Queueing For Soup

Top Of The World

By Keith Harris

Photo:The Light of The World by William Hunt

The Light of The World by William Hunt

In 1955, I was taken to Guy’s Hospital with my Mum for some urgent dental treatment.

I remember being led into a dream-like room which appeared to extend on forever, with dentist’s chair after dentist’s chair in long, misty rows disappearing into the fading distance.  I had arrived in a dental training hospital via the Health Centre housed in a wooden shed on the Morden side of Middleton Road at the junction of St. Helier Avenue. A long journey for an eight year old boy from St. Benets Grove. I don’t remember much about the treatment, but I do remember leaving the hospital with my mouth full of cotton wool and a blood- stained hankie over my mouth.

“As we are in London, I’m taking you to visit St Paul's” Mum said, taking hold of my hand as we waited for the bus. The bus stopped when Mum pulled the cord that rung the bell. ”London Bridge, all out for City” the conductor cried. “This is Pudding Lane,where the Great Fire of London started, there’s the Monument. Would you like a climb?” Mum shouted over the din of the traffic.

Off we went, hand in hand, my bleeding gums all but forgotten. We climbed 365 steps and spied all of London. This was the highest place in the world - I could see for miles and miles, (better than the tree in St. Benets, called London Bridge, where you could see Paris and the Eiffel Tower!!! )

”That’s St Paul's, we’ll go there next” Mum pointed, shouting above the wind. This was a true adventure, just Mum and me. I couldn’t remember being on my own with Mum. Growing up in a large family, you were never alone and here I was, with Mum on the Top of the World. As I write, I still feel the excitement of that moment.

When we left the Monument, we walked uphill towards the dome. I saw blackened buildings and weed-covered houses and crumbling, low walls. In a blink we were standing in front of St. Paul's Cathedral.

“Fancy some lunch” Mum said, pointing into a large, square hole in the ground. People dressed in grubby overalls, tin helmets and CD arm bands were ladling out hot soup from large, blackened dishes hanging over open fires. We queued up with everyone else and waited our turn. “Oxtail or Chicken love?” the lady with the ladle said. ”Sorry, we’ve run out of bread, but there are some ship biscuits over there.” We took the soup, but Mum shook her head at the biscuits. We drank the soup from battered enamel mugs and watched as the fire engine and ladder sped in, bell clanging and skidded to a halt. Firemen jumped off, ran out the hose and waved. Everyone clapped and cheered. We were in the middle of a Civil Defence exercise

After lunch, we left the soup kitchen and climbed the steps of St. Pauls. All was quiet inside. Footsteps echoed up to the blackened ceiling, broken by flickering candles.

I wandered into a dark recess, hardly able to see a hand in front of my face. Suddenly, looming out of the darkness, a man holding a lantern appeared. It was a beautiful painting by William Hunt, entitled…THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD. (That image had a profound effect on this eight year old boy). We climbed high to the Whispering Gallery and stood on either side and whispered secret messages to each other.

On Monday, after assembly at Malmesbury Junior, Miss Parfit, the Head Mistress, told the school that I had visited London on Friday last and would I like to tell them what I saw.

I told the whole school my wonderful adventure, explaining about the Monument for the Great Fire of 1666, St. Paul's and the painting. I finished (when I saw Mr. Holman draw his finger across his throat) by saying that the fire had been so terrible, that to this day the buildings destroyed in the fire hadn’t been rebuilt and people still queued for soup!

Many years later, as a man, I revisited St. Paul's and after asking a wandering steward, found my painting. No longer in a dark, smoke-stained recess, but proudly lit with its own dedicated chapel. The smoke and fire bomb damage has all gone, but my memories of that wonderful day will stay for ever.

This page was added by Keith Harris on 10/01/2011.
Comments about this page

I really enjoyed reading this article, and it reminded me that in 1957, my first job after learning shorthand and typing at Winchcombe, was in a publishing firm close to St Paul's Cathedral. There were still gaps between the buildings, bomb sites, and some had been made into gardens for office workers to spend their lunch breaks in.

By Wtylerjbunn
On 24/03/2011

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