I have been to London about a dozen times now in my 47 years. Each time has been slightly different, with differing aims and goals. The first few times will be dealt with at other points in future Goldfish posts on 1989 and 1990. The next time after that was a weird trip in 1993 with my boss from the Stats Office. We were supposed to be attending an exhibition at Wembley about digital imaging systems. I was maintaining the System 2100 scanners at the time and we were there to look at alternatives, and see the System 2100 stand – who were amazed that they had anyone using their products, let alone an actual government department. After a brief look at Wembley I told my boss I wanted to go to Oxford Street and he said “As long as you’re back at Paddington by 6pm I don’t care”. I then headed to HMV / Virgin / Tower and spent the best part of £80 in one afternoon. My wife and I had a few weekend breaks there seeing shows and – yes – buying records but the birth of our son ten years ago stopped all that.
This year was different – a holiday in Disneyland Paris meant stopovers in London both ways before and after Eurostar journeys and we decided to have a whole day in London, let our son see a few sights, do the obvious touristy things like an open top bus, a river boat along the Thames, a few underground trips, you get the picture.
But I noticed something had changed in London. Sure, I don’t know everything about the city, I’ve only visited it over the years. But there seemed a huge disparity between the parts of London we saw. On the bus tour we were shown all the old buildings – St Pauls Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and all the rest – but I was more interested in the new buildings we passed by which went unmentioned. The Shard, the Gherkin, the horrible upside down blancmange which is City Hall, that strange building which appears to be the wrong way around, all overhanging at the top (you can tell I’m not researching this, I just want to get my thoughts down)… On the river cruise, we looked west from Westminster Pier and saw the cranes in the distance, the construction of more offices. This was one London which was unmentioned, the vile buildings showing how great the city is (or perhaps how great The City is). These weren’t built for the good of the people of London, these were grand gestures by banks and investors and architects, to keep up with the other city skylines across the world. Powerful buildings for a powerful city with a powerful economy and a powerful future.
The bus tour also took us south of the Thames, but only once. The commentary spoke about normal Londoners living here and yes it was Southwark. It looked a million miles away from the City, the sixties and seventies estates, the shops and play areas for kids, it looked like a community. I wondered how soon the residents would be priced out of their own homes and flats. This was the London we weren’t supposed to see, according to the commentary but it looked like the most normal part we saw on the tour. The rest of the tour was a vulgar glimpse of steel, glass and money.
Also at one point the tour bus stopped by Victoria coach station and we noticed how previous tourists had thrown their earphones onto the roof of the bus stop. This was naturally a photo opportunity.
The tour started and finished at Marble Arch, or was supposed to finish there only the bus broke down along Park Lane so we walked the rest of the way. Hyde Park looked parched, which was sad. Back at Marble Arch my wife saw an old man, shabbily dressed and shaking, picking through a bin for food. To my shame, I was quite cynical about it – I thought it could be a scam to be honest – but my wife was upset and I approached him, tried to talk to him and gave him some money, explaining (in vain) that there were plenty of places to buy food around there. He looked like he had Parkinsons Disease, uncontrollable shaking, no words spoken. For someone like that to be there, at the end of Oxford Street, so close to the money and glitz of Park Lane, just seemed so wrong. Again, this was the London we weren’t supposed to see.
I had a few opportunities to walk around outside our hotel near Kings Cross and I didn’t feel ill at ease there, once I was onto the back streets behind Pentonville Road and the Scala Theatre (yes I got lost, ok?) it felt like the community spirit was there in the little shops and cafes. Even after 9pm in McDonald’s I didn’t feel worried. It felt like a busier night out than any I had experienced but I wasn’t uncomfortable.
We chatted to a few people around us too – the staff at the hotel, the taxi drivers here and there – and were amazed by the work ethic, more out of necessity than anything else. The taxi driver worked 7 days a week, 12 hour shifts each day. The hotel cleaners worked similar hours. “It’s what you do to stay alive here”, the driver said. “The price you pay to live in London”. I thought that was very sad indeed. Is this what London has become now? It’s own citizens working unholy shift patterns to keep themselves living there?
As an outsider I probably have no right to an opinion on London. I’d probably feel pissed off if someone came to Newport and moaned about it. But the small amount of time I spent in London made me feel such a mix of emotions that it was overwhelming. I felt sickened by the wealth and opulence on display, especially as it wasn’t really much benefit to the majority of the people living there. I felt inspired by the folks who still live there and keep their heads above water. I was pleased my absolute love of the Underground has transferred to my son, his look of delight being on the train was mirrored by how I always felt on the Tube, but could never show without looking like a grinning idiot.
There was one more thing…. how do people in London not have songs constantly spinning around their heads? Even looking at road signs spun me off into musical thoughts. .. oh look there’s Archway, then I’ll be singing “Archway people” by St Etienne until I see a sign for Euston then I’m back on “London” by The Smiths. Even the river boat tour commentary mentioned “Waterloo Sunset” as we passed under Waterloo Bridge. London is just full of songs and musical references everywhere. Even Victoria Coach Station had me singing “Coach Station Reunion” by The Field Mice. Damn it, we even passed the Bag o’Nails and I was singing from “The Who Sell Out”. Or maybe I know too much music?
Anyway, just wanted to scribble the thoughts down while they were relatively fresh in my mind. The next Goldfish post will either be about Scott Walker or AR Kane and will turn up just when you don’t expect it. Thanks for reading.