Thursday 20 September 2012

London Diary #Two

On the first weekend of the Olympics he found himself next to his sister, drinking local ale in an empty village pub somewhere in the hinterlands beyond the Great Metropolis. She picked at peanuts while her eyes rested on the rowing on the television; the eyes of the young snuffling barman were darting from them to the television and back again.

The day before he had been at a Farmers Market, the two of them scuttling in and out of the blooming crowds to fawn over Italian pasta and sorrel from Cambridgeshire, Kids Company helium balloons attached to their wastes. It was hot and the smell of tomatoes strong; dogs scuttled about the tottering legs of stilt-walkers and at one point he was certain he saw Judi Dench gliding through the crowd.

Here the city hums loud like a machine or a slumbering beast but that morning, walking the dogs in Bishop’s Park, it was quiet. The water is sleepy and when the tide is out birds with twig legs and big beaks stand in a line on the soggy mud marshes as if queuing for morning croissants and coffee. When the tide is high there are swans and one morning he spun round as he followed what appeared to be a cormorant into the water. But nothing came up so he turned and kept walking.

The day after the Opening Ceremony the park was packed with people setting up to watch the first day on a big screen. That uneasy excitement was bubbling over.

We Salute Sir Wiggo ...Go Mo Go! Run Jess, Run! Eyes and lenses focus in a new found blusterous patriotism, bright and shameless and ready to snap at dismissive smirks of condescension or superior derision.

As the crowds arrived and the streets became quiet the warnings from the Mayor, Supporter in Chief, were replaced with unheeded calls for those savages up North to come down to sunny Boris Island and taste a bit of Olympics.

At the coffee stall a beautiful lady and a jogger struck up conversation with the grumbling grizzly; the jogger was red in the face and the satchel strap around his waist dug into his side pulling his t-shirt up and revealing a pale pink wedge of flesh.

‘So much for the traffic warnings. Like living in a Ghost City!’

‘What did you expect? It’s a drop in the ocean.’

‘Not the chaos they were predicting …’

‘It’s worse in the West End apparently - Ghost City.’

‘Fucking Boris …’

He felt like he was expected to either concur similarly or offer an interesting retort. He did neither and stared at the filter.

To and from work he principally walks past yacking Yummy-Mummies from the States and Arab lads crying out in thick cockney – bright teeth and jabbering lips and chins. Quiet loners like himself pass – puffing red and serious; their faces fiercely looking out over the road and for a second into his. Everyone is very loud or very quiet. Husky voices from the Home Counties pipe up to surprise. Most cry that gentrification is on its way, some that is has already left, po-faced.

In the shops the keepers chat to him and often on the underground someone will step back to let him pass. Not what he had been warned of up North. ‘No one speaks in London!’ They had said. ‘Everyone in their own world – rushing around. It’s like a warren; packed tight together but no-one knows nobody!’

Worse is also said; mainly from those who would take inspiration from the story of Boudicca with her flaming hair razing the new Roman settlement of London to the ground. That doesn’t look like my England!  

Sitting in a theatre beer garden he felt out of place in his suit as he drank surrounded by actors and directors and an ‘up-and-coming producer.’ Ford Maddox Ford wrote that your profession makes the London you live in and he thought of the man in red chinos who he passes each morning on his phone, making deals and walking oblivious to all in front and before.

Similarly on the Uxbridge Road he slips up and down unregarded while they salute each other, and shake hands, laugh, gripe and sing together. He would like to think that they show his acceptance by not acknowledging his return but really they are unaware of the initial arrival.  

It is not villages that London is made up of but little personal pods in which Londoners feed and sleep and travel in and the taint of the pod colours their perception and the curve warps their vision and the seams and strappings blind them to the love and work being done elsewhere in the city.

‘You’, he says to himself, the Standard on his lap, ‘can never know anything about London; all you ever know about is yourself in London.’ Elusive in its multi-faceted nature fostering that slipping feeling. There is no Bronx, or banlieue, no need for compartmentalisation as anything can exist gently unnoticed and if ferocious home heroes run down from the North the flame will burn in Tottenham and it will flame in Ealing.

The night it had all began he got a quiet tube on the District Line to Tower Hill thinking that this is the most excited London he is ever going to see. Sirens could be heard all about and policeman lined the streets; warm, hazy feeling of a storm approaching as the humming grew louder than ever before and hot mouths exhaled over the roads.

It grizzles and shrieks, rumbles, leaps and through the cross of figures a girl in a flowering, layered dress and a white sleeveless shirt, open, spinning ungainly, her arms outstretched. The image flickered at him through the evening and, circling out from the whirling of a carnival vortex in hot frenzy. 

 The snivelling barman poured them some more peanuts and looking up at the celebrating champions said, tentatively, ‘Must be mad up there.’

‘Ghost City.’  

Bertie Digby Alexander
Liverpool 2012

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