My work done, I toddled the length of Bermondsey Street peering critically into windows. Here was a teensy art gallery selling coffee; next door, in stark contrast, was a teensy coffee shop selling art. A barrel-chested man in ironic clothes with an improbably small dog was being rude to the baristas. The Shoreditch of the south, and already breeding its own special twats. I continued northwards, under the railway bridge and through Hays Galleria to emerge at the river by London Bridge. Here one feels most crudely confronted by the city’s architectural japes. The trouble with jokes is that they wear thin: the Shard and the Gherkin are perhaps forgiveable; the Walkie Talkie is not. I told it from across the water that it was The Worst Skyscraper In The World, then wondered where to go next.
London is full of currents. The river flows one way, the tourists flow another, the train lines in all ways, but where will a few hours of idleness and a Day Travelcard take you? It could be anywhere, such as Room 34 of the National Gallery, or Daunt Books in Marylebone, or the café of the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square (home of the finest toilets in London). But sometimes you’ll find yourself drifting unknowingly towards it, and only discover what it is once you’re there.
My favourite of the skyscrapers I’ve seen at firsthand is probably the Wrigley Building in Chicago, because it’s like a Victorian town hall that has been stretched upwards by some Titan. Actually that makes it sound like a jape, but at least it’s a good one. Or perhaps it’s just American gigantism: we send stuff across the Pond and they send it back bigger. Like Halloween.
We spent Halloween morning on the beach at Woolacombe. It was one of those English autumn days of chill wind interspersed with bursts of unseasonable warmth, so that nobody knows quite what to wear. There were people in t-shirts and people in winter coats. I wore jeans, a polo shirt, walking shoes and a jacket, and not one of those things was right.
The girls were in splash-suits and wellies and perfectly content– they’ve had dozens of days on the beach and only one that I can remember was a proper hot summer’s day. For them, the beach is not associated with lazing in sunshine but with earnest manual labour in adverse conditions. They carried their buckets and spades down from the car park and set to furious digging the instant they stepped onto sand, right in everyone’s way. One man virtually tripped over the oblivious E. I looked enviously at his outfit of long shorts, sunglasses, beanie hat and bodywarmer – the bastard had nailed it.
Later, back at their grandparents’ house the girls continued with more standard Halloween work, namely drawing scary pictures and ‘helping’ with the Jack-o’-Lantern. When it got dark they donned their costumes – C a lithe black cat, miaowing; E a plump pumpkin, crying ‘Pumkin! Pumkin!’ (obviously) – and we all marched around the house and garden with torches chanting ‘A Halloween Parade, a Halloween Parade!’ It was so bloody brilliant I fear we might have invented a new Tradition.
That night Mrs B and I went down The White Lion. They had no beer as none of the pumps were working. “That’s a first,” I said to the landlord, a young Devonian man dressed in the scrumpy/surfing/magic mushroom style that I think of as ‘rural gothic’. “We’ve got bottles,” he said, and pulled a Doom Bar out of the fridge. The fridge wasn’t working either so it was nice and warm. Using what remained of his ice cubes he made Mrs B a gin-and-tonic Slush Puppy. Then he announced to the pub that he was going out to get some more bottles, and that in his absence a couple sitting on stools by the bar would be in charge.
I examined the couple closely. She was a stout middle-aged lady, perfectly ordinary-looking except for a pink streak running through her fair hair. He was a skinny brigand from Birmingham with a villainous goatee and black hair scraped back into a stumpy knot. When people wanted drinks they took it in turns to climb down from their stools and go round behind the bar to dig out warm beers or pour generous spirit measures into the wrong kind of glass. We made the most of the opportunity and got another gin Slush Puppy in.
After a while they were joined at the bar by a very posh blonde lady in Hunter wellingtons and the three were soon engaged in an earnest conversation. From my eavesdropping I gleaned that the posh lady was some sort of Wiccan, or white witch. She didn’t approve of Halloween in its commercial manifestation. They were all quite interested in folk dancing: Morris, and also similar Scandinavian versions. There are currents running through Devon, too. Dark ones, heading up from Cornwall and across the water from Wales and down from London through England’s occult history. Bloody axes at the Tower, Guy Fawkes on the fire. Through the meadow grass and under the paving stones, will-o’-the-wisp teasing in the peat bogs and cackling Jack-o’-Lantern heads carved from turnips. Not pumpkins, that’s just American gigantism. I began to feel drunk and uneasy. We rose and went out to have dinner somewhere safe.
Dad leaned unsafely over the firework. I pointed the torch at his fingers, which were fighting a box of matches. The wind was spiteful and loaded with fat raindrops. After a mere forty or fifty attempts the fuse lit and we pegged it across the garden to where C was sitting in a state of great expectation. Hmmph, went the Roman candle. Then pfft pfft pfft pfft pfft. A brief succession of red and green sparks politely announced themselves then laid down to die in the flowerbeds. The rain became heavier: we managed one more firework and a couple of sparklers before it drove us indoors.
‘That was the best fireworks ever!’ C, without irony, told her sister, who doesn’t like bangs and had insisted on watching from the other side of the kitchen window.
London’s currents, it turned out, took me along the Jubilee Line to Westminster Abbey, which I entered despite the cost and the many tourists. Something was drawing me towards it, and, as ever, when I arrived at it I knew the place for the first time. It was the cruel jape played upon his female ancestors by James I. The effigy of England’s greatest Monarch depicts her as an old woman, tiny and wrinkled. She shares a tomb with her Protestant-hating half-sister, who is buried beneath her but has no monument. The insult to both is shocking, as is the grand tomb for James’ mother, the so-called Queen of Scots, across the way. The twee Latin inscription on the base says: Partners in throne and grave, here we sleep Elizabeth and Mary, sisters in hope of the Resurrection. Dah de dum de dum de dah.
I contemplated the stone visage of our Greatest Monarch and made my vow: I cannot say when and I cannot say how, but someday, Your Majesty, I will right this Wrong. This I swear in the sight of God. And on that day the people will rejoice, the ravens will sing and England will be reborn in fire and magic, and all the ugly sins of Fenchurch Street will burn red green and gold, like a Roman candle in the cold and starless night.