London: the drawstring bag
Cars and lorries, eight abreast, lay down rubber, producing a swishing noise that circles north and east London, dusk til dawn. At the same time the underground trains dig deep accelerating away from and into platforms, a swishing noise announces a synchronized opening and shutting of its doors, taking on hundreds of commuters everywhere, every minute, and spewing the same number out, all over London. Busses wheeze, cough and splutter their way across the haphazard network of roads, traversing pot holes, lumps of newly laid tarmac and avoiding roadworks. In and amongst the mess, hari-kiri cyclists risk life and limb to squeeze through the smallest of gaps between lorries and cars, blithely driving through red lights, to save themselves seconds of time, whilst hoardes of pedestrians, when not looking indignantly at the cyclists who cut them off at zebra crossings, wait patiently for the traffic to stop so they can scurry across the road to wherever it is that the need to be. Buses, tubes and trains spin webs through the floppy fabric that is Greater London, which are then drawn upwards turning London into a drawstring bag, the stations being located around the rim of the bag, the result being that everyone who is near to a station is near to every other station and everything that is near to every other station. The bits of the bag which are drooping on the floor, furthest from the drawnstrung neck, are all those places that are miles away from any station. The number of stations and forms of transport brings everything closer together, increasing possibilities for juxtapositions, living, work and leisure. In this way London’s transport system underpins the very social fabric of London life, how we live, experience and know the city. The bus network is an aid to the working classes, middle as much as lower. It is a lifeline for those whose job is miles away; and who can’t afford to take the tube. London buses make life viable, saving people from further depravation and isolation. The routes of London buses are the tenuous diaphanous threads by which life is held together for many. Mind you for the poorest among us a single bus fare can be prohibitively expensive. Locals on Dalston High Street, whose lives depended on being able to board London’s bendy buses for free, expressed horrot, that winter’s night in late 2009, when the new double decker 149 came trundling down the street. Not only were they unsure if they had the change to pay the fare; but this monstrous vision meant they were going to have to find an extra fifteen quid a week from somewhere. All this hit home in a second of seeing this abomination, invoking what looked like mild stroke in the assembled crowd.
I felt a sense of euphoria the Sunday afternoon I reached Kingston in 2003, some hours previous having seen a sign in and around Guildford, which seemed to mark out of a bicycle track that went all the way to London. It had been some cycling but I was looking forward to making it to the river and the head back, quickly. In Tooting I was stuck behind a big red double decker bus, which was moving at a prelambutory pace, diesel coasting my face and lungs, furiously angry at the impediments the streets of London were presenting me with, annoyed that my flight from Guildford had become grounded as I got close to the nerve centre of the capital. It ended up taking me as long to get from Tooting to Waterloo as it did from Guildford to Tootin.
When the roads and footpaths get clogged up, one can feel a sense of flabbiness and stagnation, as one’s pace determined by the clunky, sticky jetsam and flotsam that slowly moves through the artiers, veins, arterioles and venules of the city. One feels like a deflated football swamped by the litter, footballs, planks of wood and detritus that one sees congregating in Limehouse Ship Lock, an arm off the Thames, like one of the cadavres that used to clog up the Fleet River and which led to a decision to build over what had in effect become an open sewer. Pulses of mild pain radiated through my chest the evening after I foolishly requested a taxi from South Woodford to Dulwich at 2 o’clock on a Saturday, most of the two hour drive, involved being stuck in a four lane traffic jam, in the insalubrious environs of the A12 on Bromley-By-Bow. Some of the frustration caused by the humidity and pollution and the knowledge that my children’s lungs were benig irrperably damaged, was eased by the endless conversation with the Indian taxi driver, who waxed lyrical on family life, and in particular about how his ninety year old mother who on coming down to the capital city from Birmingham for the first time in her life, remarked almost as soon as she had got there, and without standing on ceremony, that it was a ‘shit hole’. Later in the day she wound down the window to accost a man for wearing his trousers half-way down his arse. Unbelievable, mildly entertaining and all the time I was seething at the fact that there was absolutely no escape from this carbon monoxide car trap.
Moving through the city often means competition with other humans. Getting on and off the tube is often a battle of wits and wills, a ‘daily trauma’ experienced in ‘intolerable conditions’ according to 2003 House of Commons report. There are naïve tourists and groups of students standing in hoardes in front of escalators in Camden drawing tutts, flabbergasted looks exchanged between commuters, whinges and deep breathing. Diminutive Asians encroaching on the narrow exits at Moorgate dressed in corporate macs handing out City AM or cards advertising Lebara telephone services, animals once human grouping on the part of the platform on to which they estimate the doors of the next train to arrive, will open, the man dressed like a jazz musician who at half past eight in the morning who kicks you hard in the heel with his winklepickers. Revenge is wreaked in minor warfare, one woman recounts, muttering ‘sorry’ after shoving her bag in the face of a guy, who had unwittingly taken her spot on the platform, and had then broken the underground rule of getting on to the train before any passengers got off. I know that feeling of being cheated when you are in prime position for getting on the tube, but the person who is about to get off delays, and in that time a cheeky woman in tight skirt suit and high heels jumps into the gap. In the battle for space, and a seat on the tube, resentment can run high. Winces crease the faces of two ladies who are in the process of coming to terms with the fact that they have just engaged in each other in a headlong collision, both having zerod in on the same solitary empty seat in the middle of the carriage, oblivious to the other’s existence, having gotten on the carriage at opposite ends. During the collision, and in the immediate aftermath of the two ladies making sense of what has happened and composing themselves, the seat remains empty. “No thanks, too little, too late” bites one woman, heavily pregnant, after another woman whose foot the pregnant woman trod on, offer her seat.
