The dismal palette of the urban underneath in London

Returning to the yoke of a sunless existence

A mild cardiac arrest usually grips most passengers flying into London as the plane reaches the south coast of England. Up to this point, whether travelling from the east, south or west, one is afforded a view of the brightest light blue sky and a clear view of the terrain or sea below. Clouds, if present, are bounded entities with amicable personality, drifting ethereally, enjoying the sun’s rays. It feels as if the world over is a delightful place to live. However this delighted sense is quickly compromised as one approaches the doorstep of the British Isles, for no sooner does the south coast come into view than it quickly disappears underneath a confusion of fog, mist and cloud. As the plane’s tranquil trajectory gives way to a rude buffeting, which it needs to ascend out of, one finds the clouds coalesced into a formidable mass, a continent that stretches for as far as the eye can see; unlike any cloud formation you might witness anywhere else ten thousand feet above the earth. A shock envelops one’s soul, one feels an immense betrayal, a being taken for a ride, by clouds, who had earlier affected to be bon-viveurs with a pacific intent, who served no more purpose than an adornment to the searing blue atmosphere. Here those same clouds are ruthlessly and mercilessly hell-bent on colonising and imposing their will on these sceptered isles. Its as if whilst you were away, enjoying the sun, you completely forgot the years of oppression that Londoners and the British have endured, under the rule of the clouds. Its as if an occupying force stealthily stole into the city whilst you were out. The clouds, like an aggressive mould covering a loaf of bread, appear to be slowly feeding off and digesting the land below. Their position of dominance seems absolute, as if no stone below has been left unturned. As you survey this mass of cloud, you are horrified by its thickness, its impenetrability, there is no chink in its domination. You find it hard to believe that there is a life underneath this mass, that there are survivors. But there is life and there are survivors, and as the plane plunges into the cloud and then emerges to reveal the glorious metropolis, you sigh both for relief that your countrymen still abound and for the fact that you are returning to that familiar place called home, and sigh in sorrow for the fact that you, too, are returning to share that yoke of a sunless existence.

Excitement on a clear day

Taking a flight into London Heathrow from an easterly destination on a reasonably clear day is a treat. You will often find the plane sweeps over three quarters of the city, missing the northern reaches, but giving a view and experience, which in and of itself is worth the price of your ticket. If you know London well, you will be able to make out the sweep of the Thames and the Olympic park. As the plane tilts on to its right you will see the northern reaches of the city opening up, Wembley Stadium and the Emirates in the same panoramic sweep, later on the green expanses of Richmond Park and Kew Gardens. Planes which enter from the east for London City Airport sweep along the river, during which time one can see the entire topography of the pear shaped Isle of Dogs. The plane travels all the way to Southwark, where one can see the pinnacles of the Shard and the glass towers of the City of London. Being so high above all these tall buildings can sometimes make them look like toys. If the plane is tilted the horizon of the city appears to reach above the tops of these monstruous glass towers, which camoflagued by the greyness of the city, appear only in outline, as if swathed in invisibility capes, ghostly apparitions apparently laid down flat on to the cityscape. Londoners returning home from warmer climbs, inevitably feel a buzz of excitement, not just because of the sweetness of home, but because they know despite the qualities of the place they have just come from, many of which London maybe lacking in, London is still where it is at. Where that combination of free speech, democracy, capitalism, greed, money, creativity, passion, resources, innovation, diversity, acceptance, tolerance, weirdness, meritocracy, opportunity and freedom of expression are all at.

Colours which sigh with resignation

London is a city framed by a sea of white that sits above, coloured with hues of blue, with a grey underbelly. Through this sea the occasional airplane comes into and then out of view, threading its way through clouds and gaps. Of the the three colours that make up the London sky, the colour grey is the motif of the city. Flying over London or looking at it from a hilltop the vast expanse of greying cloud, which smothers the city unites with and brings into relief the many hues of grey inside the city, concrete tower blocks, roads, paving stones, the Portland Stone of central London, the pebbled greys of the pigeon. The immense glass towers, which make no effort to add to the colour of London, together with the multitude of obsequeuious window panes, diplomatically reflect the dominant motif. The greyness is given a certain of fuzziness, a certain scuzziness, by vehicular particulate, which coats brickwork and cement alike, and makes it feel that everything is being viewed through a TV set from the 1950s, its difficult to tell what colour anything is with so much muck on it, everything seems to be fading into dark grey and black. Furthermore the greys are smudged and blurred by the poor light in London, which has its most life affirming elements filtered by the supercontinent of clouds, which seem to permanently sit about United Kingdom, and by the humidity of London, which creates a gossamer mist, a veil or blurriness. There is usually a degree of humidity in London, which, which requires one to squint, ever so slightly, to make out what it is, to discern whatever element of London that one is trying to look down on to. The poor light of London means that all colours in the city loose their vitality, they all tend towards grey, all seem to merge into greyness.

London, concrete jungles that dreams are made of? City of excitement and achievement? Maybe, but inspecting the pallete offered by the urban underneath and surrounds can be an underwhelming experience, the colourlessness can provoke a deep sigh of resignation. In the middle of winter it can, with the demands of commuting and the bone chilling cold or with incessant rain, together with the poor light, induce a torpor in the body civic, dizziness, gloom, a sense of mourning for one’s bed, for a hibernative state, that articles in the London Metro claim we were intended to go into, but which the demands of capital and the desire for material accumulation prevent us from attaining. What is the point of living? We start dreaming about skiving, about doing just enough to get by, about giving as little as possible to capital, and keeping as much in reserve for oneself. On days like this you can wake up and feel hopeless, paranoid as if you are the only person of your kind, and the only one feeling vulnerable. The cold, the clouds, the drizzle and the poor rain causes the body civic to find an inner peace, to search for peace inside buildings, to become addicted to the bright bedroom lights of the internet, the late night venue, the cinema, the restaurant, the pub and the night club. Electricity, neon lights, food and music take up the space of light, of sunlight, of innocence and happiness.

