We have just returned from a long weekend in London. It was a family reunion and much needed R&R.
It wasn’t an unfortunate coincidence that a major storm blew over the UK; these things are happening all the time now despite assertions that this is nothing so serious to worry about. London, after all, is London. It’s its own kingdom with its own micro-climate, and its own macro-culture. We would be safe from inclement weather. It turned out that travellers to the capital city were no longer to be as immune to climate change as they thought they once had been.
Everything is changing. Rumbling storms are moving up from the Gulf Stream, across from America, and in from Russia. Our temperate island is under threat from the extremes. We are being flooded with savage downpours, inundated with rising tides of destruction, and swept from the streets by viscious winds. The times, they are changing and the weather is too.
Certain parts of London stink. They stink of power, privilege and pecuniary advantage. You see it in the houses, in the cars, in the restaurants, and in the buildings. This is class culture; the ruling class showing their muscles. The rest of us pilgrimage to admire and envy. I saw a Ferrari dealership with its eye-watering beauty clothed in metal, the out-of-your-reach motors forming a chorus line for the capitalist dream. The dream is, ‘Dream On’ because you’ll never get it. Yet we respect and admire those who can possess such beasts whilst accepting that those owners have been put there purposely to provide structure. And all the while we walk past rough sleepers attempting to escape the rain.
This city plays tricks on you. When we first arrived, its sheer surge of humanity threatened to engulf us. Our first contact with this torrent, on the Underground, told us that this was not for us, “Who could live here? Wouldn’t it drive you insane?” A little later found us accustoming ourselves to the mass of earphoned screen gazers, accepting the many invasions of personal space, enjoying the energy of lives flowing past. What happened there?
And then there’s the threat of crime. London is known for knives, they wait around every corner. So I guess that we were lucky not to see any. We saw lots of face-masks, barriers to the new peril, ostentatious assertions that it was out there, passing from human to human without fear of detection. On the train that took us to London, a man sat with red roses for his Valentine and coughed repeatedly until it was too much for my wife and daughter who snuck off to another seat that was a safe distance away. I remained and pretended not to care about his germs, or the fact that the red roses formed themselves into a neat circle on the seat beside him.
Our eldest daughter now lives in London and she has acquired an understanding of its intricacies that far exceeds my old knowledge. I spent three-years down there in the early eighties as a police officer and my perception of place is caught between the above and below that never really meet. Below the streets, the underground has its own logic that makes sense of the confusion of routes above. It provides that simple, indisputable answer that is so often craved for in our above ground lives; that line for Ealing Broadway, that one for Leicester Square, and that one terminates at Cockfosters.
Our middle daughter travelled down from York and immediately felt ill at ease with crowded capital. She too fell for its allure before leaving early on the Sunday. Our youngest daughter cried as we boarded the train to take us home, but we think that was because she was leaving behind her eldest sister who, for all of her newly-found city-smart resolve also shed some tears.
I met up with a very close old friend who I hadn’t seen in over twenty-five years and it was as if time meant nothing. We shared our histories and some beers, our past hopes for the future and our disappointments with the past. Outside of our conversation and the pub, the storm they called Dennis continued apace and the world moved on. When it came for us to leave, we man-hugged as the most meaningful way to share our appreciation of a friendship rekindled.
I had a spring in my step and, when confronted by a non-moving set of eternal steps out of the underground, decided to take them at a jog whilst the rest of mankind allowed the power of the machine to ferry them all above ground. With only myself on manual and the rest of the world on automatic my legs soon found the strain and one toe clipped a step, threw the rest of me out of kilter and precipitated a slow-motion stumble to my knees. Needless to say that it took a lot of will-power not to look across at the many hundreds of commuters who would have, obviously, been laughing at my demise.
And yet, still the rain fell; and more people appeared.