Two London Stories

If you’re tired of London goes the old trope, you’re tired of life. A weary Peter Malcouronne recounts two yarns from from turn-of-the-century London town.

Let me tell you about old Joe. Each night at half past eight he sets out from his Paddington bed-sit for the pub just around the corner. The 50-metre journey takes him five minutes on a good day and he moves so slowly, like a toy robot with a near-dead battery, that sometimes you wonder if he’s going to make it. But old Joe always gets there, always on time and always immaculately dressed in a tan coat, red tie and cheese-cutter cap.

Joe Parker is 85 years-old, the fifth and last child of a postman and a ‘skivvy’ who worked in ‘gentleman’s houses’. He was born of the pub: when Joe was five he deduced that his parents had a “bunk-up” after his Dad, flush with back-pay, took his Mum out for a night on the large. “Good beer,” he says, “was ’ow I came into the world.”

Now he says, without a trace of self-pity, he’s preparing to leave it. Old Joe is the last of his siblings still living and since none of them had any children, “this means that I am the last of the Parkers.

“No more,” he says, “will they see another genius like me.”

During the three-and-half months that I worked at the Rob Roy Public House — pulling pints is the last refuge of the desperate Kiwi backpacker — I got to know old Joe well. We would talk about home, Albert Speer, family, Churchill, the Blitz, the Queen, alcoholism, communism and a New Zealand girl he should have married. Once Joe asked me if I ever dreamed and, thinking this was a deep philosophical enquiry, I delivered a Martin Luther King-like soliloquy. Joe waited patiently for me to finish and then told me about this dream he’d had the night before. A “villain” had held up the pub but Joe saved the day by hooking his legs out from under him with one walking stick, and smashing the gun out of his hand with his other stick.

We became mates. And more than any person I met, Joe made sense out of London. I thought he must be the nicest old man in the world.

There’s a pub on every corner,” I was told when I arrived in London, “and a curry-muncher’s kebab shop next door.” That was certainly true of Paddington: to get to the pub where I work you set off from Edgware Rd Station, walk past the Green Man, turn left past the Duke of Wellington and then keep going ’til you get to the Great Western. The Rob Roy is about 50 metres to your left, just opposite the Royal Exchange.

There’s a laundromat across the road and the delicious smell of freshly-washed clothes and cherry scent of hookah pipes from the Middle Eastern café next door masks the diesel fumes of Paddington’s white van fleet. No one seems to know what these vans do although their drivers are treated like philosopher kings: each day The Sun has a column ‘White Van Man’ where the drivers resolve the Kashmir Dispute and put the case for a second Falklands War against the Argies.

Philosopher King, White Van Dan from Rochester.

Paddington’s close to the centre of London: Speakers Corner in Hyde Park is just five minutes away where Zoroastrians preach and demagogues demand an end to suicide bombing — “It’s time for the bombers of the Egyptian air force to attack and for the armies of Syria and Jordan to drive the Jews into the sea.” Ten minutes in another direction is Madame Tussauds where lads pull down Kylie’s knickers and garrulous Americans, like, hold their clenched fists to the head of, like, Saddam Hussein. And just across the road from my pub is St Mary’s Hospital where Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. It says something about the English that the most cherished accolade for their heroes is not a knighthood, but immortalisation as a pub — the Sir Alexander Fleming does an excellent bangers and mash.

The relationship between ‘regulars’ and their ‘local’ is usually closer than that between man and wife. It’s always been this way: Samuel Johnson remarked that “a man is never happy in the present unless he is drunk”. A hundred years later Fyodor Dostoevsky noted that in London “everyone is in a hurry to drink himself into insensibility”.

These are the patrons on an average Wednesday afternoon at the Rob Roy. There’s a young IT worker sitting in the corner with a girl who’s fancied him for ages. He came here for lunch with the rest of the office but, like he did yesterday, he’s decided to have one more for the road. He’s a charming young man but, by his own admission, has a bit of a drinking problem: on a typical week he’ll drink 120 units of alcohol.

There’s a sad-eyed Irish guy standing at the bar just staring at the wall. Every half hour he’ll ask me for “anoo va worn”. He doesn’t say much, although he once handed me a note with four joined-together words — “PleasehelpI’mfalling”.

