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Published: March 7th 2008
London was, as usual, just a waypoint on my travels, this time a staging post between the cold drabness of Saltburn and the sultry laziness of Bali. It would not be the most disappointing fact about my life if I never had to live in London again, but visiting for a few days at a time is perfectly acceptable, the chance to sightsee the areas I deliberately avoided when I was a resident in the '90s and to catch up with assorted friends.
The city appals me in several different ways. The sheer cost of everything is an affront, not just because of lingering memories of my Asian travels, but even if America or Australia are involved in the comparison. The infrastructure was developed just too early in the history of technology so that a decent metro and widespread air-conditioning lay in the future rather than reality. Stooping in the farthest corners of a Circle Line train, in a country where the average height is around 6 feet, I'm boggled by the discomfort that I never felt on the Hong Kong system. Meeting a friend at a pub in Leicester Square, surrounded by the gabble of tourists proudly clutching their
pint glasses, it feels like our conversation has barely begun before last orders is called and we're suddenly out on the streets again, unsure if there are any venues available that aren't pounding clubs or fast food joints, and with the looming prospect of another year without speaking.
Recent improvements include the all-too-rare burst of sanity in Parliament that resulted in smoking being banned in pubs last summer, an enormous boon to the ultralight backpacker who has too few outfits available to allow one to be made unwearable by a night in a smoke-filled bar. I didn't see much else in the way of positive change but will be keeping an eye on the effects of the preparations for the impending Olympics.
Which all means it's a damn good job that the city itself is such a fascinating place to explore. Age and the long-diminished Empire have created an architectural legacy that's almost embarrassing, such is its profusion and variety. The walk into the West End from my usual hotel near Gloucester Road takes me past the Natural History Museum, Harrods, Hyde Park, and Marble Arch before I veer south, pausing for a greasy fry-up in Leicester Square,
and descend past the National Gallery, Nelson's Column, and Charing Cross. I always interrupt my crossing of the Thames south from Embankment with a period of vacant gazing across that largest of London landscapes, the view encompassing the Houses of Parliament all the way east to St Paul's. The London Eye now seems less of an intruder than the last couple of times I made this pilgrimage.
Though normally I would then retrace my steps back to Embankment and beyond, this time I had business in the National Theatre where a friend was exhibiting as part of an architectural competition. J's search for career satisfaction - which was partial inspiration for my travels - has taken him from an economics degree in Michigan to credit card consulting in NY to architecture in London by way of Cincinnati. The brief for the competition centred around the nebulous concept of "Art Space". J's interpretation of this was to merge a prison with a performance space in a similar fashion to Johnny Cash's pair of jailhouse concerts in the '60s, with the performance element being any of music, art, theatre, etc. I liked the proposed schedule for an inmate, in particular the
9:15AM entry: "Unlock, tidy cell, first reading of Hamlet with troupe"
I strongly suspect that the prison motif came from J's subconscious guilt arising from an unpleasant incident in Manhattan (that I was witness to) during which a grape suit was stolen from a newly-opened bar. However I felt it would be wrong to confront him with this when he was still savouring the first professional recognition he'd received in his new field.
I also met up with 4 ex-colleagues near our old office opposite St Paul's, the first time we'd all been together around the same table for about a decade. Marriages, engagements, impending births, house purchases, and new jobs, not to mention grey hairs and expanding bald patches, littered the 10 years of our separation but inevitably work was the default topic to which we kept returning. IT in the financial industry seems no different to when I left, an exercise in admin and resource juggling where the technology has taken a back seat other than as a recruiting tool. But the appeal of good salaries for little in the way of qualifications has a siren song that I'm not sure I'm entirely immune to yet.
My favourite aspect of London is definitely its roamability. Aimless meandering, idle pottering, motiveless footling, and itinerant faffing are all well catered for. Be it the window seat in a cafe or a graffiti-carved park bench, you can always find somewhere to pass the time of day in solitude. The quiet squares and courtyards behind such major thoroughfares as Regent St and the Strand take you away from the urban bustle in the space of a few strides, giving you precious silent moments before you're absorbed back in to the shouting, tooting, revving hordes. The city will allow me some distance and it will also reconnect with me again when I'm ready. My experience of the last couple of years says that such a quality is not to be taken lightly.
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