Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Hyde Park Corner, Piccadilly, Soho: my route to work on the number 14 bus in 1982. New to London, embarking on an inglorious secretarial career, I climbed to the top deck daily, and gazed in wonderment as the opening credits to my day unfolded before my eyes.
The London bus was a perfect wayfinder for this fresh-faced Girl About Town. It bestowed an immediate sense of place; I marveled at the daily revelation of street names, landmarks, lanes, parks, palaces, avenues, and architectural triumphs. Each day brought something new.
Boarding opposite my home at 737 Fulham Road, the bus and I trundled through London’s most fashionable arteries, to Thames Television on the Euston Road; more often than not the same, chatty conductor strode up and down the aisle. He had an air of Eric Sykes, and pointed out the sights for those of us less familiar with the territory.
I promised myself I would one day buy from the boutiques that studded the Knightsbridge streets, like gleaming jewels. These were the days of independent shops with big bold windows; shops that excited material lust, crafted by imaginative stylists in love with their work. Any passer-by could enjoy whole worlds of retail drama, woven from artful wisps of silk and lace.
Another promise was, one day, to dine illicitly à deux, at the small and elegant restaurants that winked knowingly from half-hidden places, looking for all the world that they had scandalous secrets and stories to tell.
Time gave way to a car, and a different perspective; in London the car is a mode of transport pure and simple, with little to offer but frustration, too enclosed and too blinkered to bring genuine joy to a journey.
Not so the scooter. For a few years from 2002, a trusty Piaggio Zip took me daily from Putney to Soho and back, and introduced new and varied opening credits. Now I traveled to work via some of the world’s most famous landmarks that imbued my day with film-star glamour.
From the Kings Road I would weave my way to the river, emerging from narrow Chelsea streets to see the Thames sparkle in the sun, as if lit from beneath by a million tiny, blinding bulbs. I learned to love the most unexpected buildings: Millbank Tower that rises from its perfect pedestal, with a modernist elegance of which the myriad new corporate City towers can only dream. The concrete South Bank complex is an architectural joy that performs to a constant, yet transitory audience on the north.
Parliament Square. How many people can check their watch by Big Ben every morning, or nod to the Plod guarding the gates to our seat of power? The stone of these buildings absorbs the light and the weather, adopting a different hue and temperament at any moment, never the same twice. From my scooter, I looked up at the detail of the roofs, and across an unexpectedly open London vista.
To Trafalgar Square then, to lift my eyes to Nelson. Hello Nelson, how are you today? What can you see? What do you have to tell? Everything and more, no doubt. Of all London’s famed columnists, he alone must surely hold secrets the tabloids would die for.
The opening credits of that era, took me to the Forte Communication office, which sat proudly on the corner of Wardour and Old Compton Streets in the heart of Soho. I’d scoot left at Peter Street and park at the bottom of Berwick, saying hello to Gary and Les on the fruit stall where I bought my five-a-day. This, en route to Bar Bruno where Claudio may have caught sight of me turning the corner, and have a double-shot Americano ready, with a charming smile. I loved that place. Franco, Pasquale, Ermino and Claudio – they’d sometimes keep an eye on My Girls who would sit there colouring during half term, when childcare was scarce.
These rushes and stills of an earlier life returned last week, as I sat pillion on my friend Andrew’s motorbike. Safe and sound on this substantial BMW and reassured by the broad shoulders in charge, I gazed skyward and outward, absorbing Soho, the river and Parliament Square, watching the glorious shimmer of lights, as traffic traversed London’s unique set of elegant and beautiful bridges that conjoin the north and south of this splendid place.
We passed St Paul’s and stopped to engage with the anti Capitalist protest there (great music to boot). That London can host this peaceful and pertinent sign of the times, with little protest of its own, is something to be grateful for.
The capital may have changed over 30 years, but its sights, smells and sounds are just as immediate and no less fulfilling. My city still exudes an air of vitality and excitement with new and wonderful landmarks appearing on a regular basis.
Riding pillion through the London dusk on a balmy autumn evening, I was reminded just how very lucky I am to live in one of the most beautiful and liberal cities in the world. The opening credits of my London life continue to evolve and inspire.
Maybe, just maybe there’s a film in there, somewhere.
© Giovanna Forte
Picture courtesy Brian Micklethwait