Today I took a trip on a “time machine” via the London underground. I went back to 1965 when I first arrived in London at the age of 20. My grand uncle Joe Harris and his wife Alice, invited me to visit them. At that time, I was living in Paris. Living is not really the correct term, I suppose. Perhaps it would be better to say, I was surviving. I literally slept under a table in a friends small apartment on the left bank of Paris. I had no money. My French was not good, and the Parisians at that time, were awful to foreigners. I was constantly being humiliated. My friend was studying music at the Conservatory of Paris. I took a few classes there myself.
When Joe asked me if I’d like to visit him and meet some of the family. I jumped at it. My mothers father, Mark Harris, had been born in London very close to Carnaby street. He came from a family of tailors. All around that area, in the 1900s, Jewish tailors worked doing subcontracting for Saville Row. My grandfather had many brothers and sisters and they were all still alive in 1965. Joe will take me around to meet all of them. I am still in contact with their grandchildren and great grandchildren.
My wife and I have been spending a few weeks in London. Today, I decided to venture on my own, back to where Joe and Alice had lived in a neighborhood called Maida Vale. They had a nice apartment but it was quite small. So as part of my visit, Joe rented me a small studio apartment, actually just a room around the corner from where they stayed. After spending a few weeks in London I went back to Paris. However as soon as I got there I realized I could not remain. After a week, I return to London.
This time I found a room in a much poor part of the neighborhood where Joe and Alice lived. It was on Warwick Street. I rented what was called a bed-sitter. It was just one room which had a table, a bed and a few chairs. The heating system was gas but it required me to put in shilling pieces into its meter. It didn’t take me long to figure out how to hack the meter and I was able to stay warm. I was the only one in the apartment building that wasn’t from Nigeria. There were six Nigerian families and me. We shared a common kitchen which also had a meter for the gas stove and hot water. We also shared one bathroom and toilet. Nevertheless I was pretty happy living there.
I had no telephone, television, radio, and certainly nothing like the Internet. The only thing I had was a portable typewriter on which I wrote poetry and letters. I still have the book of poems, I wrote then. Recently, when I was researching for my book, The Flight of a Wild Duck, I came across an index of documents from the famous poet Allen Ginsberg. I was delighted to find that there were letters from me that Allen had kept.
Today, after some 57 years I decided to return to Maida Vale. I took the underground to a station that I thought was close to where Joe and Alice lived. It turns out that wasn’t the right station. For about a half an hour I was very much lost trying to figure out where it was that they had lived. Slowly, it came back to me and eventually I stood in front of their apartment building. It was there that I had met the singer Donovan, as he lived on the same floor as they did. I went around the corner and I saw the place where I first aid. After that I remembered how to walk back to the building where I had my bedsitter.
It’s amazing how much time has transpired since I first arrived in London. It makes me also realize how little time there is left ahead