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.
The glass paradise of the Royal Festival Hall resounded from 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, festival's 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 night sky.
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 our patience.
It was quite a dark and relatively narrow street, and had a tendence to shelter those who could get no place or peace in the Arches area of the station. 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. The Salvation Army had set up stall in the angle of the station fore-court and the start of Duke St., christmas carols were being sung, 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 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.
I can hear the nowaday reader saying - yes, yes, very Dickens! I swear, so was it around the christmas time, even at the start of the 'swinging sixties'.
Our goal was the one and only pub in this street, I cannot recall the name, the Duke of something I think, (I wouldn't go so far as to say the Duke of Dukes Street) or the Duchess of whatever. Pubs weren't our normal goal, they tended not to have wine at the epoch, and we were not beer drinkers at the time, but this one was different, it had a rare thing of the time - a buffet table - lunch and evening! For one price (and very reasonable too) one could stuff oneself 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!
This pub also pulled a great number of interesting and varied people, from the world of the theatre, press, TV and radio, all looking for something good, simple, cheap, 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 impressive, and although I could recount it, I won't, since I beleive they need their rest and peace. Suffice it to say that they ranged from Royalty to scruffy, intellectual writers of pieces for rags like Private Eye (very popular at the time), amongst others.
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. Here we were, in the entrance to "Lyons Corner House". One of 4 or 5 in London's centre, and we now had to make the decision of which restaurant we preferred this evening. There were 4 or 5 different ones, the "Wimpey"on the ground floor, with it's 'everlasting' cup of coffee NOT being included. That was for the tourist's, 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 suggested it!
For us - the choice of either the "Carving Room" (same principle as in the pub - except that hot and cold were offered, and a total of 6 different roast meats/poultry available which you carved yourself) together with all the accompaning vegetables, puddings, gravies, sauces and a wonderful cold buffet for those who simply couldn't squeeze any more beef and yorkshire in. All as much as you wanted, as often as you went up, and carved or served yourself. 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, smoke salmon, 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 willforce.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 excessive cookery books, smoked salmon of a quality now unknown, salmon itself of a quality unknown. Lobsters, oysters, mussels, everything that had gills and breathed water rather than air and all of a quality which took the breath away. All, 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 chosem, 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-everyones-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 to Paradise at our home as these two places, and then in vain!
Above all, there was the ultimate in gastronomical pleasure, and cultural or secular delight; THE BRASSERIE.
This heaven of good things was based in the cellar, and yet had nothing to do with hell or enfer! 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. 'Twas 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 agreeable 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 seperated by at least 4-6 feet of space, sprinkled around a rough 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 kuemmels would be ordered, and although I absolutely hated (and still do) the taste of this stuff, tradition had it that NO meal was complete until our waiter murmured in a voice for our-ears-only "The kuemmels 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 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 realise 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 be described.
weather at Vauvert, France
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