Posts Tagged ‘London’

This is where east meets west,
Dover Road and Augusta Gardens;
Where DFLs mix with Folky born and breds,
Cold war adjourned for one warm afternoon.

Tram Road traffic crawls and curls
Around a heaving Harbour Street,
Affording passengers an extended view
Of much loved, yet loathed, Grand Burstin.

A brisk breeze, cooling the searing sun,
Sweeps champagne flutes to a watery end
In the chastening Channel spray
That laps the lighthouse;
Proof that, sometimes, weather
Can be a first to place and time.

Sinatra’s call to Come Fly with Me
Gives way to the eclectic sounds
That entertain the growing queues
For Sole Kitchen and Hog and Hop.
While the Native Oyster Band
Has the crowds singing and swaying,
Kadialy Kouyate’s kora mesmerises,
Bringing the authentic sounds of
New Orleans and Senegal to
This English coastal paradise.

Children build bricks to knock them down,
Dash between Baba Ji and Pick Up Pintxos
Or search for the iron man in the water,
(Don’t worry, kids, he will be back!).

But if the heat and tumult are too much
And it is peace you pine for,
Retire inside to the Mole Cafe
For a mug of strong, hot tea
And a chocolate swiss roll,
Reminders of a quieter,
Yet more violent, time.

Tomorrow, normal service will be resumed;
DFLs will become RTLs
(Work it out!);
The Arm will be handed back
To anglers, cormorants and
A few unsuspecting souls,
Drenched by crashing waves
Cascading over the Folkestone sign.

But is this the lull before the storm?
Eden before the Fall?
Will those blissful views across
To ancient East Cliff and to Sunny Sands
Be there to inspire us still
In three, or five, or ten, years?

Or will the thunder of pick and drill
Drown out those of bass and drum?

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It was the longest of fortnights, it was the shortest of fortnights.

In witnessing the most exhilarating public event of my life, I, along with millions of others, was enraptured by, and became not a little knowledgeable about, previously obscure and disregarded sports like taekwondo, dressage, beach volleyball and BMX racing (I still draw the line at synchronised swimming), fuelled by the BBC’s all-embracing coverage.

But now they are over, gone as quickly as they arrived. What do I do now between the hours of 9am and midnight? Where are the rowing coxless pairs heats, 58kg weightlifting semi-finals and 50m rifle 3 position shooting final when you need them, and not just because they passed the time but because they inspired and enthralled us?

But let’s not dwell on my post-Games melancholia just yet.

Apologies in advance to my international readers – this is an unashamedly GB-centric piece, and merely passing reference to the prodigious feats of Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Oscar Pistorius, David Rudisha and many others does not diminish their extraordinary achievements.

It really all started on the first Wednesday (day 5) when my wife and I, intrigued but ticketless, decided to travel to Stratford and spend the evening at the Westfield shopping centre adjacent to the Olympic Park. As I had left the house, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning had just won Team GB’s first and, what seemed at the time, long overdue, gold medal in the women’s rowing pair.

Delivered in time by an efficient public transport system that belied the anxiety expressed by the IOC in the bidding process, I was able to marvel at the big screen with hundreds of others as the hugely popular Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins doubled the tally in the men’s individual cycling time trial at Hampton Court.

The Olympic Stadium, home to the sometimes eccentric but always chest-swelling Opening Ceremony five days previously, was not to re-open for another 72 hours when the track and field athletics were scheduled to start. But the aquatics centre and other venues in the park were already providing thrilling action. The atmosphere in the adjoining mall was correspondingly electrifying.

The immediate impression on stepping off the high speed train at Stratford International was that there was a giant party going on, to which the whole world had been invited – after all, isn’t that what the Olympics is meant to be?

Athletes, coaches, officials, military personnel, volunteers, spectators and shoppers mingled in a festive, friendly atmosphere that would have disarmed the most hardened cynic.

