Dickensian Condescension, Laughable Notices and the Far East (7/80)

Friday 1 February – Bank, Barbican and Barking 

I leave late, it’s half twelve at Forest Hill. I’m off to Bank Station, to the heart of the City, to the onshore centre of that dark financial spider’s web of offshore tax dodges and multiple virtual financial realities. The City, the real centre of power in the U.K.

I approach it crabwise, taking the Jubilee line from Canada Water past London Bridge, where the Northern line would take me to Bank in one stop, and on to Waterloo where I change for the Waterloo & City line, ‘the Drain’ as it’s known. I have a vague half-memory that I’ve travelled on the Drain years ago, but I can’t quite be sure. Have I been this way before?

I come out of the Jubilee line exit beside Waterloo Road, climb stairs to my right, wind my way along a balcony and then through a corridor under the main concourse of Waterloo Station. I arrive at the Waterloo & City’s short, rather homely platform. It may be one o’clock on a Friday but it’s fairly busy. Off to one side, I can see the train parked at its siding. It’s all vaguely familiar. Yes, I have been this way before.

We arrive at Bank a few minutes later. There’s a long travelator from the Waterloo & City line platform, then a smart warren of marble-floored and -walled corridors turning and branching this way and that towards the Northern, Central, District and Circle lines and the DLR terminus. I’m looking for the exit which will take me to the Bank of England. The Bank. The Bank of England not the Bank of the United Kingdom. Somewhere along my way out I manage to beep myself into the station. This will cause a little local difficulty later when I want to get back in.

And then here I am on the pavement of Threadneedle Street next to the long blank austere wall of the Bank of England. There’s no sign that that’s what it is but there’s no mistaking it. A few scruffily dressed youngsters (trainers, slacks, casual jackets) carrying sandwiches slouch through the surprisingly narrow entrance. I follow.

The Bank of England: Condescension Central

The Bank of England: Condescension Central

Inside, there are two doormen. ‘I thought I’d pop in and have a look round,’ I say. ‘Thirty odd years living in London and I’ve never stepped inside the Bank of England.’ I falter. ‘That’s OK, isn’t it?’ I ask. The older doorman, portly, grey-haired and with ruddy cheeks, ostentatiously ignores me.  The younger, cropped fair hair and grey eyes, deigns to take notice of me. ‘No. You are not allowed in here,’ he says in an East European accent. He takes pity on me. ‘You may walk around here like this.’ He waves his arm in a circle, a small circle, his hand palm up, showing me the route I must take around the lobby to the exit door. It is all of five yards.

I’m being given the bum’s rush. Worse, I’m being patronised. I’m being patronised by a doorman, by an economic migrant from behind what used to be called the Iron Curtain! How bad is that? Except, I realise, he hasn’t got it quite right. He’s still practising his powers of condescension. It still isn’t coming to him naturally.

I turn my attention to the older doorman – or, at least, to the side view of himself that the older doorman is presenting to me. ‘Is that the Stock Exchange opposite?’ I ask, meaning the Royal Exchange, knowing full well that it’s only an up-market mall of luxury brands. The older doorman visibly swells. He tilts his head, gives it the minutest of shakes, and favours me with the sort of smile that an old-fashioned headmaster might bestow on a small, willing but dense pupil. His waistcoat seems to grow a mass of silver buttons, all a-twinkle. ‘No,’ he says. ‘That’s the Royal Exchange. For the Stock Exchange you will need to go to St Paul’s Cathedral.’ He pauses. ‘Oh,’ I say brightly, ‘I know where that is.’ His cheeks glow with superiority. He nods. ‘Then you walk down Paternoster Row.’

Here is the condescension of a master. Here is patronising of Dickensian quality and dimensions. Here is unthinking, engrained superiority. Here is toffee-nose of the most wonderful and snobbish kind. If this doorman was a stick of rock he would have ‘supercilious’ written all through him. I glance at the young doorman. He is listening and observing intently. He is at the feet of the master. He is learning. And the media constantly harp on about our lack of training, the English lack of ‘skills-transfer’: ttchh! He takes over from his guru and, without realising the artificiality of his solicitude, recommends that I visit the Bank of England Museum around the corner. ‘It’s free,’ he says, putting me firmly in my place.

The portly doorman beams. I place a speech-bubble over his head: ‘And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ I lower my head and exit, chortling internally.

I walk around the streets of power for a while. What, I think, would capitalists do without their army of lackeys? I am cheered up by a sign on some built-in curved containers at another entrance to Bank station: London Underground Property  Do Not Climb I have a vision of capitalist lackeys on a Friday night razzle climbing and sliding down the sides of the containers, like kids on their plastic sleds in the snow.

You have been warned.

You have been warned.

I move on to Barbican. It takes only a few minutes: one stop to Moorgate on the Northern line then change onto the Circle and Metropolitan & City line one stop west where a small mystery awaits me. On the other side of the platform there is a double rail line with their tunnels barricaded off at either end. There is no-one in the station who can enlighten me. I exit.

