This week I was supposed to be in West Africa. I'd been planning the trip for months, which was to have begun in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, and continued through Monrovia (Liberia), Freetown (Sierra Leone) and concluded in Conakry, the rather dodgy capital of Guinea. Luckily, the hotel reservations were cancellable and I've been given a 'voucher' covering the Portuguese TAP airlines flights to and from the region, but I'm in the midst of an ongoing battle to recover costs for three internal – and generally rather expensive – flights. Online travel companies claim to be swamped, yet the difficulty in contacting some of them suggests they're hoping customers like me simply give up. Not a chance.
Meanwhile, Outlook keeps reminding me of planes I won't catch and hotels I won't check in to. A pile of books purchased for holiday reading, including Graham Greene's West African travelogue, sit unread – tackling them while stuck in London would simply make me more melancholy. Also making me gloomy is not knowing when my wanderlust might next be satisfied. Almost daily, various travel companies bombard me with offers (none of them, it has to be said, particularly good) for international flights departing from August onwards. I'd love that to be true, but can't help feeling the aviation industry is being overly optimistic.
Anyway, these are yet more first-world problems. I'm hopeful that domestic travel is a more realistic expectation, as there are still corners of the UK I'm keen to experience. In the interim, I've been curating photographs from previous trips, images I've always tended to upload and then forget about. Given that my serious travelling kicked in circa 2005, there's a lot to get through. There's also my imagination. The other evening I watched Powell and Pressburger's film, Ill Met By Moonlight
, based on the wartime exploits of future travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, and that night dreamt of visiting Crete.
I wrote last week of longing to strike out and experience the deserted streets of London, so on Friday and Saturday I did just that. First, I cycled to the City of London on Good Friday, which on a public holiday would have been pretty quiet in any case, yet it was still odd to cycle on deserted roads, competing only with other cyclists, generally empty double-deckers and the occasional motorist. The only people I saw were shopping for food – a reminder that the City does have a few permanent residents. A Dutch Church I'd never noticed before was ringing its bells, summoning non-existent worshippers.
The following day, I ventured into the parts of London familiar to thousands of tourists who no longer come. I cycled along the narrower part of Oxford Street, up to Broadcasting House, down the elegant curve of Regent Street, along Shaftesbury Avenue and then down Whitehall to Parliament Square, all largely deserted. Occasionally I passed a police van, although these seemed to be patrolling rather than intervening. I later concluded that they were there to prevent looting, and then marvelled at having such a thought. This is not normal.
In recounting this, I momentarily thought I'd visited the City on Saturday and Oxford Circus on Sunday, further evidence that I've lost all track of time. It also came as a shock that last Wednesday was not Tuesday, while the concept of a long bank holiday weekend threw me further out of kilter – what to do? Actually it was fine. My industrious brother conjured up a barbeque on Saturday evening, followed by a delicious lamb roast on Easter Sunday. Then that evening a much-anticipated treat – a chocolate Easter egg panic-bought almost a month ago. It was devoured pretty quickly.
Neighbourhood walks, meanwhile, continue to reveal something new. I notice bird song more than I used to, as well as the shape and form of trees in Hackney's parks, many now in magnificent bloom. I even got absorbed in old telecoms manhole covers. The earliest I found was marked 'Post Office Telegraphs', followed chronologically by 'GPO' (General Post Office), 'Post Office Telephones', and the most recent, 'BT' (British Telecom). All this took me back to my childhood when my dad worked for BT, having joined the GPO straight from school in the 1960s. I remember that some of his older equipment was still branded 'GPO'.
Happily, another solo cycling trip also uncovered remnants of the 1951 Festival of Britain, a developing interest of mine now I've almost exhausted the 1938 Scottish Empire Exhibition. This Festival's centrepiece was on the South Bank of the Thames, where the Royal Festival Hall still stands, but there were also events in other parts of London: South Kensington (Science), Battersea (the Festival Pleasure Gardens) and Poplar (Architecture).
Poplar's Lansbury estate formed part of the Festival's 'Live Architecture Exhibition', as did the Lansbury Lawrence School, both named after the former Labour Party leader, George Lansbury (grandfather of Dame Angela). I also tracked down the Festival Inn – which still boasts Abram Games' distinctive Festival of Britain logo – the striking clock tower at the rebuilt Chrisp Street Market and, my highlight, the rather sorry looking Trinity Congregational Church, complete with concrete buttresses and stylised spire (see below).
'A people curbed by years of total war and half-crushed by austerity and gloom,' wrote the historian Kenneth O Morgan of the Festival's impact, 'showed that it had not lost the capacity for enjoying itself'. Something tells me the UK could do with a similar psychological boost once the lockdown is over.