“It was a dark and stormy night and the rain fell in torrents except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fierce.”
- Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton
There we were, hundreds of us, tiny black human shaped figures lying on the vast concrete floor space, bathing in a red haze and yellow mist. In awe, like children, we giggled and cuddled up in our winter jackets staring up at ourselves into the sun waving our limbs about trying to see our mirrored reflection hundreds of feet up on the ceiling. Outside in London everything had a grey tinge to it, leaves blew about in the bitter wind, people sunk deep into their jackets as they bustled along the cobbled stone streets. It had been that way for months. Constant grey. The surprise finding of the sun hiding inside the Tate Modern was magical; like walking through the back of the wardrobe and finding the glowing street lamp in Narnia. We lay there for hours, basking in the weather that Olafur Eliasson had installed in the expanse of the Turbine Hall.
The thing about the weather is that it can create our moods and therefore our worlds like a constant changing, evolving backdrop that surrounds us, constrains us, enables us, enlightens us, depresses us. Before coming to live in London all I really knew from the tales of others was about the grey. I had pictured dark, lonely stone houses and streets under a dome of cloud that never lifted. It scared me, the stories of London grey days; how would I survive the promised misery?
It was true, some of it.
Winter days ended at three when
darkness descended upon the city
into winter nights.
The loneliness in the crowds...
The yearning for sunshine
Ache for blue sky
or... just a glimpse of the Hauraki Gulf glimmering in its glory
Sometimes, if I closed my eyes I could hear the pounding surf of Piha Beach as I rode the escalators up from the depth of the underground. I would be one person out of the 2.7 million that day on one of the over 400 escalators in London, travelling the underground maze. I would stand to the right of the travelling stairs in Kings Cross, or Bank Station, to allow those in a rush to walk up on the left, with my eyes closed. I could feel the rush of wind on skin which exploded up from the depth of the tunnels below as tubes rushed, criss-crossing in the darkness, through the veins of London Town.
It’s also true that the English talk about the weather, a lot. It’s a favoured pastime conversation around the office water cooler. At first I thought it a bit odd, this obsession of weather-speak. But what rests in the depth of a surface weather conversation is a theme that connects us all, whether we recognise it or not.
The weather affected the tubes and trains too. If it was too hot the tracks would buckle, too snowy the trains would cease, too autumny the leaves on the lines would halt the flow of millions of travellers. Oh – but the Autumn! Never have you seen so many leaves, falling like coloured snow onto footpaths,
whirling and twirling
about in the wind.
Hues of deep beetroot, rusty orange and golden yellows. London would be carpeted with fallen leaves with squirrels rummaging through them in search of food. Seasons did not blur and merge and confuse themselves like they do in Auckland; they were defined and defiant. One could mistakenly believe that London is all grey, brick and mortar but they would have just forgotten to notice the nature that shaped every single day.
“It wasn’t what I expected” the old grandmother explained to the child opposite me on the tube. “Nothing ever is” the young girl replied. I was curious and wondered what they were referring to; but it didn’t matter because I heard what I needed to hear. That’s the thing with travel and living abroad; it’s never really what you expect. Well, that’s my experience anyway. The desired destination is such an ambiguity. Intangible. Abstract in the way that none of the five senses have touched, tasted, smelled, seen or experienced it. An entire country can be condensed into a thick guide book; but none of it makes sense until you’re standing on foreign soil. Actually There. But once you’re no longer there – you’re gone, passed through, done it - the memories of the places and lived in spaces are still intangible. However, we humans like to reconstruct our memories, relive them, remember them in order to extract meaning. And perhaps create identity. Remembering London can only ever be a jigsaw puzzle of reconstructed memories.
“I came to London. It had become the center of my world and I had worked hard to come to it. And I was lost.”
– V.S Naipaul
I remember the first time I was on a tube that was delayed because of a ‘body under a train’. The crackling tannoy voice let us know like it was telling us the time of day. At first I was shocked, oh my god, a body under a train? Are they dead? How did they get there? Did they jump? Oh my god. People around me either seemed completely unphased or just plain irritated. The suited man next to me sighed heavily and looked at his watch. But it’s a body under a train I wanted to yell at them – don’t you care?
We were stuck between stations, the tube windows framed the blackness of the tunnel. Others sat around me, in front of me, all avoiding eyes in the near silence. I could make out words being sung into someone’s ears, only loud enough on their ipod to sound a thousand miles away...
“we all have our reasons to be here... we all have a thing or two, to learn ...”
