Somehow the nights were getting longer and longer, even for London's deepest winter.
Things like Haendel's "Messiah" were being practiced, produced and performed
all over, so the proof that Christmas was near was evident.
(of course "George" was never scruffy and NEVER spilt
The glass paradise of the Royal Festival Hall resounded with this music,
but so did many other places, and slowly but surely the 'new' novelty (it came around every year) was wearing thin.
George didn't seem to be aware of seasons, festivals or other such mundane
things, maybe the passing of time in the Gordon's cellars made such things unimportant, and so much the more startled were we
(my mentor Bill and myself) when suddenly, one evening, as we were on the
point of leaving, to hear George's rare voice, behind us.....
"Happy Christmas, sirs"!
This was more than rare, and constituted almost a breach of the regulations,
but it was Christmas - so an extra Half-a-crown changed hands, and with
Dickensian heads bent, we hurried out into the dark, Christmassy London
Since it was the pre-Christmas period, our goal this evening was upwards, away from the Bridge, underneath the Arches of Charing Cross overgroundstation,
turn right and follow up what I think I recall as "Duke's Street".
This came out around the area of Trafalgar Square, close to Northumberland Avenue, but we hadn't arrived there as yet, for in the Duke Street were one
or two little things which always took our time (then and later) and sometimes
Police did occasionally come around and move on those whom they considered 'undesirable'. Seemed often to be a rather un-democratic process, and rather useless too,
but at this time of the year, there were things happening. Christmas carols were being sung, accompanied as usual by the Salvation Army, a soup kitchen was dishing out stuff in chipped, battered metal mugs, thrown away by the British Army, their chocolate brown colour now rather dilapidated, and covered on the inside by the stains of countless thousands of mugs of tea.
This soup wasn't for us anyway, but we could (and did) profit
from the music, the smell, some of those Christmassy smells!
smells of the soup, and just a little way up the road one could see, and smell a hot
chestnut stall, the redness of the brazier making things seem a little unreal.
Pubs weren't our normal goal, they tended not to have wine at
For one price (and very reasonable too) one could stuff ones self full for hours,
the only problem being what to drink, for the drinks were not free of course.
It was also not far from Gordon's - Free Vintners!
Always a condition.....!
This pub also pulled a great number of interesting and varied people, from the
world of..........just about everywhere.....
and not too far away from their work places, but just far enough away as to be
able to eat and drink in peace.
The list of 'notables' or 'prominents' encountered in this pub over the years was
Suffice it to say that they ranged from Royalty to scruffy, intellectual writers of pieces like this, popular at the time......
"Private Eye" a popular satirical magazine of the time
Since it was Christmas, the buffet was arranged with all those things we would
be sick of within the next 10 days, so we contented ourselves with a little gin
and tonic, a quick look around, a word of hello here and there, and then off we
went into the dark night again.
It didn't stay dark for very long, for Trafalgar Square very quickly hit us in the
face, and although we had the practiced art of sliding around the corner
discretely, it was always a pain for the eyes.
Now the time of great choice had arrived.
One of 4 or 5 in London's centre, and we now had to make the decision of which restaurant we wished to frequent this evening.
There were 4 or 5 different ones, the "Wimpey"on the ground floor, with it's 'everlasting' cup of coffee which filled up automatically at the press of a button.
That was for the tourists, or those up from the 'sticks' to take in a show, but most certainly not for us!
I do beleive my mentor, Bill, would have had a heart attack had I even
For us - the choice of either the "Carving Room" (same principle as in the pub - except that hot and cold meats were served, a cold buffet was also available)
and here you got to CARVE yourself..........
You then heaped together all the accompagning vegetables, puddings,
gravies, sauces and a wonderful cold buffet for those who simply couldn't
squeeze any more Yorkshire's and roast meats inside you!
All as much as you wanted, as often as you went up, and carved or served
This was a true Aladdin's cave, simply from the quantities, and rationing
wasn't so long ago either....!
You chose a starter, from a choice of exotics like prawn cocktails,
tomato soups with parmesan cheese and fresh cream on it (all these things WERE exotic
at the time), and this was served to you, after which you never saw you waiter or waitress,
until the sweet course (a couple of days later) but you knew they must be there, for your
dirty plate was taken away each time you went up to carve another helping!
I honestly don't know how the place made a profit, although I recall once seeing an
extremely large, grosse, man making his way into the restaurant, and thinking that,
here was the end of the way for the Carving Room.
I recall that this man, of at least 2 tons, selected and ate delicately, one piece of cold
chicken breast, together with a couple of lettuce leafs etc!
He must have been on a diat, and just liked SEEING all the food.
He must also have been someone of iron will force.
