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 provokes sighs of resignation. In the middle of winter, with the demands of commuting, the bone chilling cold, incessant rain, together with the poor light, it induces 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, doing just enough to get by, giving as little and keeping as much in reserve as possible. On days like this you can wake up and feel hopeless, paranoid as if you are the only person of your kind, the only one feeling vulnerable. The cold, the clouds and drizzle causes the body civic to find an inner peace, to search for peace inside buildings, to reside amonst the bright bedroom lights of the internet, the late night venue, the cinema, the restaurant, the pub, the night club. Electricity, neon lights, food and music take up the space of light, sunlight, innocence and happiness, and as Johnny Lydon once said on an episode of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!, ‘ver natcha’.
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 when seen from above causes you to doubt all the stuff that the air pilot said about approaching the Big Smoke. The lack of greenery in cities outside the United Kingdom shocks any Londoner travelling abroad. Visitors to London often comment on the vivid and rich greenness of the grass, that has no parallel. 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 with his American counterpart, talked about how 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 in particular. Rangy and extensive parklands are ubiquitous in London. American Lodoner Pete Zelewski notes, “It is probably my age talking but I really appreciate having the wide open spaces of Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill on my doorstep which is a great haven when things get too chaotic in the city”. The parks are to London what the beaches are to Spaniards, the place you go when the sun is out. We have as one website proudly boasts, “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.” Yes, this all bring to mind the London hinterlands and the Green Belt, which surrounds London are also, green. Just the other day, in March 2014, John Rogers set off from Hainault tube station, on the borders of Essexian London, on the Redbridge borders. He wrote, “Pulled across a wide green field, lured by the offer of open spaces, flung out of the orbit of the city…. London Transport bus stops isolated amongst fields are beguiling and uncanny, the chance to have a look at one should never be passed up…. Elsewhere, Mill Hill to be exact, you can drift into the most idyllic meadows of farmer green, and brush up against fetivals of crickety batting, old English style.
And what about, as Jarvis Cocker once penned, “Trees, those stupid trees, which produce the air that we are breathing”. 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, brings us to the point that this combination can, rather surprisingly, mean London is experienced as a gentle, peaceful, pacific, calming, relaxing, reassuring presence, a place, where one can connect inwardly, peacefully, as if one is connecting with nature, at ease with oneself and one’s surroundings, a gentle place, that its, a gentle spirit, a healthy place to live, a place which breathes. True, and even without the green, when the weather is temperate the dimness and greyness of London can induce a sense of stoicism, of calm. The bulges of white and grey in the sky reassuring, a gentle, slow force, pacifying, if sometimes a little depressing, perhaps lacking in life and aspiration. 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 parts 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.