Saturday, September 3, 2011
When you are tired of London
London wasn't a homecoming because it never felt like home. I grew up in the provinces and we looked at London is if it was some gigantic blood sucking spider which you never drove into, let alone lived in.
My parents had no interest in London but I was lured to visit by the sheer scale of the place, the numerous places of interest, the beautiful people and the in-crowd feel that attracted but ultimately served to remind me I was an outsider.
Still I could relate to those young kids who ran away from their homes in bleak northern towns, only to end up in the blighted streets around King's Cross.
I never ran away but I moved there eventually and sometimes I wished I had stayed longer.
Now years later I was back, adopting the guise of a visitor, trying my best to do the objective thing of ticking off the sights. The first thing that struck me taking the train in from Kent, apart from the high fare, was the closeness of this great metropolis to the country. Rather than a smooth transition, I found myself looking out over rolling fields unchanged for centuries at one station, and bleak concrete flats looking over sickly strips of grass at the next.
But London really is different from anywhere else in England. It has its own smell and feel. There are gray/green railway bridges, tube station signs and dozens of city villages with cramped homes backing onto graffiti strewn railyards that sell for the equivalent of $500,000. The are upscale restaurants on even the most unprepossessing high street and beggars walking ragged dogs dogs on strings just a few yards away on the pavement.
Being a tourist is daunting because there's far too much to see. I headed for Southwark Cathedral first. I'm not sure why - maybe because it's the least known cathedral. Southwark tube station was a good bet but I was unable to find it initially. I headed to the Oxo tower which has become a precinct full of the most upmarket boutique stores imaginable. These outlets were so trendy, they seemed to defy the notion of a country in the grip of a recession. I avoided going inside to ask directions because I knew I would be sneered at.
The Oxo tower boasted an upscale roof terrace and a sign to a public viewing gallery. I got in the elevator for the top floor only to meet the gaze of a well coiffured gentleman in an Armani suit, who seemed alarmed to hear I was also going up to the restaurant floor.
Once on the top floor I inquired about the gallery and was haughtily ushered to a small platform past curious dinners spending more than $100 a head for lunch who had probably never seen anyone using the gallery before.
From here I walked the south bank where a soaring glass shard is rising up into the ever changing London skies. Just a few streets south of here the store fronts get meaner and the high rise estates that helped spawn the recent riots appear. But the south bank teems with business people in expensive suits and overseas visitors flitting from one attraction to another. When I finally found Southwark Cathedral it seemed diminished, hidden and overwhelmed by the tall buildings around it. While the Globe Theatre and the Tate were marked with numerous signs, the church was hardly recognized.
I did the whistlestop thing; I took in the Tate Modern but the heat seemed oppressive and I quit after one gallery.
After walking round a vast pile of porcelain sunflower seeds by the Chinese artist i Weiwei, I felt this was as far as I could go.
The work is said to refer to hunger because sunflower seeds were a staple during the Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao is also said to have referred to himself as a sunflower, and his people as the many scattered seeds.
London can also feel like a vast multifaceted sunflower at times that shines brighter than the rest of the country around it.
By the time I reached Trafalgar Square, passing a group of frighteningly hairy ladies on Whitehall, I had just about had enough of tourist London.
I have always found Trafalgar Square ungainly and forced as if it's trying too hard to be a great world space. Like Paris' Place de la Concorde it's ungainly and pompous. Far more satisfying are quiet and elegant public spaces like the Place de Vosges.
Trafalgar Square was also packed with performers and groups of young people babbling away in a dozen different languages. Surprisingly it gained a certain grace through the camera lens.
Fighting off my fatigue I headed into the National Gallery but crashed out despondent on a bench in front of Stubbs' iconic horse Whistlejacket and watched museum staff berate Italian visitors who were violating the "no photography" rule.
I realized if I didn't get out of the gallery and immerse myself in a warm beer I would probably keel over at the magnificent hoofs of Whistlejacket.
"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford," Samuel Johnson once said.
I looked around at all of the young people packed onto the Tube and started to wonder. I wondered how I endured the heat and the crowds. And I wondered if I had missed the big picture from time to time by enduring London rather than living it.