Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Hier, quand j'étais jeune...

On Monday I went back to an old haunt of mine.

Years ago, in my first real job, I worked at the Quaker International Centre in Bloomsbury, just north of the British Museum. I was, heaven help me, the deputy chef. It was a great job in many respects – I learned to cater for large numbers unfazed, and as it was a live-in post I also got to make the most of being based in central London, with museums and galleries, theatres, concert halls and cinemas all within half an hour’s journey. A live-in job has its bad side, of course; one can never really get away from work, and if one has a falling-out with a colleague, there’s no escape from it at the end of the day, there they are sitting opposite one at supper… And yes, in case you’re wondering, Quakers do have fallings-out, too, though they try to be very civilised about it. They’re only human!

Ten minutes walk from QIC, on Drummond Street, was the divine Diwana Bhel Poori House. For a hungry twenty-year-old who has spent all day cooking preposterous amounts of food for other people, a Diwana thali with friends was a perfect evening out. A great platter containing dal, sabzis, pappadums, puris, relishes, pulao rice, pickles, idlis or fritters, even a dollop of something creamy and cardamom-y for desert… For years it was my insider tip for visitors to London – go to Diwana, have a thali, you won’t regret it – and it left me with a serious addiction to bhel poori with sev. I’ve now found a similar place in Hammersmith and can get my fix without having to trail up to Euston, hurrah. Diwana is still there on Drummond Street, though.

Anyway, on Monday I met my stepmum Jane there for an early supper before she took the train to Milton Keynes for the fun of an OU Tutors’ first aid training session. It was the hottest day of the year so far and neither of us had the appetite for a thali, so we settled on dahi vada and dosas, and an indulgent mango lassi each. The dosas were tasty and very filling, the dahi vada – a sort of vegetarian dumpling served with tamarind chutney and fresh yoghurt – were delicious. We talked our heads off, catching up, putting the world to rights and gossiping about my brothers behind their backs (only kidding, guys!). Then I walked her up to Euston for her train.

And then, I was at a loose end, on a hot midsummer evening, back in the heart of my old stomping ground. I didn’t want to go straight back down into the Tube (which had been swelteringly hot and very smelly), so I wandered south and west through the back streets, thinking I’d pick up a westbound number 94 bus.

My route took me down the side of Gordon Square, where once I used to relax under the trees, and right past the old QIC building where I had lived and worked, and the University church where I once gave a reading, and through the streets and past the shops I used to know so well; and it had all changed.

Well; not quite all. The Square looked much the same; same tall London planes, same slightly unkempt grass and circle of rose beds in the middle. The church looked much the same, except in need of a good clean. But QIC seems to have been shut up completely, and most of the windows are boarded. And apart from the Marlborough Arms on the corner of Huntley Street, hardly a shop or café or restaurant was the same. The flower stalls had all gone, Apollo Food&Wine on the Tottenham Court Road had gone, the wonderful Italian ice-cream place opposite Heals had gone, Byzantium on Goodge Street had gone, and the Swiss deli on Charlotte Street, and the Greek taverna, and the Polish bakery...

I walked on feeling very strange, very yesterday-when-I-was-young. It is all so long ago, and that keen, clumsy girl I was is so long gone. It was salutary, and at first I felt very melancholy. But gradually as I walked on I began to feel better.

I would not turn the clock back for love or money, after all. It would be good, of course, to have again the physical vitality of my younger self. I am stouter and slower, and have less stamina, than the Imogen of those days. It would be good to have all the time ahead of me that she had, and for that matter the opportunities (had she but possessed the self-confidence to take advantage of them). But I was an awkward, desperate, cripplingly shy creature, tortured by my inability to make everyone happy, terrified both of solitude and of being overwhelmed by others’ lives and wishes. I lived in a fantasy world most of the time when I was not cooking, and my crushes, instead of being safely distant dancers and musicians, were guys I knew well and saw every day, whose proximity was a torment and whose rejection left me bent double with self-disgust. In short, I was a mess; and terribly, terribly young.

I don’t want to be that immature, unhappy, embittered young woman. I am fearfully glad I woke up, and grew up, and made the choices and decisions I made, and got to where I am today. My world is not perfect, not by a long pole; but it’s pretty good, nonetheless, and it is my own. My life now reflects who I am with a deep truth, and no amount of youthful energy restored could replace that self-knowledge and self-possession. And for this I am very grateful. So I didn’t look around me with any regret, after the first few shocks, but with surprise and a sense of amazement, and a growing feeling of peace, and I walked quietly along to Oxford Circus, and got the bus home.

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