I’m not sure anybody really knows London, least of all the people who have lived and worked there all their lives. London seems to have a deceptive quality of appearing intimate, until you turn a street corner and you really do feel like you’re in a big metropolis. There’s a lot of history there, and London tends to wear it on her sleeve, but the old London is constantly being covered up by the new. So London is like a messy oil painting where some of the paint is still drying after being brushed over the old layer, and yet there are other parts that are still there to view after hundreds of years.
Visitors are constantly discovering new parts to London. I suspect this really annoys the locals who weren’t aware there was a street called “Arsebugger lane”. There isn’t by the way…although at least I don’t think there is.
It probably stems from the fact that the place is so big. It truly is a sprawl, lying there on a map of the south like a big squashed spider. There always seems to be some lost part of the whole that you never saw on a previous visit….some back street, some club, some secluded park. I always found the suburban outskirts of London to be quite charming. You know this isn’t where all the action is, but there’s a pleasing ambience for a visitor. Well, it would be pleasing if it wasn’t for the fact that being a London visitor in the suburbs often means you’re lost. I ended up at Faislop station one night desperately looking for a friend’s car. In the end we had to ask the local police to get the guy from the car park to come down and unlock the place where the car was…it’s a long story I might tell you sometime.
So the main thing I like about London is that it looks like it wasn’t thrown up in a year. It looks like it evolved over a long period of time, which is pretty much the truth of it. Some people will have you believe in the quaint notion that London is also a collection of “villages”, which is fine if you know many villages with several parks, a castle, a red-light district and an Underground railway.
Oh, yes, the underground; the biggest in the world. It’s never let me down, although it’s easy to say that when you only use it five times a year. It’s really easy to lose your bearings in the underground as well, unless you look at the wall maps and charts. It’s a whole different world down there with lots of strange noises emitting from the bowels of the Earth. It’s also really windy, so if you think you’ve escaped the London rain by diving underground you might be in for a surprise. Your new hair-do will not survive a visit to the platform undisturbed.
It’s often said that London place names, and in particular those of the Underground, are suggestive of a world far removed from the real London; they fuel our imagination. These memorable station names, displayed in that classic red circle motif, sound like a romanticised version of London. “Maida Vale” still sounds like one of the most exotic places in Britain, until you ascend to the surface. At “Ealing Broadway” I expect to emerge into a 1950s comedy were all the school children wear neat uniforms and all the business men have bowler hats. Some sound really traditional and quintessentially London like “Charing Cross” or gloriously pro-empire like “Waterloo”. In that sense it’s the most stylish and interesting underground network in the world, and it seems oddly romantic as if it’s trying to paint an impossible picture of what’s going on above. “Bethnal green” makes me think of an abbey and nuns for some reason, and “Island gardens” sounds like a tropical paradise, hidden under a dome in the centre of the city. “Perivale” makes me think of castles and dragons. Sometimes, however, it get’s it absolutely right- “Mile end” is as dank and depressing as it says on the sign (unless memory cheats- I got there by mistake anyway). You’re also constantly reminded to “Mind the gap”, which is essential advice unless you want to end up under a train with a rat for company. There are plenty of rats in London, and not all of them have tails….but more of that another time!
Also worth mentioning is the 1931 Tube map, which is a masterpiece of graphic design and has conned many people into believing they know exactly where they are while having little resemblance to reality. Deliberately distorted and having no concept of true scale, it makes sense out of the tangled mess of the Tube. Just don’t try relating it to the street layout above- it’s impossible! Very stylish though, and a full scale one has all those wonderful names on it. It’s the only public transport map I’d put on my wall.
London is quite a green city as well, which is a surprising thing to say considering the shitty, slummy mess the place was in around 150 years ago. Thankfully, mainly the best of Victorian London has survived. Not The Crystal Palace, though, which burnt down in 1951. A great loss of what was a great piece of architecture. The beggars, tramps and thieves are all still here as well, and while that’s a problem that’s not going to go away anytime soon, I’ve no doubt it’s far worse in some other cities.
I normally end up in London at Euston station, but that’s purely down to getting the Virgin train from Manchester. Heathrow airport is quite grim from what I remember of it, and I can’t say I’ve been to any other ‘drop off’ point. Other than that, London is wonderful. It has some of the best theatres and restaurants in the world and some beautiful, tranquil parks. If that’s your cup of tea, you’ll love Greenwich with its rolling park and great view of the Thames.
London could still be so much more, if we’d stop trying to kill it. The fact that so many ‘30s phone boxes were removed is a travesty for a start. They used to be the length and breadth of Britain, and survived so long because they were a design classic. If it has style and works- leave it alone! However, the future beckons and it’s important to take the best of the old with the bold new. The London eye now seems as established as Tower Bridge.
One of my favourite parts of London is Blackheath. It’d cost me an arm and a leg to live there, but hopping around for the rest of my life isn’t such a high price. Nice bars and restaurants in a bit of a cluttered, hilly area. It does feel like a posh village around there.The main geographical feature is the River Thames, which at one time was probably a mixture of mud, rubbish and tramp piss. Luckily it’s significantly cleaner these days and I’ve had many dreamy moments staring into its mucky depths while stood on Tower Bridge. The Thames neatly divides London into two halves. The good half and the crap half? Ok, I’m only joking there.
So there are my thoughts on our capital. Slightly idealised perhaps, and coloured by viewing too many ’60s ‘Swinging London’ films, and historical dramas, but that’s it’s beauty; it has something for everyone if you look hard enough… So carry on London, you infuriatingly fascinating, grubby old town.