A city of Great Expectations.
A capital plagued by insomnia; fuelled with the buzz of unlocked potential and the zany hum of wired minds.
An hour before dawn. The first train rumbles into a platform. An anaemic sun nestles between blankets of smog, clinging to the last wisps of darkness, resolutely undisturbed by the clanging of seven million alarm clocks. Big Brother Ben joins the chorus with a melody of deafening booms that ricochet off the Houses of Parliament, echoing across Westminster, and surprising a flock of dopey pigeons who take refuge on the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
And so it begins… The daily battle against a nondescript button named ‘snooze’. Snooze. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it? But no. A Londoner’s ‘snooze’ is less comforting than a dip in a bath full of overcooked ‘it has to be Heinz’ baked beans. Few are able to conquer this satanic creature, who tempts its somnambulant victims with precious moments of timeless sleep. Seconds turn into hours. Hours disappear into minutes. Before you know it, you unravel yourself from musty sheets, utterly under-slept, having over-slept by exactly 9 minutes. The process is futile and, as such, completely necessary.
Slowly, slowly, slowly, a network of lights blinks through the morning night, illuminating silhouettes of outstretched limbs and silent yawns. The early morning routine is a tangle of rushed footsteps and shoe laces, a blur of cornflakes and coffee, carried out like a well rehearsed speech to the staccato rhythm of rolling raindrops which pepper kitchen windows with fat full stops.
The front doors slams. The Commuters March begins.
A mish-mash of suits and polished shoes First Class Stamp their way to the trains buried under the earth. Newspaper tucked hastily under a jacketed arm. Ink stained fingers clasped around the handle of a battered briefcase. Buildings, boots and umbrellas leak into a sweeping watercolour of greys and silvers splashed with the occasional burst of Royal Mail Red. A red reserved specially for London telephone booths, post boxes and double-decker buses. By order of her majesty, the Queen.
A small group of tourists huddles together, barnacle backpacks held tight at the straps, Nikon cameras dangling from their necks. Each takes a turn gesticulating at a dog-eared piece of paper decorated with a tapestry of multicoloured threads that Oliver Twist their way over and alongside one another. Playfully nicknamed ‘The Tube’, this tangled network of destinations, is nonsensical even to the common Englishman. But beware…. this choo-choo-tube has rules. Londoners know the rules, of course. Londoners will not, however, spare a moment to explain them nor will they hesitate to throw a wobbly if they aren’t followed to precision. So please, pay attention. Mind the army of suits, whistle and flutes. Mind the left, stand on the right. Mind the closing doors. But above all, mind the gap.
Mind the gap.
On the tube, endless clones are synchronised and perfectly choreographed. One hundred eyes skim the same headlines of the same newspaper which, despite being called The Metro, has nothing to do with Paris. Those without reading material find themselves studying advertisements for ‘cheap as chips’ car insurance and online dating websites claiming to match you to the love of your life in sixty seconds based on the colour of your eyes and your eclectic taste in music.
Never in the history of civilisation has it been so acceptable to spend a quarter of an hour, cheek-deep in the unfamiliar warmth of a strangers’ left armpit while at the same time holding hands with a yellow pole, a couple of sweaty bankers and the knee of the man sitting nearest the doors. Sardined between a dozen bestselling novels and a ghetto blaster disguised as an iPod, you clench your buttocks, dig your feet into the moving floor. Anything. Just please, please… DON’T. FALL. OVER.
It is a well known fact that Londoners work harder than a colony of ants on Lucozade. Each day, men and women across the city attempt the impossible by working 18 hour days within the hours of 9 to 5 while the rest of London teems with entertainment. Museums on the Southbank showcase bizarre masterpieces of modern art. Shaftesbury Avenue boasts a string of garish theatres. Shoreditch offers a slice of cool to those dressed for the occasion. Stroll around the famous cobbled streets of Covent (not actually a) Garden. Visit the Queen’s gaff. Discover leafy suburbs and lose yourself in the depths of Hyde & Seek Park. Go for a ride on a glorified ferris wheel for a birds eye view of the city; the London Eye which, contrary to its title, has more eyes than a box jellyfish. That’s 24 eyes in case you were wondering. London is your Oyster as long as you keep topping it up. For those on a budget, blackened blobs of chewing gum tattooed onto pavements make for a great game of ‘join the dots’. Spot the tourist is also popular amongst locals. It’s simple, really. Just look for the poor sod who forgot the most important accessory known to Londoners.
Behold… the sooty umbrella.
A staple of London culture and lifestyle. Protector of a people condemned to severe droughts of sunshine and incessant drizzle that leaves hair slick with grease. Londoners unanimously agree; those with coloured umbrellas aren’t quite welcome. Get The London Look. Blend in with the crowd. Head to…
The pub. London’s Crown and Glory. Always waiting, doors open with your regular tipple and a bag of Walker’s Salt & Vinegar Crisps. Like a loyal friend, your local is always there… two doors down from the office, at the end of your street, round the corner from the church, shop, museum, bus stop, you-name-it, and of course, a stones throw away from the next pub. A sanctuary for the over-worked and under-paid, unemployed graduates and soggy tourists alike. Sweaty, warm perfection.
Closing time. Last orders.
Please, sir. Can we have one more pint?
But alas, the last tube waits for no one and so, dragging your feet like a naughty schoolboy, you trudge towards Oxford Circus Underground Station. Suddenly, the smooth curves of a Black Taxi swing into view, adorned with a crown of yellow light that beams lovingly at you. With a simple hand salute you find yourself cocooned in the darkness of the warm upholstery, lulled into a red wine daze by the running commentary of a London cabbie who deposits you, scruffy, penniless and exhausted, on your communal doorstep for the reasonable price of a Mulberry handbag.
Key in the door. Post on the floor.
Up the stairs. Apples and pears.
Quick cup of tea. Rosie Lee.
Pillow meets head. Time for bed.
You see, Mr. Dickens, London may well be a Bleak House, but it’s our house. And home, don’t you know, is where the heart is.