Suit man next to me began to read his book Catch 22 when I had an overwhelming urge to yell and scream and rant and bang on the doors and walls in this Bakerloo cave; scream to the transport gods (and the ‘body under the train’ gods) to get the tube on the move. The fantasy subsided as patience calmed my thoughts and I knew there was nothing to do except wait, stare and listen to the noise of the music in some stranger’s ears, avoid eye contact, read advertisements and random words from the book of the guy next to me. I never thought I’d be so impatient; London has a way of sneaking under your skin. After a while, a body under a train became a mere inconvenience; apparently there is a peak hour for suicides in the London underground – 11am.
“Not all those who wander are lost.”
– J. R. R. Tolkien
My first real foray into the wild on my own was when I was twenty-one. Disillusioned with my work as a receptionist and restless in my relationship I jumped into my beat up car and headed north, out of North Shore Auckland suburbia. I had $200 to my name and had through my actions, had been effectively fired from my job. I was young, and yes, stupid. I made it to Whangarei before stopping in a tiny backpackers wondering what the heck I was doing. The next day I drove to Cape Reinga and back again. I had gone in search for inspiration, for answers, for truth. I found lots of fields and cows, the odd interestingly looking farmhouse. The thing that struck me most about my short lived escape was the sign post at the Cape which pointed to distant lands; Vancouver, Tokyo, London. They sounded so adventurous, so exotic, so much more fun than Auckland. I desperately wanted to go there, to go in search of life.
Advertisement on a tube station wall: “Keep Discovering”
[London Tube Map]
At first, the London Tube Map looks like an organised bowl of noodles. First designed by Harry Beck in 1931, an employee of the underground, it’s evolved over the years to add on the new tube extensions and make it more user friendly. It’s a distorted view of the city, a blueprint for the chaos, but it soon becomes part of your daily life and slowly becomes the reference schema of your own London world. Where you live, where you work, where your friends live; then, where are you going to meet after work, where shall you explore at the weekend, how the heck are you going to get there? It’s all there on the noodle map of London life.
At each station you can enter a new neighbourhood in a new Borough, with new cultures, bars, markets, demographic, geography and attitude. It’s like every time you go underground you’re entering Dr Who’s Tardis, travelling through space and time tunnels to arrive in a new location to explore and investigate.
Zone One holds the keys to central London. Most of it is easier to navigate on foot than by tube and it’s like walking through a giant pop-up history book or flicking through a reel of movies. Things seem so familiar, the red phone booths, the black cabs, the brown Thames. But what you may not be ready for is the overwhelming grandness of the architecture as you wander the clean, wide pavements; feeling humbled by the intensely regal buildings with their intricate designs. Behind the street facade if you looked closely enough you could find a small doorway that leads to a cobble stoned alley way which leads you to a secret garden, peacefully growing roses around a small babbling fountain. There could be an empty wooden bench, waiting, just for you to sit and be as thousands of people pass by oblivious a few metres away up on the street. Or an old Church could appear behind an ancient wall, stones scattered on a courtyard of weeds. Just five steps to the left and London could be yours alone – a treasure chest - if you care to look.
“This melancholy London- I sometimes imagine that the souls of the lost are compelled to walk through its streets perpetually. One feels them passing like a whiff of air.”
– William Butler Yeats
The unmistakable smell of dope was an unfamiliar pungent in the tube as I sat down after another utterly boring day at work. Had I come to London to see only the inside of Tubes and Offices? I looked across at the smoker, he was pitch black with bloodshot eyes casually wearing a leather jacket, which was odd because it was the middle of summer. The tube air was stagnant, heavy, hot. My body temperature already up the smell of unwanted dope smoke on the over-crowded tube instantly made me angry. We eyeballed each other and against my better judgement I asked “do you mind not smoking?” He answered by taking 3 quick deep inhalations of his joint and flicking the ash towards me.
I looked about to see if anyone cared. We all just sat there – in the inertia bubbles that the London tube produces behind the rustle of The Metro, the free daily newspaper which informed us of the horrors of the world. Murders, stabbings, natural disasters. Stoner man did look like the type who would have a gun shoved in his jeans and no one really wanted to be on the cover of The Metro the next day. I could sense him staring at me with his wasted dangerous eyes. Was he daydreaming about killing me? I looked across at him to match his stare. He sucked on his crumbling joint as fear began to interrupt my angry thoughts.
