When I come to London from peaceful little Noosa Heads sur Mer, I feel as if some myopic paramedic has applied those paddle things they use to revive people, not to my heart, but to my brain! It’s not as if I’m a stranger here. This is my hometown. I grew up in Marylebone, went to a little primary school just behind Selfridges, and lived here on and off till my late twenties. Maybe I should heed the wise words of Terry Pratchett: Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. But I don’t know if even he has prepared me for this whirling, spectacular, cacophonous and completely bonkers experience … and that’s only a ride on the 243 from Stoke Newington to Waterloo. I think you’ll agree the expression on the face of my little friend Blinky says it all.
Just so many, many people. I’ve always been good at just staring at other people (discreetly of course), watching the passing parade, wondering what their lives are like, what they think, believe, hope for, and what possessed them to wear those shoes with that frock!
But here – initially at least, my brain is on overload. The beautiful young Jewish girl, in the black wig and dark tailored coat eases her stroller with her four children and six bags of shopping hanging on to it, past the pair of schoolgirls, in their neat blue blazers and silk -swathed heads bent over their i-Phones. Weary grandmothers – Irish looking or West Indian origin maybe – offer a smile before they sink gratefully into a seat. Tall young black guys lope gracefully through the bus; smart-suited young profs, hold on to the rail and gaze seriously at their phones; someone down the back talks loudly into space, entertaining the whole bus with what they’re having for dinner. I try to imagine the worlds they all step back into when they leave the bus. That’s what a writer is meant to do, right? (write?) But I can only sit and stare. I haven’t a clue!
Maybe if we look out the window we’ll pick up few hints. Our big red chariot jolts and judders us through streets teeming and people weaving busily through shops, chatting on corners, lounging outside pubs in the spring sunshine. Seems the trusty 243 offers a kaleidoscopic lesson in socio-economics as it slices its way through the layers of generations, classes, ethnic groups, rungs on the fiscal ladder, fashion proclivities and just general out-thereness. A trip on the 243 is a snapshot of the city…better yet, a short film (that feels like a very long film if you’re late for the movie) as it heaves its way through Dalston, past street markets, peeling shop fronts offering everything from wigs to wedding gowns, cheap phones to children’s clobber. The all night bagel shop vies with eco-veggie restaurant and the halal kebab vendor for your eating pleasure….actually don’t start me (or Blinky) on the food, or we’ll never get out of here.
If we gaze down the long vista of kingsland Road we’ll catch a tantalizing glimpse of that huge green gherkin, or the sharp shiny splinter of a building known as the shard. That’s where the money is, but there’s a journey before we reach them. We must pass gracious Victorian civic buildings; a cluster of wonderful Vietnamese restaurants, a canal that has spawned bijou urban dwellings that now overlook its murky depths. And the Geffreye Museum sits sedately back from the road with its garden shining green through cast iron railings. Then we’re in trendy Hoxton, where the remnants of the livid night-life can still be detected in posters for rock bands and tired looking young folk queuing at the bus stop. Cyclist weave their way in and out in grungy fluoro patches and what looks to me like reckless abandon, and at every stop light, a surge of humanity sweeps across our path.
Now we are in the heart of it…skirting the old city wall at the Barbican, passing Hatton Garden for the diamonds and the Inns of Court for the justice. Gracious edifices line the way, peppered with the new and audacious glass-fronted buildings of all shapes, and angles imaginable that reflect the London of the bankers and the financiers back to themselves. Then we’re at the edge of theatre-land. And yes, Mama Mia is still pulling the punters, there on the corner where Aldwych curves us round in the same old path to the Thames it has offered for hundreds of years. The river glideth at his own sweet will said Wordsworth in about 1802 and it still does. No amount of new buildings thrusting themselves confidently into the London sky, not even the big unsightly red box at the end will change the grace and majesty of the view from Waterloo Bridge
And what do we find at the end of our journey? For a mere three quid (plus thirteen for two glasses of rose…all right, they were large ones), we can watch Alan Bennett talking to Nicholas Hytner in the Olivier Theatre. In his deceptively mild northern burr he dissects all that he finds wanting as well as all that he finds wonderful in the Britain he’s documented so brilliantly in a life of 80 years. For Bennett and millions of his fellow Brits this is what it’s all about and, as Churchill was rumoured to have said when someone wanted money diverted from the arts to the war effort “What are we fighting for?” I’ll let the poet Shelley finish for me. If I’d let him start, you wouldn’t have bothered with mine, because he pretty much says it all:
You are now In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow
At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore
Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more
Yet in its depth what treasures!
And wouldn’t you know, we’re following in Shelley’s footsteps to Italy, not far from La Spezia where he met his tragic end. Ours will be a happier visit I’m sure, and promises lots of blog-fodder.
A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
Sonnet Composed on Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth
Percy Bysshe Shelley, from a letter to Maria Gisborne 1820