I’m at the French House, frustrated. It’s early evening and I’m meant to be out and about, stalking the mundane, diving for pearls. After a number of fruitless forays into the enemy territory of our very own bridge and tunnel people, my notebook remains blank. Visitors to Central London are getting blander by the day; in the way they dress and the things they say. All you overhear is “I want one of those” or “Look” or “Ooh, see the little red man, that means you can’t cross now.” The type of people that point at aeroplanes.
I can’t give up, I’ve promised to write another earwigging piece for the Writers’ Hub. One more glass of beer and I’ll get back out there. There’s a guy in the corner, dressed like an accountant version of Captain Beefheart. He’s shouting the only lyrics he knows to ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ by Elton John.
“Saturday! Saturday! Saturday! Saturday!”
Shouting never goes down well with the staff and the regulars in the French. People are starting to stare and frown.
“Saturday! Saturday! Saturday! Saturday!”
“Maybe he’s Jewish and celebrating the Sabbath,” I suggest, somewhat loudly. The ensuing laughter shuts him up.
Descending the stairs to go outside for a fag, I notice some handwritten notes on the windowsill. I read them thinking they might kick start my quest. They don’t. They are lines from a drama about surgical gas and conclude with, “Nicole, would you please escort Ms Abbott out. Get Inspector Anderson for me please.” Outside, Michelle is smoking a cigarette. She has the sort of laugh that can penetrate brick walls. I bemoan my lot regarding the dearth of overheard juicy morsels and the standard of West End punters, pointing out some nondescript middle-class rucksacks standing behind her as I do so. One of them breaks away into the road then punches the air and hollers, “Spanish Bar!”
The others join in, “Spanish Bar! Spanish Bar!”
“Let’s go and smash this thing.”
They stroll off up the street, five abreast. I do hope they don’t smash anything.
Inspired, I head off to Covent Garden to meet my daughter, Sam. I’m buying her dinner as a bribe to come eavesdropping with me. We are joined by Julia, who just happens to be in the area. The streets around Seven Dials have been blocked off and pedestrianised for the evening in an attempt to boost local businesses. Outside Benefit, the make-up shop, shaven-chested muscle Santas in silk boxers thrust free samples at the passers-by. A large banner advertises a STREET FOOD NIGHT MARKET that consists of four food stalls manned by dejected-looking guys with floppy fringes and stacks of flatbreads Two office girls are standing on the corner by the Crown.
“You can do much better than a creep like that. You’re more focused, more diplomatic.”
Heading towards the Ape and Bird our path is blocked by a guy wearing a Santa hat and a pathetic string of white Christmas lights. He smiles enthusiastically. Hanging round his neck is a cardboard sign with ASK ME written on it in marker pen. We don’t. An ambulance is parked pointlessly on the corner of Tower Street. There’s Old Bill everywhere. What are they expecting, a polite riot? A DJ is spinning discs in the window of a clothes shop and wiggling his substantial bottom as if to say, “Come on in and have a look around.”
Sam says, “This is like some stupid rubbish dream. What’s this all about?”
An A-board with a balloon tied to it plonked in the middle of the road bears the answer. This is the imaginatively named ‘Christmas Shopping Night’. At the cheap hat stall a tall slender man in a tweed jacket tries on a cap. Looking in the mirror he calls over the stallholder. “Does this look tight on me?”
Julia says, “I’ve just trodden horse shit. I’m going home”
After dinner, outside the pub a couple in their thirties are thumb wrestling. He says to her, “Now I’m going to make you fucking stop.” We decide to take a walk down St Martin’s Lane. Right at the top there’s a bunch of Santas on the corner of Monmouth Street. They’re chanting “Darren! Darren! Darren!” at another bunch of Santas on the other side of the road. A guy breaks free and runs across the road and high-fives everyone.
“You’re one of us now,” says a girl wearing a sexy Santa outfit.
We stroll towards Charing Cross Station. There’s Santas everywhere. Singing Santas; aggressive Santas; pissed Santas; crying Santas; puking Santas; Santas that have lost their mates; Santas pissing in doorways. The pavements are strewn with ripped and discarded Santa costumes. I spot a bunch of Smurfs queuing in McDonald’s. There’s a really short one standing outside having a smoke. I decide to approach her.