Down the other end of the bar, Rick, 52, is more animated. He’s got half an hour to kill before he goes to the doctor to find out whether he has to go on warfarin for a blood clotting problem. I tell him that he probably shouldn’t be smoking, that if he stopped now he’d be back to new within 10 years.

“No,” he smiles sadly, “it’s too late for that now. In 10 years time I’ll be in a box. I don’t care so long as I die in Scotland. I’ve lived in London for 28 years and I just want to go home.”

He asks me where I’m from — “New Zealand… Aye” — then starts talking about rugby.

“Jonah Lomu,” he says, sighing, “How can a man that big run so fast?

“You know they say that if you put Jonah in boots and Linford in spikes then Linford would win the 100 by just five metres.”

We talk about the state of the British game and he tells me that rugby is dying in Scotland just like it died in Wales. “It started when Thatcher closed down t’ pits. There’s no work there anymore. All the young guys have come to London. The community’s finished.”

The Jukebox Lady loves Phil Collins, Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers, but she adores Rod Stewart. He grew up in the flat downstairs she tells me and as I look at her faraway eyes I think it may even be true.

The Jukebox Lady can’t hear any of this because she’s perched like a sparrow on her stool right by the speakers. She’s been here every day for the last month and is often the first in and the last to leave. No one has any idea of her age — the grey roots in her bleached hair, and her cracked make-up and rouged cheeks make her look older than perhaps she is.

She spends a fortune on the jukebox. Hardly drinks, just sits there with a cigarette with ash as long as her forefinger, and sings along. She likes Phil Collins, Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers, but she adores Rod Stewart. He grew up in the flat downstairs she tells me and as I look at her faraway eyes I think it may even be true.

This is my favourite song, she says, and I leave her, eyes filling with tears, to sing ‘Handbags and Gladrags’.

Ever seen a blind man cross the road
Trying to make the other side
Ever seen a young girl growing old
Trying to make herself a bride

I’d always presumed Joe was a benign old Tory. He revered Churchill, worshipped the man, and was always banging on about the War. He’d worked in an aircraft factory, 16-hour shifts, welding the wings onto Spitfires and Lancaster bombers. When he finished, just after midnight, he’d walk home under a crimson sky, lit up by Nazi incendiary bombs.

He was indignant when I told him that I was reading a biography about Albert Speer, “a complete fucking monster who should ’ave been hanged”. But Joe was not a member of the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade: Joe was a ‘bolshie’.

“I joined the National Union of Sheet Metalworkers, Coppersmiths and Glaziers in 1936,” he says. “I’ve been a continuous member ever since.”

He joined the Communist Party in 1940 and was the party’s candidate for the seat of Chiswick on the Thames in 1950. “Got about 200 votes,” he says, laughing.

He loved Stalin, “one of the greatest — the man responsible for the destruction of Adolf Hitler.” Somehow Joe defended Stalin’s purges of “not millions, but many, many people.” “After a careful examination those (the purges) proved correct. They were necessary. One hundred percent.”

He loved Stalin, “one of the greatest — the man responsible for the destruction of Adolf Hitler.” Somehow Joe defended Stalin’s purges of “not millions, but many, many people.”

The ends justified the means he says. “After a careful examination,” he says, “these (the purges) proved correct. They were necessary. One hundred percent.”

The little man with his red polo shirt tucked into too-high trousers was perhaps not the nicest old man in the world after all.

“Politics is a very harsh thing,” he says. “When you’re in charge of a whole country, you can’t have any fears in doing things to some people you consider distasteful.

“Look the industrialists have no compunction about sacking millions of people. They decide to do it at a moment’s notice with the stroke of a pen.”

His eyes fix to mine. “I’m a hard man,” he says.

And then he abruptly changes the subject.

“Nutting?” he asks. “Do you know a Nina Nutting?”

She was the love of his life. “A cracking girl… from New Zealand that I could’ve married.”

But that would have meant that Joe would have had to leave his brother, who he’d lived with all his life, to look after their sick mother on his own. “That would have been unfair,” he says.

So Nina Nutting married some other guy but got cancer and died far too young.

