I’m sitting in The Swan, the pub attached to Shakespeare’s Globe, waiting for a friend to arrive. I can tell I’ve been broken by our nation’s capital when the Frenchman behind the bar tells me my gin and tonic is eight pounds and I think to myself “Huh. That’s not too bad.”
There are actors in here, having their drinks and letting their voices fall from BOOM to mini-boom. Some city boys have straggled with loose ties over the river and are devoting themselves to making it difficult for lone women to get to the toilets without having to squeeze and bend themselves between their leering grins. I shoot them evils over my notebook. They don’t notice. Couples finger their oversized wine glasses over mild conversations about prospective furniture and which of their friends are planning cripplingly expensive weddings; table-top designs and plans; life’s blueprints being unscrolled in the amber glow of a riverside pub. People wrap up their days in boozy duvets before stumbling home to bed.
I wait for my friend to arrive, whom I have just seen being enthusiastically disembowelled in a Christopher Marlowe play round the corner. Bankside’s historic Rose theatre, home to the first outings of many of Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s plays, is being peeled back to its original glory by a slow trickle of funding and tentative archeology. It smells gloriously gritty and dank in there, like it’s just been found and the ooze of the ground is our olfactory narrator of all the sleeping centuries, unfurling in our nostrils and keen for the role.
My friend’s never acted in a play before. He’s an author and historian, but had decided in the spirit of ‘saying yes’ to take the director up on the offer of a scholar who gets his bits hacked out in a lesser known bloodbath called The Massacre at Paris. I love the audaciousness of it. A writer deciding he fancied doing a play. I wanted to wave flags at his bravery when he came on stage but instead just silently willed him from my seat at the back. He’s still at the theatre, helping to clear up the confetti blood, and I wait with my gin in one of my favourite places in the world.
I’ve spent very happy moments around the South Bank. I wonder why I am drawn here more than any other part of London. It may be the lure of the National Theatre and its bookshop, the presence of the Globe with its weighty history, the old pubs and ships and remnants of merchants and pirates and kings and death, the river itself, wearing its landmarks casually dotted around like it’s almost bored with how wonderful its history is. It’s all of it. Yes, that’s why I love it. The ‘all of it’ness of it. And I have my own small memories stowed around the place too. Seeing shows, lying on the grass outside the Tate, browsing the bookstalls, sunny afternoons with friends, rainy afternoons with friends, tipsy late night walks, eating, walking, talking.
I used to work just around the corner years ago when I’d just left university. Just up past Borough Market when it was still a bit rubbish, a truer London, before it got scrubbed up and Jamie Olivered to the max. I felt so grown up tottering over London Bridge in my new smart heels, which were always kicked off under my desk the moment I arrived. My first real job, another life ago. Marketing, which came before teaching, which came before bookshops and acting and writing and this column. It was a job that involved a lot of drinking, as a lot of London jobs do, and my colleagues and I would find ourselves quite often down here on the South Bank in the sun. Now we’re all doing different things, our old offices rented out to some other business, and we all keep in touch from time to time.
I can’t not find a little moment to think of that old life when I find myself drinking around here now. And I always raise a quiet glass to Barry, an old colleague who was like a big brother to me who died way way too young, whose voice I can still hear, whose brown eyes I can still see creasing as he pitches his laughter high like a ball. Perhaps that is why I am drawn here too. The river holds all our old echoes. We stitch our own time to it, to keep it alive. It keeps it all safe while everything else changes.
I wait for a new friend, and think of the old ones, and drink gin that is more expensive than it used to be but is still worth it, because it’s here.