Maiden Luxe recently put up a post called 'London Calling', which contains lots of black and white photos taken there in the 50's and 60's. Well, here are some echoes bouncing back from the other side of the world.
Both my parents were born there, as were my brothers and sisters, and I was only born out of it because of their evacuation during the Blitz of WW2. My father's family were countless generations of East Enders, and judging from the stories my father used to tell, Bow Bells almost deafened him at birth. If you look closely, you might be able to see his birthplace toward the top of the photo above.
I was brought up about 30 miles away from London, so we made regular trips to my parent's old playground when I was a child, via the 6 line railway that stretched between the City and Brookwood, the vast cemetery built in the 19th century to contain the thousands of corpses that London had no space left for, having filled up centuries beforehand. The regular funeral train passed through Woking - a town built around the station - carrying dozens of coffins and mourners at a time. It was nick-named 'The Ghost Train'. By this time, Woking, Esher and all the outlying towns and villages within a 30 mile radius of London Bridge had effectively been swallowed up by the city, as the Regency period houses sprang up in hamlets like Kensington, and the march further westwards was continued by the Victorians. Greater London is a truly vast city, by anyone's standards.
As a child, I knew when we were arriving in central London without having to look out of the train window, as the sulphurous stench of Battersea Power Station became overpowering from 5 miles away. This enormous building, sprawled across the south bank of the Thames, looked like a gargantuan, stricken animal, lying on it's back with it's legs in the air, dirty-yellow smoke pouring from each sole of it's four feet. I could not understand how my mother appeared not to notice it, let alone not gag on it as I did.
Being somewhat strapped for cash, we always took a Routemaster, double-decker, red bus into town if we had not come by car - the black cabs were a luxury we could not afford. People used to jump on and off these open-ended busses whilst they were still moving in those days - something unthinkable in today's H & S controlled environment. I saw someone kill them self once, by hopping off a slowing bus just in time to make smart contact with the steel bus-stop pole which marked his destination.
Once in town, the smells and sights were exotic, frightening and exciting for a child in the 1950's. Plumes of blue smoke pouring from vents and into the street from coffee roasters. Music Hall style, elderly men dressed in battered top hats, performing a soft-shoe shuffle on freshly sprinkled sand, next to a wind-up gramaphone playing faux Egyptian music, in order to entertain queues forming outside theaters in Drury Lane. Tall, smartly dressed, African men with skin so black that it appeared green in the city gloom. Messianic, mentally unhinged preachers wearing hand-painted, heavy wooden sandwich-boards, daubed with messages of imminent doom. The green-coated, top-hatted flunkies outside Harrods, striding into the street to hail taxis for the titled customers standing with piles of shopping in boxes and bags on the pavement. The fantastical windows of Harvey Nichols and Selfridge's, which were windows on to another world beyond our reach. The glittering deco front and staircase of Simpson's in Piccadilly. Indians with turbans, and the hoards of 'businessmen' marching through the throng, wearing pin-stripe suits and bowler hats, carrying umbrellas which were never opened. There were also the hundreds of WW2 bomb-sites - great budlia-filled craters interspersed between shops and houses - which were not built on again until the 1960s.
Often, these sights, sounds and smells were muffled by a thick blanket of yellow fog - a 'pea-souper' - caused not only by the stricken animal in Battersea, but also by the thousands of small, coal fires which everyone lit during the winter months. Sometimes, you could see no further than 6 feet in front of you when the fog came down. I have a DVD of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, filmed in the 1930s, and in it, Holmes and Watson step out of Baker Street and into a London pea-souper. This film was made in California, using English actors. Watson has a suntanned face that could only have been acquired by sitting by a pool in Bel Air, whilst not at the studio. In order to signify to the viewers that this scene takes place at night, the sound of cicadas can be heard chirruping away in the background, and in order to signify fogginess, a few blasts of a ship's fog-horn are heard from what seems to be distance of about a quarter of a mile or less.
The very name London seemed to weigh about 3 tons, when I was a child.
There is one book that utterly encapsulates the whole, timeless vibe of London for me, and that book is 'London - The Biography', by Peter Ackroyd. It's an ostentatious title, I know, but if your vision of London is limited to the Swinging Sixties, Carnaby Street, etc. and Buckingham Palace (not you, Mrs Luxe!), then get hold of a copy - it is a truly wonderful book, even if you only dip into it for reference.