“I remember taking her down to the coast,” Joe continues. “We stayed at a little hotel and had dinner at this flash restaurant.

“She ordered a small fillet of steak. And she’d eat like a lady, not a ravenous grunter like me. She was tinkering with her steak when the waiter came and took it away.

“I’ll always remember her wonderful grimace at the audacity of the waiter who’d stolen her unfinished meal.”

He smiles through wet eyes. “She was a marvellous girl.”

The English may have the British Museum, St Pauls and Westminster Abbey but so bloody what,” sneers Carl ‘Hubcaps’ Hubbers. “We’ve got the Church!

I’ve been summoned to the Aotearovian enclave of Acton to meet Hubcaps at the five-bedroom house he shares with 12 mates. It’s not an ideal arrangement, he admits, as we step over a Kathmandu chrysalis on his lounge floor, but he’s heard of worse. Like the four guys who share a room and have ‘shifts’ where they get an hour on their own with their respective girlfriends. Or the story in last week’s New Zealand News about Jimmy Smith, formerly from Hamilton, who spent a London winter in a tent out the back, ducking inside the house each morning to use the loo.

A 6ft 3in bald eagle with a passing resemblance to Pete Garrett, Hubcaps has a sensitivity that belies his appearance. He’s concerned about my homesickness.

Over a cup of Milo, I’ve been telling him how I hunt New Zealand lamb and Montana Marlborough chardonnay at supermarkets, even though I don’t drink wine or eat meat. How I belligerently wave blocks of Anchor butter in the faces of bewildered English shoppers.

How I pop into bookshops, find hefty tomes on the British entry into the European Union, then look us up in the index and bristle at the Mother Country’s betrayal. How I spend hours analysing the sports sections of newspapers and search for the letters (NZL) beside the names of obscure golfers.

Hubcaps has decided its time I went to the Church. “Every Kiwi has to go there once. It’s a cultural requirement.”

“It’s a worry,” Hubcaps says, frowning. He’s decided it’s time I went to the Church, a notorious antipodean beer shrine I promised my mother I’d avoid. “Every Kiwi has to go there once,” Hubcaps says, pulling on his Lion Red t-shirt in readiness. “It’s a cultural requirement.”

Not everyone would agree. “Don’t go there!” another friend implored. “It’s a disgrace, a national embarrassment.”

Her discomfiture neatly summed up the two distinct classes of Kiwi exiles in London. There are the eye-rollers, the cultural cringers who recoil at the sight of a haka outside Westminster Abbey and try to ingratiate themselves with the English cognoscenti. Then there are the pounamu-wearing patriots like Wozza who sew little New Zealand flags to the back of their packs and place ads in the TNT backpacker mag like this one:

Waihi Beach Wahine: First met you in Pamps (that great bar in Bondi) when I pulled my hammy, and then saw you again at the Exponents at the Walkabout — what a wicked night! You put out on the first night and I want some more. Respect the Beach! Call me hottie… Wozza

I don’t know if Wozza has made it along to the Church today but many of his mates will be here. “You can pick them out on the tube,” says Hubcaps. “Shitloads of badly dressed, unwashed antipodeans drinking flagons of the cheapest piss they’ve been able to lay their hands on.” But all in their club colours.

By 9.00am there’s several All Blacks, a Wellington Hurricane, three Otago Highlanders and a Mobile Breast Checking Unit gathered outside WHSmith booksellers at King’s Cross Station. “Check out the Chocolate Soldiers,” Hubcaps says, pointing at what looks like the middle order of the 1981 New Zealand one-day cricket team. “They’re hard bastards, mate. One of them went to Pamps (the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain) and just stood there in the middle of the road doing the haka.” Hubcaps shakes his head sadly. “Bulls just nailed him, man.”

An hour later, after much mating and manning, and bolstered by a dozen Wallabies, two Brisbane Broncos and a solitary Springbok, we’re ready to go. The Church is a 15-minute rolling maul away, although one of the Wallabies is several minutes late after unwisely going to ground and being vigorously rucked by the Highlanders. There were no hard feelings: “You were lying all over the beer and you didn’t release,” said the Highlanders. “No worries, mate,” said the Wallaby. “Sweet as.”

