Tag: London

Down and Out

In the spring of 1928, aged about 24, Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) moved to Paris, a city in which the cost of living was very low. He tried to earn a living by writing and giving English lessons, but it hardly paid. He was then stripped of his possessions and money by “a little trollop he’d picked up in a café” leaving him with very little cash. His parents back home in England were spared the knowledge of his predicament, possibly due to his concern for their middle class sensibilities. He could have returned home to Southwold, but having previously chosen to leave a career in the Imperial Indian Police in Burma, that was not an attractive path. He had little option but to work in the foul kitchens of the Hotel Lotti on the Rue de Rivoli. His final impecunious 10 weeks in Paris provided the material for his book, Down and Out in Paris and London, the first draft of which was completed in 1930. This was no journalist’s assignment, research or a gimmick.

 

The following are observations on poverty in the early chapter of the book and reveal something of the life he led.

 

“…it is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty….you thought it would be terrible, it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first…the shifts it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust wiping.

 

You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty…you dare not admit it, you have to pretend that you are living quite as usual.

 

You discover what it is like to be hungry…everywhere there is food insulting you in huge wasteful piles…a snivelling self pity comes over you at the sight of so much food.

 

You discover the boredom…you discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs…

 

…but you discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future…

 

And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety”.

 

(Chapter 3, Down and Out in Paris and London 1933)

 

 

Squalor, boredom, secrecy, hunger, future discounting and relief from anxiety were the key features, for Orwell, of poverty. In 1930 in Paris there was no system of welfare benefits to fall back on. In London , the casual wards (‘The Spikes’) provided some refuge, although the conditions were far from salubrious. Orwell went hungry, and at times had absolutely no money. One lack, which was sorely felt, was that of tobacco, something he again experienced on the front line in Spain when he later joined the POUM militia (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, or Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification) in the civil war in Catalonia. The privations in the front line caused by the conditions and the absolute lack of resources for the militia was another form of poverty.

 

“In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy. In winter…they were important in that order” (Homage to Catalonia 1938, p23).

 

Winter in the Catalan trenches, Spring in Paris, but in this list we can note the reduction of human need to Maslow’s base of his hierachy of need. Apart from the ‘enemy’ in Spain the similarity is of course there to see. Orwell in both books mentions the centrality of tobacco, and of course of alcohol, in daily life.

 

It might be tempting to dismiss Orwell’s observations as belonging to another age and therefore of little relevance to the experience of poverty today in modern Welfare States. That I think would be a mistake. The psychosocial sequelae of poverty remain the same; what it does to self, self esteem and the setting of priorities.

 

The ‘secrecy’, the ‘dare not admit it’, alludes to what Erving Goffman called ‘passing’ in his theory of Stigma. People with a stigma try to ‘pass’ as normal to avoid oppressive acts.

Poverty was and is a stigmatising condition. Orwell tells of sitting in parks in Paris but being very aware of the distaste expressed by women particularly, towards him.

A source of stigma, for Goffman, arises out of an actual or perceived ‘character blemish’. Another source is membership of a ‘tribe’. Poverty provides both sources. Currently, many believe the poor to be at fault for their poverty due to their poor moral choices and character weaknesses. The Moral Underclass Discourse emphasises that the fault lies within the individual. The poor may also be seen as members of a ‘tribe’ who live apart from the deserving and hard working families; they are the chavs, the skivers, the welfare scroungers.

Poverty can be a discrediting stigma as it might have an outward appearance, or it could also be a discreditable stigma as an internal invisible ‘mark’ known only to the poor themselves. It can, of course, be a felt stigma and an enacted stigma as society exercises certain sanctions and behaviours towards the poor. Family members and friends of those on hard times may feel courtesy stigma on their behalf.

Thus, as a highly stigmatising condition, those who today are in poverty may wish to hide away or use ‘maladaptive coping mechanisms’ such as smoking, drinking or drug taking. Orwell’s continual descriptions of the need for and centrality of tobacco illustrates this point. Many today would see tobacco as a dangerous luxury. His fixation with food illustrates the shifting of priorities, and the collapse of time to orientate to the present. Future discounting might explain why the dangers of smoking and the future threats to health just do not impact on present behaviour.  It also clearly illustrates is the exercise of one’s personal agency being highly mediated by (and mediating) the culture and the social structures one lives in. It may seem to today’s sensibilities that tobacco use would or should be resisted if poor. However, Orwell makes it plain to see how one’s psychological state gets reduced and focused in both time and space. His ‘annihilation of the future’ and ‘boredom’ are telling. It might explain why we make what seems to be irrational decisions in the face of hardship. Orwell of course would have a way out, but if one believes that the future is set, the discounting of the future to deal with the present may be a highly rational strategy.

