236 – The Old Smoke – There . . .

Megabus. - According to BigShimmeryWall it's "Mega-CD mega."

Sometimes an event so big demands more space than even I’m willing to trust you’ll read. Rather than cram what’ll probably amount to three to four thousand words into a single post I’m spreading my day trip to London over a series of posts that will each examine a different facet of the journey. I hope that’s okay with you, and if it isn’t, well, I’m sure someone’s made a top ten list of the sexiest monuments in London: maybe you should go and leer over that instead.

It’s morning. Sometimes it feels like it’s always morning, as if morning’s all there was or is or will ever be. At these times it’s colder, darker, and though there seems to be light and warmth ahead they never come closer, because time never passes. Morning sits, the break of day, the brink of a new horizon on a world that that never turns.

Sleep has eluded me for days; I catch only fragments that combine into something like, yet unlike sleep, where I close my eyes, dreams come and hours pass yet I stay awake the night through, lying still in the darkness. Though day refuses to break fully I move ever closer to the source of this disruption and, it’s hour come at last, I stand and dress in the eternal morning and depart for Old Smoke.

I’m not fond of London; I dislike it, even. We have history, London and I, and it’s history so twisted by time the very thought of the big city makes me shudder.

Plymouth isn’t a big city–some would say it’s not a city at all. We have no cathedral here, and only seem to have been given city status with reluctance by a King who mumbled while signing the decree “Okay, I’ll let you be a city but after that, no one else!” We’re a confluence of three towns and little more. We’re an honorary city perhaps, given a consolation prize in the great race for civilization.

London is civilization; it’s civilization so raw, in recent months it’s come full circle and descended back into barbarism. I don’t imagine London as a pleasant place because in my experience it’s been dirty, crowded, noisy and bewildering. Some people like that; when I hear about those who love the rude, big city I’m reminded of rat kings tangled by their tails, huddled together for warmth. Everything about London is anathema to my arable way of life; the only crops grown in London are moulds and pestilence. Plague and fire spread swiftly across London; violence spreads just as fast. Somewhere beneath disused train tunnels, sewers and the deep ways four horseman sleep, and sculpt the city with their dreams.

If London is romantic it’s a Gothic romance ending in broken lives and insanity.

People like London for its vibrancy and community; they might as well be Venusian dragon-men breathing an ultra-heated acid atmosphere with gusto. I couldn’t thrive in a city where you fight to survive or suffocate, lost. Where one stranger is quite enough to cause me consternation this is a city of millions, all of whom race with mechanical precision around tracks chalked invisibly upon the pavement. Those not on the tracks lay in doorways and coach stations as reminder of what happens to the lame in the country’s greatest race. Perhaps the most frightening thing about London is that I could see myself falling among them, and can’t hasten past fast enough to forget their faces.

I took the Megabus. It was noisy but not cramped, and though I huddled against the window using my fist as makeshift pillow I couldn’t sleep and morning wore on. The bus stopped only twice–at Exeter and Bristol–and kept on going ‘til the countryside wore away and tracks, shacks and chimney stacks lined the road. These were old buildings, broken buildings mounting in majesty as the road plunged ever deeper; subconsciously I expected us to emerge into countryside again as we reached the end of town, only this is a town with no end, where industry and people’s homes are meshed together and landmarks are scattered and barely visible, like garden toys lost to a year of growing grass. Wrapped around a squat building to the left was a lurid lit banner advertising the Inbetweeners movie, while on the right a sunken stadium–Earl’s Court–looked on malevolent: a broad-shelled crab lurking in mud.

Old houses at odd angles, we moved past parks and terraces that looked like normal town places but were anything but. Otherwise innocuous roadsigns bore familiar names–Lambeth, Chelsea–like celebrities name-dropped into chitchat. Corners sharpened; the bus teetered about them in fits and starts, cut off by traffic comprised almost entirely of taxis. Outside the sky was still the pale fuzzy blue of early morning but the mechanism was already in motion and we were struggling not to be caught in its cogs.

