I was looking forward to my dinner at Daquise in South Kensington, a Polish restaurant that’s been there for ever yet feels curiously up-to-date; but that wasn’t until 7.30. I’d finished my afternoon’s work, I’d brought in the washing and written two thank-you cards, and it was still only five o’clock.
I hate hanging around. By Tube to South Ken is only half an hour — so what to do? ‘Why not go the long way, on foot and by river?’ I thought. My flat is by the Thames in east London, so I could walk along the river to the Canary Wharf jetty and hope for a river bus to Chelsea. I once heard Boris Johnson advise a mayoral candidate for a foreign city not to bother about public transport by river because it was a waste of money and time, but I don’t agree. River-buses plying between east London and the City and West End pass my flat all day, often packed; it’s a lovely way to go, and can be quite fast. And it’s different.
A brisk walk to Canary Wharf and — yippee — there was an Uber Riverbus due in five minutes, going all the way to Kew. With my pensioner’s freedom pass the fare was about £5, I would alight at Cadogan Pier, and walk through Chelsea to South Ken.
I boarded, found a free seat outside at the stern (no need for a mask) and settled in as we headed out into the river against a fierce ebb-tide.
An unfamiliar mellowness settled upon me. No rush, for a change; no anxious purpose to the evening. Come to think of it, no anxious purpose to my life any more. I turn 72 next month and will probably (God, and editors, willing) carry on writing for a couple more years, and hope to keep up my own self-imposed standards in my work. But there are no big new highs to aim for; just the pleasant rhythm of doing something I more or less know how to do. I bought myself a gin and tonic at the boat’s bar — hell, it was past six — moved seats so a family could sit together, felt a mild flush of righteousness … and watched the riverbanks drifting by.
And, though I’d never thought about this before, my journey took me straight past almost all the landmarks of success and failure in my career.
First there was Tobacco Dock, on the north bank right by what had been News International’s Times, Sunday Times, Sun and (then) News of the World offices and press. The Times’s then editor, Charlie Wilson, who had withstood the siege of these buildings during the Wapping strike, offered me a job as parliamentary sketchwriter a year after the strike’s end, in 1988. I was 39. I never looked back.
Nor would I have wanted to. The site of one of my great past failures was next on my Thames journey, after we’d passed under three bridges: Tower, London and Southwark — and there on the South Bank stood the modest tower that housed what was then London Weekend Television. It was in those studios that, very gradually over the two years from 1986 to 1988, I realised I was failing as a TV presenter and as the great Brian Walden’s successor on Weekend World, ITV’s equivalent of the BBC’s Marr programme. We were axed. I still shudder at the sight of that building.
I sipped my gin and waited for my very first big career failure. Over on the north bank, two bridges later, I could just see the corner of the Treasury, and beside it the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Here for two years as a graduate trainee, the realisation grew on me that I wasn’t cut out to be a high-flying diplomat. Even to this day I cannot enter the Great Court there without a sinking feeling.
And then the submerged steps by what was once County Hall on the South Bank, where one winter’s night in 1978 I leapt into the freezing river to rescue a drowning dog. The Millennium Wheel is there now. ‘What a stupid thing to do,’ said Margaret Thatcher to me as she later presented me with an RSPCA award. Yes, but my moment of fame was what got me the nomination to be parliamentary candidate for West Derbyshire.
Another bridge — Westminster — and there to reproach me lay the terraces of the Palace of Westminster. How many nights had I spent there as a young MP — seven years in fact — as, again, the realisation grew that I wasn’t any good at this? I looked away as our boat sped on, this time to the south bank at Vauxhall, and what’s now the HQ of MI6. Should I have taken the job they offered me, before I opted for the FCO instead? Thank God I didn’t. What a catastrophe my inevitable exposure as a gay British spy would have been.
Another shudder as we passed and, after Vauxhall and Chelsea Bridges, prepared to disembark by Albert Bridge at Cadogan Pier. This was just by the end of Flood Street, and I gritted my teeth to divert that way: the street where She lived. My time (before parliament) working for the new leader of the opposition had been a time of pride at being in Mrs Thatcher’s team, before the fall. And what a fall. As her correspondence clerk, I’d replied on her behalf to an unpleasant letter from a council house tenant in Gravesend. My reply had been equally unpleasant. It hit the front page of the Daily Mirror shortly before the 1979 general election. I’d let Mrs T down and my name was mud — briefly, before Airey Neave’s assassination took me off the front pages. And I’d squeaked into my parliamentary candidature just in time before it all happened.
A final shudder, and I hurried on to Daquise. In 40 minutes along the Thames my whole life, as it were, failure by failure punctuated just in time by success, had flashed back before me. However did I get away with it? Crikey, some people have all the luck, don’t they?