Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, that I love London Town. So the song goes, so my heart follows. Despite the stuff and nonsense of so many of my confused compatriots at the moment, I love London and can feel a sense of homesickness when I’m away.
As a patriotic but not jingoistic Englishman, born near the Thames, son of an engineer and myself an erstwhile freelance diplomat, building bridges, physical or metaphorical, has always been my kind of thing.
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady. In about 1970 my father took me to see our contemporary-modern London Bridge being built. It was officially opened by the Queen in 1973. We knew the old one had fallen down or at least had been sinking Venice-like into the river-bed mud. We knew its pieces had been numbered, packaged up and sent over the pond to The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, in the words of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics of what was to become the American national anthem. At about the same time, John Rennie, a Scots engineer, was designing our “New” London Bridge, which crossed the Thames from 1831 until 1967. One might surmise that the old New London Bridge was heading west to fulfil its manifest destiny, the civilising mission, to boldly go where no bridge had boldly gone before. United States Entrepreneur Robert McCulloch purchased the bridge, which became the largest antique in the world and rebuilt it to straddle the canal he dug across a peninsula, thus creating an island in Lake Havasu, on the Colorado River, the border between Arizona and California. “Neat and awesome!”, you might be tempted to exclaim.
Fast forward from the Sad Seventies to the steamy summer of 1986. I was living in Paris and the US Dollar had hit an exchange rate peak: one US would buy you 10 French Francs, Oh là là! (By way of comparison & strong Euro oblige, one single greenback will only buy you five and half equivalent French Francs in 2018.) So, thirty-two summers ago, swarms of American tourists hit Gay Paree; in their midst were busloads of mid-West high-school kids and their teachers; they had never been to a city before, let alone an international capital and were thirsty for culture, adventure and shopping. They weren’t the asses I have just found online, but from another outfit, which arranged one to two-week educational trips for American kids to Europe. I was hired as a tour guide-interpreter alongside some other bilingual students. We were each assigned a tour bus, driver and around fifty people, each high-school group of ten accompanied by a couple of teachers and the odd parent or two from back home. We showed them the sights of Paris, including multiple shopping expeditions. “Oh Mike, I just bought ten ounces of Joy for ten dollars!” exclaimed one teacher after I had herded her group through the Fragonard Perfume Museum, which is still there to this very day, near the Palais Garnier, Paris Opera. The Loire castles, complete with son et lumière, elicited a heart-felt “Humungous!” when I asked one of my rural teenage charges what she had thought of the Château de Chenonceau. Couldn’t fault her on that, it is rather ossum, n’est-ce pas! My colleague Roger, an English guy on vacation from his Cambridge studies, had a group of shy black kids from Washington on his bus. He coaxed and nurtured them, but eventually, in desperation, asked one of them why they seemed so unhappy with their French visit, despite his best efforts to interest and engage them. One diffident boy ventured that he was homesick for the shopping. Poor Roger, almost beside himself, retorted, “But you’ve hardly done anything except shopping since you got here!! What is it that you can get in Washington that you can’t get here in Paris?” he demanded. “Well, a lil’ bit of this an’ a lil’ bit of that,” came the rather sheepish reply. They did loosen up a little thereafter, pained at not pleasing their poor guide.
One of the perks for us tour guide-interpreters was that, if we could persuade at least three of the adults, i.e. teachers, parents or over-18 students, to buy tickets for a Parisian floor-show, then we would get in free. Over the week I got friendly with some of the teachers, one of whom I felt was on the same wavelength. Let’s call her Ghislaine. That wasn’t her name, which now escapes me, but I can clearly see her round, plump, smiling face and bright, intelligent eyes, framed in a tousle of curly blonde locks. (She looked like the real Ghislaine I did know, who was a teacher in a French school where I had taught in 1979). American Ghislaine and her group of students hailed from sparsely-populated Wyoming, cattle and mining country. Unlike my cosmopolitan self, none of them had been to New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles or London, so for them this trip to Paris was quite the thing. Ghislaine and a couple of her colleagues succumbed to my sales pitch for the Moulin Rouge, so we rocked up one evening to the show there. On the Pigalle pavement, under the red neon sails of the old red windmill, we waited in line, briefly, before two thousand people were ushered – with amazing rapidity and exquisite crowd control – or rather shoe-horned, into the theatre; each guest sat either side of a mini-table facing the stage and complete with boudoir-shaded lamp, ice-bucket, half bottle of champagne and two glasses. I sat opposite Ghislaine. The lights went down and the show began. Well, what a show! Number after exquisite number, tableau after tremendous tableau, the multitude of performers whirled and danced across the huge stage, no expense spared for costumes, sets, lighting or musical extravagance. Then a sudden quiet pause, during which a large, transparent glass tank arose from under the stage, the green water eerily lit from below. Enter from stage left a heroic, moustachioed acrobat of sorts, dressed in a 19th century style yellow leotard and black shorts, mid-riff buckled with a strongman’s belt. In one hand he held a leash, on the other end of which a rather mournful real-life alligator was trying to keep its dignity as it waddled on stage. The audience gasped, the strongman bent down and grabbed the alligator, flinging it into the raised pool, then jumped in himself after it. More gasps from the audience. Then ensued a mock mortal combat or rather a sort of semi-reptilian fisticuffs, in which the alligator conceded early, if ignominious defeat. Nonetheless, sceptics such as myself were sufficiently impressed, if not spellbound. A glance over to Ghislaine and her friends reassured me that they were delighted, intoxicated by the champagne and the culture. The curtain came down and after a few moments went up again. Gone all signs of the swimming pool and gator. We had been transported into a saloon from the American Wild West of Annie Get Your Gun, Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp! Dancing cowgirls in full petticoated skirts and cowboys in jeans, boots, ten-gallon hats, leather chaps and all the gear, high-legged it in time across the stage and back again, singing all the way. Wow! Then, from stage left a cowboy on a real-life horse comes a-gallopin’ (well, perhaps not that fast), Yee-Hawin’ and shootin’ his hand-gun as he arrived upstage centre. I glanced round to my neighbour to see how she was enjoying the show and saw streams of tears rolling down her flushed cheeks. “Oh, Ghislaine, are you okay? What’s the matter?”, I solicitously enquired. “Oh Mike, it’s so beautiful. It reminds me of home!”. The tears started rolling down mine, too. A night to remember.
So here we are, en route from beautiful Santa Fe to beautiful San Francisco and I, at least, have come to pay homage to old New London Bridge, on the shores of Lake Havasu City, Arizona. And here is the view from my window and it’s so beautiful, it reminds me of home, as I wipe a teardrop from the corner of my eye.
And if you want more background, the BBC has published a great piece about The Bridge that crossed an ocean! September 2018.