City 25: London


Questions. We live in a world defined by questions. And in the context of Walk and Talk I realise that the first question is easy; what was the first city I ever visited? When did I go there and with whom? The answer is almost clear, although glimpsed through fog and the falling leaves of autumn. I see Lichfield, on rainy days, shopping with my mum, in Tescos, then situated at the top of the precinct. There was a gap then like a triumphal arch through which you could pass onto the Birmingham Road and hop over the road to where the CAB is now, if you were so inclined. But that Tesco’s is long gone, another exists, bigger and brasher, on the site of an old cattle market. I know because my best friend Guy Maskall lived on that land or rather his mother had a house and garden there. She sold it to the Tescos people for a heap of gold and then moved on.

Looking Backwards to Go Forwards

But that is Lichfield and I should be writing about London. So what was my second City? Was it London? No, it would have to be Birmingham where we visited the nans, where dad worked and where in 1982 I went to see my first football match and not at Saint Andrews either, in Aston where my mother’s mother Phylis was born and raised. But what of London? 

Well, London would be my third city, a place that was big and bold and on the far side of the rainbow. It was a place of history and palaces and a big river called the Thames, it was a place of landmarks and towers, taxis and beefeaters. It was where the Queen lived and Parliament met. It was a place of the rich and famous. It was mythical and yet it was actual. There are photos in an old album of a visit to Buckingham Palace circa 1976 with my cousin Liz. I would have been about 5, posing beside a guard in a sentry box, looking and feeling both excited and intimidated. Yet wondering, always wondering, what went on behind the high walls and the iron gates. What weren’t we shown, what didn’t we know?  

That was the first point of the timeline but there are multiple others too. Some Schoolboy’s international between England and Scotland on Saturday June 5th, 1982 in the Empire Stadium at Wembley. We were in Row 11 at Seat 36, the kick off was at 15.20 and the seat was valued at £2.00. I know because I still have the ticket stub, sellotaped into the first of many scrap books, assembled and filled over the intervening years. I’m so glad my mother, with her secretarial brain and gift for filing and sequencing bequeathed me this gift; the desire to preserve things and to recall them at future dates.    


Next trip was on June 18th, 1983. This time to sing in the Royal Albert Hall no less with the Lichfield Junior Choir as part of the Staffordshire Music Festival. We were conducted by Stella Jones and the choir was accompanied by Duncan Moon on piano. There are cuttings and fading photographs from these events which look Victorian, the girls in long gingham dresses, some of the boys in shorts. Ever aware of the camera I hover in the background, tall for my age, my bulging eyes seeking out the observing lens. We sang the ‘Hallelujah chorus’ and ‘Negro Spirituals’ by Stuart Johnson. I didn’t know of all the words so I mimed some, aware of thousands of watching eyes and my maroon tie. In 1985 there was an educational visit to the Thames Flood barrier and talk of Ken Livingstone and the GLC. Red Ken was Mayor and had a moustache and his voice droned a bit, but at least you could hear his voice unlike Jerry Adams, who was dubbed.      

And so the years speed by and my relationship with London deepens and becomes like everything else in life, as much a problem as a pleasure. At the time of  writing I’ve lived on this planet for 18,626 days and of those I wonder how many days I’ve spent in London. With extended stays for jobs and holidays could it be 300? Most probably. And because London is so big and so rich and so varied, and because it means so much to me I cannot do it justice in a single day or with a single visit. My friend Gabriel, a jazz musician, who lived once in Streatham said the best way to think of London was to see it as a collection of loosely connected villages, each with their own beat and rhythm. I liked that and it stayed with me and in time I came to see that no one visit could be representative so I will choose nine visits instead strung out like Christmas Tree lights over my 51 years of life and let them speak for me and my relationship with the City. I have scrapbooks from 1977 to help me, 30 years of journals and 11 years of detailed diaries to help me. And so I begin.  