The fear of poverty disappearing, because one is actually poor, is another seemingly irrational mind set. But if the dogs have turned up you at least know you can sink no lower. There is no such thing as status anxiety, or keeping up with the Jones’. The ‘psychosocial comparison’ thesis of poor health outcomes no longer applies to you because the fear of being compared and of comparing has been assuaged by the surety of the lowliness of status. What is left is survival today, not tomorrow, because tomorrow never comes.

Before we thus rush to judgment on the choices the poor make, or provide theories of why there is poverty based on individual failure, Orwell’s exposition provides a window into their world and might make us think twice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

London

The 1%.

That should really be the 0.01%.

That should really be the ‘Greedy Bastards’.

That is the % of people on earth whose total wealth exceeds 50% of the world’s population. I’m in Mayfair, one of the global haunts of the 0.01%, in a French restaurant to meet a publisher and a colleague from Brighton. At the table opposite me are two fantastically beautiful, well groomed and manicured blond young ladies having lunch with their red checked shirt male companion who looks decidedly underdressed in his jeans. I suspect this is a deliberate attempt to look faux chic and a bit street edgy. on his part. The jeans no doubt are hand built by women in Mumbai, paid $10 a day, and sewn together within earshot of the just audible crying of their ill fed children, and then washed with the frozen tears of orphans before shipping out to the UK before the concrete factory roof collapses on their heads again. At the next table is a woman of a certain age, again impeccably turned out, tapping away on her laptop at the dining table, no doubt selling the whole of Preston to an Arab Oligarch who plans to knock it down and build a ski resort. I’m sat here, out of place, feeling a bit like a pocked marked wart on a witch’s nose: necessary but ugly. This meeting was set up by our publisher, and so I have to be here. God knows why in Mayfair as his office is in Old Street a good few miles away.

Across the road is an Aston Martin dealership with what looks like a four wheeled starship enterprise in its window. There are two up market ‘bits of fluff’ hovering around the ‘car’. Of course they are attractive in that plastic, homogenous boob jobbed way beloved of TOWIE and no doubt are hired to massage the overinflated egos of any of the greedy bastards who might stride into the showroom with a hard on for conspicuous consumption. A few doors away is a ‘Jimmy Choos’ (I think that’s correct). This is an emporium for the foot fetishist who likes glitter and a price tag matched to demonstrate their innate superiority. One of the shoes in the window costs a nurse’s annual salary. There is a also a ‘bag’ shop which has a well dressed gentleman standing in the doorway vetting potential customers for the outward signs of wealth, power and a propensity for arrogance. Next to the bags is an art gallery whose net worth is equal to the whole of St Ives. There is a sign in the window offering cottages in downalong St Ives as weekend ‘pied a terres’ – buy one, get Redruth free.

The waiter is French. How do I know? Because he looks right at me as if I was a wee scruffy dog that had just crossed the threshold to the restaurant, dumped, licked it’s bollocks, grinned the grin of a well fed mongrel who has just caught the on heat bitch, and left after dog farting. He also sounds French. Could be Belgian I suppose or French Canadian? Disdain of this quality is not purely the reserve of the French of course, its just that they do it with, well panache. In Glasgow, disdain manifest itself as a head butt and in Camborne its a ‘gisson’.

The meeting goes well, and we agree on the timetable for the book and its outline content. The publisher pays for my nicoise while the attentive staff refill the water glass without asking. In these surroundings, we should be negotiating on the price of my next super yacht, a donation to the Tory party or the downfall of a jumped up oil emirate. Instead, we discuss the requirements of student nurses for education on communication skills. The incongruity between surroundings and subject is stark; its like asking if one wants extra chilli sauce with one’s foi gras, or carrot in a pasty.

I have the rest of the afternoon to find my way from Mayfair to Spitalfields, a distance of about 4 miles. Its a pleasant enough day, overcast but warm, and so I decide to walk it. This will take me down past the Ritz on Piccadilly, around Eros, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Holborn and up towards Chancery and Liverpool Street station. At one point I pass the Freemasons Hall on Great Queen’s Street. It looks like a fortress and would be used in a film based on Orwell’s 1984 to signify sinister plottings within, by evil but not so genius men.

