Cavendish Square seems, calmer than other London squares - slightly old-fashioned, less hurly-burly, even cleaner than others; almost a film set vision of London as it is supposed to be. So it's the right place to come across John Hurt, that most versatile, most gentlemanly, most British of actors.
Even in London, preferring my bike at every opportunity, I find it pretty impossible to live without a car. On a bike you can't take home a new ironing-board or a case of wine, so you need somewhere where you can park conveniently. What's more, if you live in central London, you quickly discover that the principal occupant of Cavendish Square, John Lewis, is essential to daily life - the ultimate household store where you can get just about anything.
I can't explain why, and now I've probably tempted fate too far, but in 20 years I've always been able to find a space in the Cavendish Square car park, and been out of my car and inside John Lewis within a couple of minutes. It should be busy, a traffic black spot but somehow it seems to have a serenity, a convenience, a quiet Britishness not found elsewhere. Is this, was this, a secret? Have I given it away?
It's strange, the synchronicity bike rides seem to provoke. What an appropriate meeting in an appropriate place. Is not John Hurt the John Lewis of British actors - quality, value, variety, dependability, never knowingly undersold? Is not Cavendish Square the perfect location: not flashy or vulgar, but restrained and traditional, with a modern edge?
I was riding past the car park entrance, towards the post box in the south-east corner of the square, intent on posting my collection of invoices and business letters. I let the clickety-click of my gears slow me gently to a halt and there he was, moving swiftly, urgently, purposefully in that familiar, slightly hunched, ferret-like manner. We neatly and simultaneously co-ordinated our postings and he was gone, leaving me for once, the cyclist, stranded and hesitating.
He has a gentleness in everything that he does. Somehow, he falls between those two types of actor: one that is always himself whatever the role, the other that changes appearance and character completely. His personality does not shine out, but he has an aura of steadiness; he's not a blank canvas but a solid foundation. There is that essential Britishness, some sort of integrity, even when he plays the most sleazy, villainous role. He can provide almost any role. He can be almost all things to all men: the repulsive Elephant Man, the creepiest, nastiest baddie; the most sincere, caring and profound hero.
A reassuring place, Cavendish Square, a place to convince you there will always be an England, that there will always be a Sunday afternoon movie starring John Hurt and tea on china plates from John Lewis.
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