Life, Travel

A Night on the Town

In Downton Abbey, they always used to talk about going ‘up’ to London, even when they lived in Yorkshire. I have read somewhere, and it may even have been true, that this was to do with the start of the railway lines. Even though the first trainline built in the UK was between Liverpool and Manchester, the original ‘main’ lines emanated from London. The ‘up’ trains travelled to London, while the ‘down’ trains travelled away.

I pondered all this while we sat stock still on the M6, last Friday, waiting for an accident, a few miles down the road, to be cleared out of the way, thinking, a train ride would have been a better idea. I was also wondering if I was going to miss my birthday present.

Anne had given me just a card on my actual birthday, but written inside, in her loopy letters, was a description of what I’d be getting. A night in the West End, with tickets to see a play and hotel nearby so we didn’t have to navigate the tubes or buses back to her son’s in Mill Hill. Excited much? I’ll say.

As we watched the cars on the other side of the barrier flow freely by, I attempted to reconcile myself to the possibility of missing the play: we would still have the hotel; we could still go out for a meal; I can’t really miss what I haven’t seen. I had almost got to a point of zen when the traffic finally started shifting and we did, just, get to town in time.

The Gielgud Theatre is a beautiful baroque style building, on Shaftesbury Avenue in the West End, and just a walk away from our hotel in Holburn. As we don’t get out much, the crowds on the street were a little overwhelming. But many of the Christmas lights were on, or maybe it’s this sparkly all year round, so we started to feel the spirit of a Friday night in London.

Christmas is coming

The play we came to see was The Mirror And The Light, adapted from the Hilary Mantel book, the last part of the Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. We had seats in the stalls with excellent views of an excellent cast, including Ben Miles as Cromwell and Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII.

I haven’t watched many adapted books on the stage and I find it intriguing to see how it’s done. Obviously, great swathes of the book, which is the longest of the three, were removed completely. Many of the characters were also dispensed with, or given a token appearance, to move the plot, or highlight the underlying politics. They gave more prominence to Cromwell’s ghosts and making his father the axe man in order to allow him to say the star line was clever. Plus they began the play near the end of the book which worked very well, starting in medias res (in the midst of things), a term I’ve just learnt on my course so I can bandy it about proficiently.

Walking back, after 11pm, the multitudes were still milling. But, whether it was the interval wine, or the absorption in the play, we felt ourselves in concert with them, rippling out into the convivial night.

A side street, showing lots of people and red lanterns hung all the way down.
Party in the streets

It was a really wonderful evening, and definitely made me want to venture into the heart of the Big Smoke a little more than I have done. But maybe next time, we will take the train.

Books

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

The front cover of the book
A hefty hardback but a light and enjoyable read.

This book had been sitting on a book shelf in our house for quite a while. Anne had read it, of course, many moons ago. She is a much more prolific reader than me.  However she couldn’t remember much about it other than she had enjoyed it, and so I had to go through it myself.

The title certainly grabbed me as I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the fantastical and the prosaic. It sounded like there could be a little magic realism which I often like if it’s done well.

It is set in late eighteenth century London, just after the United States has been born and just before the French revolution. The timing feels important because there is so much about identities in this book: ancient and newly created, and this is a time when the upward mobility of the mercantile class is really starting to happen. With British ships sailing the world over, and trade and slavery bringing new wealth into the pockets of businessmen as well as the nobility.

Mr Hancock is one of these such men but he begins, in the book, as a bit sad and lonely, haunted by the death of his wife in childbirth and his still born son several years back. Fretfully waiting for his ship to literally come in, and living in Deptford, an honest working town in the unfashionable south of the river.

The Mrs Hancock in question is anything but prosaic and for two thirds of the book she is also not Mrs Hancock but a high class, if somewhat frivolous, prostitute called Angelica Neal. She has just returned to society after her previous benefactor died and left her with nothing. Her old pimp Bet Chappell wants her to return to the ‘nunnery’.

How these two unlikely companions come together is the core of this book but there is so much more. Mermaids for a start, and possibly more than one, or possibly none, such is the slippery nature of the beast. In an age when these ships are bringing so many new things from abroad for the delight of the chattering classes and the coffee drinking men of means, mermaids remain a very high possibility.

It is written in the present tense and takes on the viewpoint of various characters allowing the reader to see an interesting cross-section of life. The language is delightfully vivacious and earthy. I have a bad habit of skipping past descriptive sections but I found myself enjoying the writer’s turn of phrase so much that I lapped these parts up as much as the action.

Jane Austen, writing in the same period that this is set may have kept away from some of the more ribald aspects. But she would have recognised the proscriptive place of women. From Mr Hancock’s older sister who inherits nothing of their father’s business to Polly, a child of a slave, picked up and polished to be a sexual curio for wealthy men. From Sukie, Mr Hancock’s niece, pulled out of school for being too clever, to Angelica, supposedly free of society’s repressive constraints but completely at the mercy of a man’s credit.

The book dips into the fantastic, occasionally a little clumsily, but where it stays with reality it paints a very engaging picture of eighteenth century life. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was very pleased to have found it on our bookshelves.