When the weather is a little more temperate the dimness and greyness of London can induce a sense of stoicism, of calm. The bulges of white and grey can feel calm, calming, reassuring, a gentle, slow force, pacifying, if sometimes a little depressing, perhaps lacking in life and aspiration.

London however is not just grey, although it sometimes seems it. Fly over London on a plane, and compared with other global cities, it can seem on oasis. The greenness of London is given to it by its parks, the vivid greens given off by its grass, its trees and its back gardens.

The vast expanses of park can surprise any visitor taking in an aerial view of the city. Of the huge expanses of park, the biggest and most astonishing to see from a plane is Richmond Park, which makes you wonder whether you are in London or somewhere else. The lack of greenery in cities outside of the United Kingdom can shock any Londoner travelling abroad. Visitors to London often comment on the vivid and rich greenness of the grass, that has no parallel elsewhere in the world. An American, a man in his sixties, travelling from Canary Wharf to Bank on the Docklands Light Railway, visiting London for business and talking to an English colleague, who seemed to be keen to make conversation, talked about hoe impressed he was about the parks in London, ‘they’re really something else’ he says, commenting on the grandiosity, the lushness of St James park. Rangy and extensive parklands are ubiquitous in London. The parks are to London what the beaches are to Spaniards, the place you go when the sun is out. Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath Wandsworth and Clapham Commons, Streatham, Tooting, and Kennington Commons, in all, nearly 2,000 acres. Farther afield are Bagshot Heath, Epsom, Leatherhead, Ashtead, Weybridge, Epping Forest, and other open spots. These areas, easily accessible by train provide much needed quiet and peaceful rural scenery and act as the lungs of the great city…breezy heights commanding extensive views, mansions, and other buildings possessing historical significance.

Seen from a certain angle, the many trees, which tend to reach over the tops of the surrounding buildings, by way of an illusion, form a canopy and one could almost imagine a giant forest. The numerous trees that line the streets are, incredulously, almost invisible to Londoners when they go about their daily business, but in unison they sing out to air passengers as they make their descent into Heathrow, like a second layer of green cloud, as thick and as dominant as the first layer, that sits over the buildings and people. Amidst all the traffic, litter, dowdy shop fronts, rusting bike frames, and dowdy people, stand trees, silent, and quite often unseen, but not unfelt. London would be a harsher environment without them, and yet we seem to be barely conscious of their existence for the most part. The suburbs, in south London in particular, can be so overrun by trees that seen from afar they can seem like forests. Crystal Palace is a forest on a hill, in which people live.

The combination of greyness and greenness in London, it is said, confers on London a combination of vitality and gentleness, which writer Melvin J. Lasky, writing in 1966 claimed separated it out from the other European metropolises. A beautiful exemplar of this in the twenty-first century is Fitzalan Road, Barnet, where London is half-moo half-pavement, half-green, half-grey. Beyond the North Circular city cows go crazy for carrots.

Lasky’s omment that the greenness and greyness of London conferred vitality and ‘yet a certain gentleness’ a ‘simple humanity’ on the city, which is quite true, which brings us to the point that this combination can, rather surprisingly, mean that London is experienced a gentle, rather peaceful, pacifistic, calming, relaxing, reassuring presence, a place, where one can, connect inwardly, peaceful, as if one is connecting with nature, one can feel at ease with oneself and one’s surroundings, a gentle place, that its, a gentle spirit. London can often be experienced as a healthy place to live, a place which breathes, a place where one can connect with nature. The clouds, water, especially when viewed approaching from behind some tall buildings, can feel like an imperious cleansing force, reminding you of renewal, encouraging you to stay at home, and wait for all the shit of this place, and all this unneeded frenzy to be washed away. After all grey and green are peaceful colours, not ambitious, but just happy to be.

Some of this discussion raises interesting questions about why there are so many parks in London. Why are there so many trees in London?

Looking down on London from afar one can see other colours, but they seem to merge into the greyness, to become grey although they are not grey. One can see black slate used for on the roofs and dirty red and brown bricks commonly used in Victorian buildings. The River Thames that grey-browny river, burps, farts, bulges and swells its way through London, carrying with it bits of old wood, rubbish of varying kinds, a blow-up doll. The river has a muddy smell sometimes a sweet smell of festering.

There is some relief, some parts of London are constructed in a happy yellow brick, parts of Camden, flats and houses by the Thames. Some streets are painted in bright seaside colours, a feature of some Camden terraces and pars of an attempt to regenerate Leyton High Street in preparation for the 2012 Olympics, which took place a stone’s throw away. Post-modern structures are inserted in amongst and latched on to murky Victorian mould covered brick in places like Hampstead where the desire is for the tranquillity of the old village and the post-modern. London of course has a lot of red brick terraced housing, and to add to that, much of which, in the north is plastered with white, and often given a Swiss style wooden façade, there is a name for this isn’t there? Vast swathes of Northern London have large red brick houses, detached and semi-detached. In more central parts of London, housing tends to be smaller.

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