There are some fantastic London pubs, and in fact this should be the reason I next return. In Holborn you may find the Princess Louise, an opulent victorian boozer with wonderful etched glass decor. The Cittie of York, near Chancery Lane tube, is a 1920’s delight replete with vaulted ceilings. Cornwall is represented just about everywhere by Skinner’s ales and the ubiquitous Doom Bar.

I break the walk by taking the tube to Liverpool Street station from Chancery Lane, from there it is a short step to Brick Lane past Shoreditch market. Coming out of Liverpool Street tube at Bishopsgate at street level I’m greeted by a swarming mass of humanity surrounding me, all with somewhere to go, someone to see, something to say. Its just like Pool Market. Only bigger with fewer pasties, incest and obesity.

****

So, I fancy a quiet pint before a ruby in London’s Brick Lane. London E1 in case you don’t know.

I step out into the street from what passes for the hotel lobby. My senses take an immediate battering. Brick Lane is known for its curry houses and its immigrant history. In truth it is a shabby brick built terraced road just wide enough for a car. Shabby in a wonderful art house way rather than post industrial dereliction. There is colourful graffiti everywhere, even the graffiti has graffiti. A cloud of Ganga smoke suddenly nearly lifts me off my feet. It lasts for about 10 yards as I walk along. Another blast and I’ll be seeing pink elephants. The only pub I see is closed and is now colourfully decorated with the street artists’ best. There is even a Bansky on it. A gentleman stops me to enquire if I am contemplating taking in some culinary artefacts from the East as part of victualling plans for this evening. In reply I ask if he knows of a traditional London pub. Oh yes, says he, just three minutes down the road, its called ‘The Archers’.

With a name like that one easily conjures up images of radio 4 bucolic bliss with old Joe sipping his ale as he discusses the price of cow pellets with the local pig farmer, the silence in the bar being broken only by his guffaws at getting one over the tax man, a packet of crisps being opened and the odd wooden skittle being knocked over in the next room. When I get there I realise this is not Brookfield Farm. Silly me, this is East London, a very trendy bit of East London. A very, very trendy bit of East London.

Upon pushing open the door I am greeted with a blast of the Undertones, and the music goes from there. This means the packed pub requires everyone to shout. Just a little bit so that they can ‘talk’.

Christ I feel old. I don’t think there is anyone in here under 34 at most. As I write this, a middle age couple push open the door, look, and think “nah” and quickly retreat. There is hardly anywhere to sit. I think this is what lonely planet guides would call ‘vibrant’. Cornwall seems a very very long way away right now. There are more tattoos in here than a battle fleet of matelots. I have arrived at about pint three for everyone given the level of disinhibition currently around me. I can smell the sexual overtones, and relaxation, and post work piss up. It is all very jolly indeed. Pub life is alive and well in East London. There is a girl across from me being so cool and wearing so much black eye liner she looks like a panda pondering the worthiness of a post bamboo coupling. There is a chap with so many piercings, there’s more metal in his face than in an East End scrapyard. His face also looks like an East End scrapyard, only with tattoos and less menace. The music continues in its 1970’s punk fashion, an era when not only were this lot not  born, but their fathers had not even had their first ‘crafty sherman’. I ask the barman to turn the music up as I’m hard of hearing, but he misunderstands and thinks I’m being sarcastic. He uses cockney rhyming slang to indicate that I’m not unlike a cambridge punt who enjoys a plucking. Or some such picturesque phraseology. There should be cigarette smoke but the air is as clean as a nun’s conscience after confession.

Everyone is so fucking cool they’re Arctic. I’m the granddad in the corner trying not to look like a turd in the custard. Recognisable but out of place.

Beards. They are here in force. Shoreditch used to be as common as crabs in a whorehouse. Now it is super super hipster. I’ve seen, today, some geezers dressed up and moustachioed waxed as if they are auditioning for the lead part in ‘TwatFest’. They’ve all won the part. It must be hard fucking work being this cool. No wonder they can’t afford to buy a property, it all goes on coiffure and so much self regard that even Louis 14th of Versailles, with a peacock in full feather up his arse, would be hard put to match. There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is looking like a hipster twat with face wax and smugness. There are so many faces that should be punched firmly on the nose here. I love it. Do they ever really look in the mirror in the mornings? I mean, really? I like art, I like a bit of Bohemia, I’ve been known to grace the boards of ‘loucheful disregard for the morning’ and I’ve even sniffed things that perhaps ought to be left in the country of (South American) origin. There are limits.

