Byron... then and now / 18 July 2011
The invitation came by post: 29 January 2009, The John Murray Authors’ Party, 50 Albemarle Street W1. It’s one of the most famous addresses in literary history. Byron’s 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage' was passed out of the window of the drawing room to crowds on the pavement, and his memoirs were burnt 12 years later in the fireplace.
I mount the steps and enter a gilded world, a grand London townhouse, full of glamour and ghosts, and then I am in that famous salon. There is Byron now, looking down at me from his portrait over the mantelpiece, and I'm pinching myself as a tray with flutes of champagne passes close by. I take a glass, and drink a toast to the poet who was 'bad, mad, and dangerous to know.’
It’s humbling to be here. Humbling because I’m thinking about the times I’ve come through, all the people I met along the way. Nearly thirty years ago I’d slept out on the Embankment only a mile or so up the road. I went on to spend six months in a large London hostel for homeless men, St Mungo’s in Agar Street, and scrubbed the pots in Le Caprice a stone’s throw away from Albemarle Street, behind The Ritz.
The Eighties were hard for a lot of people, myself included. My father died when I was 14, I was fostered aged 15, sectioned for the first time aged 16. My mother died when I was 19, and I left foster-care in 1979, just as Mrs Thatcher was elected. By 1982 I’d had more admissions to hospital. I was soon homeless, vulnerable, ill, lost in a metropolis full of the unemployed, the poverty-stricken, the refugees from those devastated blackspots of the North, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle.
Gordon Brown said that the last Election would be a choice between the cardboard cities of the Eighties and a different vision for Britain. His words took me back to that cold stretch of the Embankment; to the large, grim hostel; the handouts in church halls and gloomy crypts where we went when our giros had run out and hunger got the better of dignity.
I think of all this at the party. The chit-chat starts up again, the glasses clink, empty, and are re-filled.
And then more conversation, with my agent, with the other authors gathered here, with John Murray staff, and soon we’re out into the night, and away, as if it had all never happened. The streets of London are just as they always were, and I stagger off to the tube and the last train home, and shut my eyes and think of where I’ve been, of how far I’ve come.
There are three million unemployed. Squaddies are dying in a distant land. And we’re told that there’s no alternative.
I wonder how much we’ve learned in thirty years. It feels like nothing has changed.
John O’Donoghue is the author of Sectioned: A Life Interrupted (John Murray 2009) www.johnodonoghue.co.uk