14 April 2012

Samuel Pepys I am not

Soho Square, Spring 1992
Twenty years ago this week I arrived in London to work for six months. I had been to the UK once before for about six weeks in the summer of 1989, but going there to work was an adventure of an entirely different sort. I was there as part of a now defunct (but recently so) program through the British Universities North America Club (BUNAC) which allowed college students, or the recently graduated like myself, to get a work permit to work in the UK. I kept a journal the whole time I was there, but alas it is short on detail and high on the emotions of a 22-year old. I wish it were the other way around. I read through the journal last week and was astonished what I no longer remember. I mention people and events for which I can muster absolutely no visual image. If only I had been more descriptive of people, places, and things, and less concerned with mind-numbingly boring and generic statements about my feelings.

However, I consider the following quote to be one of the more refreshingly evocative passages from that journal:

You know boogers are consistently black in London.
My only Pepysian entry had nothing to do with the Great Fire in London but it did have to do with a great fire in Los Angeles when a white jury found the LAPD officers who beat the crap out of Rodney King not guilty. Seeing the photo of the burning LA neighborhoods on the cover of someone's Evening Standard on the Tube was a startling juxtaposition to my life in London.

I ended up settling down in the BUNAC hostel for my six months. I shared a room with three other people and a kitchen with 26 others for the cost of 45 pounds a week. It ate up about forty percent of my income, but I couldn't have had a more central location, just a stone's throw from Charing Cross Road, Soho, and the British Museum (and Persephone Books which didn't exist at that time).

I didn't get a job I interviewed for at the Westminster Abbey Bookshop. Thank god. What would it have been like to wait on tourists for six months? I did, however, take the first job that was offered to me. It was working in a store in the Trocadero Centre at Piccadilly Circus. Talk about tourists. It was absolutely awful. I had just finished my college degree (the first in my family to do so) and this was the best I could do. I quit about 45 minutes into my 8-hour shift. I offered to stay for the whole shift, but thankfully the manager (the owner's daughter) let me leave. I have never felt so relieved in my life to walk away from a job. I felt like I escaped a prison sentence.

I only worked 45 minutes of that Tuesday evening shift.

A few days later I interviewed for a job at the Sydney House Hotel in Chelsea.  When I made the appointment for the front desk clerk job that was posted at the BUNAC office, I assumed it would be a crappy little back-packers hotel like the one I stayed at in Bayswater when I first arrived in London. Shows how much I knew about Chelsea at the time. It turned out to be a wonderful little jewel box hotel with 21 rooms in two old townhouses. It had been open for about a year and was run by an amusing but intimidating French speaking Swiss man who had also done all of the decorating. For someone who came from modest means and who had just spent four years being a poor undergraduate (and who indeed was sharing a hostel room with 3 others, etc.) the hotel was opulent. The chandeliers in the lobby were Baccarat, the bathrooms were swathed in marbled, the robes were plush, the amenities were Molten Brown, and the lobby perpetually smelled of  stargazer lilies. And each of the rooms had its own distinct design. (Understandably, but somewhat sadly, the Sydney House updated their decor many years ago, so it doesn't look much like the place I remember.)

They lobby always smelled wonderfully like stargazer lilies which
are oddly absent from this photo.

Lots of red toile made up the Paris room.

This was called the "Honeymoon Room"

I don't remember the name of this one.

If you have ever watched Fawlty Towers then you know what my life was like for six months. Granted, none of the managers were like Basil Fawlty, but I think all of the guests from Fawlty Towers were reincarnated as guest of the Sydney House. Do you remember when Mr. Fawlty asked a deafish old fussbudget if she wanted the hotel "moved a little bit to the left"? There were a lot of guests like that.

And speaking of guests, we had a few interesting ones come through. Although he was only there to pick up a guest at the hotel, the Texas millionaire who was caught on film sucking Fergie's toe came in one night. But most importantly to my young gay self, was my brush with Rupert Everett. Now, in 1992, Everett had only been in one or two independent films and was pretty unknown in the U.S. That is, except for those of us who fell in love with him in the beautifully elegiac film Another Country. One quiet August night while manning the front desk I took the following message for one of our guests:

The carbon copy of the actual message I took from Rupert Everett, my imaginary boyfriend.

[There was a whole paragraph here that Blogger decided should magically disappear for no apparent reason. It described the moment when Rupert Everett entered my life ever so briefly. I wonder if he still thinks of the young American who gazed up at him wistfully from the front desk of the Sydney House Hotel?]