Or it seems not.

The barber shops look like emporia for the camp entrepreneur and if I was was to fork out for the price of their haircuts and beard trims, it had better involve a thai princess, privacy and some lubrication.

Suitably wetted, I go in search of the aforementioned Ruby. Here I am met with a little local difficulty because one can have too much choice. I am surrounded by emporia specialising in cuisine of the sub continent. I’m like a premier league footballer at an orgy, faced with what is on offer, which hole do I pop into? This could be tricky, but I remind myself that this is not like choosing between a scrotal wax or cheesecake. Getting it wrong will not have the same consequences. Men are often guided, or manipulated, into decision making through the medium of a decent cleavage. Displays of that nature are in short supply in Muslim Brick Lane, and so being absent, means I have to make my own mind up. I sally forth, choose the very next restaurant I see, order up a mixed platter starter,  butter chicken and a Singha beer and relax while being treated to the ambience of the sitar and a gentle light wailing.

Then its back to the hotel for some well earned sleep. I could of course wend my way to the West End, but you know what? I’ve seen London many many times and I do know Samuel Johnson’s quip about ‘being tired of life’. But what did he know? In any case I’d only end up ‘debagged and radished’, such is my propensity for idle living and poor judgment in all things.

In any case the incessant wailing of the music in the curry house has now got past ‘charming eastern ambience’ and has progressed to the same level of enjoyment as sawing off one’s foreskin with a rusty razor.

 

***

Hal is a computer and speaks in a gentle soft slightly west coast Californian accent. I guess just like an East Coast Ivy League preppy talks respectfully to his grandmother in films featuring his passing virginity, growing awareness that there are other human beings with needs and an overwhelming desire to break free from the existential angst that is his youth to date. I digress. I guess the guys in Silicon Valley speak similarly, you know: high on cognitive intelligence, less so with emotional intelligence and the only spiritual intelligence they possess comes from a curious mix of ‘Buddha for Dummies’, Ayn Rand and high tech, post humanist neoliberalism in which technology provides the answer to questions you’ve not even thought about yet. Their softly spoken enunciations conceal the true meaning of the utterances so that when they say they will replace all human misery with computing power and an app for happiness, they also mean replacing human misery by getting rid of the wrong sort of humans; the ‘wrong sort’ of course meaning anyone without a doctorate from CalTech or MIT. In this post human uber tech world it will help if you have super straight teeth, a BMI under 25 (in the right places) and tits.

The relationship between us all will be a bit like that between Hal and Dave in 2001.

Anyway. I am reminded of Hal as I awake in the hub by Premier Inn Spitalfields in Brick Lane. The reason is a mix of the service, decor and tech spec. it is situated in an old building in the middle of the street, blink and you’ll miss the entrance to the ‘hotel’. The interior has been completely gutted and redesigned. There is no reception desk, merely a series of computer consoles on poles. There are members of staff hovering around to assist with the technophobe, i.e. anyone still lamenting the passing of steam to power cotton mills. If you have printed your booking, there will be a Q scan box which sorts everything out for you with one scan. If you download the app you can control things like the lights, temperature and TV from your smart phone or tablet. The room is not big but makes up for it with high specification fittings. The shower actually works beautifully. The breakfast area uses brick and wood to warm up the ambience and is a trendy as the hipster area it sits in. My breakfast is brought to my table by a beard and earrings, both of which must cost more than my stay does. This is aimed at the under 35 market for sure, although this post 50’s old fart loves it and I have seen quite a few ‘oldies’ in here. They have not run out screaming. The music is not Muzak. It is actually worth listening to. The space in the small bedroom has been very cleverly designed to maximise storage and to keep clean lines. A huge flat screen sits on the wall opposite the bed, a bed which affords the comfort of Croesus. The coffee is actually drinkable, free and ‘as much as you like’ any time of day or night.

This is a Premier Inn?  Really? And for £50 in London it’s a bargain.

(I now await my royalty cheque from PI for this puff piece).

Today, I have the delight of the flaneur in the city before I have to get to Gatwick from the flight home. I wonder what I’ll see?

