Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Breakfast in Bloomsbury
In the early 1970s it was possible to rent a habitable room for two in Gower St for ₤5.50 a night, including a hot breakfast. This was just round the corner from the University of London and the British Museum. I was doing research for my Ph D thesis in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, where my mentors Damodar and Devahuti had both done their British degrees. SOAS was then headed by Professor B N Pandey, after Professor A L Basham left that post to go to the ANU in Canberra.
Every morning the guests of the Gower St hotel trouped down to the kitchen/dining area in the basement for breakfast. We were sitting at a table with an American couple who'd been staying at the hotel for a day or two. They were a very friendly, pleasant people on their first trip to London, with the informality we were used to as Australians, as opposed to the rather stiff upper lip attitude of the Brits, even the kitchen staff.
'We went to the British Museum, as you suggested,' she said.
'Oh, did you enjoy it?'
'Well....' There was some hesitation in her voice. 'It closed at 4 pm and we got there at 3.45. So there wasn't much time. But - I did the ground floor, and Otto did the first level, and we made it through just in time!'
I've heard apocryphal stories in this vein but I never thought I'd hear this with my own ears.
As we were finishing our toast, more people arrived and put the kitchen staff under a bit of pressure. Just as we were about to leave, there was one hell of an explosion in the kitchen.
Everything fell silent for a few seconds, and then came the sound of a baritone voice of calm British authority from the kitchen.
'Ladies and gentlemen - no further toast will be served this morning!'