I’ve been working in that there London now for three months so it’s about time I wrote something about it.
London smells of piss and the tobacco smoke that blows in your face from all the smokers stood outside the buildings, pubs, cafes, restaurants and the underground. This is combined with various food smells, car exhaust and nasty aftershave (or is that just the Lynx effect?). This aroma smells like the last vestiges of the 16th century when piss and shit was thrown out of the windows and people carried stinky posies under their nose, now they wear it all over their bodies. This pissy smell is probably something to do with the dearth of public toilets and the availability of a handy shop doorway, lane or alley. Indeed one doorway on my way to work seems to be the place to have a shit. This is made all the more remarkable that its about 50 yards from Kingston Town Hall and 100 yards from the police station!
This back doorway never seems to be cleaned but I’m sure some young minimum wage slave has the unenviable job of disinfecting shop doorways fouled with piss, vomit and worse from the night before. Indeed one morning I saw some poor guy with a kettle of boiling water trying to wash the hardened remains of last nights’ puke off the front window of the shop simply by pouring hot water over it – he didn’t have as clue and looked like he was soon going to add to last night’s outpourings.
In all of my travels it always astounds me that after 2000 years of so called civilisation human beings still haven’t sorted out how to piss and shit in some form of sanitary conditions once outside of our own homes. In China for example people just shit and pissed (and gobbed) everywhere, In France and vast swathes of the world they use holes in the ground, and just because the put porcelain around them doesn’t make them better. The so called toilets I’ve seen but not used, in Africa are indescribable; mainly they’re just places where people go to shit. I prefer the anonymity and the relative sanitary conditions of the bush.
So yes, London, a great 21st century city, it smells of piss and smoke, diesel fumes, chip fat, burger grease, sweat and dust. Time Out describes it as such:
‘London is an olfactory cornucopia, a maelstrom of elements that attack and delight the senses: at once repelling and compelling us into a blissful, schizophrenic frenzy.’
Or asthma, I might add.
Perhaps as a way of avoiding registering this stink in their brains people in London have stopped looking where they are going and walk now eyes cast down to the screens of their phones, kindles and iPads. That means you are the one doing the dodging. It means not being able to walk in a straight line but having to have a 360 degree awareness to miss the people coming towards you not paying attention. Plus you have to skip out of the way of the idiots on bikes cycling on the pavement, even though there is a perfectly useful cycle lane next to the pavement as well. So one needs to be aware! I admit, in Plymouth I ride on the pavements, but in Plymouth the pavements are pretty empty, in London the pavements are usually pretty packed, so riding a bike through it is idiocy especially when there’s a perfectly good cycle lane about 2 feet away.
This is not to take into account of the people in front of you who will stop dead for no obvious reason and because you are in a stream of people you crash into them. That they are usually trailing luggage whilst looking at their digital thing adds to the jeopardy. On the train and underground stations one is constantly being battered and run over by people’s luggage. It’s as if they have no spacial awareness of how much room they need to get past you so you just get battered. It’s probably more that they just don’t care.
I mean I know I don’t do that. I don’t just barge through any gap I see. I stop and wait (obviously that means those people behind me not looking where they are going crash into me as well). It makes sense to hug walls and stay away from open spaces. On the stations people run for trains with a frantic look in their eyes knowing they’ve already missed it, but they barge right through you anyway as if you are not there. There is no concept of personal space. Just a muttered ‘sorry’, drifting back on the slipstream, if you’re lucky. Or you get glared at and sworn at just because you happen to be filling a piece of space that they seem to believe is theirs.
However, whilst I am complaining about this there still is a modicum of manners that mediate our social interactions in the UK. Despite the bumping and jostling and frantic sprinting across railway termini London is still better than my experience of China. In China people don’t wait, they don’t give way. There are no manners or even the smallest amount of social grace despite this myth about ‘face’ and ‘loss of face’. On the Chinese Metro the hordes of people waiting for the train pile in through the doors just as soon as they open regardless of the hordes inside trying to pile out. Try this with a colleague on crutches with a broken leg. I did. I soon became physical, straight arm tackling people out of the way just so he could get off or on the train.
I have to admit that this is one of the main things that is making me grumpy about London, the number of people, the bad manners, the constant jostling, the rudeness and the general anonymity one feels amongst this mass of people.
The great thing about London is also the self same hordes. Millions of people from all across the globe; all living and working together in generally a harmonious way and generally not trying to kill each other apart from during the rush hour. Never a day goes by without one having heard a multitude of different languages, seen a rainbow of different skin tones, hair colour, style and clothing.