I watched him stumble to the other side of the tube, sneezing loudly, snorting his nose, coughing and just sadly, dismally wasted. Drug-fucked he unwrapped milky bars, throwing broken white chocolate into his mouth but missing, the candy dropping like big chunks of dandruff onto his chest. The milky bars were on him I mused. My anger dissipated as I watched him crumpled and drugged on a busy rush hour tube in central London. He didn’t follow me out to kill me. I walked home from the station, passing a burning rubbish bin and a metal skeleton of a bicycle chained to a lamppost – its wheels stolen – wondering, I had left Auckland for this?
I was lucky enough to have a cousin who came to stay in London for a while. Instead of finding work in an office or making cash in a bar Stephen made money by becoming a human guinea pig. Once he met me on his way to the hospital, with a faeces sample in his backpack. They needed lots of samples from him over the weeks; but he was paid well to trial all sorts of drugs. He’s seems OK now, well, fingers crossed there’s no latent side-effects. He’d meet me after work and take me to places he’d found that day he thought were interesting. Once he took me to a rooftop where a family of pink flamingos lived. Or he’d take me to the National Gallery and show me a painting I’d never noticed before.
He’s the one that found out about the London Walks. We went on the Jack the Ripper walk which traced the murder sites of each woman Jack mutilated. One’s a car park now. The walking guide kept us rapt with stories of ye olde London as we saw the nooks and crannies of the East End. I drank a few glasses of mother’s ruin after that.
Stephen and I ‘did London’. We went to musicals and shows, wandered through Covent Garden and warmed ourselves up with mulled wine at Christmas time in amongst the fairy lights that decorated all the streets of London. In the summer we went to Wimbledon, sipped on Pims and ate strawberries.
Amongst enjoying the free events at the London Jazz Festival in Royal Hall some random guy asked if we’d like to sit in on a BBC studio recording. We followed him upstairs and were shown into a cosy room with arty types scattered on the floor like the cushions, overlooking the Thames. The London Eye lazily circulating beside us. “Hey, that’s the dude that sang ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ my cousin pointed out to me. “No! Didn’t he kill himself?” I whispered back as I listened to the amazing sound of Bobby McFerrin. It was my cousin who allowed me to see through the dirt and darkness of London and experience the city on a cultural level. Stephen was from Wellington though; so finding an acceptable coffee was a problem.
flat white noun /Austral. flaat whyette/ /NZ flet wyte/ 1 An antipodean style coffee which is served as a strong shot of espresso served in a small cup with textured milk; a damn good strong coffee. 2 51.51 (51°30') | -0.13 (0°8').
flattie noun. colloq. flat white; I'm gonna smash back a couple of flatties bro /NZ/ mate /Austral./
- sourced from http://www.flat-white.co.uk/pages/main.html
Unfortunately the majority of coffees in London are pretty shocking. London’s first coffee house emerged in 1652 – plenty of time to get it right, surely, especially as there were over two thousand coffee houses by 1700. Late seventeenth Century coffee consumption created an interesting shift in London from swigging down litres of beer for breakfast, to sipping the black liquid, encouraging talk of politics and religion. This type of talk scared King Charles II and he banned the drinking of coffee in 1675, albeit for only 11 days. Stewart Lee Allen suggests that British democracy was borne from coffeehouses.
Regardless of its fascinating history, most of the coffee was still crap. And no one knew what a flat white was. It was all latte’s and americano’s. For an avid coffee drinker, it was a frustrating experience. Luckily other Kiwis felt the same and had remembered their number eight wire and duck tape in their backpacks and made their own cafe, just on the outskirts of Soho. There you will find other antipodeans worshipping at the Kiwi run Flat White, a small awkward looking cafe set up in Berwick Street.
Somehow you find it, even without the trusty A-Z London map book, just follow your caffeine yearning soul. They started trading in 2005, but have already have won ‘Independent Coffee bar of the Year’ in the UK in 2007. It’s tiny really, with two small wooden benches outside that only fit two people side by side, facing the dirty back alley. The staff are decorated in familiar tattoos and greet you with smiles and pearly teeth. My heart actually fluttered when I saw L&P in the fridge. It’s a treat. Sweet as.
Sign in a tube: “Please do not give up this seat if the person next to you wants to chat”
July 7 2005. Woke up in my flat, walked my dogs in Greenwich Park, running late for my course in Notting Hill. Always late, which is fine because in London, the tubes and trains are always delayed. You see, it’s fine to stroll into the office past nine and simply say “‘tube troubles”. I jumped on the DLR (Docklands Light Rail) which is a fun little overland tube/roller coaster that helps connect the South East to the rest of London [see tube map]. At Bank Station, hordes of people were standing around watching a sign flashing the words “Bank Station - Closed”. Irritated Londoners tutted and groaned and furrowed their brows. Much like any other morning really. I sought an alternate route.
