Friday, 2 June 2017

London as a Foreign Country

I left England in 2011. I've since returned a few times, mainly to see family and friends, but also to collect bits and pieces still at my mother's house, things which hadn't made it into the forty boxes of crap I had shipped. The climate came as a shock when I returned in April, 2015. I landed at Heathrow's Terminal Five in a t-shirt and a jacket because I'd forgotten how cold England could get. I somehow recalled spring and summer as temperate, but there was an icy wind howling around all that glass and steel; and it came as a shock. The cold was something I hadn't been obliged to think about for a while.

Another couple of years have passed but I have the air fare. This time the weather systems of Texas and the United Kingdom have roughly synchronised, but everything else is different. My habit of visits lasting a couple of weeks has left me with no strong impression of progress or of anything having changed. I've continued to think of England as it was back in June, 2011, which may as well have been a life time ago. I'm no longer even sure who was prime minister at the time without checking. It may have been Blair.

So April in England is warm, or at least bearable. It doesn't matter that I haven't brought a coat, although there's the damp and the humidity to consider. I'd forgotten about how it's possible to stand beneath one of those slate grey skies and become damp with just moisture in the air despite that it isn't actually raining; and England doesn't quite have the heat to dry you off; and when the heat comes, it hangs in the air and you sweat without feeling hot. I'd forgotten all of this.

Of course, England has voted to withdraw from the European Union since I was here. I've seen facebook and read of a great divide, eyes which look away and fail to meet your gaze. Steve - whom I meet in a gastropub at the centre of Coventry - told me about the morning after the vote, how he went in to work and it felt like someone had died. No-one wanted to admit to having voted leave. The people had spoken, but they had done it once the rest of us went to bed, and they spoke quietly in case anyone heard.

I couldn't work out whether the streets of London felt different. I could barely remember what they had felt like before. Racist attacks had apparently increased thanks to lone nutters feeling newly emboldened in expressing their xenophobia, but I personally didn't see anything. Mostly I took pleasure in hearing accents I hadn't heard for a long time, voices which once seemed common - young men ending every sentence with innit, or north Africa via south-east London with an endearing equal emphasis given to each syllable. It takes work to excavate anything worth a genuine smile from my time life in London, but it's nice to know that there's something. The typically right-wing clamour to make stuff great again always seems to entail getting rid of the elements I liked.

In London, I visit old friends, and amongst them there is Andy Martin. He's lost his means of employment since I last saw him, a job which was rationalised away into thin air as part of a government initiative to make everything better by making it worse. He was also told he would have to vacate his flat in order to provide housing for more photogenic persons, families, the sort they want to encourage in the nation's capital; but it turns out that the threat of eviction was nearly five years ago and he's heard nothing since. It seems the council realised they just couldn't do it, because even Andy Martin still has some rights.

We've kept in touch, and I have a feeling he may have gone off the deep end since I left, but I have to see him. I feel I owe it to him, and ultimately I'm glad I make the effort. Blank text on a screen rarely reveals anyone at their best, and even though he's still patently mad, he's still patently mad in a good way, and it's a great pleasure to know that this country has not yet finished him off; although it's obviously had a fucking good try.

I make my way to Bow on the Docklands Light Railway, catching the train in Lewisham. I lived in Lewisham for a couple of years and the place has changed beyond recognition. The roundabout has gone. The waste ground bordered by a wall upon which a single ceramic tile representing all that was left of the cinema has gone. The White Horse, in which the late Andrew Cox and myself used to drink has miraculously reverted to the White Horse, but as a pizza-based gastropub, still not quite back to being the White Horse I remember. It isn't even as though it's simply metal and glass ruthlessly sprouting up along the old roads, because even the roads are changed and their replacements lead to different places. I can't see how it's an improvement, or how all the new development fixes anything which needed fixing.

As I approach Bow, I enter a hellish landscape of towering glass, a civic mechanism in which humanity is reduced to a component fluid. Andrew Cox worked in Canary Wharf. He didn't like it much, but apparently that was just the beginning, merely the seed of what we have now. It goes on forever, and each time I glance at the reflective surface of some mile high block, I realise I'm expecting a sleek Star Wars pod to float around the edge of the building. Variety is provided by instances of designer eccentricity breaking up the pattern - glass blocks resembling a shard, a gherkin, even a fucking pint glass because why the hell not? These things win awards, much to the delight of those whose lives are so bereft of meaning as to allow for space in which to give a shit about such crap. I could have sworn those books by J.G. Ballard were written as a warning against this kind of thing. We seem to be doing that a lot of late, mistaking our dystopian science-fiction for a blueprint.

It's better once I get out of the city.

I manage another couple of weeks, and the best of it turns out to be watching detective shows with my mother, and then eventually getting on a plane and coming home. Nostalgia may be all well and good, but no-one should have to live there, and the worst of all is that the old place actually hasn't changed.

I can remember every consideration of why it was so easy to leave in near pornographic detail.

No comments:

Post a Comment