I’ve been to Barbican station many times over the years, usually on my way to the Barbican itself to see a show or an exhibition, attend a conference, take part in a training day, or be a doting father at my daughter, Becca’s, graduation as a midwife. Over the years I’ve even learnt how to go from the tube station to the arts centre without getting lost. The Barbican itself, including its towers of flats, is unusual amongst modern concrete monstrosities – it’s a successful concrete monstrosity. Mainly, of course, that’s because it’s surrounded by the oasis of money and power that’s the City. Its flats, often used only part-time during the week, change hands for hundreds of thousands of pounds. They have what estate agents call the three fundamentals of successful properties: location, location and location.

I turn the other way, towards Clerkenwell, and walk around Charterhouse Square. I can’t walk through the gardens in the middle: This is a private garden, the notice on the gate says beneath a heraldic emblem (the City is stuffed with heraldic emblems), Access for key holders only. Dogs are not permitted. Presumably, not even if they are key-holders. But it’s an idyll of solitude and I cannot be gruff. Not even when I wander through to Barts & The London University whose notices say that only staff and students should venture.

Oasis in the City - but for key-holders only. And no dogs. No, not even for yours, Ma'arm.

Oasis in the City – but for key-holders only. And no dogs. No, not even for yours, Ma’arm.

Coming back via Charterhouse Square I find the solution to the Barbican Station mystery: men in high-visibility jackets manually controlling the traffic. I am in Crossrail Country. The barricaded Barbican railway lines, which were previously British Rail, will link in with the new Crossrail Farringdon Station, only a couple of hundred metres away.

I pause outside The Charterhouse Square School to enjoy yet another notice from the powers-that-be: PLEASE DO NOT STAND ON THE TOP STEP IN THE MORNING. It’s the middle of the afternoon so I mount the steps and stand on the top step. Nothing happens. No-one appears inside to warn me off. The doors do not mysteriously open. I walk away and have a decent ricotta egg and spinach sandwich at a nearby Italian café.

Well, these days the kids will do anything to get into school in the morning.

Well, these days the kids will do anything to get into school in the morning.

It’s only a little past 2.30 pm when I get back to the Barbican platform. I was thinking of going home but the next train is going all the way to Barking. I take it and I’m whisked from the seat of power and capitalism to the vast Dagenham East End that’s east of the East End in less than forty minutes.

I don’t know Barking town centre. I once taught at the Barking campus of the North East London Polytechnic teaching ‘Complementary Studies’ to Day Release students but that’s a mile or so away from the town centre. It’s quarter past three and the school students are out in force, larking around, winding each other up, shouting and screaming over each other. But Barking town centre is easily big enough, and its streets wide enough, to take all that in its stride. Admittedly, everything here is pretty much down-market – there are pound stores galore, except that they’re all 99p stores, and an Asda in the shopping centre – but there’s variety (I count three Chinese Herb and Acupuncture shops, a street market with a zillion clothes and trinkets stalls, and vegetable and food stall festooned with ‘pound a bowl’ bowls). There’s a buzz and energy about the place even if more or less everyone is scrapping on price alone (three sweet red Romano peppers for £1, Peckham prices, not the two for £1.89 supermarket prices). More or less everyone, not everyone: across the road at the end of the shopping precinct bell-ringers in St Margaret’s Church are giving the teenagers a run for their money.

Barking Station.

Barking Station.

As I walk round I wonder at the economic and human distance between here and Bank. I wonder if anyone works in the City and lives here. It’s like another parallel universe. I wonder about it for only a few seconds. Of course, people working in the City live in Barking: there’s thousands of back-room boys, desk-jockeys and wage-slaves working in the City. They don’t make the headlines like the traders, the would-be Masters of the Universe, and their scary zombie managers, the half-dead Masters of the Universe. (‘Zombie’ because they let nothing stand in the way of a deal, ‘zombie’ because, well, they never knew anything bad was going on ‘on their watch’, ‘zombie’ because they compartmentalise their lives into the inhuman [at work] and the human [at home] – I’m being charitable here.)

Bell Ringers Go Mad in St Margaret's, Barking.

Bell Ringers Go Mad in St Margaret’s, Barking.

On the other side of the station stand two huge pubs: a J D Weatherspoon’s named The Barking Dog and, next to it, claiming to be a ‘noted wine house’ is The Spotted Dog. It’s not four yet but they already seem to be doing a roaring trade. Either side of the station the fast-food joints are pushing out the saturated fat and corn syrup faster than you can shout ‘Obesity Epidemic’. Normally at this point I’d let the Inner Curmudgeon off his leash. I’d let him grouse about all those businesses ‘exteriorising’ the health costs of their operations onto the long-suffering NHS and the equally long-suffering GBP (Great British Public). But today, after my visits to the Bank and the Barbican, I push him back into his box and think ‘What the hell?’ It may not be Aristotelian eudaimonia but most people seem to be enjoying themselves. And, as readers of an earlier post will remember, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.

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