Getting Home

Illustrated London News Christmas edition, 1843.

Drinking up time in December. The pub lights are all on and the music is off, bar staff are shouting and it is clearly time for you to go home. You are suddenly aware that it is late, possibly even very late, and you have to negotiate Londonʼs transport system in the cold, drunk, dark.

My own homebound treks have fused in my memory and details are hard to untangle at this distance, but one episode will stand in for many others. It was the Friday before Christmas, it was midnight and I was walking down St. Martinʼs Lane with my friend and colleague John (NB: not real name). We were aiming for Charing Cross station but we were distracted by the sight of The Salisbury, that ʻgleaming temple of convivialityʼ, festively lit up and still open for business. ʻHow about a brandy?ʼ I said. John is a very elegant man and the Salisburyʼs sumptuous interior was an ideal setting for his forcefully- expressed views on favourite topics, i.e., the decline of contemporary fiction, the appeal of Suffolk churches, and the guitarists of the Rolling Stones. (John feels that the bandʼs loss of Mick Taylor was a blow from which the Stones never recovered.) Then we left the pub and John fell over. But John fell over as only a man of letters can: thoughtfully, trenchantly, intellectually. (I should mention that we had spent the earlier part of the evening in a wine bar beneath the Shaftesbury Theatre, wherein we consumed four bottles of Muscadet and some pretzels.) I helped him up and we lurched to Charing Cross, whereupon he ducked into a Highgate-bound tube and I fell upon the last main line train for New Cross.

Mind how you go John … The tube circa 1900.

Three stops later I emerged into an icy wasteland, the Amersham Arms already shuttered and silent, and embarked on an arctic slog towards my house a mile distant. As sleet began to drive against my face, my trudge took on the quality of Scottʼs last journey. I was about 400 yards away from home when I had to resist a powerful urge to lie down in the frozen front garden of a block of flats; fortunately, raw self-preservation kicked in and I managed to keep going. I canʼt remember walking in my front door; I donʼt think this was the time I was propositioned near my house by a woman who said ʻIʼve got no food and no heating, do you do business?ʼ, that must have been another time. The next thing I recall is waking up in my bed, sunshine streaming through the windows, baby sleep switching to hangover, the usual morning-after anxieties kicking in. Did I still have my wallet? Watch? Phone? I could only see one of my shoes in the bedroom, the other one eventually turned up in the shower. Going downstairs, I discovered I had used my Viyella shirt to clean up the admixture of Muscadet and brandy I had deposited on the kitchen floor. Several pints of water and a party pack of paracetamol later, I emailed John to ask if he got home safely. At five oʼclock that afternoon I received a reply. It read: ʻWell, I fell over again at Archway but was helped up by a Good Samaritan who said: ʻJust go steadyʼ. I then walked up the hill to my house and when I got inside I sat in my office chair for about three hours, totally unable to take off my overcoat. I was then sick into a box of papers I was supposed to send to my accountant. Those brandies were, on balance, a mistake.ʼ

Londonʼs railway stations have frequently witnessed significant events in my personal life. There was a date that began in that wine bar next to Southwark Cathedral and moved ineluctably, via assorted wines and liquors, to platform 6, London Bridge, and consummation in Brockley. Or that encounter that started in the membersʼ bar of the Festival Hall: all very grown up to begin with, before happy hour took over and things got joyously out of hand. Even Stratford station looked beautiful that night. Charing Cross has seen more than its fair share of saturnine drama, with undying love loudly proclaimed to some appalled girl or other, alternating with botched passes, recriminations, shouting matches – usually involving the same girl and usually after several bottles of catering Chardonnay – and pages from Time Out used as a sick bag (I find the online edition less useful in this respect). As for Waterloo, an unexpected moment of tenderness on the concourse will haunt me forever, a reminder of an opportunity irretrievably lost, a vision of a bright future utterly beyond reach. But, inevitably, death, distance and estrangement have taken their toll; thereʼs an ever-shrinking pool of drinking talent. And, at the end of this awful year, with Londonʼs bars beyond reach, the city itself is missing in action. For me, London is my friends, it doesnʼt really exist without them; all thatʼs left is a forlorn and empty film set.

But, on this hypothetical December night, letʼs say you went to a pub, got drunk, and struggled home. You made it back without losing anything, except a measure of dignity and a few million brain cells. So what awaits you? If youʼre lucky, thereʼs an indulgent companion lying warm in your bed; if youʼre less lucky, youʼll have to make do with the couch. Maybe youʼll be able to make amends in the morning, you should be OK if you donʼt do this sort of thing too often. Hopefully there will be someone there for you, even if it is just (just!) a good friend who will check that youʼre all right. Who can ask for a better friend than that? But if you find yourself alone then youʼll have to rely on your memories to keep you company: all those flickering remembrances of friends who meant so much to you, of times when you felt so alive, times when you were happy.

William Orpen: Study for ‘The Cafe Royal’, 1911.

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