Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Burlington Bertie - or - Tramp For A Night

Ever been a tramp for a night? I have. It was at a time (AD 2000), when I lived in St James's Square. I don't mean that I lived in the square in the sense of living on a bench, midst the leafy London plane trees, hard by the statue of King Billy. I normally lived in a flat, high above the south side. Possibly, these are amongst the best-sited flats in the whole wide world. But, one night, I did, perforce, actually sleep in the square. It came about in this way: residents of the buildings in the square may apply to the trustees for a key to the gardens (which are locked to Joe Public between dawn and dusk, at the weekend and on high days and holidays). So I thought to myself: 'I'll have one of those' and put it on my keyring. Occasionally, I vaingloriously wallowed in lounging around in there, after hours, to the consternation of Joe Public helplessly rattling the gates. Yes, it is true to say that I smirked at them. But one fine night (and, fortunately, it was a fine night), owing to some domestic dispute, with which every man of the world is sadly familiar, I found myself out on my ear, with no cash, no cards, and my friends were all too far away to help, but I had my keyring, with the Magic Key. So I thought, in my, admittedly, less than lucid state, that I would simply bed down, in my astrakhan-collared coat on a bench 'neath God's firmament, on a jolly old bench for what remained of the night. Safely in, I soon realized that this was a veritable colony of the dispossesed who, by divers means (loops in railings and conveniently over-hanging branches), managed to get themselves the first and best pitch in the little pavillion, on the south side. Unfazed by these trespassers (and sensibly unchallenging of their rights), I settled down and slept the sleep of The Just, on a bench on the west side. I cannot say that it was an experience that I should care to repeat (after all, there is much to be said for marble-tiled bathrooms, running hot water, down-filled pillows and springy mattresses). But, in some curious way, it is not an experience that I would have missed for the world. At dawn, some workmen renewed their noisesome efforts to renovate one of the adjoining blocks on the south side and quite spoiled an agreeable dream so I thought: "Demme! I need a shave - or I shall spend the day looking like Burlington Bertie!" A little ingenuity convinced me that I should borrrow a screw-driver from them (on some colourable pretext, which I forget). Mission accomplished (after all, who suspects a chap in an astrakhan-collared coat, in St James's Square, of burg
larious intent at 6am, on a brisk morning?), I easily (too easily) and Raffles-like, slipped the latch of the block of flats with a piece of plastic and went up in the lift to the top floor. After padding along the corridor, I reached our door and carefully opened it with my key. As I had anticipated, the chain was still on but, deftly, I unscrewed the little blighter with my borrowed screw-driver and went in. I had a shower and a shave and made a cup of tea. I even left some in the pot for 'er indoors. Then I left, as I had entered, after having replaced the chain and, on my way off, I returned the screw-driver to the unconcerned workmen. This left me wondering: how many chaps who have legitimately lived in an abode in St James's Square have actually slept 'neath that leafy canopy in its middle...?

I said that it was an experience that I would not like to have missed. This is because, lying there, on a bench, beneath the plane trees, by moonlight, various lyrics came to me; that have never hit me so much, just lying on a springy bed, with down-filled pillows: 'Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner' (by Hubert Gregg); 'London Pride (by Noel Coward); 'I Live In Trafalgar Square' (belted out by Stanley Holloway) and 'I'm Burlington Bertie from Bow' (charmingly sung by Ella Shields, as represented in the illustration). The Spirit of London Town is a great thing and I encountered her that night.

Estado do Rio de Janeiro is a wonderful place to live (especially for tramps) but, needless to say, I kept that key.


  1. What a wonderful story. I've always said that a well-dressed man can get away with just about anything. That includes an impromptu camp-out.

    That said, as Mrs. E. so rightly points out, camping is a slap in the face of 2,000 years of civilisation culminating in the perfection of indoor plumbing and climate control.

  2. Ah! But as Mrs. V. points out: "If I don't get away from all this civilization I will go crazy!"
    And so, we camp.

  3. Great post!! I stay at the East India Club on St.James's Square several times a year and delight at the late nite - early morning strolls around the park. I veritable oasis in the middle of London. Maybe next visit I'll "sleep rough" - but probably not - I'd rather stay up all nite drinking in the lobby of the club until the first sausage is served in the morning. Cheers, g.