To Soho in a charabanc
Tom Blass sees London through the eyes of his teenage daughter and a century-old guidebook
Twelve years ago in Berlin I picked up - of all the things to pick up in Berlin - an ancient travel guide to London, replete with advertisements for corset stays, temperance hotels and liver pills. It instantly became one of my most treas ured possessions, and not once have I considered putting it on eBay, instead planning fantasy journeys around town in taximeter motorcabs, omni buses, trams and the "two-penny Tube".
The idea of a day trip around an older and more innocent city seemed like an amusing few hours' relief from the credit crunch and general 21st-century ghastliness. And I had a hidden agenda - hoping to pique the historical interest of, and steal some quality time with, my wise and kind daughter before she falls into the clutches of an Emo. Or worse. I wouldn't really know the difference, because I'm far too behind the times. But it's the kind of word she uses.
So there were three of us on this charabanc journey: Zoë, 14 years old and In the Now; her father, 37, and only In the Now and Then; and the anonymous author of Ward Lock & Co's Illustrated Guide to London and its Environs (1911), whose identity may remain for ever unknown. But I have it on good authority from my own powers of conjecture that he was a poet manqué with a favourite table at Romano's on the Strand, (lunch from 3/6) who wouldn't be seen dead in a branch of the Aerated Bread Company Tea Rooms, which "seem to increase in number almost weekly", who probably rented a flat in St John's Wood, for which "painters, musicians, authors and actors have a liking", flirted with Masonry in youth and wore quite a lot of tweed.
Being undoubtedly dead, he is unequivocally stuck in the Then, although sufficiently present to offer such timeless good sense as to "take every advantage of a midstreet refuge" when crossing a London street, "to take particular care when the roads are greasy" and, above all, "to not get flurried".
For my sins, I flurry easily, and a day trip in London with a teenage girl and a 97-year-old guidebook is a hard ask. "Look, Zoë! In 1911 the Wigmore Hall was called the Bechstein Hall." Zoë looks swiftly from side to side, muttering that she "so" hopes none of her school friends sees us. Then I compound my Pooterish crime by asking her: Why?
Did the anonymous London guidebook writer in the year of the coronation of George V have to deal with this degree of filial irreverence? His daughter might have said: "I presume that the name change was precipitated by the anti-German sentiment at the outbreak of the First World War." Except she wouldn't have, because in 1911 it hadn't happened, and London was looking forward to a future grimmer even than stagflation and low high-street spending figures. All of subsequent history was no more than unrealised possibility and girls back then weren't supposed to take an interest in politics, because there was little point and they didn't have the vote. But they probably were taken to the West End by cheapskate dads in search of one of the "astonishingly cheap luncheons served at some of the foreign restaurants".
Of the Soho eateries listed in the guide, Villa Villa and Café d'Italie are no more, the Hotel Swiss (an establishment expressly adapted to suit the tastes and requirements of foreigners) is now the Compton pub and only Kettners has survived the travails of the 20th century. So, for the sake of research, Zoë and I are forced to eat microwaved lasagne in a fake posh dining room. "We should have gone for a Chinese," says Zoë. She's right. It would have been cheaper, and more in keeping, somehow, with the spirit of continuity.
Clearly mortified by my search for faded glor ies in the doorways of Soho, Zoë drags me off to a song-and-dance extravaganza in Leicester Square and we squabble about the merits of a number in which a squillion Sixties hits are condensed into a five-minute turn - a travesty of musical history, in my book. But she wins hands down by telling me that I've got to "accept things for what they are".
Here, the guide is out of its depth and offers no sage words to steer me through a vast descending cloud of curmudgeon, save to repair to the premises of a J Lyons & Co, within which - were one to exist - a spot of tea and a bun might be had. But plus ça change and all that, we end up in the Sun Luen Chinese patisserie eating red bean paste cakes. It's only five o'clock and we could climb the Monument and check whether "the view is sublime but the stairs are 311" (no, and yes, I'd say, at a guess), or go to Houndsditch, "scene of the dastardly murder in 1910 of several policemen by alien anarchists". Or we could see what has become of Gamage's, where "anything may be bought, from parasols to pineapples".
But I sense we're wearying of this adventure in generation gap bridging. Mid-bun, Zoë asks how much I'm going to get paid for the article. She is stunned when I tell her and I'm flattered to have impressed by my literary pulling power. "That's nothing," she tells me, and, affronted and stung, I come over all Pooterish again. And I realise that, however bound we all are to each other by the city, there are centrifugal forces at work creating gulfs in our shared understanding. It must be the age gap that makes the difference, I think, and I sense a barely perceptible nod from our guide.
We make our way home through "a stone forest of houses", past a "rushing stream of faces", to our final destination somewhere in the "Middle Ring", for which the average visitor, "having methodically 'done' the orthodox sites, will have little heart, unless the calls of business or of friendship lure him thither".