(Music Bloc Party – “Pioneers“)
From the air Britain looks like a misty oasis springing out of violent waves. Its capital springs just as suddenly from the pastures and farmlands. This is a place drenched in history and tradition, a place of kings and queens, of war and peace.
Many correspondents have come before me under circumstances foreseen or not, but now is my time to put shoe-leather to cobblestone to gather impressions of life here in this city of London.
A soccer game has just ended near Camden Town in North Central London. Groups of children, all 9 or 10 years old, cheer for each other on the artificial pitch of an urban soccer field. These cheers represent youth, and health. But sounds like this are hard to find in this city.
One must always fight…with mobility.
One must fight with the car culture.
One finds himself wishing for those pleasant sounds.
Founded by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago, London is a behemoth of a city, both in area and density. More than 8 million souls rest in the London metropolitan area.
Through years living in Phoenix, in having to drive 40 minutes on a straight, empty freeway to escape the city, I didn’t think another city could be much worse. I rode on the subway for nearly 90 minutes to get through London’s suburbs and into the airport.
This dispatch is a tale of two cities, really of two Londons. One London is enchanting and everything a visitor would cherish. This London has monuments and legends, it has white flowers lining the sidewalks which carry the intoxicating smell of jasmine.
The other London has more traffic, more busy residents concentrating on themselves, and the strong, chemical smell of exhaust wafting. Sometimes the cities meet and one masks the other for a time. But this doesn’t last for long.
At one time these streets were empty as residents took shelter from German assaults. In these empty streets a correspondent could still find stories…
(Murrow on the streets of London…”Tonight from London, Edward R. Murrow.”)
This is London. Five o’clock in the morning. People do a great deal of walking in London these days, but much of mine is done at night. Moonlit nights are best—there is less danger of walking into lamp posts or stumbling over the curb. The weather stains on old buildings of great Portland stone look like familiar, friendly faces. The city is absolutely quiet like a ghost town in Nevada.
Subway is my preferred mode of transport. Buses, even the famous double-deckers, are often crowded but I often have luck in subways trains.
In walking toward the surface at Westminster I find another pleasant sound…a musician playing for spare change. The tunnels are sterile and clean, but as soon as I peak my head out of the stairwell to street level: traffic. Noise. Hurry.
Through the symphony of machines I hear another musician faintly. A man in a kilt stands on Westminster Bridge near the parliament building. Tourists take pictures near him while he calculates his tune with nimble fingers.
Farther, toward parliament, stands Big Ben, a towering clock with a golden face. But even this classic time piece must compete with man, and his traffic.
The Thames flows through the heart of London. Small fishing boats push slowly but determined toward one of the many ports in the city. Though these fisherman must compete for space with ferry boats packed with tourists, there seems to be a calmer space among the waves…even with the river banks crowded by city life.
Following the Thames west, one can reach Victoria Station, and Buckingham Palace. There are people here…hundreds of tourists.
A tour guide tells tales to a group of teenage girls…many of whom speak another language—maybe Portuguese—but smile while waiting for translation.
It takes about 30 minutes to reach Camden Town from Victoria…maybe less if all connections are made. Camden Town reminds me of Key West in many ways—eclectic clothing shops and others offering incense or herbal remedies line Camden High Street.
Music pumps from shops selling vinyl records, or trendy tee-shirts. Vendors selling Chinese and Mexican food stand and serve side by side. Vendors offering jewelry or crafts stand behind statues of horses in the Stables Market. These sights are all a bit surreal.
They offer nothing but a vague hint of the history of this city, of these citizens.
This is Trafalgar Square. The noise that you hear at the moment is the sound of air raid sirens. I am standing here just on the steps of St. Martin’s in the Fields. A searchlight just burst into action in the distance—one single beam sweeping the sky above me now. People are walking along quite quietly. We’re just at the entrance of an air raid shelter here…and I must move this cable just a bit so that people can walk in. There is another searchlight just square behind Nelson’s statue. Here comes one of those big red buses around the corner—double-deckers they are—just a few lights on the top deck. In this blackness it looks very much like a ship that’s passing in the night and you just see the portholes.
I suppose our definition of what city sounds are pleasant changes with our time. To one serenaded constantly by air raid sirens, the calming flow of busy people would probably be welcomed.
In that context I can cope with the flow. But I also remember what came before, and what sounds echoed through the same streets, around the same sights, and to some of the same residents.
My final walk in London is down the jetway to the plane carrying me over the sea back home..ending again a journey through these European streets.
Music: The Kooks – “Seaside”
More info on the music used in this piece:
Bloc Party from the album “Silent Alarm”
The Kooks from the album “Inside in Inside out”