Above Ground on the London Underground: Day 6... About that Fish & Chips Shop ...

I’m taking a virtual walking tour ‘above ground’ on the London Underground. Using my Tube guide and my fitbit® device, my goal is to walk at least 10,000 steps a day roughly following along the Underground route, reporting back here on Fridays with my findings. Currently following the Piccadilly Line. This is Day 6.

I’ve been sitting on the deck of the pub, transfixed by the Thames for so long, I don’t need my sunglasses anymore. There’s a deepening chill, the river has lost its sunny glow leaving the water as cold and granite grey as a polished stone. I take one last swallow of shandy, it’s gone warmer than the outside air, and I realize I’d better find someplace to stay for the night. The morning will be soon enough to head over the river to Richmond and track down the house where I was born. It’s a flat really, not a house per se, on Salisbury Road. 

Last time out,  I told you I was born at home, over a fish & chips shop but I’ve been having second thoughts ever since. Is it possible I’ve misremembered this detail of my family history? Both my parents are dead so they won’t be much help. Instead I decide to consult my big brother and send him a Facebook message. How else would I communicate with my brother? Does anyone pick up the phone anymore?

One thing about family, you don’t have to bother with the niceties. No need to mess around with How are you? Can I ask you something? “What can you tell me about the house on Salisbury Road where I was born?”  He was three at the time, I’m sure he’ll remember every detail of my birth. “Was I really born over a fish and chips shop?” 

“No,” he messages back, quickly, efficiently, “the flat is on a residential cul de sac off the Mortlake Road in Richmond. Our apt was upstairs. The fish n chips shop was elsewhere in town and can be seen in the Time-Life book on England. The house was a typical semi-detached, the street strictly residential.  Number 11 is a halfway down the road on the left if you’re standing on Mortlake Road.” Except he types it rd. Who has time for proper spelling? “I have a pic of Jackie and me standing in front of it somewhere.” 

Jackie and my brother made that trip, back-packing around Europe, over forty five years ago and they both went on to marry other people so that picture will likely stay in its ‘somewhere’ place, an old shoe box, a long-packed away album, a dusty relic of the past. I went to the airport with my parents to meet my brother when he came home. He’d been gone so long, three months at least, that I missed him terribly. He came home to Los Angeles, full of stories about running with the bulls in Pamplona, and having to put money in a meter to have hot water for a shower. His long hair, darker and longer, his mustache scraggly, his jeans falling off his lean body and I can’t decide if he looks like a cowboy or a drugged-out 70’s rocker. Or maybe just someone too broke to eat anything but water flavored with ketchup? Is that what backpacking around Europe will do for you? 

That book he talked about, the Time-Life book was a prize he won for selling subscriptions to book and records clubs when he worked in their telephone sales department in those pre—‘Do Not Call—list’  days. I’ve got an entire collection of beautifully-bound art books each in their own heavy protective slipcase, from Watteau and Bernini, Van Gogh and Delacroix, ending with American painting from 1900 to 1970.  I think it’s where I learned to love art. I’ve got that Time Life book on England too. It’s about the food of England actually, a cookbook of sorts, Cooking of the British Isles published in 1969. I’ve got Time Life’s Cooking of Japan and Russian Cooking too. I kept that one for its photograph of intricately hand-painted Russian Easter eggs on the cover.  Too bad, it didn’t teach me to love cooking. Not being much good in the kitchen, I’ve barely cracked their spines. Cooking of the British Isles is well worn though, mostly from me looking at the pictures:  roast beef on a pewter platter; steamed puddings in heavy ceramic basins, raspberry jam poured on top; images of Englishmen gathering for picnics at the side of the road, the bucolic countryside in the background; a butcher in a boater hat holding out lamb chops on a sheet of butcher paper, the counter full of honeycomb tripe, and sausages, whole spring lambs, skinned, hanging behind him; a full page spread of the dark wooden interior of a pub, men in sleek dark suits standing at the bar, faces lit by amber lights, matching the liquid in their pints.

And the photograph of the children eating fish and chips in front of the takeaway in Richmond, Surrey that, because it’s in the same place where I was born, I’ve somehow conflated as being underneath our apartment. Our flat. I can’t help but wonder how many of my notions of Great Britain, and my few years there before we moved to Tripoli and Turkey and then to Canada, all before I was five, were formed, not by any reality I knew, but by my parents’ stories and by this book.  

“Excuse me,” I ask the server. “Did Dick Turpin really drink here?” I read online that the London Apprentice had served both King Henry VIII and the famous highway man.

“Turpin? So they say. Before my time, haha! Can I get you anything else, miss?” 

I like that ‘miss’, I’ll have to tip him extra for that. “No, that’ll do it, thanks. Just ... do you happen to know if there's a decent motel nearby?”

“A motel? Where do you think you are, love? Arkansas?” He picks up the heavy glass mug, wipes down the table. Takes my imaginary money.

“A B&B then? I know there’s the Hilton at Syon Park but I’d prefer something smaller.” After all, I can stay at a Hilton anywhere. I want to get to know this country for real, not some fantasy place I’ve created in my mind.

“There’s an inn at The Swan. They might have a room left.” He points with his bar rag “Just up the road.”

The Swan? I have a feeling there are going to be a lot of Swans in England. “It’s not a chain, is it?” 

“A chain? Hardly. It’s a pub really but they’ve got four rooms upstairs.” 

“Like a real inn?!”

“A real inn? I spose you could say so. You can get a meal and a bed if that’s what you mean.”

I take off down the road, checking my Fitbit, knowing my step count is going to be ridiculously low. I don’t care. I’m looking forward to staying one more night is Isleworth before crossing the River Thames on the Richmond footbridge and finding the street where my mother must have pushed me in a pram. I’ll put my head on my pillow and dream of Dick Turpin, romanticizing the heck out of him, because while he was a horse thief, he was a British horse thief and right now that’s all that counts.  

I’ve barely made a dent in my virtual 10,000 steps a day requirement and I’ve detoured away from the Picadilly Line. But while I haven’t got any closer to my birthplace than last week, somehow I feel closer to home.

  • Kew Gardens, Temperate House
London Apprentice

The Swan Inn
Swan Street, Isleworth, Middlesex TW7 6RJ

+44 20 8847 4805

How to Make a Shandy
Take a nice big glass (frosty, if you’re a Yank)
Fill it halfway with your favorite beer (cold, if you’re a Yank)
Finish it with lemonade 

Back to Day 5 

Move on to Day 7 (Richmond)

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