****

Four and a half miles.

That’s not very far.

Well, it might be if you suffer from dysentery and the nearest loo is that distance away, or if you are competing in the 100 metres sprint and someone moves the finishing line to that distance half way through, or if you are walking barefoot on rusty nails, or crawling blind and naked over a desert of particularly shiny billiard balls, or if that’s the distance between appearance and reality, or where a barman is serving from where you are standing in a Wetherspoons…..

Nonetheless for most purposes it’s a short distance.

Spitalfields to Victoria Rail station is also four and half miles. But what a journey. I suggest you walk. Forget the tube, you will not see anything like the sights, sounds and culture shocks experienced above ground. You will go through hipster Spitalfields, through the City, Bank, Millenium Bridge along the Southbank, cross Westminster Bridge and down Victoria Street.

Spitalfields market is so trendy it hurts. I can’t begin to describe the cornucopia that lives here. All manner of foodstuffs, clothing, art and general bohemia is here. I don’t know how they do it, being so ‘cool’ that is. For cyclists there is ‘Rapha’, and if you know the brand then you get what I’m on about. This is retro high tech cycling gear with a price tag. If you wish to send a message, then this is the place. ‘Evans cycles’ is sooo ‘council’ darling. Even the second hand stalls are up market. One table had a collection of spoons, all of which were silver (of course). So if you wish to have a child and give it a good start you know where to come for the requisite item to shove in its gob. Foodstuffs? I know what a pasty is and what fish and chips look like, but there are things on offer here that I suspect you need a degree in ethnic cuisine to enable interpretation of the menus. It is not all over priced, but you can get a bowl of cornflakes for a fiver. I guess I’m in ‘that there London’ and this is  ‘fancy London ways’. I’ve only walked about 200 metres from the hotel. One could spend a good few hours here rummaging and people watching while also losing money faster than a Scotsman on the bevvie.

The coffee on offer comes from specially selected hills in Columbia, individually hand roasted over seasoned eucalyptus bark until the beans turn a dark brown, then turned to ensure even roasting. The uneven and partly over roasted beans are removed, the remainder are lovingly washed with fresh clean unadulterated glacial melt shipped over from the Khumbu valley in the Nepal Himalya, then foil packed, not with aluminium foil but lined with gold leaf before vacuumed packed and placed on the backs of donkeys who trek 100 miles to the nearest port where a specially chartered ship sets off for Rotterdam. There, a Dutch merchant whose family has been in the coffee business since the 100 years war, chooses only those packs whose aroma instantly transports his imagination to South American mountains and wood nymphs playfully tickling his scrotum. Having passed this test, it is shipped to London to Spitalfields to be consumed by beautiful people. The ugly and badly dressed are refused service and are sent to Costa down the road.

I’m in a Costa.

Not really.

I’m walking towards Victoria station and pass through the City of London. This is ‘The City’ not to be confused with ‘a city’. It is spelled ‘hubris’ and ruled by ‘King Ozymandius’.  Buildings are marked as the ‘Cornmarket Exchange’, the ‘Honorary Guild of Basket Weavers’, the ‘Institute of Pig Sodomy’ and the ‘London City Association of Complete and Utter Bastards’. I think I spot the business school of the ‘City University for Neophyte Trading Specialists’.  I pass the Bank of England where clever people work to handle the nation’s finances, keeping an eye on inflation and generally fuck up because they don’t know what the other bastards are up to across the road in the corporate bank HQ’s. The only thing bigger than the gleaming towers of glass and steel that surround me are the egos of the staff who work there. There is an uncanny resemblance to a company of erect penises cast by these towers. This is the subliminal message of class based patriarchy which says “we are fucking you daily, hidden in full sight, and you saps don’t realise it”. It has been said of the ‘work’ that goes on here that it is socially useless, unconnected to anything real like growing food, building houses or playing tiddlywinks. Only about 3% of corporate bank lending goes to small businesses who might actually do something with it; something like running a barber’s shop, tattooing hamsters or importing rare Colombian coffee in trendy markets.

