Biographies & Memoirs



I SAILED INTO Venice for the first time a little after dawn, standing at the bow, the fog so thick San Giorgio Maggiore seemed to float in the clouds. From Venice I went by train to Munich and then to London, where at American Express there was a letter from Dan Curley saying that he and his family were spending the year on sabbatical. Dan was a walker. He had waterproof shoes, a slicker, and a knapsack containing binoculars and a bird guide. Our first day he took me for the walk we later wrote about in our guidebook The Perfect London Walk. We started from the Belsize Park Tube stop and walked past Keats House and into Hampstead Heath and to the top of Parliament Hill, where all of London was at our feet. Then we set out across the Heath to the tumulus under which Boadicea, a queen of the Celts, is said to be buried, unless she’s under the tracks at King’s Cross, which is another legend.

On the Heath Curley pointed out the lane of trees where Keats first met Coleridge. We came up behind Kenwood House and had lunch at the Spaniard’s Inn, where Mr. Pickwick so unwisely proposed marriage. It was there I first tasted a banger. It would not be my last. A sausage allegedly containing meat, the banger is so beloved by the British that they threatened to drop out of the Common Market when Europe disrespected its ingredients. In some pubs they’re served with a fork, in most with a toothpick. They are much improved by Colman’s English Mustard, which every pub supplies in a little pot with a tiny wooden spoon. No other mustard will do. If you insist on Dijon mustard you might as well drop your banger on the floor and grind it under your boot.

On that first day the Spaniard’s was still broken up into cozy little spaces and cul-de-sacs, booths and hideaways. “Dick Turpin’s Room,” from which the highwayman picked out likely coaches to rob, was still there. Later corporate vandals “modernized” it, which meant ripping out the age-old walls and “opening it up.” On another day we drank at the Blackfriar pub by the bridge of the same name when it, too, had a public bar, a private bar, a fireplace room, and so on. Also now ripped out and redecorated as an airport “pub.” What gnaws at people until they’re driven to destroy the past? It was at the Spaniard’s that I acquired a meme that I now pass along to you. As Dan stood before a urinal he invariably intoned, “As the man says in the play, for this relief, much thanks.” I rarely urinate without repeating that phrase. Now it’s yours. Years from now, an atom of Dan Curley will persist as you quote your Shakespeare.

Down the way from the Spaniard’s, we visited Kenwood House, the grandest country house near London, with Rembrandts, Romneys, and a trompe l’oeil library. There are gardens crowded with giant rhododendrons and azaleas, blinding with beauty in the springtime, concealing flower tunnels you can walk through. It was cold that first day, making a mockery of Dr. Johnson’s Summer House. On later visits, if the weather was pleasant, I invariably rested on my back under the same tree on the lawn, my eyes shielded by my Tilley hat, and dozed half aware of the noises of children and dogs playing. I had been here before, I was here now, I would be back again.

Then we took the 210 bus into Highgate and walked down to the cemetery and to the graves of Karl Marx and George Eliot, and then across the way to Old Highgate Cemetery, because Marx and Eliot were in New Highgate, you see. In those days the Friends of Highgate Cemetery hadn’t yet started clearing the tangled growth that choked the cemetery during the war, when the groundsmen had been needed as air wardens. Tombstones leaned at crazy angles, graves gaped open, and the Columbarium looked like the set for Hammer horror films, which it often was. A daughter of Charles Dickens rests there, and Radclyffe Hall, with a plaque signed by her lover Una. The cemetery is overshadowed by the looming back wall of St. Michael’s Church, where Coleridge is buried under the center aisle.

The Perfect Walk took place during one long day, ending in frigid twilight and assisted by buses. I go into such detail to spare you an account of countless nooks and crannies of the great city. Dan started me on a lifelong practice of wandering around London. From 1966 to 2006, I visited London never less than once a year and usually more than that. Walking the city became a part of my education, and in this way I learned a little about architecture, British watercolors, music, theater, and above all people. I felt a freedom in London I’ve never felt elsewhere. I made lasting friends. The city lends itself to walking, can be intensely exciting at eye level, and is being eaten alive block by block by brutal corporate leg-lifting.