This was the place for me, but my mentor, Bill , occasionally had in mind my education
( which was all right by me, since I loved fish, but never saw it at home, apart from a sort
of apology of a soppy soup, called 'cod in milk') or an occasional herring from Scotland,
as a reminder of one's origins, (one can't even afford them nowadays, if one could find
them- they have become a rich man's food nowadays), and "The Trident Restaurant" also
on the first floor was chosen, (where everything that is either no longer available, and
certainly not in the quality, or everything which is now completely out of price range for
almost everyone, was served)
The sea on a plate, one could say, cooked to perfection, served with sauces which now
only adorn the covers of excessively expensive cookery books, smoked salmon of a
quality now unknown, salmon itself of a quality unknown for years now.
Lobsters, oysters, mussels, everything that had gills and breathed water rather than air
and all of a quality which took the breath away.
All - my mentor, Bill, assured me - at a modest price!
Now and then, when we were a little more pressed for time, the "Grillroom" or the "Charcoal" were chosen, on the second floor, both of these restaurants
had a nice view out over the Square of Trafalgar and the battling multitudes, together
with a tantalizing aroma of grilled, barbecued, fried, at table prepared (flambiered) meats
or 'crepe suzette' pancakes (crepes), as desserts.
There were even things like table fondues available, but we drew the line at dangerous
stuff, and Bill, my mentor, was still (despite his travel-filled life ) an Englishman at heart!
Even so, these two restaurants were also havens of good hostellry, with Angus beef,
Welsh lamb, veal (an almost unheard of thing at the time), all sizzling on the
"open-to-everyone's-eyes" barbecues, or the wonderful joints of meat being roasted at
large, open fireplaces, (intended for the carving room) and turning slowly on spits.
These places were paradise for me.
Paradise, on a Sunday, was something my father spoke, and taught his sheep about,
(all the time!), but you had to look a long time for anything as close as this to Paradise at
Above all, there was the ultimate in gastronomical pleasure, and cultural or secular delight -
This heaven of good things was based in the cellar, and yet had nothing to do with hell
If this is how you live in hell, take me there!
I'll make reservations for you all.
The Brasserie was the showboat piece of the whole set up,
and indeed became known to the general public later on as "The Showboat"
(a sort of meal with show - we never went again after this change).
The Brasserie was set up as a French style upper-class restaurant, with a small 'combo'
band, which changed costumes occasionally to become a 'gypsy' band, or a real french
group with onions and things.
T'was always the same group, of course, and we got to know various individuals quite
well from our regular visits.
One of the things which brought home to me how much London was
(as I have already said) at the time, really a village, was the discovery that the leader
(and chief violinist- or chief wandering gypsy, playing at tables - all depending) of this
agreable little group, was none other than the brother of another friend, George -
of Gordon's fame!
That George could possibly have a brother, and on top of that a violin playing gypsy/frenchman/coffee-room combo member - well!
The Brasserie system was the time-proven one, of all larger Hotels. Individual tables,
always separated by at least 4-6 feet of space, sprinkled around in a roughly central circle,
at the top of which the musicians had their place, and where people would dance,
in good taste, to the decent and not-overloud music.
The murmur of general conversation made up the atmosphere of this place.
A sort of 'between-war' and disappearing fast, place.
I think it only lasted about 4 years after my first visit, and then became 'Showboat' and
other such things.
The food was impeccable, served in copper platters, often flamed, each group of four
tables had it's own waiter, bow-tied, black suit - in other words wonderful!
How would it not be possible to feel immediately at home, good food, good company,
tradition - a wee Scots laddy had to feel at home, and did!
The evening and the meal would never have been the same if a tradition was not held to.
Two "kummels" would be ordered, and although I absolutely hated (and still do) the taste
(kind of liquoricy) of this stuff, tradition had it that NO meal was complete until our waiter murmured in a voice for our-ears-only "The kummels are coming, sirs!"
This was worth another half-a-crown to him, but was worth the whole evening to us!
A final visit to the Gentlemen's room (serviced by a lady who had sat there for centuries,
with a saucer in front of her) and another wonderful evening had passed.
The normalities of Clapham South awaited - and magic only happens occasionally!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ NOTE:- I had wanted to make this the last episode, but I realised that
there can never be last episodes in magical tours and souvenirs.
I will not change the title of this piece, but the next episode will be named "London Ways"
and will be about the Festival Club, the Coliseum and Globe Theatres, the shadowy figures dressed up in fantasy costumes that floated in and out of the Festival Club, from the stage
door of the Theatres, for a quick 'gin and tonic' between acts.
It will be the first article in an occasional series, "London Ways" in which the London
I knew, of the early sixties and then a little later, both in the Centre and in it's outer
suburbs will feature....
And remember - this isn't so long ago!
iwmpop(mrlemarquis) - Vauvert, France - Juin 2011