My enduring impression of actually living in London is the predominance of the Underground. Just that word on a circular sign is sufficient summons to order the city’s inhabitants down a mine-shaft, a human sausage machine, to be spewed out further down the assembly line, by some divine reprieve, ejected out into grand civilisation.
Once I get out I’m in the midst of imposing shops everywhere. Miles of glass and brand names you hear spoken about in hushed whispers where the reigning Queen is Anna Wintour, last seen fawning over Roger Federer at Wimbledon. It overwhelms and is supposed to seduce, lure people into temptation. I wonder if it is a particularly elevated plane that I’ve reached when I find it so easy to ignore and walk past all that is tasteful and opulent.
On one of my random wanders a few weeks ago, I found myself in Parliament Square next to a smiling Nelson Mandela, a serious Gandhi, who looked a little cold in his dhoti and cotton shawl even in summer and bizarrely one of Churchill close by – posterity making them equal. If there’d been a sound recording of each of their famous speeches – they would all be a cacophony of resounding words of wisdom. The apparent group huddle was a little disorienting.
Yesterday, I walked past all the Underground signs and kept going on foot. A journey that would take half an hour was going to be at least three times that duration but what an interesting tour that was. As I got out of trendy Soho, onto Oxford Street, past Selfridges, John Lewis and then Marks and Spencers, it eventually hits downmarket with Primark. I’d reached Marble Arch. At Cumberland Gate, I saw this piece of public art.
At first glance, possibly, not evident here, it was as if some artist had created a sumptuous abstract sculpture of a tree trunk with small branches and leaves jutting out. I was more interested in the people sitting around and wondered if they were new to the city, perhaps refugees, even.
I carried on, homeward bound, crossing a shady subway, smelling of damp and urine. A homeless man is fast asleep snuggled between bags of his possessions. The space looks abandoned and there are many more bulging black bags on the other side of the wall. A perfect haven, it would seem. Walking onto the great Edgware Road which could easily be renamed Little Beirut (I’m sure there was a cafe of that name) or Road to Damascus. Fruity smoke from shisha bars, butchers and greengrocers selling gunny-sacks of dried almonds, pistachios, all jostle for space. It is London as I hadn’t seen before. Edgware blends seamlessly into Maida Vale and many concrete flats. There is some activity – girls in hijabs take out their bicycles as it is school holidays but no clanging vessels or women hanging their washing off balconies. No smell of cooking either. Apartment living of the quiet, discreet kind. Maida Vale ends sweetly in Little Venice with its canal boats and pretty picture postcard looks.
As I reach home comfortably, I relate my afternoon’s adventures and show my pictures and I see this same photo with new eyes. It was that iconic moment from the Godfather when the unco-operative Hollywood producer sees the head of his favourite horse at the bottom of his bed, soaking the sheets with fresh blood. There it is, ladies and gentlemen, frozen in bronze!