While traveling through Europe that year I’d set a tight budget: $10 per day, excluding travel. In London, this tiny allowance would be tested. The first night I tramped about Kings Cross station looking for economical accommodations. Most were at prices that fully consumed my budget goal. I chose the cheapest of the lot and the next day scoured classifieds looking for something under $5 per day. I avoided hostels, to be free of Americans with Eurorail passes moving about in herds. There were a hundred too many young Yanks, each backpacking through Europe with indeterminate plans to some day attend grad school when back home. They simply didn’t interest me. I wanted to live among locals.
A boarding house in northeast London at Highbury & Islington at £2.50 a night caught my eye. The exchange rate of $1.85 per pound was favorable, so the room came to a frugal $4.65 per night. It also included a full English breakfast, so that would cut down on food costs. I had a private room with a free-standing tub, sink, high ceilings, and water chamber down the hall.
The building was a sprawling Victorian affair, a bit shabby and nearly a mile from the tube stop, which meant there were no tourists in sight. In fact, the boarding house only accepted men, mostly tradesmen and laborers. Breakfast was served from 5:30 to 7:30 am in a drab, low-ceiling basement. We sat on benches at heavy wooden tables hunched over our hot breakfasts. It was the same every day: runny baked beans, greasy bacon, stewed tomatoes, bread toasted on one side, butter, marmalade, cornflakes, tea, juice, and coffee, all served cafeteria style. There was little conversation. Men of all ages sat sullenly contemplating another day’s labor. It was fine by me. I rose early, ate the hearty fare, and was out the door for my day’s adventure.
Soon after arriving, I read about a free concert at Victoria Park in east London. There were expected to be 80,000 fans to march from Trafalgar Square to Rock Against Racism, as the event was known. After observing the masses at Trafalgar I’d hopped the tube to the park. In early 1978, punk music was pretty new. I considered England’s biggest act, the Sex Pistols to be dreadful. But, the Clash were different – talented musicians with inventive lyrics, good melodies, and two front-men, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones who rocked with the best of them.
I sidled my way up front near the stage. When the Clash performed mobs of young men jumped up and down some with violent intent. From its resemblance to a pogo stick, Pogo-ing soon became a verb. I joined along, but the most rambunctious of the pack swung heads and fists so violently that I beat a quick retreat to safer spaces along the edge. Also on the Rock Against Racism program that day were: the Tom Robinson Band (political rock); Steel Pulse (reggae) and X-ray Spex (punk), with only TRB being any good.
During most days, I’d visit museums, galleries, historical monuments, fashionable squares, parks, and vibrant districts. Hyde Park, Speaker’s Corner was always a hoot, like the half-bearded wit who entertained the crowd for an hour. Towards early evening I’d gravitate to areas with cheap restaurants to peruse menus, looking for the best prix fixe value for a multi-course meal. Those deals were usually found in immigrant districts so I often dined in Indian, Pakistani, or Middle Eastern joints.
I typically planned an evening’s entertainment and often joined the London Walks around famous neighborhoods. These walks had names like Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street or the Secret World of Jack the Ripper. You’d meet the guide at a pub. Then a dozen or so tourists followed a well-spoken Brit who guided us through the streets of London relating topical stories with anecdotal stops at key points.
At the end of the typical 90-minute tour, most of the crowd topped off their evening with a pint or two in the pub where we’d first met. Some nights I’d catch a music performance, some freely presented in a club or church. I saw a bit of theater, the one to remember being Agatha Christies’ “Mousetrap,” the world’s longest-running play having been continuously performed since 1952. I’d hope to have seen more theater, like my literary hero, Somerset Maugham did when he was a youth 80 years earlier, but ticket prices were far higher than those days when Maugham paid pennies for a show.
Afterward, I’d catch the tube back to Islington & Highbury station for the long walk home under lamp lights to my boarding house. Sometimes the station was filled with festive, red-garbed Arsenal soccer fans, as the football stadium was a 15-minute walk. Sometimes one’s thoughts conjured dire images of walking home alone at night in a foreign city. But fortunately, this area hadn’t much cause for concern as few people were out late, and the ones that were had work in the morning. Still, I stayed alert as getting jumped was never far from my mind.
One night whilst on a London Walk, I met a young Brit about my age who told me Queen was playing at Empire Pool (now Wembley Arena). The thought of spending a night at the opera with Freddy Mercury and Brian May was enticing so plans were made to meet at a certain time and place outside the arena. The bloke never showed so I bought a ticket (£2.50) and found myself witnessing one of the greatest performing bands of all time. Queen rocked most all their hits, including eight songs from “Night at the Opera” and some lesser-known personal favorites like “39” and “Love of My Life.”
