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 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. Planes from the east for London City Airport sweep along the river, giving views of the Olympic Park; the pear shaped topography of the Isle of Dogs squeezed viewable through 30 squared centimetres of reinforced perspex. As the plane tilts on its right the northern reaches open up, revealing Wembley Stadium and the Emirates in the same panoramic sweep. Circling round the plane scans the green expanses of Richmond Park and Kew Gardens in the South. Travelling back towards London City the plane flies over Southwark, where one can see the pinnacles of the Shard and the glass towers of the City of London. When 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 laid down flat, in two dimensions against the cityscape. Such sparlking views send a frisson of excitement through the spine of any returning Londoner, knowledge that despite the weather, chaos, clouds, noise and pollution, and despite the qualities of the place that they are travelling from, many of which London will be lacking in, this, here, my friend, is where it is still at. This is the place where free speech, democracy, capitalism, greed, money, creativity, passion, innovation, diversity, acceptance, tolerance, weirdness, meritocracy and opportunity are all at. I can’t help but sing back the chorus to Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind, but I’ll be smoking the big apple, concrete jungles that dreams are made of, I’ll sing in my mind, and I look dearly down on to the city below, thinking about how much I love the people there, the energy there.
Returning to the yoke of a sunless existence
Besides the thrill of returning to a city, this whirlwind of suprise, shock and challenge, a mild cardiac arrest can also grip, as one reaches the south coast of England. Up until this point, whether having travelled from 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. The world over feels a delightful place to live. However this delight is quickly compromised as one approaches the doorstep of the British Isles, for no sooner does the south coast come into view than the land quickly disappears underneath a confogsion of mist and cloud. As the plane whose trajectory had theretofore been tranquil, ascends out of a rude buffeting, one finds the clouds having coalesced into a formidable mass, into a continent stretching as far as the eye can see; unlike any other cloud formation, ten thousand feet above the earth. A shock envelops one’s soul, as if one had suffered an immense betrayal, as if one had been taken for a ride, by clouds, who earlier affecting to be bon-viveurs with a pacific intent, serving no more purpose than an adornment to the searing blue atmosphere, have now shown their true carácter and motive by scurrilously banding togather. Now they ruthlessly and mercilessly colonise and impose 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 their rule. Its as if an occupying force stealthily stole into the city whilst you were out. Like an aggressive mould covering a loaf of bread, this vapourous vapid mass appears to be feeding off and digesting the land below. The position of dominance seems absolute, as if no stone has been left unturned. As you survey this mass, you are petrified by its immensity, horrified by its thickness, its impenetrability, there is no chink in its domination. You find it hard to believe there is life underneath, that there are survivors. But there is life and there are survivors, and as the plane plunges back into the cloud it emerges to reveal the dull but glorious metropolis. Relief for the fact that one’s countrymen still abound and the fact that you are returning to that familiar place called home reveals itself in a sigh, which in turn is followed by a second sigh, one of sorrow, for the fact that you too, are returning to share that yoke of a sunless existence.
On cool muggy mornings, the clouds roll in from the sea and submerge London. The pea souper stops boats from rolling up and down the Thames, the Shard, the towers of Canary Wharf disappear from view. Some of the biggest glass towers are sufficiently tall that their tops reach above the masses of fog. Viewed from police helicopters the pinancles appear to be survivors in a Godly holocaust a new Great Flood. Or the whole fog arrangement seems a conspiracy on the part of those banking robbers to convene secret conferences and further their plans to suck the blood out of the minnions below.
Colours which sigh with resignation
London sits under a variegated sea of white cotton wool, which at its thickest bears a grey underbelly, and at its thinnest is punctured with hues of blue. In and out of this water vapour, needles pulling thread, come into and then out of view, emitting a drone, so common a noise that it is more often not heard than heard. Of the three colours that make up the London sky, grey dominates, grey is the motif of the city, something that the many foreigners living in the city, in moments of antipathy towards their new home, comment on in spite as if they were talking about the ceiling of their prison cell. The vast expanse of greying clouds, brings the shades of grey provided by brutalistic tower blocks, roads, paving stones, Portland Stone and pigeons into relief. Immensus glassus towerus an invasive and domineering species of building, which seems especially adapted to the twenty-first century economic and political climate in London, distinteresed in adding to the colour of London, with its multitude of obsequeuious window panes, diplomatically reflects the motif. Even when London is different colours, and it is actually many different colours, its buildings and facades, fuzzed and scuzzed by vehicular particulate and other types of muck of undetermined origin, fade into dark grey and black.
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, and by the gossamer mists, water and pollutants, that sometimes hang in the air. 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. All of this requires that one squints to see, as if life in London was being lived through a TV set from the 1950s.
So, London, concrete jungles that dreams are made of? Certainly thinks so artist Stephen Walter, who in 2006 spent two years sketching and shading a map of London in pencil, into what looks, at first sight, like a grey cloud, but which when viewed more closely appears as hundreds and thousands of words, indicating history, emotion, experience and feeling, all jostling for space, a fitting metaphor. And yet, 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, the greyness helps 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 experiencing. 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 and as Johnny Lydon once said on an episode of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!, ‘vur naycha’.