Rupert Everett cuddling Cary Elwes in Another Country

And speaking of skipping my dinner break [which I was before Blogger deleted it], one of the great things about my job at the Sydney House was that employees got a hot, free meal made by a west African woman named Joyce who always called me Thompson. She was also responsible for keeping the cooler stocked with room service staples like her amazing lemon tarts which I secretly wolfed down when no one was looking.

In some ways that job in London seems like a million years ago and in other ways it seemed like it just happened. I wish my journal from that time was a different kind of journal. But it does remind me that on 4 May 1992 I went into a second shop and bought my first Virago Modern Classic: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West and A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood which I think was my first Isherwood. A nice little bit of information from the days before I started by reading log in 1994. As is my follow-up commentary on those purchases:
With these books around who wants to read stupid old Jack Kerouac? Not me! On the Road has to be the lamest "classic" I have ever come across.
Not much has changed in 20 years.


  1. Great post, Thomas. Guess you are preparing for the trip back that I believe is coming up soon for you. Can't wait to read about it, as always. Take care, MDC

  2. Gorgeous post. I do wish I kept a journal for the one year I spent in Dubai when I was 28 years old! would have loved to have read it now!

  3. I love this post Thomas! Terrific photos and what a fascinating account of your London years. Also, you've inspired me to think maybe I should keep a journal (with lots of detail and descriptions!).

  4. I keep hoping my daughter is writing down her thoughts and activities while studying in Kent but she's probably too stressed with writing essays.

    A fascinating post, Thomas, and I loved the Rupert story! He is rather handsome isn't he...

  5. Denise: It is coming up soon, but we have too many house guests between no and then for me to think too much about it.

    Mystica: What did you do in Dubai when you were 28?

    Miranda: I am glad you commented. For some reason I didn't know you had a new blog. My blog takes the place of any energy I may have for journalling. Plus, except for times when I travelled, I only tended to write in my journal when I was upset.

    Darlene: At her age she thinks she will never forget anything.

  6. I loved following your stroll through memory. I've recently read my diary of my student days in Brtiain, and it was both fascinating and weird. My comments seem terribly inane and often narcissistic (I was a teenager) and yet I was really in touch with all the connections to history and literature and family. I particularly enjoyed the countryside (in that I'm consistent) but I've learned to love London more than I did then. That's probably the biggest change in me.

    Happy travels to you when you head back over there.

    (I'm quite sure Rupert Everett remembers the dishy and wistful Yank. How could he not?!

  7. My 13 year old son got a hold of one of my journals from my twenties and let me tell you, I was a real idiot. I wrote about the stupidest things. Like yours, it was mostly focused on feelings more so than actual events and details.

    I can't believe you turned down a job at a bookstore.

  8. Margaret: I was a city boy at heart until my early 30s when I went to Cornell. That kind of hooked me on smalltown life.

    Ti: Bookshop is a bit of an overstatement. It is actually the gift shop right at the west entrance of the Abbey and it is always thronged with tourists buying crappy souvenirs--regardless of whatever books they may actually sell.

  9. Ah memories :-) Your experience reminds me of my time as a receptionist in Paris in a very similar setting. Like a 1970s sitcom full of aging Russian diplomats, fat tourists and a handyman called 'Frank' (pronounced in a thick Quebecois accent) who was perpetually drunk and was constantly electrocuting himself/breaking valuable ornaments/falling down ladders etc. Hilarious. Check out my hotel, hasn't changed one bit! http://www.kleberhotel.com/htfr/0004.htm

  10. This post made me smile and remember my own college years, especially a semester in England. Nothing as exciting as Rupert, although from a distance I saw some filming of Heaven's Gate (?) and slept through Sty Stallone shooting around the corner by the pub we frequented. My diaries were likewise long on emotional drivel. An interesting man picked up my 2 friends and me while we were hitch-hiking near York and, on the road to Edinburgh, told us an incredible, touching story that I've always thought that I should retell as a short story. But, there was nothing in my journals. Nada! I think I was foolish enough at 20 to think that I would always remember all the details. Funny, though, as I was typing this I recalled his name that had been misfiled for years. Best go write it down now, and should keep hoping more details come back to me!

  11. Relish: It certainly has a timeless quality.

    Fourdeeroak: We are so foolish at 20 when it comes to what we think the future will hold.

  12. What a wonderful post, Thomas. I wish I had kept journals that were descriptve rather than angsty and repetitive;P I love Rupert Everett too and saw him once sneaking out of a play a few years ago (he was in the audience).

  13. Sakura: The odd thing is, if we wrote descriptive things now, 20 years from now we would find them fascinating even though they would seem quite boring now.


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