I first arrived in London 45 years ago on the P&O passenger liner Oronsay. It was a six-week trip that cost me 200 bucks. I spent my first night in the Mount Pleasant Hotel, a two-star lodging previously used as a hostel for drunks and down-and-outs. This time I arrived on Royal Thai Airways (Brisbane-Bangkok) and then Swiss Air (Bangkok-Zurich-London). The fare was ten times more expensive and we are staying at a friend’s mews house in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It pains me to recall my friend Brian Johns’ remark: “Mitchell started off doing good and ended up doing well.” The truth we are both boys from North Queensland who just did it differently. Let’s leave it at that.
Despite dire warnings about the passenger chaos at Heathrow Airport – delays at immigration and customs of four hours – we were on the Underground to South Kensington within 10 minutes of landing. The weather is cool and cloudy and none of the rain which had been gloomily predicted. City streets, shops and homes are still carrying Union Jacks, bunting and improvised posters from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. They have been shredded by wind and rain and look like the debris from a pop festival. I’m sick of people saying: “Don’t the English do these things well.” No, they don’t. It’s all rather nauseating and ultimately a witless worship of inherited wealth, privilege and class division. And just to correct the record: Elizabeth II acceded to the throne on February 6, 1952, following the death of her father, King George VI. Her coronation wasn’t until the following year – June 2, 1953. So precisely what the English were celebrating earlier this month – it was neither the accession nor the coronation – is anybody’s guess.
Vin pour tous
Off to El Vino’s wine bar, the Blackfriar’s Bridge branch, where a group of former Times, Sunday Times, Guardian and Observer journalists have been drinking every Friday night for the past 30 years. It is a stellar night: Phillip Knightley, Stephen Fay, Phil Jacobson, Peter Hillman, Lewis Chester (all Sunday Times colleagues), Marcel Berlins and his partner Lisa Forrell, Mary Ellen Barton (widow of Gordon) and Robert Milliken.
In the dark old days El Vino’s, founded in the 19th century, refused to serve women patrons at the bar: they had to sit at tables or use the back bar. The owner, Christopher Mitchell (no relation) was taken to court in 1978 under the Sex Discrimination Act and one of the witnesses, Margaret Allen, the first ever features editor of The Times, gave evidence that house rules allowed men to buy a drink at the bar but not women. “A man can go and put on a jacket and tie, but she (a female patron) would need considerable medical attention to become a man,” the doughty dame from Lancashire testified. Margaret is a regular at the El Vino’s club but she is abroad at present, and we raised a toast in her honour and the court victory.
The Captain’s papers
An interesting guest was an archivist from the National Library of Australia who is in London to read, collate and file Knightley’s private papers. They contain a lifetime of research into books he’s written and stories he’s researched: The First Casualty (on war reporting), The Second Oldest Profession (espionage), Philby: KGB Master Spy, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia, The Rise and Fall of the House of Vestey and A Hack’s Progress (autobiography). My knowledge of “The Captain” (his Sunday Times nickname bestowed by his friend, the late Murray Sayle) leads me to believe that there will be some nuggets of gold in his archive.