Not everyone can move at the same speed and the same distances in London. The New Economics Foundation recently published a report entitled, “Distant Neighbours
Poverty and inequality in Islington”. They found that higher-income residents in Islington got outside the Borough a lot more, whereas the poorer ones tended to stay within the confines of the Borough. They produced a marvelous graphic contrasting the places that one higher-income resident, Jenny, visited, compared with a poorer resident, Tony.
The morning commute
November 2009, a young African girl with chubby cheeks, four or five years old, walks up the isle of the single deck 78. The bus is in Shoreditch and is travelling to Nunhead. She looks like a mini-space man, dressed in a big coat with a satchel on her back, which unbalances her, as she walks to the empty seat her mother is ushering her towards. Destination reached the girl bundles herself on to the window seat. Her mother sits next to her, first checking a map to the health clinic and then reading the London Metro. Her daughter, mirroring her mother, is also in a world of her own. Or so it seems. Actually, her nonchalance masks the fact that she is quietly monitoring everything and everyone, catching peoples’ eyes when theirs don’t catch hers. Like only a child does, she leans back on her satchel, and arches her body so that her head is facing the ceiling of the bus, ‘In, out, in, out, in, out, in, out’ she says, lazily, as if she’s reciting some school song she recently learned. She sings without melody and with the lethargy of someone who is not awake enough to be in full possession of her senses. Still looking at the ceiling she goes silent, arches her body further backwards and her eyes momentarily catch mine. This very young girl, travelling through the City of London so early in the morning looks so warm and comfy, mother on one side, the embrace of a London bus on the other. Her mind roams free.
In 2008 Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she would not feel comfortable after dark in Hackney, east London, or even more affluent districts like Kensington. Certainly moving around London is not without its incidents, and some get mugged, others raped. Some believe that one can avoid being mugged or raped by affecting to be full of confidence, ghusto and local knowledge, one commentator, a woman called Michelle noted, “I’ve lived in London nearly all my life, and I’ve wandered it’s streets at night, sometimes drunk, and nothing bad has happened to me. If you walk around like you own the place, and as if anyone who bothered you would be easily seen off, that’s a form of protection on it’s own. If you walk around hunched in fear, flinching at every sound and peering nervously at every passing man, you might as well write ‘victim’ across your forehead.”
Early Morning Quiet
London is not, whatever any one might tell you, a twenty-four hour city. Anyone wandering the streets between 11 and 6 in the morning will testify. Between 2 and 5 there is an incredible calm, a real gentleness to the streets, like a side to the city’s personality that you don’t rarely get to see. Better still in the summer time, returning home from a part in Battersea take the N19 back to Finsbury Park, and see the city bathed in early morning sunlight, empty, not a soul on the streets, the bus simply glides through the city in no time, as if you were gliding thorugh on the balk of a stalk. What a wonderful feeling and experience.
The Pull of Mama
There are certain times of the year, Christmas and Easter Time and arguably over the summer when London feels deserted. I guess cities and towns are always a little quieter during these periods. The population has its roots all around the world, many families leave London, going back to their roots, back to relatives, back to where they feel the belong, resting at home rather than travelling to work and dropping the kids off at school. The result is the streets of London can feel awfully abandoned, neglected and lonely. The whole thing can seem shocking, a headline in the Evening Standard read, “Its Christmas morning and the city is deserted”, photographs from Jon Cartwright revealed parts of the city which are usually busting a gut to keep the people in, completey empy, no-one in it. On the same Christmas morning Jon Cartwright took photographs Rupert Everett walked through Soho musing that, “There is not a soul about. I am suddenly transported to those days when London died each Sunday and the only noise was church bells. Bar Italia is closed. The theatres are dark. No lights in the models’ flats. The Christmas Eve storm has blown everyone away. A couple of brain-dead queens stumble across Old Compton Street towards an elusive orgy. Under the blue sky, in the weird silence, the ghastly Christmas spirit hanging there, just the sound of the queens’ slurred voices asking directions, everything is suddenly clear.
The Village Life in London
I’m walking along the towpath of the Limehouse Cut, it’s a beautiful day, I’ve got my daughter with me, and as we make our way along, I see a woman in her fifties, dressed in a strap on t-shirt, looking in our direction. There’s something in me that makes me think she’s going to say good morning to us, and something in me that feels like saying good morning to her, and then it happens, we, two strangers, say good morning to each other. Paddy Screech, who lives in and runs a bookshop from a canal boat, says, “On the canal, people behave like they are living in the country even though you are only four metres from the road. As soon as you put a towpath there, people start talking, being friendly. It’s true of everybody, boaters and passersby. It’s very strange, like magic. On the other side of this fence there is a different culture.” Over hundreds of years villages grew and coalesced into a London-centric mass, the consequence being that, “London seems to be made of a multitude of contiguous neighbourhoods instead of a compact, concrete urban high rise centre surrounded by concentric rings of unaffiliated suburbs.”Pete Zelewski is an American who loves the “village-y feel” to Belsize Park Adrian, a Frenchman who lives in Muswell Hill, the highest point of the city, said he loves the village side of the neighbuorhood: “Everyone knows each other and people like me”.