A Martian in Lundun (48/80)

Friday 26 July – London City Airport (Square E9 on the Tube map), Loughton (A8), Maida Vale (C3), Manor House (B6), Mansion House (D5)

Mr TubeforLOLs has been on holiday. Like a butterfly squeezing out of its cocoon, he was transmuted into Mr HolsforLOLs. For two weeks he vacationed in the village of Opoul nestling on the southern side of the Corbieres. Swifts darted and martins fed their young under the eaves of the village’s houses. Boulangerie, épicerie and bar/eaterie were but a stroll away. The blushful hippocrene with beaded bubbles winked in the glass.

Above the village, the ruins of an ancient castle baked in the sun. The scents of rosemary, thyme and juniper filled the air. Butterflies – swallow-tails, white admirals, cleopatras, black satyrs, gatekeepers – danced in the air. A buzzard circled high in the thermals. The Mediterranean glistened in the distance. The thunder-capped Canigou rose blue on blue in the heat haze like a painting by Hiroshige. The cicadas kicked up a tinnitus to rival ten thousand dentists’ drills around the clock.

Would Mr TubeforLOLs be able to get back into harness after so long off the rails? Could he face the first of another 174 tube stations?  

I’m half-way to London City Airport – Overground to Canada Water, Jubilee to Canning Town, then the Woolwich branch of the DLR – and I’m still trying to get back to grips with TubeforLOLs, with the chaotic, cluttered-up, shouty, artificiality of Lundun, and with me. I can’t get involved. I’m detached, like someone outside the primates compound at the zoo, looking in at the antics on the other side. I can see what they’re doing, I can work out why they’re doing it, but for the life of me I can’t work out why they’re bothering to do it. I feel like some Martian anthropologist.

I realise that, before the holiday, I had become habituated to the screeching, sibilant, smelly, airless Tube. Habituated to the boredom, pain, restlessness of the game of TubeforLOLs. Habituated to being someone I’m not: up-beat, extrovert and doing stuff that doesn’t come naturally – accosting strangers, rigorously observing (well, as rigorously as I can) the detail of the world I’m travelling through. There’s a whiff of unreality about Lundun today. But there’s also a snort of incredulity at myself – that I’ve spent forty years here, over two-thirds of my life. Now, why?

There’s three young musketeers sitting beside me on the DLR. Diagonally opposite there’s a thin white guy in a high-street suit and tie (slightly creepy-looking, he reminds me of the film actor, Steve Buscemi) and a thin Asian in a high-street suit and loosened tie with hair that’s been coiffed and buffed. Beside me is a thin black guy in a high-street suit, jacket off.

They are going to a meeting in Woolwich. The Asian guy is rehearsing his spiel: the sale is only 20% of the process; focus on the whole process; it’s about personal development as well as about business; it’s about having fun along the way; even Hector started this way because it’s only when you’ve done every job that you can mentor people. The white guy suggests maybe not saying the bit about Hector. The black guy is taking notes.

I know what they’re doing. I can guess why they’re doing it. But my mind keeps slipping. I can’t quite buy into (note: financial metaphor) why they’re going to all the bother in the first place.

I’m at London City Airport (Square E9) at 10.25, forty minutes after leaving Forest Hill. The station is not your standard-issue, Toytown DLR station. It’s got a wide island platform, a roof protecting you from the elements, escalators up and down, a proper ticket office and a Costa coffee to get you over the shock of finding a Costa coffee on the DLR. Outside are a few rows of terraced workers’ housing and the Tate & Lyle refinery: Save Our Sugar shouts the huge awning draped over its side.

It takes less than 60 seconds to walk from the platform into the Airport, which has only the essentials – information desk, Arrivals desks, a WH Smith and a couple of chain sandwich places. I’m tempted to call it a boutique airport and, given that boutique is French for ‘small and absurdly expensive shop’, that could be about right.

Where have all the City gents gone? Long time passing …

Where have all the City gents gone? Long time passing …

But it doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to divine that there’s something weird going on here. I look round with narrowed eyes. Then I get it: there’s no City gents in suits. Instead, gracious me, there are men in shorts! These people are going on holiday or visiting friends. They’re certainly not striking business deals and saving civilisation as we know it. What’s happening? Could this be a three-pipe problem?

