237 – The Londoner

"PAT! What have you done to me, Pat?"

As with many people who haven’t travelled much in their adult lives my mental map of Britain is drawn in regional stereotypes. Scousers are lively self-proclaimed funsters; Brummies are dour and whinging; Yorkshire folk are loud and big-hearted; and so on and so forth. These stereotypes are painted in strokes as broad as the kind of caricatures sold on tea towels to tourists. To me Scottish people really are as incomprehensible as Russ Abbot made them out to be–as offensive as that might seem, there’s little in my mind separating Irvine Welsh and See You Jimmy.

Even a simple creature like myself knows this map is so inaccurate it might as well have ‘Here be dragonnes’ daubed along the edges. The cultural and economic breakdown of any of these regions is far more complicated than a Russ Abbot sketch, but the stereotype persists. Even though Plymouth isn’t a yokel backwater I prefer to think of it as such rather, than take into account its modern, multicultural population. It’s easier to think of us as being pitchfork-shaking racists when you ignore the Polski Skleps dotting the high street.

Last week on a jaunt to the local shop I bumped into an elderly northern couple looking for directions. That the woman called me ‘love’ fourteen times in the conversation fair warmed my heart, and though I’d usually have no time for people I pass on the street, noting they were slow and infirm I wanted to say to them look, you stay here and I’ll get your shopping. You can pay me back later, but even if you don’t I don’t care, because you’re lovely and big-hearted and all the people around here either look like rats or greased-up jelly babies–and frankly I wish we had more of your kind living in Plymouth and less of theirs.

My picture of the common or garden Londoner has been pieced together from episodes of Eastenders and is, as it transpires, wildly inaccurate. Londoners are not cockney barrow boys flogging fruit and veg for beer money. They don’t brawl endlessly over the honour of some rough bird in a leather jacket wearing inch-deep slap. It’s quite possible some Londoners even have surnames other than ‘Mitchell’, although since I didn’t ask anyone their surname, it’s possible I was wrong on that count.

But, among the myriad ethnic heritages and occupations of all the people I saw I discovered that Londoners did indeed have a type, albeit one I’d not considered before. You might tell me I’m wrong, that I haven’t explored London to its fullest, that there’s far more to the people of London that I saw in that ten hour window, in the tiniest corner of the city–but you’re not writing this post are you? No, you’re not. So shut up, then.

Londoners wear suits. In the morning they wear suits. In the afternoon they wear suits. Wherever I went and whoever I saw, they wore suits, all of them, every one.

I’d never really known what ‘business casual’ meant until I visited London, because these suits weren’t worn with the dignity of pall-bearers or the shabbiness of the Artful Dodger but in an off-handed manner that said “I might be at work but I’m still enjoying myself.”

Truth be told, I’d never thought of suits and smiles as going together. They haven’t in my life or the lives of anyone I know; the only smiling suit-wearers I can think of are those smug tosspots from the old Chelsea Financial Services advert, the one with the man with THE WORLD’S MOST PUNCHABLE FACE who says “You could buy that horse of yours, let alone back it”–a line that never quite made sense to me, and that I’d always thought I’d misheard.

There are lots of people in London, and all of them wear suits with matching smiles.

Londoners know where they’re going. I’d been warned of this before I went: I was told to step aside for natives as they knew where they were going and I did not. I made good use of this advice, hanging onto shop fronts, sidestepping judiciously so I wouldn’t incur the wrath of hurrying London. What I was surprised by–and this is even with the modern, mobile age in mind–is how many of them knew where to walk and approximately what was going on around them despite not looking where they were going. Most had their noses pressed against mobile phones; some had iPads and Kindles, books and other objects I’ve since forget, all of which seemed to draw their attention away from the world beyond their fingertips. Others talked with friends and colleagues, heads turned towards one another, not quite looking into each other’s eyes but not quite looking at the pavement ahead, either. People moved quickly, often (but not always) without accident. Some gesticulated wildly in conversation and the surrounding crowds swayed out of reach of their outstretched hands, seemingly without noticing them in the first place.

When these conversations took place on a one-on-one basis one of the parties was always an older man, wrinkled, tall and greying, while the other was young woman laughing in a manner that would have been uproarious if it wasn’t so delicately tinkling. So frequent were these besuited sugar daddy couplings I started wondering uneasily if there was some other factor provoking these pairings: was it, in fact, bring your daughter to work day?

