Michael’s past London life

How long is it, we both wondered, on the elongated train ride down to the smoke? Now sitting safe outside a cafe, awaiting eggs Benedict, opposite the Gielgud and Apollo Theatres in Shafestbury Avenue, we naturally reflect on this trip down, a night in town, a dive into Michael’s past working life.

We are tourists now, seated, watching bouncing marching walkers off to work, mobile phones in back pockets, eyes focused, check list going through a mind.

I was always a visitor here, I said in a conversation yesterday, formulating a view I still felt. Even when I lived here 15 years I knew I was only a visitor, passing through. So here I am, more comfortably now, a visitor to London town. Courtesy of Magic Michael Imison who has invited me into his past.

Almost immediately, being away from the far too occupied material life, my mind opened, eyes looked out and up. A conversation with a British Rail customer service man in charge of us disembarked passengers in transit, in uncertainty, gave his recent story. He was fresh back from 6 weeks off, in which his adopted son, aged 28, died of COVID; blind, he died alone in a hospital bed.

We started at the Coward exhibition at London’s Guildhall. Late due to delayed trains, we had 30 minutes to absorb the complex show. I was enthralled by Gladys Edith Mabel Calthrop, his set designer. He knew everyone there was to know, mostly eccentric people like himself, Gladys no exception, and boy did he pack in a full life, and many homes all designed with style, as well as acted in, directed and promoted his own plays. After his life ended, he provided a livelihood for Michael, Coward and his plays becoming the dependent cornerstone to Michael’s London Agency. Still they have never not been performed. As we came out in to the last September sun, I recognised a man in a wheel chair, last seen in Magnolia House, the editor of the Coward Magazine who came with his wife to dine with us perhaps 2 years ago. They were here for the exhibition reception, which we would miss in haste to catch our evening date with Terrance Rattigan.

After check into our Soho air BNB (more later), we walked down Shaftesbury Avenue, and began collecting our memories. This was where Michael had an office, Rowleys in Jermyn street where I met the computer boys (Clive Sinclair included, who has recently died), the pubs we have both drunk in at different moments in our lives.

The Oxford and Cambridge, M tells me, prides itself on not announcing or even identifying itself by name, so we much go on the number. 71-77.

Denis Moriarty greeted M warmly, and me too – he had also recently ‘lost’ his wife, and had since remarried, so in an honest way, congratulated M on finding me. He gave us a tour of the club. One of the few originally built has a club, Grade II listed building completed c1830 Greek Revival style, it is probably the second most beautiful architecturally, which begs the question which is the first? The Reform or was it The Garrick? After squeezing into the only remaining smoking area, the outside terrace (the original Smoking Room is no longer), we went to what it was famous for – it’s libraries – visiting both South and North Libraries. A brief look at their content showed regular books, biographies of Conservative Prime Ministers dominant, along with Private Eye and the Tablet. This was an establishment place. Their membership drawn from the alumni of Oxford and Cambridge, they admitted women as late as while I was living in London, 1986, its members now amounting to 5,000. Home from home, comfortable leather seats, and cherry wood desks with headed note paper of various sizes to write your letters home on (‘Order another bushel of Bollinger and pay the tack boy extra for taking care of horses while I am away’) Huge windows, floor to ceiling with flourishing curtains and massive chandeliers, that made me dread the cleaning, forgetting for a moment, I was a guest. The staff were exclusively charming and with European voice.

At the Processo reception, I briefly met Barbara Londford. Here’s the backstory. When Michael took over agency of Coward, he formed the Coward Society. He was also agent for Terrance Rattigan and this TR society was founded by Barbara Longford. She retired a few years ago, with Dennis being the current chair. Resting his feet, M sat on the sofa with Lord Julian Fellows (in full Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, born 1949, Cairo, Egypt), British actor, producer, novelist, and screenwriter best known for creating the television series Downton Abbey), while I spoke with a couple from Barnes, ordinary members of the TR society, who just loved his plays.

Michael, Barbara and Dennis.

We, 50 or so of the TR society, dined in the Queen Isabella dining room, bedecked with candles, a head table with 3 spurs. We are on one of the spurs the end nearest the top table, the two stick men opposite each other, Michael and David. I’d over-heard David to Dennis on the tour, ‘Don’t get old its not worth it’. He must have been over 6.5 feet, for now, stooped he was near 6 foot, walking determinedly with two sticks. He’d started his life in the Royal Air Force then migrated to BOAC as a pilot, and naturally had travelled the world, i got the feeling with a girl in every port etc. One has to choose ones words when speaking to a hard of hearing man, so I choose to ask questions. Towards the end of the meal I talked to the woman who he came with, who was delightful, sprightly and game, and very enthusiastic for my forest school and my request to bag the tough lamb for the dogs. (You’ll get enough for a week, she said. She was right, M and I happily lived off the delicious cold lamb for a further two meals – the dogs got a few pieces).

Dennis opened the speeches with his natural ease and smiling eyes. Lets get this road on the show. He paid fine homage to Michael almost immediately, citing him as the man who began the Edinburgh Fringe, which itself beget a whole bushel of talents. He also paid tribute to Barbara Langly who we all applauded for her role in being us all here tonight. Nice touch.

Billington, the well known critic spoke next, giving good context: I have now lived long enough to feel the tides coming and going, the TR tide no exception. I was there when he rose to the height, and then fell out of fashion and now his work rises again. (I wished he had lived long enough to see his own resurgence)”. He spoke of the times, 1968 Goodby Mr Chips, staring Peter O’Tool (a friend of Coward incidentally) In Praise of xx started as a double bill with Tosca, which Billington slated as a critic. Later TR sent him the script written on it to MB who does not deserve this. He spoke of TR’s emotional resilience.

Fellows, guest of honour, who was here as President Sir David Suchet was about to perform and could not jeopardise this with exposure, came with his tantalising wife, Emma, who held is script for him, as Fellows had developed a shake (I noticed this as he raised is Procesco glass to drain it at the end of reception) …..

After coffee and cognac, we walked out into the Mall, and all the way back to Soho. M climbed the steep stairs to our air bnb (basic, 2nd floor, shared toilet), got out his note book and began to write. I walked out into the Soho streets, alive and kicking, bare legged girls queuing to get in to night clubs, secured by serious faced bouncers. Eating an ice cream (£4.50) I walked up Old Compton Street, to Ronnie Scots, remembering George Melly and oddly Christopher Cox, as well as reflecting on this window into a life. Michael, modest, polite, respectful, self deprecating, worked along side to promote those immodest, theatrically impolite, exuberant, extrovert theatre characters. Back in our room, Michael was still on the train journey, his habit of writing prevailing, taking a long run to the jump. His hard of hearing and my own ability learnt in India to sleep anywhere, allowed us to caste off and sleep despite the life expressed outside our Soho window.

with Rowen in Leicester Square

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