Covent Garden was a fetid place. My grandfather Bill (the man who showed me London) worked there and it was not the dolly-prim place of jugglers, coffee, cake and the crowded Punch & Judy it is now. Flowers, fruit and veg sound very pastoral but he described it as filthy, rat-ridden and for some years still badly bomb-damaged. He was an office clerk, a Lambeth boy done good, from right on the walk itself and who married above himself (it was seen) and escaped to the suburbs post-war. But he worked off the Garden in a curious split-shift system like that you find in restaurants so that between one and the other he would have a few hours to himself in what for many with whom he worked was a forerunner of the long, liquid lunches later more popular.
Bill came to the Needle to eat his lunch. Across the Strand and on to the Embankment, close to Hungerford Bridge that led then right back into Lambeth. And when he would on our days out show me London we’d often eat our sandwiches here too. They were always cheese, which was good (because for his tea he liked heart, kidney and tripe – a horror as a family we had to share when he lived with us, I sat there staring at a hard-burned lump of heart that if I did not eat would be presented to me the next day, and the next).
Cleopatra’s Needle is hardly the sort of thing I usually mention. Everyone knows about it, or of it. It’s probably the oldest structure in London. It predates Cleopatra herself by a thousand years. It was presented to Britain to celebrate the Battle of the Nile, but only shipped here seventy years later. In a storm the great rafted-pontoon in which it was transported broke free and six men died failing to retrieve it. It was later returned and for which salvage was claimed. Erected in 1878, later Granda Bill loved it, was fascinated by it. He told me he would come here as a boy. Across the river and away from the Lambeth slums. Fascinated he learned about it, and because of it started walking to the museums, because of which he (the almost stereotypical raggedy oik) would spend days reading plaques and then books, and educating himself so that he excelled in what passed for schools back south of the river. In the army he topped out a number of the tests everyone was put to. And so he done-good, and because of Cleopatra’s Needle.
I love that.
You probably know that there’s a time capsule buried in the base. Granda Bill who liked a good story (and told them better than most) told me as a boy that it was long since robbed, because it was Egyptian and that’s what happened. And I’m not saying this is true. Nor that my mum has a lovely copy of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, nor that Bill’s razor never needed replacing and was always sharp. I’m not going to make out that the twelve photographs of the era’s most beautiful ladies rest in newspapers of the day, in a drawer, and I know where. That would just be silly. Nor would I note (quite as an aside) that the stone mason that set the Needle in place was Billy Gould, from Lambeth, as that would be simple colour to a tale that isn’t even half a story.
But what was true was that when I lived across the river myself then some days when it was fair I would walk to the Thames and cross Hungerford Bridge. And I would sit and eat lunch, always a cheese sandwich, and at times in the afternoon walk further to Bloomsbury.
We sometimes walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. But rarely do we see them so well preserved in the dust of time.