“So, why are you dressed as a Smurf, then?”
“Well it’s a laugh, innit,” she says in a tinny Glaswegian accent.
“Yeah but why Smurfs?”
“Coz we’re all dressed as Smurfs. Like I said, it’s a laugh.”
“Do you have a favourite Smurf; which one are you?”
“Are you taking the piss?”
We backtrack and make for Leicester Square where they’re screening the premiere of Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom. It’s packed and there’s shit loads of police. Standing around taking notes would probably get us arrested as spies or something so we decide to go and stand next to people outside the tube station. A young Asian man to my left is holding a Christmas card and talking into his phone.
“…And she wrote at the bottom, p.s. I wish there was someone like you in my office everyday. Kiss kiss kiss.”
On my left one woman says to another, “Did they look after me during bad times? No, they didn’t have to. We only had good times.”
They catch me leaning in to listen and give me the sort of glare one usually reserves for that old nonce that lives down your street and then they hurry off. Sam tells me she’s just heard a girl say, “It was so romantic, when he proposed he put the ring in the tequila.” On the other side of Charing Cross Road a tree trunk blocks out the G on the Angus Steak House sign.
Towards the mainline station at Charing Cross the pavements are congested. All the out-of-towners move with an idiot shuffle. We skirt them, nipping on and off the kerb. Snatches of mid-evening, four-drinks-in conversation pop out of the crowd, like jewels in the desert.
“But they’re clever, these mad cunts.”
“He fucked me and gave me cancer.’
“My Auntie Pat was a Sleeping Beauty in a circus sideshow.”
“I agree with you 100% but you’re wrong.”
“I’ll see you on the dark side!”
Someone (probably from St Martin’s Art College) has fashioned the words YOU AND ME out of carrier bags and tied them to the crash barrier by the statue of Edith Cavell on St Martin’s Place.
I say goodbye to Sam and carry on down King William IV Street. I’m meeting my mate Patrick at the Coach and Horses on Wellington Street. The regulars there call it the Blokes and Horses on account of its alarming lack of women. Striding down Henrietta Street is a woman in her mid-forties. She is mahogany-coloured and dressed like she is off to a beach party in Ibiza. Ten paces behind her is a little girl, no more than a toddler, similarly attired. The mother catches the eye of a black cabbie with his window down.
She says,“Can you take us to Malaga?”
Then she cackles like a thousand witches.
On the steps outside Jubilee Market two old lags are sitting down enjoying a can.
“Who’s the cleverest, me or you? Come on who’s the cleverest, me or you? Me or you!?”
“It’s you you silly cunt. You’re much cleverer than me.”
Patrick is waiting outside the Coach. He is a stout, bearded Ulsterman of unbeatable ebullience. We’re here for the Guinness and he goes in to fetch a couple. While I’m waiting for him to return, I am gifted with a composite piece of dialogue. A couple in their fifties with smokers’ skin are getting jostled on the narrow pavement in front of me.
“It’s the first night of all the Christmas dos.”
Then a young black couple.
Then a rickshaw driver comes to a flashy stop on the other side of the road and stands up on his pedals.
“Yeah, ya fuckin’ cunt!”
As Patrick comes back with the drinks another rickshaw driver pulls up outside the Coach. A number of these guys like to have a gimmick to pull in the punters. This one has got himself a banana-coloured Batman suit. He springs from his saddle and with a bow and a gallant sweep of the arm he ushers his passengers into the pub.
“You won’t find a finer pint of the black stuff anywhere else in London, folks.”
Me and P exchange looks. This fella must be getting the odd pint and a sandwich. As he goes back to his rickshaw a northerner in a shell suit walks up.
“What are you supposed to be?”
We’re done talking about food, backgammon, women and whiskey and head home. On my street, outside the Hospital Club, the usual media types are coked up and yawping their heads off. I can normally hear them through my double-glazing. One of them checks their mobile and shrieks, “OMG! Nelson Mandela is dead!”
I jiggle my key into the stiff lock on my front door, kick the bottom, go in and turn on the lights.