Wednesday, June 19, 2013

London: A City Behind Closed Doors

A Typical View from an English Window - cold, rainy and glum outside
Time spent in London is always eye-opening, never the same as the last time, and usually mixed in with some frustration. It’s a city I have lived in at various times over the past 26 years. Despite my familiarity with its streets, its history, its “corners,” as the Germans would say, London is a city from which I have always felt estranged, a city that has always held secrets it would never disclose to me. And I have always maintained that I don’t ever fully understand London because I am not English. Even though its history is supposedly my history, I have no history here. As an Australian, I grew up playing monopoly, competing to buy houses in Mayfair, on Park Lane, hotels on Leicester Square, and a stake in King’s Cross Station. As children we sang English nursery rhymes, we dreamed of riding in double decker London buses and at school, when we learnt history, we learnt of beheadings in the Tower of London, the lives of King’s and Queens, and dead bodies found in the Thames following the plague. In literature classes we learnt Chaucer and Shakespeare, Johnson and Eliot, both George and T.S. were assumed central to a respectable education. As a result when I first stepped foot on British soil, I knew it better than many who might have lived there all their lives. Still, I had no access to the people, their secrets, what makes them who they are.  I could ride my bike through Lincoln’s Inn Fields and imagine Martin Chuzzlewit striding down the street, or even see Little Dorrit on a boat headed down the Thames, but I had nothing to say to the real Londoners who haunted these streets. We may have all spoken English, but I did not know their language.
English Roses
It was when I lived in London in the early 2000s, immediately following September 11, when the world was filled with suspicion and prejudice, that I was most struck by the need to be an insider. London is a club, and to get in anywhere after 11pm, you had to be a member. I was Australian, I was never a member. I enjoy London most when I am not living there, when I am not commuting there and when someone else is paying for me. The cost of living, particularly housing in London, is, as the French would say “hors de prix” I don’t know how I thought I would ever have a house on Mayfair when the reality could not be more different: a shoebox in Shoreditch would be out of my price range today. The cost of living is only the beginning of what makes London in accessible. It’s a city for members only.
St Pancras Train Station
In my recent trip to London, I saw the blanket of secrecy that is permanently thrown over London from a very different perspective. London today is so much more open than it ever was when I lived there, most recently, ten years ago. Restaurants now have glass facades, the plethora of cultures and races that make up the fabric of the city appear to live together with a healthy degree of integration. And staying in Dalston, London was surprisingly experimental and creative. Coming from conservative Paris, I was heartened to see that pink hair, tattoos, platforms and piercings were not merely acceptable, but de rigueur. And yet, the secrecy, the hidden world of authentic London is frustratingly inaccessible to the casual tourist that I was in May.
Lost in London
I was shocked to see that Time Out no longer exists in any recognizeable form. While once it was expensive and filled with information on every cultural event, shopping secret and off-piste titbit, now it is free. This must not be mistaken as making the weekly what’s accessible to all. Now that it is free, Time Out is best used as scrap paper for scribbling reminders, doodling while on the telephone, a wrapper for used chewing gum. Not only is there nothing of interest to make it worth the effort to bend down and pick it up from the tray, but the lack of listings makes it mere clutter on the kitchen table. I asked various friends and strangers how they know what’s going on in London now that Time Out might as well not exist, and the answer was always the same “oh, you hear about things”. No one was ever able to explain how a visitor like myself would ever “hear about things.”

Taxidermist on Essex Road, Islington
London has changed so much since I left seven years ago, and it’s now a cool and happening place. I asked the woman in the neighborhood coffee joint why they closed at 6pm. Her response was so typically English: “I know, we are like that” When they don’t know they answer, because they have never been taught to admit as much — a habit that makes asking directions of anyone other than a black cab driver, a nightmare — they either make it up, or with a smile, announce “it’s always been like that”. I asked if people in London drank coffee after 6pm – “oh yes,” she brightened up “we just do it in secret.”
Topiary creatures at the Hayward Gallery
Another big secret that I found extremely frustrating: as a biker who didn’t know my way so well around north east London, too often the street name was posted 20 metres in from the corner, if at all, meaning that by the time I found it, I was already on the wrong (usually one way) street.  What for me was the obscure logic of this placement of street signs prompted a conversation with an American friend. I bemoaned that street names were posted too late, and oddly amused at my naievet√©, my friend said, “I think that’s the point; they don’t want anyone to know.” Feeling too much the foreigner by this point in the conversation, I nodded and agreed, but really, I had no idea why the British would want to keep the names of their streets a clandestine affair. Unless of course, it is just another ploy to keep us foreigners out of their club.

With all the secrecy and hidden world of London, I chuckled to see some of their attempts at openness. On the Thames, just behind the Tate Modern, sits what has been called “Neo Bankside: An innovative, award winning and iconic new residential development" with apartments starting at £1.2m. If you are looking for a view of the river, you will be spending closer to £4m. Historically, the Thames is not a river that has been known for its picturesque qualities, its romantic overtones or seductive draw. Neither is the idea of a river view in keeping with the spirit of the "real" London. This is a city that has built a reputation, an appeal and a steady stream of tourists and immigrants on the promise of revealing its secrets, but ultimately ever does. But, as my American friend would say, “perhaps that’s the point”. Perhaps London’s pretense at, and our belief in openness is a convincing distraction from the reality, and thus, a convenient camouflage for a secret door to which I will never have the code.

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