FLEDGLING FREEDOMLittle steps to Soho.
Those of us who lived through the ‘swinging Sixties’ will probably remember Patrick McGoohan’s enigmatic TV series The Prisoner in which he played an abducted special agent McGoohan, known only as No.6. In each episode, filmed in the picturesque Welsh village of Portmeirion, our hero repeatedly battled with the authorities, his attempts to escape always thwarted by the presence of a large floating white sphere.
On clear sunny days, this compelling image reminds me of Covid-19. Superficially, all is well. There is food in the fridge, the garden has never looked so cheerful and there is always Netflix as a diversion. But I wake every morning, the presence of the virus hovering over me like McGoohan’s white sphere.
Leaving aside conspiracy theories and an atavistic desire to apportion blame, my major struggle has been to try to come to terms with my diminishing freedoms. No contact with anyone outside my home. No communal activities. And that includes no hugging of grandchildren. No shopping trips. No gallery or theatre visits and certainly no sport. I became obsessed with the daily 5 o’clock press briefing fronted by someone from an uncertain Government, flanked by one or two scientists. I was convinced after a few days of aching limbs that I was a Covid case but, given the sobering scenes beamed from ICU wards around the country I realised, so far, I was a lucky one.
At first, it was fear that made me compliant. After all, what is more important, survival or freedom? Then, quite unwittingly, the fear was subsumed by a passive acceptance. Life was surreal? Yes. Unbearable? No. It was somehow liberating to let your hair grow, wear comfortable clothes and enjoy the best spring for decades.
I lived in this suspended state until Monday, 4th July, in a way the UK’s own Independence Day. We would be free, once again, to eat and drink in pubs and restaurants. I did a calculation as I began to salivate at the thought of being served a meal. Having self-isolated since March, I worked out that I had planned, catered and cooked over 100 suppers. No wonder the prospect of freedom food was so appealing.
The chosen venue for John’s and my first foray back into the real world was The Groucho Club, situated at the Southern end of Dean Street in Soho. Not only had the club kept its members entertained on line during lockdown, it had also generously added a credit to members’ fees to compensate for its enforced closure.
Known for its rakish informality, it was a surprise to be sent Covid etiquette instructions beforehand. All members’ guests must provide contact details. Hand sanitiser must be used when entering or leaving the Club. Everyone must follow a one-way system and you mustn’t be late. And a few final riders – don’t expect your table to be laid, no photographs and no mobile phones.
The origin of how The Groucho Club got its name is a little hazy. But it’s thought that one of the founder members liked a quote by Groucho Marx of the Marx Brothers comedy group which summed up the anti-establishment aspirations of the Club. “Please accept resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member” Groucho Marx is alleged to have written. The choice of a duck as the club’s logo also deserves explanation. It stems from one of the brothers’ most famous comedy routines “Why a Duck?” which featured in their 1929 film ‘The Cocoanuts.’ Groucho and Chico are discussing a map when Groucho mentions the presence of a viaduct between the mainland and a peninsula. Chico, who is playing the role of an immigrant with poor English replies “Why a duck?”
Neither of us having used public transport for months, we ordered a car into town. Our driver, breathing hard through his mask and sweating in his purple rubber gloves, grumbled the moment we hit Euston Road. And he had a point. Something was happening to the roads. Half- finished cycle lanes, extended pavements and newly created one-way systems was bringing traffic almost to a halt.
But at least the snail pace gave me time to savour the buildings I suddenly realised how much I’d missed. The Post Office Tower, once famous for its revolving restaurant where the late Jeremy Thorpe proposed to his first wife. The towering glass edifice of the new University College Hospital which straddles Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street, down which we drive towards our destination. Past the RADA building where, when very young, I used to dream of being a student. On towards theatre land. A closed theatre is known as going ‘dark’, usually to give time to prepare for another show. To see the whole of Shaftesbury Avenue shut down is a sobering reminder of the seriousness of Covid-19.
A right turn off the Avenue and we’re into Dean Street. I stumbled slightly as I got out of the car, unused as I had become to town life. Dean Street is usually full of young people rushing from edit suite to studio and back again. This day, Friday 10th July, it is almost empty, another indication of how this virus is ripping communities apart.
Except for the installation of a bell, the entrance to the club looked the same. It was only once inside that you became aware of the changes. The reception desk was shielded by a plastic screen and we had to keep all our belonging with us. We’re guided about how to keep our distance by a pair of webbed duck feet inside white circles which were a little confusing at first as the pointed end of a duck’s foot is backwards. We made our way up the main staircase (down which, it is told, a seriously inebriated member once tumbled, bringing half the bannister with him) and into the main dining room, to be met like returning soldiers.
It was like coming home. The glass domed ceiling, the walls covered in 20th Century art and the familiar hard topped tables and banquette seating. Apart from the fact that there were probably 50% less tables and a smaller menu, it was as if nothing had changed.
We predictably chose the nursery food favourites, shepherd’s pie and fish ‘n chips, opting for culinary comfort rather than gastronomic adventure. It wasn’t just the food and the wine that made the experience so memorable. The whole theatricality of the rituals of eating out – from choosing what to eat and drink to eavesdropping other people’s conversations and flirting with the waiters.
Many years ago I interviewed a former Chairman of M & S, Lord Seiff, and I asked him what criteria he applied when assessing a store’s standards.
“I go straight to the customers’ toilets” he replied. “If they are clean and tidy, it’s more than likely that the rest of the store will be too.”
I thought I’d put Groucho’s loos to the same test and they passed. I did wonder, however, as I squirted yet another blob of sanitiser onto my hands whether I was becoming a little OCD in the hand hygiene department.
I’m not sure Lord Seiff would have approved of one encounter I had when queuing for the ladies at the club when one of the cubicles was opened by a slightly glazed young beauty, to be followed by a man hastily zipping up his trousers. Neither batted an eye-lid, naturally. But that, of course, was pre-Covid days.
A fledgling return to freedom it might have been but, as we donned our masks, we felt giddy with relief. I’ve kept a copy of that day’s menu to remind me of those first tentative steps back to normality on Friday, 10th July, 2020.