Visitors to London will quickly identify with the title of this post. The London Underground – The Tube – has warning signs on many stations “Mind the Gap”. It is to warn you that there may be a gap between the train carriage and the platform.
I recently went up to London for the day. The women were going to ride the London Eye. I was going to have lunch with a school-friend I hadn’t seen for 47 years. We had been great friends at school and for a few years after we left school we would meet on a Saturday to do something in London. After I moved to Canada we too soon lost touch. I have always regretted being such a poor correspondent.
Now, while I dislike Facebook and some other so-called ‘social-media’ – to me they are mostly antisocial, I was really pleased one day to discover my friend. We ‘friended’ each other, exchanged a few messages, discovered our birthdays were only a few days apart, and when Susan and I planned to be in the south of England for a while I suggested we meet.
I was very much looking forward to seeing my friend again and in sharing our gap years. We arranged to meet in a restaurant in Soho. The two of us had enjoyed a number of forays into London in our late teens. I remember that together we saw the first James Bond movie at the Odeon Leicester Square. At that theatre we also had a rather disconcerting exit after watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. When we came out, it was getting dark and the starlings were gathered in huge numbers in the trees on the square. The noise reached startling decibel levels and the fluttering of thousands of wings too closely resembled the cellulose version we had just witnessed.
I remember us searching for and finding the little tobacconist shop off Bond Street that sold the three ring cigarettes made especially for James Bond; of experiencing Beyond the Fringe before Peter Cook and Dudley Moore became stars; and seeing Spike Milligan in Son of Oblamove in the West End. Milligan was another of my favourites.
Our train arrived early for my plans, so I decided to wander around London for a while. I used to know the streets so well, but found myself confused by the new buildings, pedestrian precincts and different one-way system. I decided to purchase a small map. I sat with my map in a coffee shop – an upscale (?) McDonald’s by Liverpool Street station. The coffee was hot but unpleasant in its cardboard container. I had to sit on a tall stool at a short counter where commuters were clicking away on laptops, tablets and smartphones. It was crowded. I had a hard time with the sugar package and sprinkled sugar all around the counter. The couple next to me left – I might try that trick again. Just a spoonful of sugar… I was unable to drink all of the ‘small’ cup of coffee. After studying the map I decided to make my way to St. Martin-in-the Fields by Trafalgar Square. I couldn’t believe the modern and to my eyes, intrusive, new entrance and sales office for this beautiful old edifice. I moved on quickly, only to be delayed by a long line of protesting teachers and their supporters. There were loud whistles, drums and noisy shouting. I managed to cross the street through a very short break in the parade. Helicopters were flying over head and somewhat ominously in the side street, hidden from the protesters’ view, were many police vehicles and policemen and a number of ambulances.
The protesters seemed to be heading for Whitehall and possibly the Houses of Parliament. I left the noisy demonstration area, crossed in front of the National Gallery and made my way towards Oxford Street. When I lived in the London area, 46 years ago, everyone seemed to move at an incredible pace – hurrying here and there. I never really knew what all the rush was about. But now, I found myself rushing around people, trying to get past couples and threesomes in straggly lines across, impeding my progress. I’m not sure why I was hurrying – maybe my past was catching up with me.
I enjoyed seeing some of the old department stores and had a little reminisce about my time working for the John Lewis Partnership.
After a while the coffee made its presence known and nature, as they say, called. I found a public lavatory down some steps – with stern warnings about inappropriate and illegal public behaviour – and a notice that the subterranean area was monitored by CCTV (not the Canadian broadcaster CTV). After spending 50p (I still remember we used to say “I need to spend a penny”), I was allowed to pass through a turnstile. When I had finished with the coffee I attempted to leave. I found there was no exit. Rather, I could find no exit. The only way out was back through the turnstile. But how do you get it to turn? I wasn’t going to put in another 50p on the opposite side (I didn’t have one anyway) and that would only have allowed the turnstile to move in the wrong direction. I searched for a doorway out, there was none. I saw some enterprising and far more sprightly individuals enter by leaping over the turnstile. I wonder if that was caught on the CCTV? I didn’t fancy trying to climb out. Finally, overcoming my reticence, I asked another man (who had entered in the proper way) “How do I get out”. He smiled and pointed to a little red button on my side of the turnstile. “Push that”. I did and the turnstile let me push out and escape up to the sunlight and London-fresh-air above. I felt like a miner who had been underground for several days. I breathed deeply, then coughed and spluttered. You would think they would put a sign by the button, ‘push to exit…’
I walked from there to the restaurant and recognized my friend (mainly from his Facebook image). He greeted me and assured me he would have recognized me anyway. I must have looked very old and decrepit at school.
The waiter took this photo on an iPhone – I have doctored it.
We decided not to spend time reminiscing and covering the ‘do you remember when…’ stuff, but to fill in the gap between leaving school and now. Each in turn told his story “After leaving school I…and that brings us up to today”.
It was a fascinating time. But for me a difficulty was in connecting these two older men with the two young fellows we had been. As we move from one day to the next, year to year, we keep in our minds a picture of ourselves that I suspect is a lot younger than the image with which the mirror confronts us each morning. Yet somehow we still feel like that same person. I don’t really think I have changed very much in terms of the essential ‘me’. (Not that I am essential in any way of course).
After sharing with someone I hadn’t seen for 47 years, I found there was more of a disconnect between then and now, a greater gap, than I had realized. We could see something of the boys we had been in our current stage of life, yet we were not the same. I saw myself reflected in the disconnect between my mental image of my friend and his current reality. It seemed a bit like the complex title of “The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas”, by Gertrude Stein. I could see and experience myself through seeing my friend. In particular I had a glimpse of my own gap years.
We had a great lunch, fascinating chat about life and reality. It was like meeting someone new, yet our shared past made talking easy. It was extremely enjoyable. Two and a half hours disappeared as quickly as the last 47 years and the bottle of red wine. Unfortunately I needed to leave as I had arranged to meet the women at the London Eye in time to catch our train back to Essex. We agreed to keep in touch.
I am really glad I had this opportunity to meet my old school friend, and hope that our paths will cross again. Yet there was something a little unsettling in realizing the 47 year gap. I mind that gap.