In certain areas there is more than a hint of foreign climes. Tables outside cafes, relaxed middle eastern looking men lounging around sipping espressos and smoking together, scents that take one back to foreign holidays emanating from kitchens and Sheesha pipes, interesting looking food behind glass, welcoming smiles and nods of the head from beckoning waiters. I’m sure that every cuisine from anywhere in the world could be found in London if one wanted it. Anything from Mongolian to Azerbijan to Nigerian to Kenyan they’re all here I’m sure.
Yes there are loads of restaurants and places to eat in London - so is that why all the Metropolitan Police I’ve seen are fat? Or should I say ‘burly’. Burly policemen knocking people over and killing them (oops a bit of politics there). But they are fat, burly I mean and their flak jackets or stab vests make them look even errr, burlier. So that’s why I stay away from them Oh yes we all know about the ‘Met’. I guess all big cities are the same, the rescue services are always busy. So the nights, and it does seem to be busier at night, are full of the scream of sirens and the flash of blue lights. Behind that the rumble of traffic drones in ones ears all night. I’m lucky that I stay in the centre of London and there never seems to be a quiet time.
One can understand why people want to move to the country or have a second holiday home in the country. It’s probably just to get away from the constant noise, and the smell, and the people and the burly policemen. I’m glad I live in Plymouth, even at midday, in the summer, my back garden can be a tranquil haven of sunshine and silence, and I live pretty centrally. The nights are dark and as silent as the grave. That’s another thing where I am in London, it’s never dark, just the acid orange tinge of street and security lighting which slips round the curtains as they flutter in the hum of the night.
You’re never more than 20, er, 10, er 8 foot from a Rat in London is how the sayings go. In Kingston by the river where I work, the Thames, this reduces to about 2 feet. Where I sit and eat my lunch some days the bits of landscaping are infested with rats, big and small. They come out snuffling around the benches, no doubt looking for bits of dropped sandwich as this is a popular place to eat lunch. It’s right next to the river and quite picturesque with boats going past and suchlike activity on the water. They patter about, totally unfazed whiskery noses whiffling, little pink feet pattering; they’d be quite cute, if it wasn’t for the Weil's disease from them pissing everywhere (typical Londoners) and the Black Death of course!
I guess I’m just a small town boy really as there are just too many people for my liking. Too many aggravations on a daily basis, maybe I’m getting all the bad of London and not being here long enough to enjoy the good of London. I have a long day at work, up early for the commute to Kingston and back latish. So I’m not really getting to see much of what’s on or the starry attractions of our capital city. Sadly in one of the most hot and happening Cities in the world, I am usually in bed about 9:30 in the evening, just when everything is starting to happen.
I’m also doing that thing which I have derided in the past. That is ritualising or doing things repetitively, especially when commuting. This starts with wanting to get the same seat on the coach, both to London and back to Plymouth. There is a slight sense of elation and pleasure if I can get the seat in the fifth row back on the left hand side of the coach (walking up the inside of the coach). I am strangely disappointed and discomforted if I don’t get that seat. Also I really want it to be a ‘double seat’ and not to have anyone sit next to me.
Then on the underground I find myself following the same routes (which make sense to find the quickest route) but I find myself drawn to the same spot on the platform so I can get into the same carriage. And you know what, most mornings I get to see what by now are familiar faces, so they must be doing the same thing!
On Waterloo station, I buy a paper, get a coffee and once through the barriers I stand at the second ‘Mind the Gap’ sign, waiting for the train. Once the train gets here and disgorges the 50 odd (I’ve counted!) passengers I suffer a slight sense of unease until I have got to ‘my seat’ which is the one (turn left through the doors) at the back of the carriage, on the right, by the window. Only then can I relax, open the paper and drink my coffee. Going back into London though is a different matter. After 5 the train is a bit busier. So most days I just hope to get a seat. There is no way that I could aim for a particular seat in a particular carriage, and strangely I’m not at all discomfited by this.
I think to sum up this post I must say that I am not enamoured by London. Maybe this is because my experience is part-time and mediated by the time I spend travelling from the centre to Kingston and back again which takes all my energy. All I see of the City are the suburbs rushing past my train windows, some iconic views of the City as we get closer to the centre and the Tower of London, where I am fortunate enough to spend three nights a week because my sister is married to a Yeoman Warder there and the tunnels of the tube.
I miss the sights, smells and sound of the sea, the fresh air and clean smells it brings, the rain, the view from Plymouth Hoe, Coffee and a Cake overlooking the sea, the distant glimpse of Dartmoor and Cornwall on the horizon, the lack of crowds (usually), my dog and friends. Yes I am a small town sort of boy.