Over there are two athletes dressed in Eritrean track suits with bulging carrier bags from River Island and John Lewis. Outside the Waitrose supermarket a soldier shares a joke with a couple of young Brazilian girls (beach volleyball competitors maybe?). And everywhere the “happy, shiny” Volunteers in their pink and purple outfits are directing pedestrian traffic and dispensing unlimited advice and bonhomie.

Everyone is smiling (the smile, along with the tears, becomes an abiding memory of the Games). There is not a hint of the stressed undercurrent that haunts busy shopping centres at any other time.

Is this Great Britain I ask myself? Is this the country that many of its own citizens said couldn’t be trusted to organise the biggest of all peacetime projects? Is this the city with the broken transport system? Are these the people notorious for being unwelcoming to visitors?

Not any more, at least for these two weeks.

And it just got better and better.

Yes, and I cried as much, nay probably more, than anybody at the swift procession of triumph and heartbreak assailing our TV screens, and not just those of the British participants. I will never forget the sight of Sarah Attar, the first Saudi Arabian woman ever to appear in the Games, lying crumpled on the track after pulling her hamstring immediately after springing from the blocks in her 100m hurdles heat.

Nor can I dismiss from my thoughts the sight of the exhausted and distressed Zac Purchase, virtually having to be carried out of the boat by his partner, Mark Hunter, after just missing out on the gold to Denmark in the lightweight men’s double sculls.

Most poignant of all were the interviews with competitors who, having put their lives on hold for the past four years for this “once in a lifetime opportunity” (the most frequently uttered quote of the Games), performed miserably when they arrived at the very moment that was meant to validate all that hard work and sacrifice.  Whilst British triple jumper Phillips Idowu may be the most high profile casualty, there were many others who failed to get out of their heats or, perhaps most criminally of all, did not achieve their personal best on the biggest stage.

Of the 65 GB medal winners, which were my favourites? A difficult choice but here, with apologies in particular to Sir Chris Hoy, the scary Ben Ainslie, the not so scary Jessica Ennis, the Brownlee brothers and, well, everybody else who captured gold, silver or bronze, are my top five:

1. Mo Farah, the Somali born Muslim who came to London at the age of eight, and through sheer hard work and sacrifice, was taken to the hearts of his adopted country and became on successive Saturday evenings, one of its greatest ever athletes;

2. Nicola Adams, the first ever Olympic woman’s boxing gold medallist, who said at the start of her campaign that she only wanted to make her mum proud, and having won, was going to celebrate with a trip to Nando’s;

3. Double gold cyclist, Laura Trott, whose infectious, post-race interviews (“I can’t believe this is happening….I’m just a 10 year old kid”) were as joyful as her performances were thrilling;

4. Jade Jones, our youngest gold medallist, in the women’s 57kg category of taekwondo who described her victory as “bonkers”- she could kick my head in any day; and

5. Bradley Wiggins – after his heroics in the Tour de France, striking of the Olympic bell in the Opening Ceremony and handsome time trial victory, “Sir Brad” became a bit of a forgotten man during the last ten days of the Games as new British heroes emerged. He probably preferred it that way as it would have allowed him to continue getting “blind drunk”. His feats can never be underestimated though, and he remains, for me, the brightest star of Britain’s glorious sporting summer.

TV moment of the Games? It has to be the interview with previously mild-mannered, even diffident British Finn class sailor Ben Ainslie. Aiming for his fourth Olympic Gold he lost to his Danish rival, Jonas Hagh-Christensen in the first six (of ten) races. In that sixth race the Dane, along with Dutchman, Pieter-Jan Postma, alleged that Ainslie had hit a mark whilst turning round it, thereby incurring a penalty. Ainslie felt obliged to repeat the manoeuvre, causing him to lose vaulable time, though he was unconvinced that he had committed the offense.

When interviewed about this afterwards, a clearly incensed Ainslie stated that he was “seriously unhappy” about this and that “they’ve made a big mistake, they’ve made me angry and you don’t want to make me angry”. I felt afeard even from the other side of the television screen. It reminded me of John McEnroe in his pomp when his public outbursts appeared to drive him to perform still better. Needless to say, Ainslie collected his fourth gold and the reward of carrying the GB flag at the Closing Ceremony.

