Friday, March 9, 2007

Sojourn in London Town

In March of 1960, like many an Australian before me, I set sail from Sydney for Britain, for only the very rich flew in those days. The voyage, on an Italian ship called the Fairsky, lasted 5 weeks and went via the Suez Canal, finally arriving in Plymouth in early Spring. I was travelling alone but met, on the voyage, two other Australian girls and we decided to find a flat together in London.

We rented the top floor of a house in Stamford Brook, on the green line of the Underground. Two New Zealand girls had the middle floor and we shared a bath and toilet with these girls, with the main floor being the domain of the old English couple who owned the house. Behind the house was a small pleasant garden which we overlooked and a private lawn tennis club over the fence and later in the summer we listened with pleasure to the sound of ball on racquet and the players gentilely calling the score.

We then set about finding work. One was a secretary and had no trouble. I, after establishing my credentials with the Pharmacy Board, easily found locum work and the third, with an MSc in Chemistry, found work as a Science teacher in a high school. Soon we settled into a routine of working and being tourists in one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

Australia has a very short history and we had learned the history of Britain in high school. So for the first time we visited historic places which were only pictures in books to us. Every weekend we went to see some new exotic historical site. I can't tell you what I felt the first time I saw an ordinary house with a discreet brass plaque that said Charles Dickens lived here from year such and such to year such and such. I stood there mesmerized. I loved British history and to set foot in places where these famous historical figures had trodden was incredible to me.

Perhaps the greatest delight for me was the theatre and the opera and the ballet. In London, unlike in North America, there were cheap seats available for all theatres. Of course the seats were not prime, usually "in the gods", an expression meaning in the upper balcony. But affordable. So we went to the theatre, usually once during the week and at the weekend. I actually had the pleasure of seeing Sir Alec Guinness on the stage. He played TE Lawrence in Terence Rattigan's play Ross. Musical comedies were still in vogue and among others, I saw Irma La Douce for the first time. Another highlight of my theatrical experience in London was a rare performance of Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera, at Covent Garden.

London also boasts some of the most splendid art galleries in the world including the Tate and the National Gallery which houses one of the greatest collections of European art. And who can forget the British Museum? I was fortunate to work close by for a three week period and went there every day to spend my lunch hour wandering through the galleries. Then there is the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world's greatest museum of art and design. Yes London was a virtual treasure trove for me.

But everday living in London was not so pleasant. We had no refrigerator so had to shop almost daily, as Brits are well known to do. We took our clothes to the laundromat and couldn't hang anything outside to dry because pollution made it dirtier than before washing. We had to put money in gas meters for cooking and for hot water to take a bath so we always had to make sure we had lots of shilling coins. The water was so hard that we had to add detergent to the bath water to avoid the soap scum floating on top. Our furnished flat was so shabby and threadbare and we had no telephone although the English couple did allow us to receive calls on their phone, which was luckily in the hallway, but not make them.

So the next year, after I married an Australian who was finishing up a post-doctoral fellowship in Chemistry at University College, we happily left London to go to Canada where he had obtained a position at the university in Vancouver.

Strangely enough, although I've been to Europe many times since then, I've never been back to London. I don't know why. I guess, after living there for almost two years, I must feel I've "done" London.


mhr said...

I've only been once to London, en route to Glasgow, but I would love to go back.

I shared "digs" twice while staying in the UK. I first shared a little semi-detached house with 2 other girls, when living in England. In Glasgow I shared a huge flat with 5 other persons!
Although the experience was quite fun at the time, I don't think I could do this again :)

mhr said...

PS.... :)

Unfortunately, nobody proposed to me while I was there, so I had to go back to France!

jmb said...

Well mhr,
It was never my intention to stay there but on the other hand it was never my intention to come here either.
I must say that I enjoyed my stay with those two girls, but I think I am way past it now. I like my own space. Well I do share now but we have a huge house so don't annoy each other too much.

Julie said...

Great memories! I think you would find london a changed place now; cleaner, busier etc. But also pretty expensive. I think though it might be worth a visit if you are in Europe.

jmb said...

Hi Julie,
I did love my time in London and I don't know why I haven't been back. They do theatre tours from here to there in the winter time and I think I would love that. Everyone who goes says that everything costs the same in pounds as in dollars and this makes it twice the price.