How the emptiness of one of London’s busiest roads, The Strand, near Charing Cross Station, caught me by surprise on Saturday morning
When I was a little girl, I lived in a leafy south-east suburb of London. Sidcup, to be precise, which is on a train commuter route half an hour from Charing Cross, technically the centre of London. Stepping out from the Charing Cross Station forecourt onto the Strand meant hurling yourself into a heaving metropolis, streaming with traffic of both pedestrian and vehicular.
Later, I worked in central London in a couple, in one job round the corner from Victoria Station, in another a brisk stroll from London Bridge. (What is it about my career and train stations? Suddenly my life is starting to sound like a game of Monopoly.) Every day on my way to work, I’d automatically brace myself to wade purposefully through the crowds. It’s just what everyone does in rush hour, and no-one thinks anything of it.
Since I moved to a small Gloucestershire village on the edge of the Cotswolds 25 years ago, a walk down the street has become rather a different experience. Here, you may not see many people – sometimes none at all – but each that you do see will say a friendly hello, and you’ll probably know most of them by name. Whenever I return to London now, I’m startled by the crowds, until my brain reboots into its former Londoner setting.
So it came a huge surprise to me to discover last month that early on a Saturday morning, the Strand is deserted. Twice in January I had to be there at 8.30am on Saturdays, and I don’t think I’ve ever been there at that time of day at the weekend before. There was scarcely a vehicle to be seen, and the only people about were homeless people sheltering in shop doorways. What I first took to be a large gathering of them outside a theatre, I later realised to be a queue for cut-price tickets released early in the day. (I thought it was odd that one of them had a Cath Kidston handbag.)
Do I Know You?
Another surprise came when someone called out a cheery hello to me. It turned out not to be someone I knew, as it would have been back in Hawkesbury, but a young, very grubby chap of about 30, huddled under a blanket outside McDonalds. I stood him a cup of hot chocolate by way of a thank you.
The only other person I spoke to was a little beyond the Strand, on Trafalgar Square, where I strolled to kill time, waiting for the friend I was due to be meeting at 9am. My attention was drawn to the jingle of bells as a hawk flew down from the National Gallery to return to this chap’s wrist. They turned out to be there on official business, paid to patrol the Square for three hours a day as pest control. Gone are the days when tourists were encouraged to buy bags of birdseed from street vendors to feed the pigeons. Mary Poppins’ persuasive song calling us to “Feed the birds” suddenly took on a whole new meaning.
Why the Banana?
Speaking of meanings, I owe my non-British readers an explanation of the banana. In 1909, a Cockney Music Hall became a smash hit, called “Let’s All Go Down the Strand”, in which that line was followed by the refrain “Have a Banana”. I’ve always wondered what the significance of the banana was, other than the obvious connection of what was then a fruit market in nearby Covent Garden. Coming from Charing Cross, in search of a banana, going down the Strand would be a reasonable route.
I hesitated to research the meaning of the banana, knowing that most music hall songs are filled with bawdy double entendres. It turns out that “have a banana” wasn’t part of the original lyrics, but may just have been added by enthusiastic, tipsy crowds as it fitted the musical phrase that followed the first line of the verse. The rest of the lyrics are largely forgotten by most people these days. I’m not sure I ever knew them, but you can find the original lyrics here, if you’re interested. But there’s not a a banana in sight, nor are bananas relevant to the theme of the song. (Sorry if that news makes me sound about as much of a killjoy as a High Court judge.)
The Banana in the Room
But the banana in the Strand is like an elephant in the room. (No, I’m not talking about the Elephant and Castle, another district of London – I’ll save that for another day). It simply won’t go away. if you play “word association” with most British people of a certain age, and say “Let’s All Go Down the Strand”, “Have a banana” will be the first thing that comes into their heads. There have even been cover versions of the song recorded this century by – wait for it – Blur. (Listen to their version here, if you must.)
For a much more authentic and hearty demonstration of how the banana line should be sung, check out this extract of BBC Radio 4’s smart sitcom Cabin Pressure, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Cole, Roger Allam and John Finnemore, its genius writer. As the suave scoundrel Douglas (Roger Allam) might put it, the banana is in play.
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