December 7, 2015
The London Promise
(originally published on my now defunct Medium page, sometime in 2014)
I was enamoured of London long before I had even visited it and for two very specific reasons, random as they may sound: Walt Disney and Foyle’s bookstore.
I first saw “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” at around age ten, and loved it from beginning to end, as a ten-year-old would. One scene (or rather, a song) however, was to stay indelibly etched in my mind: Portobello Road.
It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that my image of Portobello Market during the war was, of course, a complete illusion: the scene isn’t filmed in London at all but rather in a studio set in Burbank, California. It didn’t matter: by then the damage was already done.
To this day I can’t exactly determine what fascinated me so much. It wasn’t the song per se; after all, it’s not as if I was expecting to one day visit London and see people spontaneously spring into song and dance in the middle of the street (these days, with the advent of flash-mobs, I’m less certain.)
Perhaps it was the sound of the (fake, I know) cockney accent of stall-owners and spivs offering everything from vegetables and fruit, to jewellery, to books, and even secret instructions (for a fee) on how to find the Star of Astaroth. Or maybe was it seeing the music and choreography being adapted on the spot by Jamaicans, Sikhs, Australians, Irish, and many others, making Notting Hill their own and yet shared.
Come to think of it, it may very well be due to the simple fact that these were children like myself, in a shady market, late at night, during the war, when despite all the horror which only later I came to comprehend, all rules seem to have been suspended. To me it felt like an adventure; slightly dangerous, slightly forbidden and slightly mischievous, much as good adventures ought to be.
Least of all, let’s not forget that they had a magical flying bed. It is a known fact that childhood memories of magical flying beds are character-forming. I mean, think about it: it’s a bed and it flies, I can’t stress it enough.
The origin of my fixation with Foyle’s, on the other hand, has proven impossible to trace despite many attempts to do so. Its spot on my “top ten list of memorable… stuff” was never endangered even though it sometimes changed positions. It has proudly occupied the rarified atmosphere of the top three positions for a long time, but is now in danger of leaving it; it appears that the Charing Cross Road location is being sold, and the store is moving somewhere else. (update: it has, right next door)
At the beginning all I knew of the place from pictures and from reading about it was precisely its current location and peculiarities, later confirmed by subsequent visits: inconceivably large for those times, a labyrinth of shelves and corridors that connected the five floors of three different buildings, hastily merged into a single space while keeping the layout and floor-plan of each. Like a family whose members aren’t necessarily keen on each other but have no choice but to live together; not exactly ideal but still better than having to move in with strangers.
And books. Pile upon pile of dusty books. Fifty kilometers of shelves, it is said, in two and three rows, on tables, on the floor even, mixing used books with new ones, from floor to ceiling, either organized by a sadist or else simply left abandoned; the purpose seemed to be to make it as difficult as possible to find the volume you were looking for. My own extended speleological surveys of the space later revealed that this chaos served me very well: after all this wasn’t a bookstore where you went to buy the books you wanted but much rather a bookstore you went to want books you didn’t yet know.
After having discovered your volumes, or as some would argue, they had found you, exhausted from the travels to the darkest ends of the mysteriously winding corridors — some leading apparently nowhere, changing subject-matter mid-way for no logical reason — and in anticipation of the wonders buried in those pages, you still had to overcome the greatest hurdle of them all: you had to pay for them.
You wouldn’t normally suppose it to be a problem, had not the sadist in charge of organizing the books also designed the check-out procedure: there were two, sometimes three, queues. You had to surrender your book in one in exchange for a note, obtain an invoice for that note in another queue and finally pay the invoice in yet another queue. All were written by hand by less than inspired clerks, some of which didn’t even speak English at all. Only then could you have your book.
The whole experience felt as if Foyle’s was appalled that you (dishonestly, surely) had found something you wanted to buy and gave itself a moment of reflection on the merits of your disposition before allowing you to walk out with what sometimes felt like a brick of the house itself; it wasn’t just a purchase, it was a test of character.
At any rate, my childhood obsession with both Foyle’s and Portobello Road gave me a purpose: I studied Tube maps, photographs, movies, books (the ones I could understand), and descriptions from anyone I knew who could tell me something about London.
My first visit at thirteen wasn’t the grand event I had anticipated: it was incomparably better, a familiar surprise. I knew exactly where I was and where I wanted to go first: Central Line to Notting Hill Gate, walk down and back up ever so slowly Portobello Road. Still walking, cross Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, catch the Piccadilly Line at Knightsbridge, hop off at Leicester Square. From there it’s a short walk up Charing Cross Road to Foyle’s. In the event of having survived it whole reward myself with a visit to Convent Garden by way of Trafalgar Square.
I have since been to London more often than I can remember, and my perception of it has become a palimpsest of memories of events, people, scents, colour, all-important conversations, life-changing emotions and a whole collection of many other sights, from the preppy times of drinking Bellinis at the Claridge’s, to the punk years of the bug-ridden bed-and-breakfast near Victoria Station. The city and I are inextricably, and I now realise, inexplicably linked to each other.
Every now and then I convince myself that it forgot about me which makes me a little sad and a little anxious as if I was discovering once again for the first time a promise that’s impossible to keep.
Most of the time, however (and misquoting Whitman) I just know that we were together, the rest I forget.