Wednesday, December 24, 2014

London, Christmas 1997

Volvo Amazon, Hampstead, London 1997

SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO I FINALLY CROSSED AN OCEAN. An old friend was living in London with his girlfriend and wanted me to spend Christmas with them. I was 33 and single and desperate for something to knock me out of what seemed like a rut so I packed a bag and a camera and crossed the Atlantic for the first time.

My first few nights were spent experiencing something wholly new to me - jet lag. I'd sit up at night in my room in their top floor flat in Notting Hill and look over the rooftops toward the Westway and wonder: What next? My life had reached what seemed to me a crucial point; I was in my mid-thirties and single and watching my career contract perceptibly every year. I made enough money to get by but luxuries - like vacations - were beyond my means. I wouldn't even be in London if my friend hadn't paid for my ticket.

Most of all I felt terribly alone, but I had felt this way for long enough that it had begun to feel relatively normal, like a chronic illness that could be controlled but would never go away. I'd forget about it most of the time, but then came the days - like the ones where a slippage of time zones had deprived me of sleep - where it would pull me up short and make me feel unmoored and adrift.

Victoria & Albert Museum, London 1997

There was a whole new city to explore but for some reason - timidity, lack of funds, the immense gravitational pull of a pregnant woman close by - I stuck close to Elgin Crescent. We visited the Victoria & Albert and the British Museum (a Hogarth exhibition I was dying to see) and strolled around Soho and Knightsbridge. I made Christmas dinner - ham and turkey - which meant visiting London's superb butchers and fishmongers and living in the shadow of their impossibly high standards afterwards.

Even at the time I knew I was missing an opportunity. A quick trip on the Tube would have taken me to the Imperial War Museum or a walk around Whitehall or Greenwich or Oxford Street. I'd brought my last Spotmatic with me - the Pentax SV with the helpful lighting guide in surgical tape on the body - and sparingly shot my way through three or four rolls.

Highgate Cemetery, London 1997

One drizzly day Paul and I made a trip to Highgate Cemetery, one of the London sights I knew I wanted to see - and photograph. Shooting in Highgate is, frankly, a bit of a cheat; it's one of those places where you'll get a decent shot no matter where you point your lens - acres and acres of picturesque ruin that looks like a Hammer Pictures theme park.

Highgate Cemetery, London 1997

What I remember most is the weather during this mostly snowless holiday season. The vast variety and constancy of English rain is a cliche, but as soon as we left the Tube at Hampstead station I was struck by the dampness in the air - a kind of particulate fog that meant I had to wipe dry my camera lens every time I took a shot; it wasn't rain as much as a light fog with raindrops suspended in the cool, humid air. I wondered that the whole country wasn't thick with moss and mold.

Pierre and I smoke outside Waterloo Station. Photo by Paul Sarossy.

Just after Christmas our friend Pierre came over for a visit from Paris on the Eurostar. A plan to spend New Year's Eve in Paris came and went and we ended up ushering in 1998 in Notting Hill. Paul and Geraldine called it an early night so Pierre and I wandered the streets south toward Kensington and back again searching fruitlessly for a pub or a party. We burned through a pack of his cigarettes and mostly talked about our troubles with women.

Hampstead, London 1997

I came back with a few good photos and an overwhelming sense that things couldn't go on the way they were going. My life needed shaking up or else I'd end up everyone's hapless third wheel, a friend whose simmering life crisis made them an object of pity and, occasionally, a source of irritation.

I would meet the woman who became my wife two weeks later.



  1. Love the blog, Rick - This story here is particularly good.

  2. As already said on facebook, I love it. And not only because I am a bit involved here. I guess I'll have to read the rest of this blog too.