This is the home of ‘fictitious capital’ meaning that it does not exist in any shape or form. There is nothing to see here, just a complex set of social relationships, promises, guarantees and mutual back scratching as figures flicker on screens in milliseconds making someone richer by millions in the blink of an eye. By richer, I don’t mean that anything useful or as base as an actual commodity is produced. Richer here merely means numbers on a screen. You can play this game on your computer as well, but you need the might of the whole legal structure of the State, backed by military force if required, to make any actual claim. Many of the brightest graduates have been sucked into this morass instead of doing something like, well, solving climate change, generating clean energy, or curing dementia. You know, common or garden boring stuff that people just might, however, actually need. Instead the bright young things of Oxbridge, Harvard and Yale shout into computer screens until, eyes popping and veins bulging, they’ve managed to bankrupt a small country like Greece while trousering a bonus so big they could purchase a place at Eton for their equally useless as yet unborn spawn. This is called progress.

Undaunted, I carry on down towards Bank tube station. The dome of St Paul’s pops up between buildings as I pass by to then turn left onto the millennium bridge over the Thames. This is the one which wobbled when it was first opened and had to be closed quickly to be repaired. There really is only one function a bridge has to fulfil, and let’s face it how difficult can it be really? We’ve been building bridges since the dawn of time. We have the knowledge surely? Give a three year old a piece of cardboard and two tins of beans and watch how quickly a bridge is made. We have many copies and examples of such structures. There was the one over the Rubicon, the one over the Kwai and the prehistoric granite clapper affair at, wait for it ‘Two Bridges’ in Dartmoor (so good they named it twice). Okay, there was the odd failure. Step forward the rail bridge over the Tay. But even that only failed in a particularly nasty storm by Scottish standards, when a heavy steam train rumbled across it carrying bevvied Glaswegians singing ‘Delilah’ going north for a piss up in Aberdeen.

I safely negotiate this engineering hazard, dodging selfie shooting tourists as I go. This should have been a warning. I have chosen to walk along the South Bank towards Westminster bridge, pass the London Dungeon exhibition and the London Eye. This stretch of river walk, ‘Queen’s Walk’ unimaginatively named as it is, is tourist heaven and so attracts all manner of ‘entertainments’. There are the obligatory ‘statues’;  one labelled Charlie Chaplin but looks awfully like Stan Laurel. A few buskers playing old favourites, but thankfully not ‘blowing in the wind’ or ‘wonderwall’; a ‘comedian’ from the antipodes whose ‘act’ focuses on the barely disguised insulting of passers by. I wonder how often he gets tossed into the Thames? There are no cat jugglers or dwarf tossers. Just a few tossers. And thousands of tourists walking aimlessly as is their right and duty. Culture here is reduced to the lowest common denominator, as ‘mass entertainment’, sanitised, corporatised and devoid of any artistic merit. However it is mainly free or cheap. Millions of digital selfies all of the same thing, a gnawing face in front of a well known structure such as the Eye in the background. I wonder to myself where I got this high brow, smug, superior view of taste?  I live in Redruth FFS. When did I become the nation’s arbiter of value? Who appointed me to point out the drab and dreary existence of billions of my fellow creatures on this planet who are doomed to follow each other in the same tourist groove destroying the very things they come to see by the very existence of their fetid mass? They cannot even dress well. The Horror.

I leave the huddled masses as I step up from the river walk onto Westminster bridge, the tower of Big Ben right in front of me striking midday just as I cross. Suddenly I am accosted, and that is exactly the word for it, by a gap toothed harridan of uncertain heritage and age whose head is topped by a hairstyle that resembles a storm tossed haystack made of black straw. She thrusts a petite nosegay of heather into my top shirt pocket shrieking “it’s for the kids innit, givvus a quid” in a cockney accent last heard in the film Mary Poppins (she should have added ‘guv’nor’). I could not see any kids for whom the twenty shilling is being demanded. My way blocked, by a five foot tousled haired virago spitting demands into my tourist frazzled brain, at this point was a bit much. But I merely nod in the negative and remove the nosegay and hand it back only for my hand to be stayed and more demands issued: “for the poor kids, innit, go on givvus a quid…or I’ll cut your balls off”. I might have imagined the latter part of the sentence but you get my meaning. I nod again and more forcefully remove the by now offending nosegay murmuring ‘good day to you ma’am’ in a very English way. I was several paces on towards parliament square, and my assailant had passed into the crowds, when I remembered the correct phrase should have been “Fuck off”. The moment had passed, alas, and there was no going back to clear things up. Easily done of course, just as when one forgets to mark time when one is practicing the withdrawal method with a particularly frolicsome maiden and forgets where one is. What’s done is done.