In the 1980s I raised an advance from Donna Martin, my patient editor at Andrews and McMeel, which paid for a trip to London for Dan and his second wife, Audrey, my girlfriend Ingrid Magan Eng, and my friends John McHugh and Jack Lane, the photographer. We retraced Curley’s walk from Belsize Park to Archway and produced The Perfect London Walk. One day a few years later when Chaz and I were taking the walk, we arrived at the top of Parliament Hill and saw a couple reading the book.

“Any questions?” I asked.

“Oh! Is this included?”

In the days of my illness, unable to walk, I started walking around this London in my mind. These were enveloping daydreams, enhanced by pain medication and lassitude. I hadn’t started again to do any writing or see any movies and had nothing to do but lie in bed with my memories. Mentally I walked out of the Eyrie Mansion and down Jermyn Street to Wiltons. I ordered roast turkey with fresh peaches, and raspberry syllabub for dessert. Then I walked down St. James’s and into the park and around the ponds. Admired the view of Westminster from the bridge. Then out of the park toward Victoria and on into Pimlico. Pushing on now, following an instinctive map in my mind, I stop for coffee at that little street (I know just how to find it) with all the shops and street vendors. Then down to the Tate and following the Thames all the way around to Hammersmith, not a short walk, but in my mind it didn’t take long. Ahead to where houseboats are moored, and to Chiswick House to nap on the lawn and have tea. But stopping first at the churchyard where Hogarth lies buried. Before that at the pub down from Hammersmith Bridge with the deck overlooking the water. And of course near that bridge is the Gate, London’s best vegetarian restaurant. I realized I’d made a mental U-turn at Chiswick and retraced my steps.

Once I started daydreaming, those memories started happening all the time. As I retraced my steps, I remember details I haven’t thought of since my visit. I wonder if everything is stored away, every step I took, every street I walked, every window I looked at and wondered, who lives there? At the east end of Pembridge Square there was a high window with a wooden silhouette of a palm tree in it. Whose was it?

I believe that I could pause right now and remember something I saw on a walk that I have never thought of again since that time. I just have. After you leave the Belsize Park Tube stop you angle down through an old churchyard on your way to Keats House. On the corner a blue plaque marks the location of the bookshop where George Orwell once worked, the one that inspired his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Some steps up the hill you will find the Roebuck Pub, and a blue plaque marking the dwelling of one of the Huxleys, perhaps Thomas, “Darwin’s bulldog.” A door or two away, there used to be a nursery school, and displayed in its windows one day were colorful zoo animals, cut out of construction paper. That was at least thirty-five years ago, and it was still waiting in my mind. My memory was accurate. After I wrote about this in a blog, a reader signing herself Leapy wrote: “The nursery school in Pond Street (above the Orwell pizza shop and the Huxley town house) still exists. I attended it forty-odd years ago and now my own children are pupils.” She didn’t mention the paper animals, but we both know they were there.

I found many people who liked to walk around London with me, but only one was always ready to walk, no matter how early in the morning. This was my grandson Emil Evans. “There’s no such thing for me as getting up too early,” he told me. We often walked down into St. James’s Park, fed the ducks, and made our way over to Westminster. We walked every morning. Our mission was always the same. We were not walking for health or to educate ourselves. We were walking to find a cup of hot chocolate. We found the cheapest cup in London at Chubby’s in Crown Passage and the most expensive at Fortnum & Mason, a thousand steps from each other.

On my imaginary walk I could have turned right at the end of Jermyn and walked up St. James’s to Piccadilly, down to Park Lane, up toward Notting Hill, and passed the Mason’s Arms on my way to Pembridge Square, nodding while passing the Hyde Park West Hotel, where when I had no money in the 1970s I always asked for the same tiny room, number 310 I believe, with a window I could climb through to stand on a roof overlooking the square. In that hotel I miserably read a Penguin paperback on alcoholism years before I took any action. I could have had lunch at Costas, behind the Gate at Notting Hill, the movie theater. Or I could have walked to the far end of Pembridge Square and had lunch at the Sun in Splendour, which was the Evening Standard Pub of the Year in 1968. Why do I remember that?

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