I came to London from the Caribbean Spice Island of Grenada in the late 1950’s. Join me as I look back at the city I met on my arrival and what it is today.
It is an appropriate time to take this journey, knowing that millions from around the world will soon be focusing on the Olympics. Many of those who will be lucky to be here in London may be doing so for the first time and may be as excited as I was on my arrival to Britain because of the fore-knowledge of the city I had; but the realities of the city did not live up to my distant imagination.
All the usual attractions — Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, the Tower of London, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, Madam Tussauds, the Houses of Parliament and the River Thames—were already familiar to me. So from the moment I set foot on British soil after a grueling 14 day journey—airplane from Grenada to Barbados, ship across the Atlantic to Tenerife and Barcelona, train to Calais, ferry to Dover on the English east coast, special boat train to Victoria station, London— I was ready to explore.
Of course, like every Caribbean schoolboy, I knew the geography, history and institutions of London very well because of the colonial education we received, typified by The Mighty Sparrow’s song “Dan is the man in the van”.
The Black Cab was a fascination for me, even though I was unimpressed with the taxi driver who sat holding on to his steering wheel instead of getting out to help me with my luggage, something that would have automatically happened back home.
Being careful with my funds, I kept my eyes riveted to the meter that registered the fare. In those days it was pennies, but they soon added up to pounds. The roads were not as crowded, there were fewer traffic lights and the type of Black Cabs varied in shape. There was no such thing as a mini cab, not even guys hustling privately for a fare, nor was there the rigid restriction of one way streets and video cameras tracking your every movement as we now have.
Oh the smell of the smog and the fog! I used to love to listen to the fog horns of the ferry boats on the Thames and spent an enormous amount of time standing on the bridges watching the flow of the river. It was as murky then as it is now.
There were fewer policemen on the streets than there are today and the “Bobby on the beat” carried batons; there were no guns and so much equipment slung around their waistlines. One felt it easy to approach the friendly Bobby on the street to ask for directions and believe me, they really knew the roads and those who didn’t would do their utmost to assist.
Just the fact of being in London to write back home or send a postcard of monumental buildings to friends and relatives created a buzz. The red post boxes and telephone booths jelled with the air of London being “Royal”. And the Royal Mail postman delivered letters four times a day!
Sitting in my tiny room close to a smelly paraffin heater gazing at the rose patterned papered walls and dim light bulb to write to relatives and friends meant so much; the magic of it all made me feel closer to those who were thousands of miles away from me.
Going to bed and waking up in this City was quite different to what I was accustomed to back home, I missed the crowing of the morning cockerels, the donkey braying, dogs barking, the sound of footsteps on the stony roads, the voice of someone like my Mother or Father willing me to rise with the rising sun on the horizon and all its splendid blaze of colours.
Here in London I was then on my own and had to take responsibility. Crawling out of the warm bed onto the cold linoleum flooring to light up the paraffin heater before getting into a bathtub of water that had to be heated with money inserted into a slot machine were all new challenges. But it was all part of what youth and adventure needed to structure one’s future direction for growth and responsibility.
What a city! Transportation mainly by buses, trains and black cabs; the Tube was the place for most of us. The fares were in pennies compared to the pounds of today The London Transport Underground offered me my first job after 60 applications for managerial posts, so I have remained one of its preservers because it is reliable, it gets you where you want to go. It was the place where one felt warm whatever the weather conditions and a study of the Underground map meant that one could move to places beyond Central London using the network of lines that has since multiplied. Those were the days when a taxi or a Green Line bus was the only public transport to the airport far from central London.
Dress styles and fashion have changed enormously over the years. We came with Hollywood fashioned styles, men with made to fit suits and three tone shoes, women cutting a dash with specially made up-to-date styles kitted out, gloves, hats and dresses and In the 1950 fashionable clothing for the white collar worker in Britain were mostly pinstriped suits, Bahula Hats, black umbrellas neatly folded. Moss Bros or Saville Row suits for the upper classes and Cecil Gee’s and Burton’s off the peg suits and caps for the masses. The women mostly wore high heel court shoes that gave them hell in the freezing cold. Comfortable or not, shoes then were highly polished.
I took time off after playing music at club venues to get down to Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square to pick up the early edition newspapers to check my overnight bets on the dogs on my way to Trafalgar Square to catch the night bus that was not as regular as they are today to take me home. There were street characters that I knew well and looked forward to meeting, the little sausages and onions push carts that sold oily foods to revelers and night workers. I knew many of them personally because they too travelled on the night buses that took us home to North London and I was glad to have them as travelling companions after getting off the bus to foot it home after the drop off.
The London of today has fewer public houses and more wine bars and discos, and our streets are crowded by night and day. But there is variety everywhere, different nationalities, fashion, foods, the theatre, music and entertainment of all kinds. There is nothing London does not offer. What one cannot see, just ask and it’s there for you at a price. London is a friendly place to visit, but one has to decide the type of friends one chooses and where friendship ends in most cases.
What will you be looking for if you are coming to London? Well, with the internet today there is quality and choice, but that does not tell you all about our city. It is the people you will meet and the buzz you’ll feel that will enliven your stay if you are fortunate to be here during the Olympics. However, if you are not lucky enough to be here you can still engulf yourself in the delights offered by the Olympic City on worldwide net.
Even after 50 years living in this city as a musician, entertainer, broadcaster, children’s author, playwright and parent and one who has moved around, to keep in touch I have to refresh myself with the scope of services provided in present-day London.
Whether or not you’ll be in London town this summer, here are a couple of songs to whet your appetite: “London City” by Arrow (Alphonsus Cassell) and “Streets of London” by Ralph McTell. Lord Kitchener’s “London is the place for me”, The Mighty Sparrow’s “London Bridge is falling down”.
They offer us a view of London that is related not only with stone monuments, but with the people of the city; they paint interesting pictures with great storylines to stretch your imagination.
London is a city of romance and variety that I have grown to love. So too will you. Trust me.
© Alex Pascall, OBE.
Good Vibes City Blog 2016
Introducing the first Special Broadcast of “Alex Pascall’s Londoners” on Boxing Day, Good Vibes Radio, a new Internet radio station that celebrated Christmas and welcomed the New Year with music, stories, cuisine and an interview with the Rt. Hon Jeremy Corbyn MP, leader of the opposition Labour Party in the UK.Read more →