One other hero – London.

Never was Samuel Johnson’s famous phrase that “when a man (or woman) is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford” more apt. All that life could afford was present in this past fortnight.

Lord Coe recounted at the post-Games press conference that Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC, had advised him that if he exploited just 10% of London’s heritage in designing the venues, it would be spectacular. And spectacular it was.

I now offer a public apology to whoever took the decision to block off from the public a large chunk of Greenwich Park a year ago in order to prepare the site for the equestrian events. It was worth it. The most dramatic blend of action and backdrop was the sight of the show jumpers negotiating the “Moon” fence with the spendour of Greenwich’s maritime buildings in the immediate foreground and Canary Wharf and adjoining buildings in the background. Pure genius.

Only this could have beaten the volleyball arena in Horse Guard’s Parade, with the Whitehall rooftops and the London Eye enjoying birds eye views of the scantily attired athletes, into the silver medal position.

If there is a single word that defined these Games, and which my personal roll of honour above exemplifies, it is diversity or, if you prefer, inclusivity.

Tory MP Adam Burley called the opening ceremony “leftie multi-cultural crap”. As novelist Tony Parsons put it, “this was a rotten fortnight to be a bigot” as British athletes of black, white and mixed ethnic origin, of different religions, and from every corner of the nation, won medals. Burley’s angst will be intensified still further when the disabled Olympians take to the stage later this month.

I wrote this piece, not only as a counterpoint to the two articles published on the eve of the Games, but to provide some measure of catharsis or, in the modern vernacular, closure. But as I surround myself with commemorative brochures and newspaper reviews and look forward to the DVDs to come, I don’t want it to end, though I know it must.

The sceptic in me has re-entered the room, bragging that the spirit of generosity and celebration so overflowing in the past fortnight will soon be swept aside in arguments between politicians about the funding of sport in schools, surliness between strangers on the creaking tube, rail and bus network and a return to the national pastime of moaning.

Well, maybe, but we will always have London 2012.

I had intended to write also about that all-important issue of legacy, but I will leave it to others better qualified. Besides, I think I have occupied your time long enough.

All I will say is that I pray that these Games form not only the trigger to greater participation in the unifying and health-giving pursuit of sport in schools, clubs and throughout society (sustaining GB’s success in future Games), but that they act as a springboard to delivering the much-needed regeneration of eastern London that has been so trumpeted by politicians and adminstrators.

The true success of the Games, and its implications for the future of Britain, will be determined over a much longer timescale than a fortnight. And we face harsh economic times that might quickly remove the shine on those glorious medals.

But I will never forget the spectacle and the atmosphere, the way London 2012 made me feel good about my country, my fellow citizens, those inspirational athletes and the city I have lived and worked in for much of my life. Nothing will change that.

And let’s not forget – the Paralympics are returning home on 29th August and they are already scheduled to be the best supported in history. And I have two of the 600,000 tickets alone that have been purchased since the Opening Ceremony, enabling me to sample that extraordinary atmosphere in the Olympic Stadium!

Let’s replicate that feel-good atmosphere and celebrate a movement that, perhaps more than its big brother, exemplifies the Olympic ideals.

And finally, I’ll return to my previous article entitled Let the Games Begin when I concluded by stating that I would be “sparing a thought too for the friends and families of those who perished on 7 July 2005”.

I’d like now to finish with a quote from Dr Ian Harte who treated victims of the bombings that day:

I saw the worst of mankind that morning, and now I’m into this and I’ve seen the best.

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If you have had the good fortune (sic) to read my previous article entitled “My Olympic Journey”, you will have gathered that my passion for the Games has waned over time. In fact, I didn’t watch a single minute of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing in 2008, when Great Britain garnered its second highest medal tally – 47 – in the modern era.

