ROBERT DARROCH WRITES
In the early 1970s, Paul Delprat, aka the Prince of Wy. was living with us in Notting Hill in our first London house, along with 13 other tenants. Our huge four-storey corner-house had two sets of ablution facilities – ours, in the former coal-hole in the basement where we resided, and the more standard one on the first floor, in which the rest of the tenantry observed whatever bathing habits their cultures or customs permitted or required.
The Prince takes up the story…
The flat in which I was camping in Notting Hill had a shared-bathroom, the condition of which never ceased to surprise, unpleasantly. I was told by a helpful person in the Tesco supermarket down in Portobello Road about the Lancaster Road Public Baths. I reconnoitred, and found that they were a mere five-minute walk from the house. Excellent!
[I – Rob - interpolate here: you might well wonder what could have led up to this exchange of neighbourhood information in the local supermarket. See below for my theory about this. However, the Prince now continues:]
The next morning, clad in a white bathrobe, a few coins jingling in my pocket, I set off for my first ablutions.
[excuse another interpolation…but that sight – of the future Prince, clad in a white bathrobe, making his way down Westbourne Park Road, across Portobello Road and Ladbroke Grove, and into the purlieu of W10 - must have been an arresting spectacle, even in blasé, seen-it-all Notting Hill]
The rather bored-looking lady in the booth asked: “Do you want a first-class bath, or a second-class bath?” I asked her what the difference was. I did not catch her reply – there was a bit of a racket from people entering and leaving. I thought I heard her say that you shared the second-class bath. Through the turnstile-gate I could see a large pool with people frolicking. Heaven forbid! “I will have a first-class bath, thank you,” I told her. I seem to remember that it cost 50p.
I was given a large fluffy white towel and ushered into a high-ceilinged, steamy room, partitioned into cubicles, each about seven feet high, spaced around the walls.
The sound of running water came from various cubicles, otherwise the room was deserted. My guide, a helpful West Indian girl, indicated my cubicle and asked if Sir would prefer The Times or the Telegraph. I entered the cubicle carrying a fresh copy of The Times. The wood-panelled cubicle needed to be generous to accommodate the bath, which was vast, positioned high on a marble base and surmounted by a massive ornate polished-brass set of faucets. Bevelled mirrors were ranged around the walls. Very “gentleman’s clubby.”
My guide showed me how to turn on the hot and then the cold taps, testing the temperature with her fingers. Steam rose. She had apprehended that this was my initial visit, and arranged the reading rack on which I opened the newspaper before she left. For a while I had been unsure if she was going to wait and turn the pages over for me. A flight of fantasy.
There were soap and various mysterious cleansing liquids in stoppered glass vessels. Luxury. I wallowed there for about half an hour. Then I dried off, and, pristine-clean, departed in my bathrobe, returning to the flat [six blocks away, I might again interpolate], aware of the interest I was creating for passing commuters in their suits. This became my bi-weekly ritual, which, according to report, meant that I was then twice as hygienic as the average Englishman.
In my life I have never again encountered such a luxurious bath, made more surreal by the contrast of its run-down neighbourhood, and the general ambience of deprivation and squalor. I should have been reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but copies of Gibbon were not among the reading provided.
An evocative picture. I am sure the reason why Paul was accosted in Tesco, and directed to the neighbourhood baths, was not because his interlocutor observed any obvious or pressing need in him, but rather because Paul, then as now, has the knack of attracting – indeed, eliciting – sympathetic help whenever he ventures out into the wider world.
This ability of his has, over the years, never ceased to amaze me. I recall one day we were caught in a traffic jam on the Harbour bridge, and we happened to be stuck where the toll kiosks then were. As we waited for the jam to clear, one of the toll attendants came out of his kiosk and asked Paul if he would like a cup of tea. (That’s a true story!)
And in Portobello Road, even though I shopped at the various barrows almost every day, and the barrow-folk must have seen me regularly, they never gave any sign of familiarity or recognition. Yet accompanied by Paul on these excursions, they would strike up a conversation with him, ask what they could do to help, and wave him goodbye as we ventured on.
So do not think Paul was being anything other than his normal self, when someone in Tesco offered to tell him where he could get a decent bath.
One evening, Paul came down the steps into our basement flat, and asked whether someone he had recently met might come and have a bath in our first-floor facility.
(By this time, we had tarted up the first-floor bathroom, so Paul no longer had to make the arduous, not to say hazardous, excursion down to the Lancaster Road baths, but could wallow in the comparative privacy of our freshly-spruced-up, first-floor bathroom.) Naturally, we asked whom this guest bather was.
He explained that he had met her – and that she was renovating her house, and consequently had no bathroom, and so would be grateful if she could use ours in the meantime (rather, presumably, than the Lancaster Road baths). And I thought that he had added that she had also been taking the occasional bath in “the Windsor Castle”, which I assumed – naturally, I think you will concede – was a pub somewhere nearby.
It was only when we were introduced to the charming lady herself and learned what she did for a living, that we realised that she also shared the Windsor Castle in question with HM the Queen. For it turned out that she had contributed to the keeping of the Queen’s Prints, based at Windsor Castle. Those were the days when a person could be called upon, on occasions, to bring Leonardo drawings down the M4 in the boot of one’s car to the Queens Gallery at Buckingham Palace.
A tale of life in Notting Hill in the early 1970s.
Robert Darroch is a distinguished Australian writer and journalist, author of D H Lawrence in Australia. He is Founding Chairman of Squiz, – see http://www.squiz.net and Founding Director of Cyber Sydney - see http://www.cybersydney.com.au
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