My favorite hobby was reading London newspapers. Newsstands were everywhere, and it was easy to find discarded copies at any rail or subway station. I read them all: Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Evening Standard, Daily Mail, London Times (a tad too dry), and page 3 of the Sun (aficionados will understand). There were also the weekly music rags like Melody Maker and New Music Express filled with stories about rock and pop groups of the day with a listing of nightly happenings at hundreds of music venues scattered through town. Rare but welcome was the International Herald-Tribune, a joint-venture daily by the New York Times and Washington Post, bringing news of home, especially U.S. sports which weren’t often covered abroad.
I made one brief sojourn from London to Oxford to see a hometown friend, Anne Biege who was studying there. She showed me about the storied campus and we had a pint at the Eagle and Child, the pub made famous by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and fellow inklings. Anne found me a bed in her friend Tim Gallagher’s room. He was an English major with a fascination for Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene.” In an ancient cathedral, I made a brass rubbing from an armored knight. I still have it.
My two-month visa to the United Kingdom was set to expire in a few days. I’d spent a month in Wales (including one week traveling with a rugby team up the Irish coast) and nearly a month in London. Soon it was time to head back to Paris and join my sister, Danica for her birthday, then head for Spain.
Here’s the postcard I wrote home to the folks towards the end of my stay in London.
May 8, 1978
Dear Mom & Dad,
Well, I’m here in London and have been about a week and a half now. It’s a great city though I now have a much different perspective of it than I had 10 years ago. I’ve been trying to go out every night and have so far seen three plays, four movies, five rock groups (all in one day at a free open-air, Anti-Nazi concert in Victoria Park), one classical concert, and innumerable pubs. I’m living in a nice ‘dump’ in the suburb of Highbury, northwest of the city. It’s kind of a working-class boarding house for those single people on the lower end of the economic ladder. Quite comfortable, yet unremarkable, though its cheapness compensates adequately.
I’ve been really active touring and such, having taken in many of the main and not-so-main sights of London. Among the more notable with short descriptions:
- House of Commons – where I heard the Rhodesia problem debated.
- Old Bailey – where I saw a real live murder trial.
- Hyde Park – where the better part of yesterday’s sunny Sunday was spent listening to all sorts of weirdos at Speaker’s Corner.
- Tower Hill, a Chelsea pub walk, a Dickens’ Oliver Twist walk, most of the major art museums, the London Stock Exchange, and several assorted churches.
I wrote to Anne Biege and will call her Wednesday in hopes of going to see her in Oxford. Tonight I plan to go to the Marquee Club for a rock concert in the same club the Rolling Stones frequently played in the early Sixties.
Oh, by the way, this postcard represents my favorite picture from today’s visit to the gallery listed below (Edouard Manet, The Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1881 – Courtauld Institute Galleries, University of London). I’ve been doing that with each visit to a gallery lately. I still haven’t written to Barry. Ahhh . . . tell him I lost his address. I’ve written Jean a couple of times though I just got a letter from Dana the other day. Also, got Scott Hamilton and his English sheepdog, Gretchen off at Heathrow Airport okay.
As they say here, “All the best.” – Bill
2 replies on “Living London’s Life – 1978”
Great writings of great memories Bill. I went to London for a spell just a couple years later and during the early 80s lived in West Berlin and Switzerland for a spell, but mostly in NYC. The famous anti-racism concert sounded wonderful. The band that has proven to be as important as the Clash is X-ray Specs (They broke up not too long after this famous concert, when Poly, the lead singer started having hallucinations while on stage). Lucky you to see these groups in their prime and in their hometown. Nice writing. I traveled a lot and still do (Just came off a tour in Mexico earlier this month and in July, I’m off to England/Scotland and hopefully Norway. I should write some memories down.
Bill – Thank you for your kind words. Yes, please do write down memories. Here’s my advice: organize your thoughts and focus on the most powerful memories. If you’re like me, those are the only ones you still have. If you have any artifacts from the era, dig them out – they’re good for generating forgotten anecdotes. Then I start writing free form and go as long as the inspiration remains. I’ll step away for a week or two, and then edit, edit, edit to make your thoughts coherent and orderly to tell the story you want to tell. Some stuff will be clunky, so after checking my ego at the door, I finally discard it, or reposition as a shorter passage to illustrate a point. And if you have a close friend or two with whom you’ve shared the experience, send the draft to them as they will no doubt come back with some good ‘remember whens’. Also, thanks for commenting on my NYC post ~ we had such a blast. I used to travel there more during the 80s when my sister was living in Soho, but my wife and I hadn’t been since 2005 when we took our three boys. While fun and fast-paced, there’s a reason I never tried moving there. I never had the sustained energy to do it day after day. The Black Diamond / Lake Sawyer life suited me best. Take care and good luck should you proceed with writing.