I had a plan. I would visit the Howard Hodgkin exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and then walk up Charing Cross Road to Foyles bookshop. I exited the train station quickly, as I no longer like to hang around obvious terror targets. Although even that is an old fashioned outlook, as Jihadis can and do strike anywhere.
I lived in London many years ago, while the IRA were still active, and dodged the Ealing station bombing by a couple of hours. The next day, I had to find an alternative route to work, but it never crossed my mind not to go. I’m altogether more jittery nowadays.
Why? Possibly, because I’m not ready to die yet, but more likely, I have lost all of my London survival skills. I have become tamed and softened by years of provincial living.
The last time I visited London, I noted that the pavements outside some restaurants are studded with metal spikes, like those on a medieval mace. Their frontages have the look of a torture device; iron maiden, bed of nails. Don’t even think of resting here, they scream, lest your arse becomes a colander.
This is a microcosmic expression of the city; designed to prevent the loiterer, the homeless, the rough sleeper, yet also constructed for the tourist’s discomfort. No visitor to London is welcome to relax there. Perhaps those who live here are privileged with knowledge of its arenas of recreation, designed for lounging, recuperation, or idleness. Or maybe Londoners become accustomed to the physical privations of the city; building up stamina, developing deep reservoirs of endurance, nerves of steel and the ability to block out everything around them?
At the National Portrait Gallery, I noticed that bags were not being checked and the ‘security’ presence at the entrance was a young blonde girl, who was probably about five feet tall. Yet I remember when I worked at a major London museum, a decade ago, that security was much tighter. I could flash my staff pass and walk right through, but all visitors were made to queue for bag searches by two burly male Front of House staff. Are such measures now deemed an unnecessary inconvenience or is it a consequence of budget cuts?
In any case, the exhibition was uneventful and pleasant. Unlike my struggle to walk along Charing Cross Road without being knocked down like a skittle by a wheeled suitcase. Everyone seems to be dragging one along in that part of the city; either that, or carrying a collection of dirty rucksacks and leading a pit bull on a string. Has it always been this filthy? Probably, but the stink of piss was especially pungent on Saturday. I felt like I was being jostled along and yet I only came into physical contact with two other pedestrians: one a granite-bodied young man talking on his phone and the other a plump northern tourist on a hen-do, whose body was as taut and bouncy as an over-inflated beach ball.
I didn’t mind too much. At least on this occasion, everyone seemed to be real. I had a very strange experience earlier in the year, when I visited the National Gallery and then walked to Covent Garden, via Soho. I sat in a sandwich bar on St Martin’s Lane and began to wonder if I was in some sort of holographic simulacrum of London, and if the people were acting on a pre-programmed loop, like avatars from The SIMs. This form of derealization can be an indicator of mental problems, but in this case, I think I was just feeling alienated and let my imagination run wild. It later inspired me to make a mini graphic novel about the day, in which Jean Baudrillard welcomes me to the desert of the real, like Morpheus in The Matrix.
The Foyles flagship store isn’t all that new, but it still seems fresh and gleaming. I accidentally spent hours in there and could have spent a fortune. In the end I bought some graphic guides to philosophy and John Berger’s Confabulations. I would have bought more philosophy books, but I was driven away by the brain haemorrhage inducing jazz music coming from the adjacent department. Unfortunately, the same music was being playing the café on the top floor, but I managed to ignore it while I ate my lentil soup.
Some other diners were wearing earphones, while they nursed their coffees and read their books. Perhaps they also hate jazz? I enjoy eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, so I probably wouldn’t do this. Not that very much was being said, as most people were alone and reading. For anyone who has never been to Foyles café, it is always busy and it is very difficult to find a seat, which means squeezing onto long bench-like tables opposite a complete stranger. I found this quite uncomfortable, as I felt that I was too close to the person opposite, invading their personal space. Most people politely ask permission before they sit down, but this actually seems to increase the awkwardness, because they are then nervous that you might try to strike up a conversation.
I’ve been formulating a dystopian story based on Calhoun’s Mouse Utopia Experiments, so visiting London was part of my research – there simply aren’t enough people to spy on where I live. Calhoun built high rise environments for rodents, that were intended to investigate the effects of over-population, and I have been particularly intrigued by the mice he described as ‘the beautiful ones’: well-groomed and healthy-looking subjects which seemed bright and alert, but were actually very stupid. Anyway, I ended up writing more about my own discomfort, while observing that everyone else in Foyles looked quite relaxed.
No one else appears bothered by London’s transition from Imperial city to global Megalopolis, with its hideous new buildings, that look like chrome and glass sex toys. They are taking the changing skyline, the constant erasure and rebuilding, the over-crowding and unfamiliarity, and even the ever present threat of extinction, in their stride. The conclusion I reached, therefore, is that the problem may be mine alone and I need to get over it and move on.
[Note: I drafted this blog post on my way home from London on Saturday, a few hours before the horrific terrorist attacks on London Bridge and Borough Market. My thoughts are with all those affected.]