Notting Hill and Camden Town for hippy trippy markets and impromptu punk shows, Chelsea for elegant strolls, the City (London’s Wall Street) and the nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Docks - back then still pretty run down and just starting to come back to life…and a crazy palette of colors on the streets: the punks, the left-over hippies, the Mods, the preppies, the bankers in their trilbies, swinging black umbrellas, the elegant ladies of Knightsbridge. I was content to do a couple of hours of school work, grab a few hours of sleep and spend the rest of the time walking, riding buses, Tubes and trains. It was as if I had lived in London in a previous life and my three-year stay was simply a glorious homecoming.
When I finally did find a “bedsit” to live in, it was dusty and grotty - as well as gritty and a little dangerous. Let’s say the neighbors were a tad too colorful even for my liking. But did I care? Not a chance! I’d put in a 50 pence piece into the meter which was just enough for a tub of hot water, make myself a “cuppa” and read every book by P.G. Wodehouse I could lay may hands on. Once a month, the “meter man” came by and tallied the change. There was almost always an overpayment and suddenly I would find myself in possession of 2 or 3 Pounds Sterling! Good God! Riches. That was enough for a movie and for a pack of ten ciggies.
All good things must come to an end. I completed my Master’s and made one last trip to Croydon, to the dreary and dreaded Home Office. “As your studies are now completed, I do not see a reason to extend your stay in this country, young man” The Home Office clerk asked me whether I’d already bought a ticket to leave the UK. “Yes, I have”, I replied, “I’m leaving on August 21…which happens to be the 12th anniversary of Warsaw Pact troops occupying my country of birth!” He didn’t look up: “You don’t say…alrighty, here you go. Safe travels” And he smashed a huge stamp in my passport: LEAVE TO REMAIN IN THE UNITED KINGDOM UNTIL…August 21, 1980…ON CONDITION THE HOLDER DOES NOT ENGAGE IN EMPOLYMENT PAID OR UNPAID
And that was the last time I’d visited the drab Croydon building. My new bride and I packed our modest belongings - and God only knows how truly modest they were - returned the keys to our landlord and left our musty smelling, dust covered dwelling in Muswell Hill, N10, which was nevertheless our happy base in the greatest town in the world during the greatest, never to be replicated time of my life. We headed for Heathrow Airport and flew to JFK, which, in comparison to London Heathrow felt and smelled like Calcutta. We were off to our new life in the New World.
Now I’ll reveal my full London address to you. If you google it, you will find I came *this* close to be involved in a truly horrifying coincidence: 23, Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill, London N10