The bus descended further through strata of architecture–Gothic and deco, modernist and futurist–until finally we disembarked into a long, oily car park. Passengers clotted around the side of it, squeezed between other coaches, waiting for the baggage hold to be opened and we left into London, the belly of the beast.

At half-seven and walking through residential streets we passed street-sweepers and the odd business person not yet rushing to get to work. One man took out a crate of empty wine bottles and left them on his front steps to be collected for recycling. There were a lot of recycling bins in the areas I visited, and surprisingly little litter, but then it’s difficult for crisp packets and styrofoam cups not to be washed away on oceans of kicking feet. Later, people would flood the streets in their thousands; for now the coming flood was but a trickle, harbinger of things still to come.

The main thoroughfare to Oxford street was a snaking procession of taxis that rined Hyde Park, home to joggers and cyclists. Another sweeper muttered as workers, tourists and travellers passed: an endless litany of swearwords spoken in a West-Indian lilt so thick its ‘u’s became ‘o’s and his rant became a language unto itself.

The road knotted together at subway stations though these passages to the underground were mostly unused at this time and seemed more like barrows marking the tombs of an ancient civilisation. One was blocked off altogether with a note telling the city it was no longer in use. Maps were placed along railings, at monuments; some were worn with rust and others were vivid. as if only just inked. We compared their instructions with a Google map which I regarded surreptitiously, trying not to draw attention to myself. Bad things happen to obvious tourists in obvious tourist destinations. If I could keep my head down and let the pickpockets’ gaze fall upon, say, the brightly-dressed septuagenarian Americans ambling past the Marriot, perhaps that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Oxford Street was smaller than I remembered it being–I’d been smaller myself when I’d last seen it so that made sense. We walked past clothes shops and department stores that, judging from notices in their windows seemed to open too late for one of the world’s busiest shopping centres. Earlier we’d passed through a swanky area full of designer boutiques–empty shop floors with a half-dozen Dolce & Gabbana handbags in a pyramid in the centre of them–but Marks & Spencer, Debenham’s and H&M were names far more familiar with me, even if having to wait two or three hours for them to open was not.

We carved away from Oxford Street and sought out my ultimate destination for the day: Knightsbridge Medical, unassuming and detailed only by a brass name plate on the intercom buzzer. Then it was back into the mounting traffic that marked the start of the work day with six hours to waste and nothing to waste it on.

Anxious over things still to come, my mum had gone with me for moral support. Her presence proved to be both blessing and curse in equal measure: she fretted too much, complained too often, and her initial insistence at reading the map drove me to take it from her and hold it beyond her reach. She’d been to London so many times before I assumed she had a passing knowledge of its layout but I’d apparently assumed wrongly. Her first attempts at reading directions had her looking at the name of our destination and those of the connecting roads and asking anyone we saw–commuters, cleaners–if they knew where we should go. That’s how we became lost in Swanksville, stepping around homeless folk sleeping in the awnings of shops selling diamonds (this image seems too pat to be truthful; I assure you it’s no lie). While I’m not great with maps myself, for all its nooks and diversions London’s quick to help tourists on their way with road names clearly emblazoned on street corners, and a sort of inter-meshed logic where bus stops, underground stations and streets with like names are all clustered close to one another. If you can find one of these with the name you’re looking for, the others are never far away.

Making our way past Oxford Circus and up to Tottenham Court Road, people streamed thicker and faster, and in both directions. A lot of construction work was underway, damming side streets and forcing the commuters into single file. This wasn’t a problem yet, but as the day continued they’d bundle together into massive jostling clumps, like shoelaces pulled through eyes so narrow as to scrape the fibres back into frizzy frays. Between them and the omnipresent taxi lines they’d choke the streets, but at the moment everything was still civil and we walked on unimpeded.

I dissuaded my mum from using the tube station toilets (“You complained about the Megabus toilets; I can assure you these will be much worse.”) and as we walked to McDonald’s and lavatorial salvation I examined and dissected the commuting Londoner, and drew my own conclusions.

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