I walk outside and approach a genial West Indian in an abbreviated top hat who looks quasi-official. It turns out that he’s the concierge. (An airport with a concierge?! It has got to be boutique.) He explains that a couple of years ago the airport changed from being a business airport to a commercial airport, that now businessmen are in the minority at City Airport. Then he shows me where I can watch the planes landing and taking off.

London City Airport with hanging baskets.

London City Airport with hanging baskets.

I meet a Scot, built like a rugby second row forward but going to flab, with hearing aids in both ears and a camera around his neck. I couldnae be bothered waiting, he says when I ask if he’s been taking photos of the planes taking off. I got a couple landing but tae be honest I’m no really into planes much. He’s here waiting to get a connecting flight to Amsterdam. I see him later, sitting with his wife on a bench, the two of them placidly looking over the car park with its hanging baskets. We wave at each other. I got one taking off, I say, between us, we’ve got the full set. They laugh.

It takes only 35 minutes to get to Loughton (A8) – DLR to Canning Town, Jubilee to Stratford, then the Central line. The Metro’s headline is: Car hackers It’s about researchers revealing how to take over a car remotely. I wonder whether I’ve been taken over remotely. Outside the sun has come out from behind the clouds. Inside, the tube is hot.

I’m catching up on the London Review of Books. John Lanchester is having a considered bash at the banks and the bankers, at the ethical void at their heart. ‘To function effectively, an ethical code needs to be internalised; if you have to explain to someone why something is ethically wrong, the cause is, usually, lost. These internalised codes, once mislaid, are hard to retrieve.’ It’s not just the banks, of course, that have mislaid their codes. Ditto the media (or parts of it). Ditto the police (or parts of it). Ditto the politicians (or some of them). Ditto BP, Haliburton and Big Business (or nearly all of it). Ditto the US National Security Agency, GCHQ Cheltenham, Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft …

Back in the real world of Lundun, Loughton station boasts three barbers, Frothy Coffee, Spicy Tandoori and a dry-cleaners. The station is at the back end of a giant Sainsburys car park and there are bus stops with a baker’s dozen of buses ready to cart you out of Loughton should you choose.

Loughton Station.

Loughton Station: 3 barber shops, 13 buses out of Loughton.

As well as all the usual chains in the High Street, Loughton has a Members Club (family-orientated), a Town Council (orientation not specified, but give it a guess …), hanging baskets, fashion shops show-boating outrageous outfits and shoes (up to 75% off) and a big church boasting Nothing is impossible for God. (You sure? You sure He could walk in those platform sandals?) It’s (almost) graffiti-free and – today, at least – almost completely white. Apart from one young lad on a bike, people move at only two speeds: very slow and slower. Sorry, I’ve got that wrong. There’s a cluster of people waiting patiently outside an HSBC that is inexplicably shut. They’re not moving at all.

Loughton High Street: note hanging baskets.

Loughton High Street with hanging baskets.

It’s Boris Johnson country, Rip van Winkle country, Zombie country.

I board the tube to Maida Vale (Central line to Oxford Circus, then the Bakerloo). Boy, is it hot in here! Opposite me, there’s a young woman in a strappy black dress, fake tan, big hair, sculpted eyebrows and flip-flops. She’s on her mobile gossiping with a girl-friend, talking dresses, shoes and endlessly rehearsing arrangements for meeting on the train at Stratford. Now, at Stratford the Central line westbound has platforms on both sides and both sets of doors open. There’s a moment of Jacques Tati-like confusion as the young woman looks out of the door onto the right hand platform while her friend (bright red loons, fake tan, big hair, etc.) looks in at the door from the left hand platform. Confusion over, they go about the serious business of falling into each arms and chattering at full volume, oblivious to the rest of the carriage. They pull out huge platform shoes – diamante-encrusted peep-hole sandals – from their vast designer shoulder bags and change out of their flip-flops. Thus armed, they stride off at Bank.

An hour after leaving Loughton, I’m at Maida Vale (C3) It’s my third new station today and it’s a fine station – though the half-a-dozen CCTV cameras in the downstairs lobby and ten more in the ticket hall ensure I keep my hand on my wallet.