2011: Dramarama

Having vacated Telford College and passed my MA in Drama and Performance I dallied with the notion of becoming a Professional Actor so I hied me to the Actor’s Centre in Tower Street for an audition in order to get an agent. A man full of self importance gave a talk and then a woman full of self importance gave another talk and some half famous people flitted too and fro. The building was plush and the smell of money clogged the air and after the rules and laws and expectations of the agency had been explained to us we were instructed to speak. Inevitably it was a cattle call and I did a scene from the Doctor Who Christmas Special and did well enough to get an offer of representation.  But it all seemed so phoney and impersonal, like getting a medical examination, on a crowded station surrounded by a baying mob, that I hopped on a train and sped away. I bounced down the line to Homerton Hospital, through checkpoints and security, to the Joshua Ward, where I met a self-styled director called Toby who was as tall as a giant. 

We had connected through a website of dubious provenance called Star Now and he had invited me to the hospital to discuss a possible collaboration on an exciting new film project. I had inferred that he was somatically afflicted but the evidence did not support that supposition.  Toby was in a padded room with very little in it and plexxi glass windows that were dented and cracked and seemed to have had chairs thrown at them. Furthermore Toby was heavily sedated due to having assaulted  two orderlies the night before. They had dared to question his artistic vision and he wasn’t having that. They were all against him, all of them because he was on a secret mission to protect Tim Burton from the demons and devils and vampires sent against him by Satanic Minions in various Government Departments the world over. His vision was excited and fractured and very sci fi, only in his head it wasn’t fiction, it was fact. 

He went on to detail an imminent alien invasion which was the subject of his film. Funding was assured and I would take the lead… he just had to get out of the hospital, to get well and shake off the demons that had been sent to torment him. Having checked that the pathway to the door was clear we had a careful conversation about the nature of reality and the notion that not everybody thought or dreamed the same dream. Toby seemed to accept that but then he became violently animated and suddenly no one was safe. I thanked him for his time and said I would be in touch. He urged me to study the script and to watch out for the demons that had no doubt been dispatched in my direction by now. I left the hospital and jumped on board another train, bound for Lichfield.

Of the two buildings I had visited that day, the room in which Toby had presented his case was by far the place of greater sanity. And sincerity.   


I’m doing a night shoot at Saint Pancras Station where you catch the Eurostar to Belgium or wherever. I am an extra in a Hindi Film called Tezz. We stand around on escalators for hours and then the lead actors show up (the Hindu equivalent of Tom and Nicole) and everything goes into hyperdrive. Hair and makeup flutter around the leads and I am amazed at how immaculate the men’s suits are. The crew run between shots, lugging heavy equipment, because time in London, as anywhere now, is quite literally money. I stand on my elevator with a grey hat on and whilst others stare dumbly ahead I look off in odd directions mindful of how Steve McQueen pulled focus from Yul Brinner in the Magnificent Seven. The shoot speeds to an end and 6 o’clock becomes two o’clock in the morning; the hands of the clock a blur. No trains are running and anyone of any importance is bussed or chauffeured away to hotels or pre-paid guest houses. We refugees head for an all night Starbucks and nurse cheap teas and coffees. The old man next to me gives me a run down of his career and how he ‘starred’ in a Janet Jackson video. Mid sentence I nod off and when I awaken two hours later the man has gone and someone else is sleeping in his chair. At eight o’clock I catch a train to Sidcup in order to chat with an enthusiastic cockney about Shakespeare; Henry V and the Chorus specifically. His ideas are well very specific and for all that he talks a good fight he has no experience and no venue. Yet! Oh and there’s no cash. 

Some years later, back at work in Birmingham I am teaching a class that doesn’t want to be taught. Instead they watch videos on youtube, only half surreptitiously. Suddenly a cry goes up. Sir, Sir, its you. I run over and find they’ve found me. And now I find me, frozen in a frame on the great glass elevator of stardom, grey hat, grey jumper and shades. Tezz is out and doing well. Tezz I find means Speed and is the Hindu version of the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock megahit. 

“We didn’t know you was a filmstar,’ they say. “How much you get paid?”

The words of my friend Tim come back to me. Find what you want to do and do it. After that keep doing it and refine it.

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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