The London Diaries - My Area.
When you live in a city for so long, it’s as if you sink into it, like a pound down the back of the sofa. You are just ‘there’, enmeshed. You start to become immune to it’s ambience, deaf to the visceral experience of living in a place that is living and breathing with millions of other creatures. You forget the sounds, sirens, lights originate and exist as a result of another entity almost identical to you. You forget how terrifying the tube can seem to a tourist, how complicated the travel system is, how fast people talk and how fast people move. You forget about the interconnecting invisible web of the city. How everywhere you go means something to someone else.
Since leaving Gaulier last June I spent a large amount of time in a daze, being nostalgic for Paris. I missed it all the time. I missed the cafes, I missed the social bizarreness of the french, I missed the bread, OH GOD I MISS THE BREAD. I missed the architecture, and I missed the fact that it felt like mine. The same goes in my feelings towards Edinburgh. Although the festival stresses me out, the moment I leave at the end of August I long for the feeling of climbing the never ending penrose staircases that take me from one weird underground venue to another. Those cities become symbolic of existing, feeling free and of being a part of something.
Now as I prepare to return to Gaulier for the final term, I am starting to become aware of what I will miss of London. In particular my local area, which I love in the same way as one loves an old neighbour. However, I rarely feel for London in the way I experienced Paris or Edinburgh. Paris and Edinburgh were my romantic far away secondary lovers, whilst I always treated London as my primary partner.With a mild mixture of genuine love, and slight irritated contempt. I take advantage of it’s humour, it’s weird habits, and then tut at all its uglier ones which I then spend a unnecessary amount of time moaning about. Thus, here is a longish diary entry purely for me to write lovingly about certain parts of it.
For example, the London Bus. The most perfectly imperfect public transport in the city. Traveling on a bus in London is magnificent if not entirely frustrating and a great test on your patience and your true mastering of mindfulness. It’s the equivalent of getting into a long conversation with a relative, who although you love dearly, has the habit of stopping in the middle of crucial sentences, getting distracted, stalling, wondering off target, having a minor asthma attack, or suddenly decides to change the route of their story for no apparent reason whatsoever. The frustration of busses is that they never get to any particular speed, which is an achilles heal for any londoner, and the moment they get into it, they shudder to a halt and wheeze to a stop, because someone needs to get off again. How irritating!
I’ve started taking busses more recently and I am besotted by them. In particular, sitting on the top deck, and if possible, at the front. It’s liberating. Not just because you can pretend you are driving the bus, but you get to really observe your city. And it's beautiful. Who needs to look at a phone when you are on a bus. I would argue the top deck of the bus is beautiful anywhere, any route. And it’s romantic. The perfect marriage proposal location. The amount of drunken kisses that have occurred on the top deck, and bizarre social interactions. You get a broader dynamic of people on the London bus, it's a good place to get a sense of a city's character. What I love is that you always feel as if you are slightly leaning overboard on the top deck. That feeling of being slightly out of control, off balance, with the limitation of not quite seeing what is properly going on below. It’s also, surprisingly, a rather good place to write. And if the top deck is not for you, or when the journey is too short for you to make that long staircase venture to the top, then the the bottom deck is just as much fun, with copious opportunities to start conversation with the elderly and smile at babies.
Secondly, London parks. One thing I couldn’t get my head around in Paris, was that in a lot of the parks you are not allowed to sit on the grass. How can you experience a park if you don’t sit on the grass! It’s ridiculous! Luckily, in Kennington park, my local park, you can sit and roll on the grass as much as you want. Though be wary of ball games! It’s small. A slightly imperfect oval shape, ringed with big oak trees that are great to sit against and read. But to me, it is perfect. When I’m sad, I take myself around it to get fresh air, count the trees, and look at the dogs (there is always someone walking their beautiful dog in Kennington park - like in the opening scene of the animation 1001 Dalmations). I go and sit in their flower garden which the council fundraised for. (You can help garden it on Sundays). The flower garden resembles the type of place you would imagine spies going to have a coffee meeting on their day off, or where a retired CIA agent would go to have an existential crisis. I sit on a bench by the fish pond and listen to the birds and watch the pigeons all poddle around like old business men who have all arrived too early for a meeting. I try to breath slowly and remind myself to stop being so anxious and despairing all the time. I look at the big oak trees and contemplate trying to climb them, and then remind myself of how I can’t do one press up so I decide against it. They also have a bee garden. Where, you know, the bees live.
