t was a rainy spring this year in Salento and in much of the rest of Italy. It was also warmer than the average, so that, in our garden, roses were already blossoming in April, and every downpour magnified their perfume. The smell drifted into the house through windows whose curtains were driven back by the breeze. The scent of roses weaves, for me, a magic carpet that carries me into the past, back to my early twenties, back in my London days. That is why I planted roses in the first place.
In the early seventies, I worked in a huge mental hospital in northern London. I was living alone for the first time in my life, a young man in his early twenties, who had grown up in a village in southern Italy. Suddenly, there he was, caught up in the small problems of life in a huge city. Renting a small flat (just a room with a bathroom, actually), sitting for an interview for the mysterious job of “nursing assistant” without really knowing what it was about (“nothing transcendental, you’ll learn on the spot,” the manager had said), opening a bank account so that my salary could be credited, everything was a challenge. Then there was shopping and making ends meet. I had my meals at the hospital canteen, even on my free days, since it was extremely cheap and my den was a few hundred yards from the hospital’s main gate. On the other hand, when I came home from one of my night excursions in the swinging city, after a late show in a Leicester Square movie theater, I was usually starving and midnight spaghetti was often imperative. Sometimes, when I was too tired, on top of being hungry, I would resort to a couple of fried eggs or, if matters were dire, bread, Cadbury chocolate, and half a glass of sherry (the few Italian wines on sale were extremely expensive). Sometimes I would get home drenched with rain, due to the unpredictable English weather, a traditional topic for conversation. It might be sunny, or a starry night (though you seldom see the stars in London) in Golders Green, but chances were that a shower would descend while you were getting off the bus in New Southgate. So I got into the habit of taking one of those polyester, transparent raincoats with me, tightly folded in my small shoulder bag.
When I happened to walk back home at night, after rain, remounting Bowes Road from the Arnos Grove Tube Station to my tiny flat, I passed rows of terraced houses, with their mowed lawns in the front. Light poured from the bow windows. Behind the curtains, I could discern shadows, silhouettes, and scenes of family life. I inhaled deeply the smell of grass and the petrichor. These odors, blended with the perfume of the roses that peered out from behind the fences, created a sort of potpourri whose scent still lingers somewhere in the convolutions of my brain.
At the time, pubs were something totally new to me, so different to the Italian bars I was accustomed to. They did not make coffee (certainly not espresso coffee), but you could eat your meals there, simple dishes, but generally quite good and at affordable prices. And, except on Saturday nights, they were quiet, having neither blaring jukeboxes nor pinball machines, which were already common in Italian bars. You could read a book while having your dish of pork pie, chips, and salad, and later nurse half-a-pint of brown ale. I did not patronize pubs in Central London. During my explorations, I usually survived on a simple diet of sandwiches and water. I preferred the pubs of my neighborhood.
The Turrets was a pub and a historic landmark in Friern Barnet, just opposite my self-contained flat. Built in 1856, it was originally known as the Railway Hotel, since it stood at the top of Station Road, a few hundred yards from a British Rail station. The local working class patronized the pub and their Cockney accent and slang constantly put to test my ability to understand English. There I used to meet my Malaysian colleague and friend B. B. Ong, a student nurse, and a few young girls from the Philippines who worked as attendants (or “domestics” as their job was termed in the old-fashioned vocabulary of the institution). However, the girls had already applied, and been accepted, for a course as student nurses that would start at the same hospital at the beginning of the following year. With the exception of a few nights at the Gaumont Cinema in North Finchley (which I had come to favor because it was nearer and much cheaper), we would often spend evenings sipping sherry or beer, and talking about our future. My friends tried to dissuade me from going back to Italy and finishing my university course in Foreign Languages and Literatures, especially because a nice girl of the group, Virginia, who had a cascade of straight jet-black hair, had grown quite fond of me (and I of her). However, I could not envisage my life as a nurse in a mental hospital and I had a girl waiting for me in Italy, whom I would marry a few years later. Though disappointed, Virginia understood and appreciated my earnestness. Our idyll, romantic though it was, continued mainly on a platonic level. That hardly prevented the shedding of tears, on both sides, at my departure late in September 1973. When I visited the hospital more than ten years later, she and her friends (and our mutual friend Ong) had all happily progressed to the role of charge nurses. And they were all married and with children.
On Saturday nights, especially round closing time, which was around half-past eleven, the Turrets could become rowdy. On those nights, after the last call, the custom was that someone, or a group of friends, would “hire the pub for a private party” that would go on well into the small hours. The customers of course would pay their share of the “rent.” Sometimes lads who had already bent their elbows too frequently would try to enjoy the party without getting their wallets out. A brawl would ensue. Often, the police were summoned and everybody was sent home. The Turrets ceased service in 2004, after being turned, in its last few years, into a sordid nightclub, and was demolished in 2013, to make room for a block of flats. It was, alas, not the only historic pub in London to suffer such a sad and excruciating agony. Once upon a time there was a tavern, went the old song.
In the frenzy of renovation that hit London over the last decade of the twentieth century, even the North Fichley Gaumont Cinema, built in art deco style in 1937, closed in 1980 and was later demolished. On the site, they built a multi-purpose cultural center (thank God – for once, not another block of flats).
I often visited the bookshops in Charing Cross Road, looking for books I might need to write my dissertation about Robert Louis Stevenson and the stories and novels he wrote in Samoa. I found quite a lot of books, but they were extremely expensive. Then, almost by chance, one day I walked past a second-hand bookshop along Friern Barnet Road. A collection of Victorian editions of RLS’s works was waiting for me there, with the addition of a few interesting critical essays on the author. I grabbed them all at the cost of a trifle. The pages of some of the books smelled of smoke. Was the previous owner a chronic smoker? Did he keep books near a smoking fireplace? I could only guess. The bookseller, a bibliophile actually, told me a different story. Several of the books he had in store came from the library of a mansion house in Hendon that had been hit by a firebomb during WWII.
A fire had started and though it was extinguished, the house had been badly damaged and the smoke had seeped into everything.
I bought an extra bag for the books (I had already purchased dozens during my stay) and at Gatwick Airport, at the Court Line Aviation check-in desk, a smiling lady officer asked me whether I had bricks in it. At the time, air companies did not make much fuss about luggage weight.
I know that the London I knew fifty years ago does not exist any longer. Not outside of my reveries. Even the skyline has changed beyond recognition. Yet, the rain pouring down in my garden after a drought and the fragrance it releases suddenly retrieves those distant days, sights, faces, and voices from some well-preserved memory box in the twists and turns of my mind. So nothing is lost, all things considered.