Yet, three years earlier, at around a quarter to one on Wednesday 6 July 2005 to be exact, I had stood in the middle of Trafalgar Square with hundreds of office and shop workers, and a group of mildly bewildered Italian schoolgirls in matching pink and purple backpacks, and witnessed the fateful and surprising words of President Jacques Rogge, speaking from the organisation’s 117th session in Singapore: “The International Olympic Committee has the honour of announcing the games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the city of……..London”.

The detonation of delight following that agonising, reality TV show-like pause was all the more exhilarating for the fact that it had been widely expected by that stage that Paris, in its third attempt at securing the ultimate gig, had snapped the winning tape in a photo finish ahead of London.

Of course, the elation of that afternoon was brutally crushed within a mere twenty hours when news started filtering through about explosions on underground trains between Liverpool Street and Aldgate, King’s Cross and Russell Square, at Edgware Road, Old Street and Moorgate, and at Tavistock Square on the number 30 bus travelling from Marble Arch to Hackney Wick.

My tube train was halted in the tunnel between Westminster and St. James’s Park for around twenty minutes, occasioning angry mutterings from fellow commuters accustomed to signal failures and emergency track repairs. It was only after we were released into an eerily quiet daylight that we discovered that the Aldgate blast had been on one of the trains directly in front of us.

As manager of the director of a government department human resources’ office, the remainder of my day was spent trying to account – to both statistically minded management and anxious friends and families – for the hundred or so staff expected in the office that day. Thankfully, nobody was lost.

However, others had not been so lucky. The prospect of the Olympic Games in this suddenly terrorised city, seven years and 52 lives away, vanished as quickly as it had been acclaimed.

And, irrespective of the tragic events of that day, that was always likely to be the case, at least for the ordinary citizen not involved in the planning and preparation. But it did not need such carnage to convince those of us living and working in London to realise that.

Beijing came and went and still my interest was not ignited. It was only in 2010 when I began research on a 2,200 word paper for my travel and tourism qualification on the state of preparedness of the public transport system, that I began to allow myself positive thoughts again about what the Games itself and, most importantly, their legacy might be for both the east end of London and the country as a whole.

From that date, I have kept a keener and better informed eye on developments. Moreover, I have been fortunate enough, living so close to the capital, to watch the Olympic Park and its stadia take shape and feel the sense of pride and excitement growing in the area around it.

Now, us Brits are a cynical lot, and we love to moan, which, given that one of our most familiar phrases is “mustn’t grumble”, is rather ironic (the capacity for which is also part of our national psyche). And I claim my share of that not particularly attractive character trait, but, in respect of the Olympics in the incomparable city of London, where I have been blessed to spend so much of my life, including living there for eight years, I feel it is time to celebrate rather than snipe.

That doesn’t stop me smirking, raising my eyebrows and shaking my head when I read the stories of the firm handed vast sums of money to ensure the Games were safe and secure, failing to recruit anywhere near enough staff and having to be bailed out by the armed forces, or of lengthy queues at immigration at Heathrow Airport and threats of strikes (thankfully now averted) by the very same staff operating those desks. Or of the closure of the vital M4 motorway route into the city, of taxi drivers protesting at the installation of Olympic road lanes and coach drivers getting lost en route from Heathrow Airport to Stratford.

All of these are ammunition for the soulless and negative people determined to see the Games fail. And yes, the cost has exceeded the original budget threefold, those we voted for (or rather didn’t) will make as much political capital as possible out of any successes – and watch for repeated attempts to “bury bad news”, and the dead hand of corporate sponsorship will be all pervasive. But these, sadly, are inevitable consequences of the staging of any modern global event.

And all this against a backdrop of one of the wettest summers on record.

However, what has struck me most in recent weeks – and I know this is a cliché – is the manner in which ordinary people, from all corners of the island, have embraced the spirit of the Olympics, as symbolised in the joyous and exhilarating torch relay. The sight of the torch adorning such iconic landmarks as the London Eye, Snowdonia, Forth Road Bridge and even scooting through the Hampton Court Maze, has been humbling and inspirational. I am even astonished that my teeth no longer grate when I hear the words “it is the opportunity of a lifetime”, because, after all, it is, isn’t it?

And whilst a good proportion of the screaming, mobile phone camera toting, followers (and runners) have been children, whipped, no doubt, into a frenzy by media, parents and teachers alike, that really doesn’t matter.

Anyway, isn’t that the point? If nothing else, the Games are about instilling a passion for sport, healthy living and pride in one’s community in the coming generations, and howsoever that has been generated, the genuine, not engineered, enthusiasm of thousands of young people throughout the nation that we have witnessed can only be heartening.

Moreover, I was struck by what rapper Dizzee Rascal, whose music is very popular amongst teenagers but leaves me cold, perhaps because I emigrated from teenagedom some while ago, had to say in an interview with the BBC last night. He hails from the area adjacent to the Olympic Park and many of his childhood friends still live in the vicinity. Although some still harboured mistrust towards the authorities, he declared that the reaction was generally a positive and optimistic one, and saw a new hope emerging in the community.

That is, of course, the huge challenge that now faces those responsible for delivering the Olympic legacy in that and other deprived parts of the capital in particular. This really must not fail.

The cynics will argue that the Games are a complete waste of money, a classic instance of bread and circuses, deflecting the brainwashed masses from the reality of a country in double-dip recession and a government devising social policies that would have made the Thatcher cabinet blush.

I don’t belittle those claims, and will not lose sight of the domestic political context within which the Games are being played out, but I believe that it is now time to get behind the event, the volunteers, the athletes, London, the country, and especially those young people whose futures are so dependent upon their success.

So will I go?

I had not applied for any tickets, and although there are still some available, primarily for the football (which I have always had difficulty accepting as an Olympic sport), I will need a lottery win this weekend to allow me to purchase any now.

But there are, of course, the Paralympic Games in a few weeks, with tickets still available both for the Olympic Park experience and some sports. Securing some is now a priority.

I will be sparing a thought too for the friends and families of those who perished on 7 July 2005.

Let the Games begin.

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Now before you think that my Olympic medal winning exploits had passed you by, let me clarify at the outset that I haven’t even attended a Games, let alone competed in one, but cynically entitled this piece as I have to grab your hopefully more than fleeting attention. This is an account of my evolving connection with the Olympics over the past half century.

As I start this article the official website ( http://www.london2012.com ) informs me that it is one day, twelve hours and seventeen minutes to go to the Opening Ceremony of the XXX Olympiad in London, the precise details of which, including the identity of the individual lighting the Olympic cauldron, remain a surprisingly well guarded secret.

I leapt from the blocks at the Rome games of 1960, or rather sat on the living room floor with my legs, and, due to my proximity to the new but tiny black and white television, eyes, crossed, cheering on Great Britain’s two gold medallists, Anita Lonsbrough in the women’s 200 metres breaststroke and the diminutive Don Thompson, waddling hilariously for 50 kilometres in sunglasses and mum made white hat.

Great Britain doubled its gold medal tally in Tokyo in 1964 with victories for Ann Packer in the women’s 800 metres (whom of a certain age could forget David Coleman’s hysterical television commentary as she took the lead in the home straight and broke the world record?), Lynn Davies and Mary Rand in the men’s and women’s long jump respectively, and Ken Matthews in the shorter form (20 kilometres) waddle. The glory was accentuated by the fact that the television had grown a couple of inches in the intervening four years.

Don’t worry – this article is not a list of British gold medal winners over the last 50 years, but rather an account of how the Games have, or, on occasions, not, touched my life at various stages.

What is interesting about my childhood Games watching is that, bedtime regime permitting, I watched all of it, not just the glamorous events like the men’s 100 metres, pole vault and high jump (well ok, the 100 metres then), but everything – from fencing and water polo to weightlifting and graeco-roman wrestling.

And I loved it! There was never a chance that a British competitor would stalk the podium in the majority of sports, but it was the Olympics, the original “greatest show on earth” and it was on television! My only reservations at the time, as a prepubescent and then fully pubescent boy in the sixties, were that neither synchronised swimming nor  beach volleyball had been invented as Olympic sports for another 20 and 30 years respectively.