Crucially, they have ping pong tables where you can borrow bats from the cafe, and the most dilapidated basketball court which becomes rammed the moment the sun comes out. Last week I went to read by the oak trees (there is one particular one I love to lean against) - and there was a teenage boy on his own by the ping pong table. He had one bat, and one ball. but no one to play with. He just kept on practising his serve to an invisible partner, and then having to walk over to pick the ball up and start again. Part of me assumed he was fine on his own, but then part of me worried he might be lonely, so I decided there was no harm in going over to ask if he wanted a game. There is no point in being shy about human interactions with strangers and I’m not an awful player (*cough* i’m actually rather good*cough*). He was more than happy to play and so we had a quick game - he chatted about his AS levels, I gave him advise on his serve, and then after 10 minutes his friend on a skateboard turned up, apologised for being late, we chatted briefly again about the good weather, I said my goodbyes, and walked home. It was, oddly, the only time I spoke out loud to someone that day.
After that I walk to the one place I love more than anywhere in London - the cafe opposite my flat. It's a family run italian cafe which has been in the area for over forty years. The coffee is cheap, strong and makes me think of an Elena Ferrante novel and the brioche is amazing and only 80pm. From my bedroom window I can see into the bakery and see the cafe entrance. At 4am I can see the lights turn on - telling me that Luigi, the baker, is making the bread for the day. As an insomniac, i find this sign of someone else being awake highly comforting. At 8.30am, I see the same two old men wait outside the shutters waiting for it to open. I refer to them as Big Bill and Little Ben. They live in the old persons home on my road. And no matter what the weather, at 8.30am, there they are, leaning against the bricks, waiting. Little Ben smoking, Big Bill looking stoic. The moment the shutters come up, they are in to quickly grab their chairs which they bring out to sit in their same spot, to the right of the entrance, in the one bit of sunlight that hits the street, and they sit there, for about an hour, whilst their friend, Middle Bob, comes and joins them with his Tescos shopping bag, and they discuss, I assume, the new world order, globalisation and what they think of Brexit. I then come down, but I sit on the opposite side. We say ‘Good morning’ to each other, which after three years of living there is a huge step up in our rapport and one I value with great pride.
I love chatting to the people in my area, as it's the people of your area that define it for you - the creatures that inhabit the space. It is also their absence that impacts you most. I don't like the term 'character', "She's a character" because i often find it is used to describe someone whose story is inherently sad. We use the word ' character' to make it more light, more comical, and more theatrical than the scenario really is. Saying that, there is one woman from my area who is definitely what many would refer to as a 'character'. You don’t know where she lives, but one is under the impression she is on the verge of homelessness. Her name is Rose, and she is barred from several of the cafes, after she once went into one and pissed in the beer garden (She did argue that this was because there was a large queue for the toilet, which may have made logical sense to her, but not so much to the 21st birthday party she disrupted who were making speeches in the garden at the same time). She always wears a black hat, with sunglasses on top, and looks slightly wicken with loose long brown hair. She used to have a small dog which she would drag around with her, but then he passed away, so she got into the habit of carrying his ashes around with her, and now she’s buried them (in Wales apparently?) and she’s gotten herself a kitten, which she lets wander around the local church yard.
Yesterday, I sat in Cable Bar. It's a cafe bar on Brixton road that resembles what you would imagine a cliche french cafe from the 1930s would look like. I find it rather pleasant to write in and have sourced my favourite wonky table to sit at. It's rather great late at night after a gig, for a nightcap and is the type of place I imagine Georges Simenon would like, especially on Tuesdays for their weekly jazz nights. I would recommend. I was sat in the window and saw her outside. She had bought a a tub of chips from the chicken shop next door. As she stepped out on the pavement, she started to throw the chips up into the air to the birds, before then tipping the whole box upside down onto the pavement, so that the birds - a mixture of pigeons and crows - could fly down and devour the big clumps of yellow salt and oil. There were birds everywhere, reminding me slightly of the 'Feed the Birds' sequence from Mary Poppins. A few people waiting for the bus looked at her, disgusted, and no doubt you could argue it was disruptive, unhygienic and annoying- especially to the owners of the chicken shop. Yet, what I loved was that she had dropped the white napkins that came with the chips onto the pavement. When she noticed, she bent down and picked them up, alongside some remaining detritus that was on the floor (a crisp packet and a can) and she picked it all up and put it in the bin, so as not to litter. And she wondered off. Despite the act being technically anti-social, in her world, in her mind, in her perspective, it was a simple act of feeding the birds. And I thought it was beautiful.