John Walsh: Tales of the City

'I used to play it but couldn't keep my features in the grim rictus of sorrowing empathy that the song required'
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The Independent Online

The new Time Out (published tomorrow) features the Top 50 all-time favourite London songs, a list that's bound to please and/or irritate every city-dweller. The depth to which we loathe and despise Cockney ding-dong hymns like "The Lambeth Walk" and "Maybe It's Becorse I'm a Londoner" is matched by the passion we feel for Elvis Costello's "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea" and The Jam's "Down in the Tube station at Midnight".

I feel moved by any soul singer doing "A Rainy Night in Georgia", but it pales into nothingness alongside The Pogues' "A Rainy Night in Soho". Because I grew up beside Clapham Junction, I always enjoyed watching songwriters try to invest dodgy areas of the Big Smoke with a factitious glamour or melancholy: "Up the Junction" by Manfred Mann, and later Squeeze, "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty (what on earth has that boring, traffic-honking thoroughfare got to do with the lyrics, and that glorious saxophone riff?) and Belle & Sebastian's "Mornington Crescent".

The only trouble with the list is the name at the top. You discover with a thrill of horror that the best London song, as chosen by the TimeOuties and their friends is "Streets of London" by Ralph McTell. Perhaps I should explain to younger readers that this is a lachrymose, desperately earnest folk number in which the singer invites you to consider the plight of an old man in a "closed-down market" and an "all-night café", a similarly disadvantaged "old girl" (pronounced, for some reason, "gel") who lives out of carrier bags, and lastly the wretched figure of an elderly sailor standing "outside the seaman's mission", his medals fading (whatever are they made of?) in the somewhat predictable rain. How, he demands of the listener, can you say you're lonely and miserable, when these other people are miserable, too? Mr McTell might as well have called it "Count Your Blessings".

I confess I used to play it on my bashed-up Yamaha when I was young and earnest, but I had to stop: I just couldn't keep my features locked in that grim rictus of sorrowing empathy the song required, and that froze McTell's heftily sideburned features into a look of acute constipation. Discovering from Time Out that it started life as "Streets of Paris" and was originally directed at a junkie friend of McTell's doesn't make it any more bearable.

For years I've had an image in my head of the old man, the "old gel" and the ancient sailor sitting together in a café. Someone goes to the jukebox and puts on "Streets of London", at which point they all throw stale buns at him and shout, "Not that, for God's sake. Can't you put on something cheerful?"

***

It was 6.31pm on the evening of the big book event. The crowned heads of literary London would be there. Mariella Frostrup herself might be found amid the crush. I was getting ready at work, standing in the gents, changing into an immaculate dinner suit with satin lapels, a garish antique waistcoat and a black bow-tie, as required by the invitational stiffie.

One gazes in the mirror at one's lovely visage. One does up the top button of the white shirt (it feels a bit tight) and arranges the straps of the bow-tie around one's neck... Hmph. It doesn't fit. The straps aren't long enough. The knot in the middle seems unusually large. Then the penny drops. The tie must have been filched by one's teenage son for a party (dress code: old git) and he has knotted the straps so the ends fit better. I seized the tie, undid the knot - and watched as it came apart in my hands. Oh no! Suddenly, I have no tie and I'm going to a black tie dinner. I begin to panic. Could this get any worse? In answer, the top button of my shirt burst off, pinged against the wall and landed in the sink. Aaarrgghh! It's the most formal event of the literary autumn, and I look about as formal as Billy Bragg.

It's 6.42pm, and the drinks reception starts at 7pm, somewhere in the City. Sweat begins to pool around the middle of one's back. The formal white shirt is turning into a buttonless grey dish-rag, like Bruce Willis's chemise in Die Hard. What can I do?

I ring the fashion desk, to ask if they have a spare bow-tie, and learn that the fashion cupboard is for ladies, not dress-code-flouting yobs. Eventually, I jump into the car and zoom to the nearest shopping mall, where everything closes at 7pm. When I find a space in the underground car park, it is 6.53pm. I race up the stairs, to find Thomas Pink Ltd about to close. I fling myself through the door and gasp: "Do you sell bow-ties?"

Amazingly, they do. A suave French assistant fits it round my open-shirted neck. It looks ridiculous without a top button. I cannot go looking like this. I am sunk. It is 6.59pm. Mariella will be arriving about now, smiling inscrutably at the flashlights. "What can I do?" I asked. "You could buy a new shirt," said the senior man. "Impossible," I said, "the creases would stick out like an extra ribcage". There's a silence. "You couldn't possibly," I falter, "sew the button on, could you?"

The men stare, as if I'd asked them to do something impossibly quaint, like churn milk. They are not seamstresses. Nobody sews any more. Or darns. And then the impossible happens. The senior man tells me to remove the shirt, put on a substitute and wait while he hits the needle and thimble. I looked on admiringly as he threads and knots, stitches and tugs, does the old-fashioned sewing thing my mum used to do beside the fire back in Boer War days. Five minutes later, he makes a final snip and it's over. "You'll need a bigger collar size in future," he says. "Thirty quid for the tie. The sewing's on the house."

I made the big event with minutes to spare. There was no sign of Mariella, but I don't mind. I feel like I've gone back to the 1950s and acquired a tailor to share the intimate mysteries of my wardrobe.

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