I went to London to seek my fortune back in early 1982. My relationship with the Old Lady proved to be a love affair that I still carry with me even though it lasted less than ten years.
For the first few months I was living and working outside the main city while making forays into the museums, cinemas and pubs of the city center at weekends. But the love only came after I started working in the old city itself. I got a job in a converted warehouse in Devonshire Square near Liverpool Street Railway Station. My desk looked out over Petticoat Lane Market, my lunchtime wanderings took me to the curry cafes of Brick Lane and the bars of Whitechapel in the footsteps of the Ripper. I was supporting computer systems down in the financial sector, and my wanderings down there took me to Bank and Monument, to indoor markets and gorgeous old pubs, to tiny churches and cemeteries hidden away in courtyards, and across the river, to Borough Market and even older pubs, like The George and The Market Porter. If you’re after a true whiff of old London, there’s few finer places to seek it.
A few years later we moved office to Farringdon Road and more old markets, Guardian journalists in the pubs and forays into the area between there and Euston. Then we settled in High Holborn which for me meant Skoob Bookshop, the British Museum and yes, more pubs, in the Victorian splendor of The Princess Louise, the high gothic weirdness of The City of Yorke and many more, including forays down to Fleet Street for some Dickensian musings in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, and the Strand for The George and the Coal Hole under The Savoy for some slices of theatrical history, and many other bars, too numerous to mention or too lost to memory in alcoholic poisoning of the brain cells.
For a while London got into my soul. I got able to find my way around from just about anywhere inside the M25, I lived south of the river in Bromley, Beckenham and Ladywell, where I discovered that the flat I’d bought didn’t just have a bogeyman in the stairwell, but that the Old Lady’s Well bubbled up in the cellar, to my eventual enormous financial cost, But at least I got to know the similarly drunken patrons of a variety of night buses after concerts or drinking sessions during my time there.
London is indeed a fine old city. Almost, but not quite, the equal of Edinburgh or Glasgow in my heart. My real love for it came from not just the place, but from the people I met there. I met many Londoners, but I also met people from all over the UK, people from India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Hong Kong, Poland, Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Greece, Turkey and many other far flung spots. I made great friends and a lot of them are still friends today, 35 years on. We spent many happy hours in those aforementioned old bars, telling each other stories. They heard mine, and I heard theirs, and the telling of them bound, and binds us in friendship all across the globe to this day. That’s been better than any fortune to me over the years.
Towards the end of my time in the Old Lady, I met my wife there too, in another of the old bars, and our courtship was spent over beer, film and theatre around Covent Garden and in the West End.
We left London and I returned to Scotland in 1991, but some of the Old Lady came with me, in my friends and, eventually, in my own writing. When I started to drift into writing Victoriana, it was London that called loudest to me, from Baker Street and Cheyne Walk, from Bank to Embankment and yes, from bar to bar.
In my most recent collection, THE GHOST CLUB, most of the stories don’t take place in London. But they are all told there, over a meal and a drink, by Doyle and Stoker, Stevenson and Oliphant, Tolstoy and Wilde and others, all drawn, like me, by the tales to be told, and heard, in the arms of the Old Lady, and in her bars.
WANT A FREE
WILLIAM MEIKLE STARTER LIBRARY?