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’.
London however is not just grey. 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 richness of 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.
Almost 40% of London is green space, making it one of the greenest cities of its size in the world. 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…. In Mill Hill 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. There is one tree per inhabitant in London, seven million of each all told, and their presence is said to make a significant quality to both the air quality and to lower temperatures. And yet, 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 comment 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. Town planners refer to the green, grey and blue infrastructure of London, the blue supposedly referring to that grey-browny river, which burps, farts, bulges and swells its way through London, carrying with it bits of old wood, rubbish of varying kinds, a blow-up doll, and whose colour scheme is invariably shared by the city’s numerous ponds and lakes. The river has a muddy smell sometimes a sweet smell of festering. One can also see black slate used for on the roofs and dirty red and brown bricks commonly used in Victorian buildings.
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 a regenerated Olympic Leyton High Street. 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, and on Bethnal Green Road, where funky expensive living or working, is composed of designer rust coloured metal sheets and big windows, airfixed on to the old Tea Building. London of course has a lot of red brick terraced housing, and in the northern suburbs a plethora of detached and semi-detached red bricks pebbled dashed, plastered with Swiss black and white wooden façades?
With the dawning and dusking of the sun the myth of London being a grey city is gotten out of bed and given a skare and put to bed respectively. In the morning the most amazing purple and then pink light illuminates the underside of the thinly spread clouds, reflecting in and off all the glass of Canary Wharf. Its worth leaving your flat and your senses for, one morning in a rather manic moment I jumped on to the Docklands Light Railway to try to capture this beautiful borealis aurealis londinius in as many perspectives as I could, as the train wormed its way through East London, but with every stop, the colours seemed to fade, until I reached Woolwich, by which time the skies had turned a cloudy grey, and I was in zone 4 without a validated travel card, wondering what I was going to do with myself so far from home. Similarly, every evening on a clear day a fireball rises in the west of the city and scatters its flames across the city into the westerly facing aspects of the glass towers of Limehouse and Canary Wharf causing the usually pale yellow brickwork to resonate a rich and warming orange.
And there is quite a bit of sun in London, more than the city is really given credit for. It is quite common for the sun to make an appearance shining through the recrudescent cloud coverage, and there are many a London morning where you can wake up to a bright shiny day. The most beautiful effect is given on a day with foggy patches, through which the bright morning sun shines, illuminating buildings in the brightest of white lights, which radiate through the gossamer mists and fogs. By Ropemakers Fields, Limehouse, a similar striking contrast can be seen most usually in the evenings, when the sun, breaking through angry storm clouds, illuminates the white chalky colour of the west facing aspects of the flats around Ropemakers Fields, flats which would belong in Cyprus, the irrisdescent whites contrasting beautifully with the dark grey clouds, all of which from time to time is topped off by a rainbow, London’s rainbow.