As I pass through Parliament Square I’m confronted by Churchill high on his pedestal looking all the world like his piles are playing up. Next to him is David Lloyd George, the original welsh windbag, looking like he’s fresh from a liaison with a particularly fruity courtesan from the Valleys. Then its Jan Smuts, President of South Africa (1919-1924 and 1939-1948), Palmerston, then the Earl of Derby and then Disraeli.  I’m getting the message now. this is Britain’s Imperialist past paraded to keep ‘johnny foreigner’ in check. However, along comes Abe Lincoln, Gandhi and Mandela, three very welcome changes. But, where are the women? Oh yes, I spot one…emptying the litter bins before she pays a Banker to employ her to clean the shit from his shoes. I move on past Westminster Abbey and on down Victoria Street.

At this point I had already passed a half dozen rough sleepers and buskers and the change in my pocket was running out. Not that I give to absolutely every one of them. There is no method to it. Just gut reaction sometimes. I am again accosted, this time not forcefully and without anything being pressed upon me. A young woman, I’m guessing, whose faced is as pock marked and cratered as the Somme battlefield holds out a thin dirty hand. The eruptions on her face indicates a lack of Oil of Olay with personal hygiene a distant memory, along with her self esteem. Her minuscule thin and shattered frame has not seen a decent meal in a week, she is a vision from a developing country. I think she is native English, not that that matters. Just a few yards away against the window of Boots, sits a young man upon a pile of dirty blankets and sleeping bags, hungrily stuffing his face into a burger, no doubt given him by a passing stranger. I cannot see his face, as he is wearing a hoody. Only his crow like nose is visible as it pokes out down into the bun he is devouring, as if it is his last supper.  Across the road is a ‘Jamie Oliver’s in Victoria’. The clientele sit at tables on the first floor looking down upon this street scene blissfully unaware of the burger chomping near the gutter. Victoria Street is all glass, glamour and Gucci, the high end retail stretches down towards the station. It’s not Kensington and Chelsea of course but it’s getting there. The old shabby and ill maintained Victoria Palace Theatre is dwarfed by the retail cathedrals around it, trying hard to project a 19th century patina of respectability in the 21st century whose values rarely include Victorian philanthropy.

I love London stations. For a flanuer they are divine gifts. Victoria is always a mass of people passing through at speed. There’s a sharp suited businessman whose briefcase carries his contracts to keep his Croyden mortgage safe; there’s a Goth, gender unknown, who looks surprisingly happy to be here; a young couple are buried in each other’s faces, they will have to come up for air soon or else I’ll call a paramedic; a hen party on their bosommed and short skirted shrieking way to Gatwick (note to self: catch the next train); another hipster who really deserves a round of applause for the work on his waxed moustache; Essex Girls, Surrey Boys, and a clutch bag of Brighton gays so colourful I need Polaroid Ray Bans to give my eyes a rest. The dead eyed commuters are absent as this is lunch time and they are all of course serving time in their bullshit jobs in bullshit offices biding their time before death places his bony hand on their shoulder.

Epilogue

London, it is claimed, is the most cosmopolitan city on Earth, perhaps New York or Toronto could also claim that title. Whatever. Wherever I go, I am served, greeted and smiled at by people from Spain, Eastern Europe, a Russian, Bengalis, French (perhaps not the smile), American and the odd Antipodean. I have not been served by one native english person at all. Not one. This rainbow city juxtaposes British Imperialist glory with postmodernist melancholia about all things past. Its like we can’t decide what we now want. We like foreign food, cars, technology and weather but we don’t want the bastards over here working hard, paying taxes and making a nuisance of themselves in hotel bars and restaurants serving our tapas, tortellini or tacos. Fish and Chips is a dish attributed to a jewish migrant, Chicken Tikka Masala was once voted England’s favourite food. The Royal family is now an ironic mixture of Greek and German. Contradictions are the fabric of the city running through its very soul. The only thing running in one predictable direction is the Thames and even that can change with the tide. It is crass, it is majestic, it is cheap, it is eye wateringly expensive. Its religious sentiment is balanced by secular culture, while bourgeois liberalism hosted communism and buried it at Highgate. It is a city state built with the products of colony and exported guns, germs and steel to quell the Commonwealth. Its future was drafted in its past while some now present, wish to take us back there. London is already in your head, you will see what you wish to see. So love it or hate it, it is you.

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