(one day, eleven hours and thiry six minutes).

It was the athletes from behind the iron curtain, particularly the Soviet Union, that fascinated me most. Perhaps it was their exotic names (the brilliant ice dance pairing of Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov still raise a juvenile titter), or the fact that we knew so little about their society, or the allegations that most of their women were actually men, or the suggestion that they took performance-enhancing drugs, or that they received massive state sponsorship (there was still an expectation that competitors should be amateur) Or it may just have been because they were so bloody good.

The most notorious case was that of the Press sisters, Tamara (shot put gold in 1960 and 1964 and discus gold in 1964) and Irina (80 metres hurdles gold in 1960 and modern pentathlon gold in 1964), who were effectively hounded from the Games after Tokyo in the wake of persistent Western mockery and, more pertinently, the introduction of gender testing in 1966. They never took the test and their sudden disappearance was explained by Soviet officials as enforced retirement in the Ukraine to care for their ailing mother (or was that father?).

Before I move on, I must make it clear that, in the interests of political correctness and indeed accuracy, many of the most attractive women from that era bore the bibs of eastern European nations.

(one day, seven hours and fourteen minutes).

Leaving home and going to university in the Moscow Olympics year of 1972 put a virtual end to my slavish scrutiny of the Games, as I discovered other interests, or rather enjoyed the opportunity of exploiting those interests to the full. I will leave it to you to consider what they might have been.

As those interests, as well as responsibilities, expanded over the next thirty years, I became much more selective in what I watched, focusing largely on the track and field events.  The rivalry of Sebastian, now Lord, Coe and Steve Ovett over 800 and 1500 metres in the Moscow and Los Angeles Games of 1980 and 1984, probably stands out, not least because it sparked endless arguments between my mother, who adored the smarmy, former Loughborough University graduate Coe, and myself, who cheered on the Brighton bruiser, Ovett.

Memories of summer Games over that period centre on remarkable individual performances. The most notable for me included the four times gold medal winner at 200 metres (Atlanta 1996), 400 metres (Atlanta and Sydney 2000) and 4 x 400 metres relay (Barcelona 1992), Michael Johnson, pole vaulter Sergey Bubka, who, despite ten world championship golds, won just a single Olympic title in Seoul in 1988, Mark Spitz’s seven swimming golds in Munich in 1972 and Nadia Comaneci who, at the age of 14, won three gymnastic golds in Montreal in 1976 (and a further two in Moscow four years later). There are many others but these are my particular favourites.

(one day, three hours and twenty seven minutes).

But let’s not forget the Brits who have momentarily captured the imagination of this increasingly wearied Olympic follower –  (Sir) Steve Redgrave’s extraordinary five rowing gold medals, almost matched by (Sir) Matthew Pinsent’s four, Linford Christie becoming the oldest 100 metres champion in Barcelona in 1992, the hockey team that won gold at Seoul in 1988 and (my mother’s influence here), Torvill and Dean’s sublime ice dance routine to Ravel’s Bolero in Sarajevo in 1984. But, for me, the greatest achievement is that of Kent girl (Dame) Kelly Holmes who won double gold in Athens in 2004 (800m and 1500m) at the age of 34 and after years of injury heartache in major championships.

(one day, one hour and eighteen minutes).

With my discovery of skiing in the late eighties, I became more interested in the Winter Olympics over the next few years, modelling my own technique on that of Purmin Zurbriggen, downhill champion in Calgary in 1988, and Alberto Tomba, winner of slalom and giant slalom in both Calgary and, four years later, Albertville. If you’re wondering, the “modelling” extended no further than being able to stand upright on two skis.

They are my fondest memories of a truly global spectacle. My feelings about the only Olympics to be hosted in my country in my lifetime can be found in the following article entitled “Let the Games Begin”.

(eleven hours and forty two minutes).

