I LOVE LONDON. My uncle Ron once lived in the only thatched house in the city. Inside there was a baby grand piano and a sort of sunken sitting room. I thought of it as a movie-star house, the kind of place where waiters would arrive with trays of champagne and miniature food, which I did not yet know were called canapés. One day in the kitchen of the movie-star house, he said to us children: “We are going to Hamley’s toy shop on Regent Street and you can have anything you want.”
We were used to second-hand toys from the local nuns – top-class toys, don’t get me wrong – but “anything”? There had to be a catch. “Anything,” confirmed uncle Ron, dangling loose change in his slacks.
Maybe the reason I love London so much is because I will forever associate it with the happiest day of my childhood.
Hamley’s on Regent Street. The size of a small kingdom. Populated by grown-ups dressed as princesses and jesters. Floors and floors of magic. People demonstrating toys everywhere. A tarantula so lifelike it gives you nightmares for weeks. Dolls that walk and talk and speak several languages. Sindy dolls. Everywhere you looked there were Sindy dolls – Barbie wasn’t so hot yet – dressed for every single occasion except a business meeting.
I could have had anything, and yet I chose a deluxe Girl’s World. The mannequin head of a woman that you could make up with lipstick the colour of hazardous waste. The deluxe bit was her hair. It could grow long and short, a brown horse’s tail of synthetic gruaig which you pulled out of her head. I chose it because I knew every single girl in my class would be impressed. I probably would have got more fun from the swing-ball set, but that’s the way things roll when you are six.
In the part of London where my uncle lived the zebra crossings weren’t painted on to the road. They were laid out like big tiles. They gleamed. I remember walking across one and thinking about Dick Whittington and the streets of London being paved with gold. This must have been what he meant.
After Hamley’s we went to a joke shop and bought a pink whoopie cushion. I put it under a cushion on my uncle’s comfy sofa in his sunken sitting room and my aunt Eva pretended to be surprised at the rude noise.
There were packets of crisps in the shop that came with their own little blue bag of salt and this was the most exotic thing I had ever seen. Crisps that you salted yourself, Hamley’s and whoopie cushions. That was London to me for a good long while.
Then I moved there. Busking in the underground. Riding the tube illegally on an all-day children’s ticket. Temporary homelessness. The kindness of strangers in dole offices. Sticky situations in high-speed car drives to Southend. Going legit. A job in a restaurant. Falling in love. I only knew London from below ground. The beautiful tiles in Paddington. The mystery of Mornington Crescent, which always seemed to be closed. Crossing Abbey Road. Tasting salt beef for the first time in Golder’s Green. Getting married. Feeling about a million miles away from Dublin but really only being across a narrow strip of sea.
London reminds me of being in love and having no money to speak of and somehow still being able to enjoy one of the most expensive cities in the world. Feasting on all the free stuff. The parks. The people watching opportunities. Being a teaspoon of stock in my very first experience of a melting pot.
And it always felt like home. My mother is from the East End. Recent research uncovered the fact that my great grandfather on my Dublin father’s side came from the city.
Ryanair willing, I am in London as you read this. It’s my children’s inaugural visit. I am going to bring them to Kensington Park to feed the ducks like I used to and let them climb all over the pirate ship in the Princess Diana playground and set up house in the tepees. We might check out the basement of the Science Museum and ramble in Coram’s Fields, a bit of the countryside in central London with sandpits and slides and ducks and goats.
I am going to bring them to Hamley’s on Regent Street and let them play with all the toys as though it were one giant creche. Instead of telling them they can have anything, I am going to try very hard not to buy anything. They only turned two last week. I can still get away with it. Just.
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