Back at Greenwich station I boarded the train bound for London Bridge. I stood in the centre bay between the carriages, swaying in time with the train as it chugged along, and watched London pass by. My phone vibrated in my pocket, “hey! How are you?” I sing into the phone, as I hadn’t heard from my lovely Scottish friend for months. “Tami, where are you?” His tone anxious, worried, concerned, what is it? “I’m just heading to London Bridge, going to a course this week, running a bit late, tubes are a mess this morning.” I replied.
“Oh my god, there’s been bombs, London has been bombed, it’s on the news, get off the train, please go home!” his words fumbled out into my ears and my body froze, heart stopped briefly. What the. “What do you mean, bombs?” I asked slowly, quietly, but others heard me, looked up, (or were they merely annoyed at my conversation puncturing the silent train etiquette) and looked back down into their daily dose of The Metro. “Yes, bombs, please, please get off at the next stop and go back home. Call me when you get there. Take care of yourself.” We ended the call and I felt stunned. Could this be true?
My phone vibrated again. My heart was in my chest, I wanted to warn the other train goers. “Tami” my boyfriend’s voice stern on the phone, sounded like the Policeman he was. “Babe, Rod just called and said something about bombs” I said before he began to speak. This time, others looked up from The Metro with more notice. “It’s true. Go home and stay home, I’m finding out exactly what’s happened, but go home now and I’ll call you later.” He hung up. I got off at the next stop and headed back to Greenwich, went back to my flat, dogs happy I was home for the day. I walked slowly into the lounge, scared to turn on the TV. Then watched the horror unfold as I felt sick and sat on the floor in shock.
I sat there all day, watching TV, talking to worried family members back home, texting and calling my friends in London. Everyone I knew was OK.
Something changed. Shifted. My somewhat vague ambivalence for London turned into a patriotic defiance. Like the seasons; I was no longer confused about how I felt, London was my home and someone had bloody well bombed it. The bastards.
As the day unravelled, apart from the obvious devastation, a theme emerged from Londoners. The same ones that don’t meet your eyes in the tube, or give you a seat, or who stampede into the already crowded train and squish against you. The same Londoners that tut and groan at the daily delays, and bustle past you on the street and walk over the homeless like inconvenient pieces of rubbish lying about on The Strand. The same Londoners who make and drink awful coffee; who don’t blink an eyelid at the mention of another body under a train. These Londoners showed me the meaning of true grit. They stopped, had a strong cup of tea or a slow pint at the nearest pub to gather their thoughts and then proceeded to carry on despite the death.
The next day I woke up in my flat, walked my dogs in Greenwich Park, running late for my course in Notting Hill. Always late, which is fine because in London, the tubes and trains are always delayed. I got to London Bridge on the overland train and headed for the escalators that carried us down into the depths of the city.
It was quieter than I’d ever seen the tube station; but there we were. Each looking at the other for support, hope. My heart was thumping around in my chest, but it had to be done. The tube pulled up and the doors whooshed open. There was a pause before anyone moved.
We stepped on together, sat down, together, looked around at each other. The eyes of Londoners I’d never seen before met my gaze, we held it there as understanding passed between us. We were all scared, but we had to continue on with our lives otherwise the terrorists would win you see. The tube speakers crackled.
“Ladies and gentlemen” the tube driver spoke to his carriages, “Yesterday was a tragedy. But I want to thank you for being on the tube with me today.”
My throat caught. Tears welled in my eyes in grief for those who had lost their loved ones. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t fucking understand the insanity. Across from me a man wearing a turban sat nervously. I nodded my head and said “hey.” His face melted slightly from tension and he smiled, nodded “hi”. And that was enough. That’s all we could do.
My heart broke a little that week as stories were told and tears were shed.
One day soon after that a big bright rainbow appeared. It arched magically across the yellow clouds catching the last rays of the stormy summer evening. People stopped and stared. Took photos with their phones. Londoners in awe. That’s a sight in itself. Then it rained. Fat heavy drops splashed on my upturned hands. Surrendering to the rain I was saturated within seconds. It poured upon me from the heavens. Big, fat, pelting, heavy rain. Nowhere to go, broken umbrella unable to protect me, I flung my arms open to embrace the wet, head back, tongue tasting the rain drops as they poured from heaven. Others scrambled and ran and hid under shop awnings.
I laughed, dripping with nature. Through London streets I waded in streaming puddles. I felt like I’d been cleansed, baptised into the faith. The faith of the human experience.