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Last night I did something I can’t recall having done before in my near sixty years – I ate out alone in a restaurant. I don’t know what that says about me, particularly as I dine out as often – and probably more – than I can afford. Perhaps I am such sparkling company that I am always fending off a queue of admirers willing to share, and be seen to be sharing, a meal in public with me? Yes, of course ………… not. It’s more a case of my being too self-conscious to be seen unaccompanied. 

Until last night.

Having passed a dozen restaurants in Covent Garden, all full, catering for the demands of theatregoers, I spied a spare table at Pizza Express, opposite Charing Cross railway station, and, as boldly as I could in the circumstances, went where I had not gone before, and entered.

I felt some trepidation about the experience, expecting everyone to stare at me and either poke fun because I had nobody to share my meal with or, perhaps worse still, cast pitying glances in my direction. This may be pathetic and irrational, not least in these days when an increasing number of people live alone, but it was, nonetheless, real.

I was met with a beaming smile by Yamina, a delightful and attentive waitress whom, I would hazard, was of middle eastern extraction, and escorted to my table. She removed the “spare” set of cutlery, thereby indicating to my fellow diners that I was truly on my own, and not just waiting for my “date”.

She promptly took my drink order of a large glass of Pinot Grigio. I declined the offer of water, not least because the prospect of having two glasses, and perhaps a bottle too, on the small table before me (and this was before any food had arrived), might prove too much of a temptation for me to spill the contents and expose me still further as a sad hick.

On returning with my drink – which comprised a wine glass AND a carafe (anxiety level spirals) – I ordered dough balls “Pizza Express”, followed by “Padana Leggera”, a thin crust pizza topped with goats cheese, spinach, caramelised red onion and garlic oil, with a veritable forest of rocket engulfing it. Yamina declared that I had chosen the “best” pizza on the menu, with which judgement, despite the absence of at least four varieties of cheeses bubbling in it, I concurred.

The food was good if not outstanding, but then, the last time I looked, Pizza Express was still awaiting its first Michelin star. It is, however, reliable, tasty and relatively inexpensive.  And, having been one of the first pizza chains in the UK, opening its first branch near the British Museum, over 40 years ago, it has maintained its position in the market in the intervening years in the face of growing competition.

Last night, the dough balls were a little dry, although the garlic butter helped to alleviate that issue. Goats cheese and caramelised red onion are a delicious combination, though the profusion of rocket atop it just took the edge off the heat a little more than I would have liked.

The service throughout was excellent. Aside from the ever-smiling Yamina, both the young man who delivered my main course and the woman – whom I presumed to be the maître dit who collected my empty plate – were equally charming and attentive. 

Now, when you have somebody opposite you at the dinner table, you are obliged to engage them in witty, intelligent conversation or, failing that, check your e mails and Facebook accounts together on your mobile phones. When you are alone, however, your thoughts tend naturally to wander over the minutiae of your life. For me, the experience of being in a restaurant, on my own, monopolised my thinking.

One fantasy I harboured that might account for the superb service I received was that the staff might have mistaken me for a food critic. Fanciful idea I know, but my alternating between taking a bite of pizza and scribbling in my notebook, must have appeared odd. Nothing like drawing attention to yourself when you’re trying to be invisible. But, in a way, I was – this article is as much a modest restaurant review as it is an exploration of my psyche. 

Or perhaps their amiability was borne out of pity for my plight of solitude.

(There I go again – it’s no big deal, really. Thousands of people do it every day, and without making such a fuss. Get over yourself).

And besides I wasn’t really alone. I had the company of a six by four foot mirror disconcertingly close to my left cheek, reflecting back my profile. Thankfully, it displayed my better side, though that is not saying much. Inevitably, I cast the occasional glance in it, but for no other reason than to snoop on my fellow diners without staring directly at them. Oddly, they appeared to have no interest in me, my scribbling or my hangups (nothing worse than being spoken about………).

After forty five minutes I paid the bill, leaving Yamina a handsome tip, and strode out into a balmy, bustling Strand where the rush hour with its constant stream of taxis, buses and pedestrians remained in full swing. 

(There, that wasn’t so bad was it? Well, OK, but I think I’ll take my wife next time).

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