Talk to old people; they know cool stuff you don’t. I read that in a book once and it always stuck with me. I’ve never really known any old people to try this theory out, (other than my Grandma who definitely did know a lot of cool stuff) but meeting a lovely young-at-heart chap the other night at the bus stop near Marylebone flyover proved to me that it really is true.
“Are you waiting for the bus?” he asks when he appears next to me at the bus stop. There is literally nothing else to be waiting for, so I smile and tell him yes.
“Is it coming?” he asks, gesturing to my phone. “Do you have one of those bus tracker things?”
I tell him that I don’t actually have tracker but that the bus is normally every few minutes. However, on this night we find ourselves waiting for ages.
“I used to live around here,” he offers, and I put my phone away because he clearly wants to chat. “On Porteus Road, just there. I was born in St Mary’s hospital.”
I tell him that I know it because I work just around the corner.
“Do you know what the white building on the corner used to be?” he asks. He’s referring to a beautiful townhouse, in which they were filming the second series of ITV’s Marcella the other week.
“Erm…. No, I don’t.”
“A dairy!” he says, as though it’s the punch line to a joke. “It was a dairy. You could get all your milk, butter, cheese, eggs and everything in there. This is going back to 1950, mind. I’m giving my age away now!” He smiles a big toothless grin and I smile with him.
“And there’s a church down there. That’s now a school. It used to be a Welsh church because there was a big Welsh community here years ago.”
Now that I do know, because it’s where I work. I tell him this and he seems delighted.
“It used to be the borough of Paddington. Did you know that?” I didn’t. “And the area just along, was the borough of Marylebone. It’s not called that anymore though. It’s all changed.”
“Are you just back for a visit then?” I ask.
“I’ve come to see my aunt. She still lives round here, just next to the church. She’s broken her shoulder so I came to see her. She’s eighty nine.”
I love how there’s a turning point with age, when suddenly the older you are becomes a badge of honour. Four and five year olds brag about their age, (“I’m FOUR!”) and maybe other kids up to about eight, but then nobody boasts about their age again until they’re about eighty. What’s going on in between all those years? Why aren’t we more proud to have survived another year?
“Did you know there was a stabbing here the other day?” the man asks me solemnly.
I do. It was tragic. A 28 year old man was stabbed to death by two teenagers over a mobile phone. There was a big hive of activity the following day, with police and young people all hanging around, and the incident was all over the newspapers, but now there isn’t a trace. No police cordons, no flowers. Nothing.
“Yes it was outside the flats,” I say. “On St Mary’s Terrace.”
“No! Please no!” he covers his face with both hands and staggers a bit to the side. “That’s where my aunt lives! I can’t believe it!” The thought hangs there between us for a minute and then he sighs, gripping his paper tightly to his chest. “She’s coming to live with me soon anyway, over near Harrow Road. It’s for the best. She’s eighty nine.”
He’s absolutely fascinating, this lovely old man, dressed in a slightly-too-big grey suit, shirt and tie, and black shiny shoes. I keep glancing up to check if the bus is coming, but in a way I hope it doesn’t.
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
“Oh, you can call me Jim,” he says, rather mysteriously. “Guess how many jobs I’ve had in fifty years,” he adds with a swift change of subject.
“Erm…. ten?” I suggest, humouring him slightly, as I guess it’s probably a lot less than this.
“Ten!? Ten!?” he laughs. “No. Three!” I should have known. “I worked for twenty-two years in the pop industry.”
Just when I thought this man couldn’t get more interesting, he proceeds to tell me about all the bands he worked for, organising and managing their finances. There are a few more guessing games (“A band of three brothers, two of them are dead now. Who could that be?”) and some totally amazing anecdotes involving super famous people. He worked for the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart and got invited to Eric Clapton’s wedding in 1979 where George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr formed an impromptu Beatles reunion and played live on stage in Eric Clapton’s back garden.
The bus comes then and I’m actually really disappointed, but we get on together and he tells me to sit down next to him so he can talk to me a bit more. I do, happily, and we go on a merry tour of Marylebone.
“You know that red building there? Do you know what that used to be?” I don’t. My local area knowledge is somewhat limited to my place of work, the bus stop and the local pub. “It used to be a children’s hospital. And do you see the Magistrate’s Court? I used to work there. But do you know what it used to be?” Again, no. “The Samaritan’s. A refuge for women. I know that because my mum was there for a time.” He also tells me what used to be in place of the police station, but there are so many nuggets of wisdom that I can’t now remember everything.
“My dad used to be in the army.” Another swift change of subject, before I’ve even had the chance to ask about his mum. “He was a stretcher-barer and he fought out in Burma. And you see this pin here?” he gestures to a VJ memorial pin on his jacket lapel. “I went to the VJ parade in London a couple of years ago and took my aunt – she’s eighty nine – and we got talking to someone there about my dad and he asked if we knew his army number. Well, my aunt did because she used to write to him all the time, and this man looked him up on this gadget he had, and he found my dad’s name and where he’d been and how many people he saved: thirty-two people in one night, when they came under fire. Amazing, isn’t it?”
It really is amazing. He goes on to tell me about a military document that came up on this ‘gadget’ in relation to his father, and it appears to be the big climax of the story, but unfortunately I can’t remember the name of it. “And you’ll never guess who it was signed by!” he says, and he’s right, because I am an ignorant young person who shamefully knows nothing about war and didn’t even know what VJ was until I got home and Googled it. “It was signed by General Slim!” I have to Google him at home as well, but it turns out he was a pretty big deal. I act suitably impressed when he tells me this, however, because I don’t want to disappoint him.
“I’ve never stepped foot out of England,” he says next, not sadly, but completely matter of fact. “I don’t even own a passport.” This surprises me, given his colourful past.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Well, I always lived with my mum and dad. I looked after my mum when my dad was away, and then I looked after both of them. My dad worked for 30 years on the buses when he retired from the army. I always stayed with them. And then my mum died and I looked after my dad.”
“It’s never too late!” I say, optimistically.
“Well now my aunt’s coming to live with me. She’s eighty nine, so it’s for the best.”
And before I have time to learn anything else, he’s reaching for the bell as we approach Baker Street Station and he gets up to leave. I’m half tempted to follow him, but that’s probably a bit weird.
“It was really nice to talk to you,” he says.
“Yes, you too, Jim.” And I really, really mean it. I could have listened to him tell me things all night.
We should all talk more to old people; they know a lot of cool stuff we don’t.