This blog stumbled, embarrassed, into the light from the darkness of my commuting angst. A working week sliced and diced by a thousand weary cuts splitting my happy home life from a somewhat less joyous vocational experience. Being alarm-turfed from bed at 6am/slice. Digging out the least stinky riding kit/slice. Suffering frostbite and trenchfoot six+ months of the year/slice. Pedalling the same old ground day after day/slice. Useless trains that were always packed/Slice. Rain bashing the window I’d soon be outside of/Slice. Grotty work changing rooms/Slice. Is the shower working anxiety/Slice. Repeat with no prospect of escape.
But these were mere nics and burrs when transposed against the ‘hack my head off with a blunt cleaver, it’d be a mercy‘ of doing this every day in what some people* proudly label as ‘the best city in the world‘. One could take a narrow view that this may well be true if your hobbies include killing cyclists, mainlining endless fuckwittery, pushing, shouting and shoving. Not for me though. Not even close.
There were odd days when the gladiatorial contest of staying alive ended with the Christians besting the Lions, but mainly it was a drudge full of danger and dirt under a cityscape of dazzling modern brashness silhouetting a thousand years of fascinating history. I’ve always maintained London can best be described as ten million idiots wrapped around a stunningly interesting core. As a ghost-town it’s hard to hate, but peopled with Londoners it was impossible for me to love.**
Five years ago I waved it goodbye with a pair of fingers and have missed it hardly at all. Occasional sallies into its mean streets and fetid tunnels reinforcedmy old prejudices, and the first train out cannot run soon enough. Although not quite- hidden in the boonies you vaguely remember that by scratching beyond London’s grimy surface, there’s all sorts of mouth-open-wide amazement for those of us who find crop identification mildly exhilarating.
That was me then; on a sunny winters day blinking my way out of St. James station. First order of the day breakfast, so ignore the main street franchise and instead duck into an alley partially blocked by builders’ vans.Behind which was hidden an authentic London Cafe with a blackboarded menu offering Bacon and Eggs. Tea or Coffee. No credit cards, don’t ask as a punch in the mouth often offends. Run by some cheerful Polish dudes who provided this mildly hungover traveller a pint of tea buttered up to a heart-stopping Bacon Roll for about four quid.
Sated, I had something else to spend; Time. An hour of it to invest under a winter warming sun in a now mostly deserted post-rush hour city. First stop, a circle of the lake in St James Park giggling at those paying thirteen quid for ‘breakfast in the park‘, stepping away smartly from hissing swans and misidentifying the Disney spires and endless crenelations of a shimmering palace.
My bet was the Kremlin, a local suggested the less interesting/more likely Queen’s residence now much photographed by Japanese tourists grouped by tour umbrella. Many of whom were adjusting focal length through the simple medium of stepping back into the traffic. Where amped up taxi drivers attempted to run them down. Gave the cyclists a bit more of a chance I suppose.
And what cyclists! All shapes and sizes, some astride the latest race tuned technology, more wheezing slowly on Halfords specials with knackered everything and brown chains. Even a few intrepid Boris-Bikers weaving unsteadily between rows of gunning cars. I have absolutely no idea how I survived five years of this, it’s absolutely bloody mental and yet somehow survival rates are slightly better than sticking ones head into a melting nuclear reactor. Bonkers.
Refreshed by a second artisan beverage, I was amazed that such a small square of real estate could contain three ministries of state, Scotland Yard, a big bit of the treasury and the headquarters of a dozen major corporations. Squeezed between these corporate behemoths were proud, regency houses blue-plaqued with eighteen century prime ministers and philosophers.
My aimless peramble gave rise to a grudging respect for London. The juxtaposition of stuff older than most nation states mingling with high tech/high rise thrusting corporations. The identikit high streets sharing custom with esoteric cafe’s in winding back alleys. The suited and booted worker ants jostling with finger pointing tourists. Maybe familiarity had bred contempt. Sure, I still would never want to live here, but it’s not entirely terrible either.
And then it was. Buzzing overhead like an irritated mutant wasp was a bright yellow police helicopter festooned with massive lights, camera and – possibly – machine gun action. It swept over the high rise buildings, rotating this way and that clearly searching for bomb-carrying lunatics, escaping bank robbers or any individual not associated with the Masons.
This was amazing and a bit scary. I fully expected black-clad MET Ninja’s to throw out ropes and descend into the mean streets. My expectations were not met as, after a couple more minutes of the orange snout sniffing out trouble, engines whinged, rotors sped and the Helicopter became a fading dot in the sky. But that’s not the terrible thing. No, when I looked around me to see what your average Londoner would make of our little vignette of Patriot Games, there was a real shock waiting.
NOBODY looked. Not even a glance. Just me and the tourists excitedly waving their middle digits. Really? I mean really? What passes for normal around here? Do Transformers have to rampage through the city and rip out buildings before anyone feigns interest? And only then because it’ll just give the bloody tube a reason to be delayed. I wanted to grab the nearest too-cool-for-school sharp suited nutter and demand ‘Am I hallucinating or did some sodding great helicopter just swoop between those buildings?‘
But I didn’t. Because I’m English and it’s this kind of quiet reserve that’s served us so well in Love and War. Sort of. Anyway I couldn’t get away fast enough, and it was only as the train put some distance between me and that massive edifice of insanity could I give it some more thought. And that thought was this – whatever the reason, whatever the prize, whatever they tell you, stay well away from London – it’s stacked full of loonies and aliens.
Honestly I’d rather spend time in Birmingham. And on that bombshell, the defence rests.
* but not people who you’d trust with matches. Boris Johnson for example.
** Whoever said ‘if you win the rat race, it’s important to remember you are still a rat’ made the point somewhat better.