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How to scare Londoners

They survived the Great Fire, plagues, the Blitz, and Donald Trump’s visit, all with a stiff upper lip and the occasional TrumpBaby balloon. But I’m not sure London was ready for me.  I’ve spent much of the past week terrorizing unwary Londoners with eye contact and even the occasional “Hi!”. Sometimes I comment on the weather. In Northern England and Scotland, this is tolerated well, especially if I’m accompanied by my dog. In London? Grown men pantomime forgetting something urgent—they look at (usually nonexistent) watches, do a 360, and run for their lives. Mothers clutch their children and whisper to them that I’m a foreigner so I probably don’t know better. People on the tube press their earbuds deeper into their ears and gaze at their mobiles while giving me a wary side-eye in case I do some scary American thing like shoot them, or ask for ice.

But despite that, I’ve persevered and managed actual chats with several lovely people, without even going into a pub. It’s all down to timing and location. One of London’s best bets is the weekly antiques market at Portobello Road, a terrific place to chat-bomb unwary Londoners.

Street where the riches of ages are stowed
Anything and everything a chap can unload
Is sold off the barrow in Portobello road
—composers Robert & Richard Sherman for Bedknobs and Broomsticks, 1971

In theory, I was at Portobello Road looking for a light fixture to replace…well, any of the ones left over from my house’s previous decor (a definitive example of the buy-the-cheapest-POS-the-DIY-store-has-the-nerve-to-sell style). In reality, I was waiting behind a group of Japanese tourists blocking the aisle to photograph the “No Pictures” signs, when Captain Bob rescued me by motioning me across the front of his stall. But actually, I stopped too once I got a proper look at his merchandise. The ‘riches of ages’ might have been in his Portobello Road market stall. Last week’s happy meal prizes might be there too.

While I poked around, Captain Bob told me he’d been running his stall for the last 35+ years. His math was simple—he had to make £100 per week to cover the stall rental, and everything after that was gravy. He held up a beautiful, framed Mughal painting and confided that sale alone would be enough to defray this week’s costs. When I declined, he just smiled.

Captain Bob at his store, The Captain’s Corner in Portobello Road. While I browsed, he told me about serving in the Royal Air Force during the war, and how they sent him to Rhodesia. He spent eighteen months there and thought it was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen. “Do you ever think about going back to Zimbabwe?” I asked. He shook his head. “Never been there.”

The Captain’s face lit up with triumph and he reached into the Pandora’s box of treasures to pull out a beautiful little hand-tinted engraving of Melrose Abbey in Scotland. We agreed it was just what an American living in Scotland needed, and I said I’d buy it if he let me take a picture of his stall as well. He pointed to a roll of paper towels, and asked me to get it for him because he didn’t find it as easy to bend down as he used to. Carefully, he pulled off two sheets of paper towel to wrap the frame. Then he looked at the frame and gallantly added two more. I was just about to take his picture when a young man with a Chinese accent stepped between us and asked if he had any vintage cigarette cases “for modern length cigarettes”. Captain Bob thought for a moment, then dove into his trove again. “Twenty-five pounds,” he announced. “Genuine antique.” The young man looked worried. “Does it fit cigarettes?” Captain Bob shrugged. “No idea. You can have it for eighteen quid.” As I left, the Captain was wrapping the case in a single paper towel.

Another great way to meet Londoners is to enter one of their neighborhood shops since they can’t leave. In this case my mission was the defective gas grill  I describe in this post. Ever since I assembled it for my son-in-law, it  had been mocking me from its position as balcony sculpture. My SIL called around and found a hardware/propane store where they seemed to know what he was talking about, so I packed up the defective hardware and headed for the train.

Just a few doors up from the train station, I spotted the vintage shop. Inside, the proprietor sat hidden behind a tall counter, working on a careful drawing of something I couldn’t identify. When I described the problem with the grill, he tried to make sense of the original hardware and solutions I’d already tried, explaining that he didn’t want to charge me any more money if there was a simple fix. Eventually, he agreed a new regulator was needed, insisting on removing the faulty part and installing the new one himself.

While he worked, he explained his drawing, which turned out to be a carefully detailed map of Australia. He got up to position a faded red cushion down on the step next to him so I could sit as we chatted. In between a steady flow of customers, we discussed my favorite places in Australia, and he added to his map the route he’s thinking of taking on his upcoming trip. By this time, we were ready to exchange first names. He was David, and his wife who died two years ago, he told me, had the same name as mine. He missed her every day. It turned out that he’s a brilliant traveller, so we talked about all the places in the world he’s visited, and we shared memories of our favorite spots. My worried daughter texted, asking what was taking so long. David and I shook hands, and I left with a working grill and a new friend.

[note from Barb] I don’t know if it was meeting David and Captain Bob, and some of the other wonderful people I’ve talked to in London over the past few weeks, but as I reviewed Kate Vane’s new police thriller, Brand New Friend, I was reminded how many layers most people keep hidden under the face they show the world. Please join me tomorrow for my review of Brand New Friend.

For more about my recent trips to London see: