Wednesday, February 10, 2010

London Calling

Grosvenor Memorial, 2002

Some years back my wife and I were introduced to a most interesting couple. [Names have been changed.] Tom is a British ex-pat, a singer and respected portrait painter. Sally’s a painter, as well, with family roots in the small North Carolina town where they now live. They met, so the story goes, while touring together with an itinerant British theater troupe in India. You don’t have to spend much time with Tom and Sally to figure out that 1) they know all the words to every Noel Coward play and song, 2) they’re fascinating to spend time with, 3) their fond memories of their days playing Shakespeare and Coward during the last days of the Raj have probably been embellished to make them more respectable in retrospect than they were at the time and 4) who cares when the stories are that good?

For years we heard wild stories about their travels in "Inja" and their families. Tom’s father was always working the angles, not quite a con man, but not quite on the level, either. “A lot of times growing up we didn’t have tuppence,” Tom said. “But somehow Father always had a Rolls Royce. We knew not to ask where they came from.”

Always anxious to make it clear that he once made a bigger splash than he does today among the pine barrens of North Carolina, Tom bragged about his twin brother Simon, whom he described as an “internationally famous” nightclub singer in London.

When Tom heard that my wife and I were going to London one summer, he insisted that we look up Simon. He gave us the name of the club, describing it as a place so smart and classy that we anticipated something like The Algonquin’s Oak Room or the Café Carlyle.

Our trip was busy. Seeing Simon wasn't high on our list of priorities. The night before we were to leave London to return home, though, I found that Simon was scheduled to play at the club Tom had told us about, and that the club wasn’t far from our hotel.

It was a beautiful summer night. I walked through the quiet streets of Belgravia up to Knightsbridge, where I found the club. Actually, it was more of a pizza place than a stylish boîte. But there was a room downstairs where I could hear a man with a familiar voice singing and playing standards on a piano.

Maybe it was the time of year. Perhaps the British smart set had decamped to their country houses or the shore to escape the heat. Whatever the case, Simon was playing to a small house for the last set of the last night of his engagement at the club. There weren’t more than ten people scattered forlornly around the room nursing drinks.

There was no doubting that Simon was Tom’s brother. Simon had the same deep baritone voice. It was indeed like looking at a carbon copy of Tom. The same tall stance. The same bright blue eyes. The same easy musicality and command of the standards of the 1930s and 1940s.

I ordered a drink and sat through the set. It was sad watching Simon play to an almost empty room. But like a man hanging onto memories of bigger nights, he gave it his best. As the room quietly emptied afterward, I introduced myself to Simon and invited him to the bar for a drink while the waiters cleaned up the room and turned up the lights.

1 comment:

  1. Boy, I'll bet they'd have some great tales to tell. That's great you got to meet Tom's brother Simon. I love that photo above! Looks gorgeous.