When the conversations took place between greater numbers of people, the groups were gender exclusive. Here a group of young women (and I saw so few older women in the Oxford Street area not obviously tourists I again started wondering if there was something I was missing) laughed and swapped stories about some lad in accounting; there a load of men caroused, fully suited, outside one of the area’s many bars. As the day wore on and the Londoners became more dishevelled (but never shabby, not quite) the groups seemed more like stag and hen parties than businesspeople. One group I passed, drinking coffee in a shop window all appeared to have Superman t-shirts on beneath their work attire.

Londoners love Superman t-shirts, just not as much as they love suits.

With the lack of older women (seriously, where were they?) bringing the average age down it’s worth mentioning how young most of the women were–and how skimpily they were dressed. Now, I know it’s August, and when the sun broke out in the afternoon the city was reasonably warm, but as Thursday was largely cold, wet and miserable I was surprised by how many pairs of legs were on display.

I’m not talking partial pairs, either, demurely hidden beneath a skirt–I wasn’t looking for legs so much as having them thrust in my face. The young ladies of London had–more often than not–clad their top halves in business wear while their bottom halves languished a street walker’s wardrobe. On one occasion–an occasion so comical it seemed almost tragic–one girl, thusly dressed, tottered on heels across the pavement, swaying so violently she stuck her hands out for balance as if crossing a high wire. She bit her lip for concentration, wheeled and nearly toppled, and when she descended from the kerb to cross the street I half-expected her to do a back-flip as if to say “Just kidding, folks. Ta-daa!”

The high skirts reminded me of being back in school, where the girls of the girls’ school rolled up their waistbands in order to show boys the bottoms of their thighs. But even the sluttiest school bicycle wasn’t as brazen as the most chaste of these businesswoman. With no schoolboys around, who were they trying to impress? Was it a secret high hemline competition they’d devised between them? Were they creating sexual tension in the workplace? Were they all trying to impress those wrinkly old sugar daddies?

On one street, a van moving at speed stopped so abruptly its back wheels briefly lifted off the ground; at the kerb opposite us, stood a little in front of where the van idled was one of these tanned, half-clad creatures, all but naked from the crotch down. “I don’t think he stopped to let us cross,” my mum whispered. I could only agree.

As the rain stopped and the sun brightened errant threads wove through the besuited crowds. Ties were loosened and skirts–if it was possible–became even shorter. I saw three Londoners chatting; one wore a top hat with long feathers sticking up from the band. I considered knocking it off and into the crowd but being unfamiliar with London justice I didn’t know if they’d turn on me or–as I’d expect in any other city–knight me for my actions against hipsterdom, and so thought it best not to do anything at all. Somewhere out there a man in a feathered top hat still roams the streets. This troubles me.

If Eastenders has one facet of London life correct it’s the accent. While I did overhear a number of Londoners speaking in more refined tones, most voices seemed more suited for bellowing “BIANCA!” or selling ripe strawberries ripe than polite conversation. Accents veered from the clipped pronunciation of the chocolate shop-girls in Liberty’s, to the saucy Essex bray of, well, pretty much everyone else I met. In most shops I visited the young staff–who were even younger than the businesspeople outside–were engaged in bored conversations, and slept-walked through their duties. In Marks & Spencer it took the best part of ten minutes for the staff to make a latte and a hot chocolate, so enveloped were the staff by their cockney conversation.

On my outing I was surprised to discover the true nature of the Londoner. I’d become so used to Pat Butchers and Peggy Mitchells, finding barrow boys had traded apples and pears for Androids was more than a little unsettling. While I couldn’t say the people of London were friendly–the most helpful folk we found were Australians just as out of their depth as we were–I couldn’t say they were unfriendly, either. If anything they were just absorbed by their programming, keeping the machine running with nary a stop nor a hitch, secluded from the world by a pair of iPod earbuds and a shining mobile screen. Aside from a few idiosyncrasies they were, I suppose, just like anyone else in this modern age, if a little saucier and smugger about it.

Nevertheless, leaving for home on the Megabus it was with some relief I noted our driver was a camp-as-all-get-out Welshman. Sometimes it’s nice to be in familiar territory where stereotypes still hold true.

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