Going up from Somerset

Forty years ago, on 31st December 1980, I went to London.

It took us four hours from mid-Somerset to the tube station at Acton in west London. Four lifts were needed and it took longer than it might have done, partly because two girls in a Mini didn’t know the name of the place they were going and turned off the road at a bad spot for hitching. A driver in a big articulated lorry made up for some of the lost time, flying down the M4 to reach his destination before the business closed at the year’s end.

Once the tube was reached it was simple to reach Highgate or Finchley, or wherever it was in north London. The house belonged to the parents of a girl called Sarah, a tall 19 year old with a mop of dark curls. She had a boyfriend called Arthur; an Irishman who had once taken pigs to the market in Roscrea and was a Catholic, though, as he pointed out, that didn’t demand much guesswork. That is, him being a Catholic didn’t take much guesswork. His journey with the pigs was the only time he had visited the north Tipperary town; it would have demanded prescience comparable to that of Sherlock Holmes to be able to say, “You look like a man who once took pigs to Roscrea.” Visiting Roscrea many times in more recent years, I often thought of Arthur and his pigs.

North London was reached in daylight and the evening saw a progression south to the West End, where every bar and pub was thronged with people. It took an age to get a drink, a good thing because at West End prices it would have taken half a day to earn enough to pay for them.

As the hour approached it was time to venture out and stand in the square to await the moment. There was a great view from Trafalgar Square down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament. The fountains had all been turned off and barred against revellers. The clock face showed the final minutes passing and as Big Ben struck the final stroke of twelve, there was a great cheer, “Happy New Year!” And then?

And then, nothing.

“Happy new year” greetings were exchanged with all and sundry and the the crowd dispersed, and we all went home.

It seemed the most pointless thing I had done in my life, and by the age of twenty I was skilled at doing pointless things. I had frantically searched around for fear that I was missing some vital ingredient, some word or action that would give the whole thing meaning, but there was nothing. Perhaps I had drunk very little anyway, but I remember trudging London streets coldly sober, thinking I could have been at home and comfortable.

Forty years later, there is no inclination to return to the capital on a chill winter day, which is a good thing as there would be no-one there to celebrate.

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