If Paris is cold, London is hot. It burns as I find my way through its streets. My childhood memories of the city are always of heat; stifling heat. Family afternoons under the shadows of trees in St James’ park, begging my parents for the money for a can of Coke from a street vendor. The chill of the can pressed against the back of the neck. The sweet release of the cold drink. Such respite never lasts.
I have to come to London every few months or so for work, and I accept it. Much of the trade and industry in the UK is centred around London, and my industry is no exception. Through myriad twists and turns of history, we have contrived to make London the most attractive city in the world for art, commerce and personal gain, often to the detriment of the rest of the country. London is the great beast to which we all must pledge our allegiance, lest we fall in to a pit of penury and parochiality.
London is an international city, full of sight and smell and sound. It hums with human life, as much as that life is cheap, and swept beneath feet. Then again, London is on the up and up. That may sound odd, but I’ve been visiting the city for a quarter of a century, and streets which once scared me no longer offer any scares: their rough intimidation replaced by sleek, modern, ostentatious excess.
When I’m in London, when I’m walking about or on my way to work, I want to take photos: London can be a beautiful city, full of beautiful buildings; I just don’t want to single myself out as a tourist. It’s not that I have a fear of being robbed – at least no more than I do anywhere else in the so-called “civilised” world. It’s very much that I find it embarrassing to be considered a tourist in my own land.
Then again, what is a tourist? In the modern sense, it is a recreational visitor. I can’t be bothered with the historical sense. I’m English, this is my capital; this is a city I should be able to be a tourist in more comfortably than almost any other, but it isn’t. Everything is written in a language I was born to understand; all of the customs are things with which I am innately familiar; the products, goods, services and places are all as familiar to me as those of my own home town. Why then do I always feel like I’m about to be run over, every time I try to cross a road? They’re just as busy up North.
Part of it is the expectation. I am a “Northern Monkey”; my accent betrays me, and it attracts much comment. At home, I am often asked where I am from, as if I am not Geordie enough. That’s fine by me; in London my accent signals that I am not metropolitan enough. As if I don’t even like avocado.
The city does this. It awakens my myriad paranoias: Everybody is looking at me; everybody knows more than me; everybody can tell I’m not from here, and thinks I’m a yokel. In actual fact, no one is looking at me, and no one cares. London is, in many respects, the least caring city of which humanity has ever conceived. People push and barge, a rat race in full flow at all times, their needs greater than those of everyone else by divinely appointed default. “I have things to do, I have places to go, I have people to see, I have deals to close, I have money to make: you mean less than nothing to me.”
Everything is a conveyor belt of commerce, and nothing is worth more than a millisecond’s notice. Buying a coffee: they sell a million of them a day, so they know what you want. They know you’re busy, so they don’t engage in any trivialities, they give it to you go, and they expect to move on to the next customer before you’ve even gone. This absence of simple human contact would normally be my idea of luxury, but in London it just feels cold. If it were deliberate, in order to facilitate the self-conscious and the socially awkward, I’d be happy. This is accidental; this is people not caring. Our collective memory of London as people who could chat your ear off is a collective hallucination.
Then again, London always affords the visitor the ability to disappear in to the crowd, the throng, the ever-present morass of people. Spies call this ‘going grey’, and it is a key skill when carrying out a multitude of espionage tasks. It is clear that espionage cut its metaphorical teeth on the dirty old streets of London’s past. Anyone could be George Smiley; anyone could be working for the Russians.
London is a massive city, but it is a small place. Its every turn is a small town, a hamlet, with a row of shops, a pub, some residential buildings and some places of work. Punctuated with landmarks, bits of history and stage sets, at its core it is myriad – literally defining 10,000, so a fairly conservative estimate – tiny little towns, all crammed in to one sweltering, bustling, crowded place. That is one of the few things which attracts me to the capital; the distribution of essential amenities. Wowzer.
The face of London is homogenous, once you get out of the famous bits and on to a bus: long rows of terraces, with extensions jutting out of the front. That is the house style for so many streets that it almost feels like you’re forever in the same small group of them, circling. At some point in the past, one business has clearly extended forward and the rest have followed in their flat-rooved footsteps.
The idea of London is, in my mind at least, inextricably linked to its transport. When I was a small child I once saw Robin Cook at Westminster tube station. It made my day; simple pleasures.
Each tube line has its own character. The District line feels genteel, the Metropolitan suburban. A packed Piccadilly line train has the smell and feel of a rock gig between acts – people stand around, waiting for something to happen, the air rich with the various scents of body, the occasional whiff of alcohol cutting through the thick atmosphere. Only it’s 7am and you’re trying to get to work.
Buses are no longer bendy, but back to their big blood red glory, albeit with a 21st century makeover. They come and go in Lego blocks, filling the street, and offering a familiar, if utterly reimagined view.
Cabs are ubiquitous, and seem employed to control the rules of the road: whenever a meek or mild road user needs to be alerted of the lay of the land, a venerable cab driver will always be on hand to offer advice. When anything snarls to a halt, it feels like it is the cabs which marshal the action, and get any blockage cleared, and put the capital back in motion. Motion must always be maintained, lest our collective heads fall off. Cab drivers know that more than anyone else. They’ll let you know.