There are no signs or arrows showing the way to the Church, but the faithful don’t need directions. They walk briskly through the blocks of old warehouses, abandoned factories with broken windows and spooky unmarked buildings that may once have been owned by the Kray Brothers until they hear the flattened vowels and rising upward inflections of their comrades. Although we’re 45 minutes early, there’s already a 300-metre long queue.

The time passes quickly. We talk about the All Blacks, of course, and it’s refreshing not to discuss the limitations of the Emile Heskey and instead talk about the ponderous passing of Justin Marshall. Hubcaps is also a bit of a film buff and he delivers a treatise on why Star Wars: Attack of the Clones is the greatest Kiwi film ever made. “Man, it’s got Jay Laga’aia, the Muss and, um, that little Muss. Remember when the little Muss says to Jake, ‘Eh Dad, you all right?”’

“That’s one of the greatest moments in New Zealand cinematic history. And a cloned army of Maori… fuckin’ awesome!”

The two distinct classes of Kiwi exiles in London: there are the eye-rollers, the cultural cringers who recoil at the sight of a haka outside Westminster Abbey. Then there are the pounamu-wearing patriots who sew little New Zealand flags to their backpacks…

At noon exactly, we’re herded into what looks like an old barn with sawdust on the floor. A bit of a country and western thing going on, perhaps? “Ah, no mate,” Hubcaps corrects, “the sawdust’s for when people piss on the floor.”

Now as soon as you get inside, Hubs instructs, go straight to the back and get your beers. Present a seven-pound drink ticket and you’re handed three cans — Fosters, VB or cider — in a plastic bag. The correct Church etiquette is to skull a can on the spot, open a second, then tie the bag with the third to your belt. And get yourself a possie near the stage, a Southern man in Speight’s tee advises, “so you can see the stripper’s flange” (but not too close in case you get spewed on by ailing drinking game contestants).

“Mind if I join you?” I ask a contingent of rogues.

“No worries, bro.”

When one of my new friends opines that the Church is “just like the Lincoln Green, mate” I realise these are West Auckland brothers. So we try to get back to one or two degrees of separation. It doesn’t take long — Myles also went to Glen Eden Intermediate School. He’s a year older than me, but we were in the school show — The Wizard Of Oz — together. He was the Tin Man, I was a munchkin.

“Anyone got a key?” Hubs demands. Handed a Lockwood he punches a hole near the base of his Fosters, then lifts it belly-up, rips open the tab, and sucks the contents out from the bottom of his can. It’s called a shotgun and it takes the magnificent Hubcaps about two seconds to quaff the lot.

Glory Glory Hallelujah. For a moment I thought it was God himself talking but it’s actually Elvis roaring through the Church sound system. It’s a tradition. So too is the acetylene screech of Barnsey and the redneck hymn ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.

Then a corpulent bearded Baldrick in denim jeans and 10-gallon hat materialises on stage and wittily reworks Meatloaf’s anguished anthem ‘I Would Do Anything for Love’.

I would kiss your arse and lick that…
I would do anything for love, but I won’t shag that.

“You Fat Bastard, You Fat Bastard,” the congregation chant reverently. “Yes mate, I am fat,” Fat Bastard tells an errant Wallaby. “The reason for this is that every time I root your bird I get a chocolate biscuit.”

It’s not exactly Oscar Wilde but it gets a good laugh and prompts Fat Bastard to strip down to a lycra wrestling suit. Then, during the course of Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’, he peels that off and starts marching about the stage in his speedos. His fans are well pleased — “We love you Fat Bastard’”— and then go delirious when he whips out the two pairs of socks that were augmenting his tackle.

It’s at this point that my recollections become rather muddled. My notes aren’t much help: I suspect the surreal reference “simulated orgasm … water pistol … legs akimbo” may have something to do with a stripper. But I do remember stumbling outside to the toilet, a converted shipping container, and talking to some Canadian girls about Quebec separatism. I think they were in favour of increased state autonomy within a federal framework but then they rushed off to watch an amateur male revue.

Inside, Hubcaps looked on approvingly. “This is a great day,” he says.

“This speaks volumes for the people we are.”

First published in Metro magazine, 2002.