Maida Vale: more hanging baskets - they look exactly the same as at Loughton.

Maida Vale: more hanging baskets – they look exactly the same as at Loughton.

I don’t have high hopes for Maida Vale (the Place) but that, as it turns out, is because of my experience of Maida Vale (the Road – the stretch of the A5 between the Roads Edgware and Kilburn High) which runs to the east. The Place itself is quiet, mixed, with a neighbourhood feel. Paddington Recreation Ground borders it to the north; beyond this lies Kilburn Park (see post Adventures in Yonderland). Maida Vale is never going to scale the giddy neighbourhood heights of, say, a Kew Gardens (see post Redemption Song) but it’s never going to plumb the depths of a Kilburn Park.

Two old ladies, both with canes, pass the time of day in front of the tube. Men in shirt-sleeves stroll between their offices and the local shops. An Asian girl sits outside a coffee shop reading a treatise on fairies. A family pass by with ice creams. An antique dealer outside his shop hails (‘Ola!) a man wearing a football shirt with ‘10’ on the back going to feed a meter. He greets a woman walking past with a shopping basket. I stop and talk with him. It’s not the village it used to be, he drawls in an American accent which doesn’t quite sound right to me. There have been changes, but it’s still OK. We talk holidays, butterflies, second homes in Wiltshire. A well-dressed lady approaches. Ahh, he says, his eyes brightening, you’ve come about the watch. He disappears into the back of his shop.

I move on to Manor House (B6) – forty minutes away via Bakerloo, Central and Piccadilly lines. The station lies under the snarling cross-roads of Seven Sisters Road and Green Lanes.

Manor House: softly flows the New River … Hmm! Perhaps not.

Manor House: softly flows the New River … Hmm! Perhaps not.

To the east of Green Lanes and north of Seven Sisters Road lies the Woodberry Downs Estate – once a sink estate now being regenerated. South of the Seven Sisters Road, there are brash new blocks of flats (mostly for private sale) facing over the Stoke Newington reservoirs. The New River – and the Capital Ring walking route – curls around these new neighbourhoods in the making.

Finsbury Park lies on the western side of Green Lanes. It’s dry, dusty and tired-looking, its vast Victorian avenues out of scale.

Finsbury Park: 'dry, dusty and tired'.

Finsbury Park: not a hanging basket in sight.

The shopping parades (eastern side of Green Lanes only) are sorry affairs. The one on the south eastern corner is marginally better, but beware panhandlers.

It takes forty hot sweaty minutes (Piccadilly to Highbury & Islington, Victoria line to Victoria, then District & Circle lines) to get to Mansion House (D5). Mansion House tube station is, of course, not the nearest or even second nearest station to the Mansion House itself. The nearest is Bank. On the plus side, it’s very near St Paul’s.

St Paul's with Paulish street-cleaner.

St Paul’s with Paulish street-cleaner. (Yes, I know, I’m going to have to polish up my puns.) More hanging baskets.

It has that Friday afternoon, end-of-the-working-week feel. There’s still the hammer of building works and a traffic jam along Victoria Street but groups of men in shirt-sleeves are drinking beer outside pubs, talking cricket, holidays and bad flights and indulging in the male-bonding ritual of barbed banter. There are few obvious candidates for ‘City gent’, no bowlers, brollies or designer suits.

As for me, I still feel detached. On the outside, looking in. A Martian in Lundun. I take the tube back to Forest Hill – (hot sweaty) District line to Whitechapel, then air-conditioned Overground home. I read Slavoj Zizek in the LRB. He’s in his usual roustabout mood. Are the protests sweeping the world (Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Loughton – no, only joking, but I have hopes for Tate & Lyle) localised? No, says Slavoj. They are part of a more fundamental unease, ‘a clear sign that the ‘eternal’ marriage between democracy and capitalism is nearing divorce’. Well maybe, I think. Or maybe not. Or yes, but so what. Or yes, but why …

Maybe by next week I’ll have gotten over my holiday detachment. Maybe I’ll be a little more habituated to Lundun, to TubeforLOLs. Maybe a bit less Martian.

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