I am terrified of being late for the theatre. Normally, when I go from Oxford to London to see shows, my technique is as follows: leave much too early, walk in ever-decreasing circles around Soho, then get to the theatre with 45 minutes to spare. I don’t know what else to do. If I’m eating a pre-show dinner, I get twitchy at sitting down much after 5; I forsee death and ruin. I don’t know if this dates from my schooldays, with a drama teacher who made us dismantle our phones – a ringing mobile meant no more school trips, ever. I’ve only been late for a play twice; once, when a LUNATIC COACH DRIVER tried to take us to the National via Oxford Street (I have no sense of direction, but even I was going, wasn’t that the bridge?) and when, aged six, a loo queue meant returning to the stalls about three minutes in to the second half of Cinderella. On the former occasion, I was shoved out into the shelf-like horror of the balcony just as the lights went down (I have crippling vertigo and had to cling to strangers); on the latter, I wondered for months what we’d missed (dancing, probably. It being, you know, the ball scene).
Last time I went to the Old Vic (the first time I went to the Old Vic), I sat there for an hour before everyone else arrived. Last week, seeing Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa (a review is forthcoming, for the Oxonian – we just published a new issue!), I decided to make a virtue of not so much a vice as of a neurosis, and deliberately got to Waterloo 2 hours early. There had to be something more to see than a foyer and a grim Books Warehouse filled with Chinese erotica and strange old men.
And there was.
And yes, some of it was for knitters. A sanctuary! A bright yellow sanctuary! I Knit London, like most of the good stuff Waterloo has to offer, is on Lower Marsh, the site of the South Bank market & a recognised area since 1377. Joining The Cut, the street is an endearing mix of Dickens and reggae, with an enormous Cuban club-bar at one end and tatty market barrows parked on the kerbs. There are a lot of vintage shops, where I lost much time but – fortunately – no money.
Radio Days (87 Lower Marsh) is sleek and more upmarket than the others (the suited owner appears to glide on invisible wheels), selling everyting from vintage magazines to clothes, telephones and those kitsch 50s radios. I lusted after old copies of the National Enquirer, which promised to tell you exactly how Sex Sirens Jayne Mansfield and Sophia Loren were Driving Their Men Wild. Established in 1993, the shop’s Time Out entry is proudly pinned up on the door.
Inside, I tried on a stunning green dress. Well, stunning in theory – when I actually got it on, I looked like a small angry shamrock, albeit a small angry shamrock too broad in the back. I advise anyone who is not a small angry shamrock to GO AND PURCHASE IT. Siren Silver (28 Lower Marsh) sells a pretty bit of everything, but the best is What The Butler Wore (131 Lower Marsh), and yes I know I am a sucker for an Orton reference and yes the place did have the sun on its back but O MY AMERICA, MY NEW-FOUND LAND. At least in two-room vintage shop terms. The whole thing was a cheerful hippie-glam inversion of the A Christmas Carol scene where the dealers barter for the dead Scrooge’s clothes. Only instead of a ghost there was an enormous tabby cat (the size of a King Charles spaniel, I’m telling you), and instead of Scrooge, there was Peter.
In Roddy Doyle’s 1999 novel A Star Called Henry, such is the rarity of a healthy child amidst the grinding Irish poverty that Henry himself, robust and ruddy, is hailed as The Glowing Baby. Mercifully Peter is not existing in such conditions – in fact, he is having a whale of a time, and could I exchange my row for that hoed by his romper-suited self, I might consider it – and he is Glowing. He is fat, and pleasing, and has very kicky legs. I am an enormous sucker for babies and well aware I’m turning this attempt at psychogeography into a fluff-fest epic, but I do enjoy cooing who’s-a-beautiful-then and in this case the answer is PETER. All those times in Holinshed’s Chronicles (or, y’know, Carry On Henry) when the queen is brought to bed of a lusty boy? It had happened with Peter. He was fabulous. He had tiny teeth and cheeks like apples and was clearly ready to move from rusks to steak and chips. AND he sang. But without English and any discernible words. Awesome. Go and pay your respects (or just shop online), meet owners Bridget and Vicki, and try not to say MY GOD, THAT CAT IS HUGE, because although his name is Binky, he does look like he could take you.
SE1 has so much going for it – yes, there’s evidence of great poverty and a rather depressing juxtaposition of closed jobcentre with still-rich City skyline – but I felt safe there as I never have in London before. Not that I ever feel in danger; in fact I hate people who make out London is madly dangerous for the average visitor; but rather than defining safety by the absence of threats, walking round Waterloo I felt genuinely at home. I mean yes, my nails would be black and the water GREY FROM MY HAIR WHEN I WASH IT (thank you, Lucy, for that anecdote), but – I could imagine living and loving in Waterloo (have just recollected lifelong devotion to both poem and song of same name – poss. is fate).
And because they’re so awesome, What The Butler Wore will be appearing at Time For Tea’s Extravagant Party In A Country Pile, where there will be all sorts of things. Hammocks. Cinema. Opera. Cocktails. A bar that never closes. And a dress code of Nightwear. It’s on 8th May and it costs £35 and anybody who loved me would be up for it.
(I should note that What The Butler Wore are not paying me for this post.
But perhaps they should consider it.)
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.