Letters From London

Days of Grind and Poses

The modern city anticipates our moods—start off jolly and you’ll find a dozen happy sights. Start the day day rotten, though, and everything’s squalid. How can you maintain sanity when the city changes as often as you do?

“If a cat spits in your eye you can go blind,” says a tall youth. He’s milling about with friends in the small standing-only space beside the train’s double doors. They are enthusiastic and well-spoken, if a trifle unsure about basic biology. The easy mix of boys and girls and their general civility makes me think they’re part of a church music group, perhaps taking this train across south London from one rehearsal to another. For the rest of the journey all is serene; just the sound of excitability and enthusiasm, with no swearing or aggravation.

It’s a different story inside my head. The inanities and frustrations of a typical working day have bubbled over and now nothing seems right, everything and everyone is wrong, and the city itself has become my enemy. To reach where I stand right now I’ve marched down tunnels and corridors, up escalators and along walkways, all in the unwelcome company of several thousand other commuters who cannot possibly know how I’m virulently but silently cursing them inside my head.

Screaming out loud would be more therapeutic, but those who stand about barking curses on public transport are merely part of the problem. Instead, I keep everything internalized, letting the teenagers’ mindless chatter wash over me.

Why so cross? Over-caffeinated and under-nourished—those archetypal London freelancer’s states of being—the city’s dark side has crept up and caught me unawares. When life sucks, London sucks. It wants to drag you down with it, wallowing in modern life’s apparent utter pointlessness and futility, with its random crime, streets that teem with rude people, and the heady combination of stupidity and inanity that apparently underwrites every headline, poster, and sign, the one feeding off the other. The newspapers are daily horror shows of rape and murder, bookended by a general lack of respect, petty vandalism, and ignorance. There are supposed to be new government initiatives to reduce anti-social behavior, but politicians are too busy imploding in messy scandals while platitudes spew out of Whitehall in a blizzard of White Papers—desperate, headline-grabbing stabs at appeasing everyone’s sense of helplessness—that simply exacerbates the rage.

Last night a young man—a promising lawyer—was murdered outside his house. This afternoon I heard the story on the radio and his name triggered a memory. I think, I know him. A few clicks later, I find I knew his brother; we were at school together, and I can just recall an image of my friend’s younger brother, then barely into his teens. I haven’t seen my friend for more than 15 years, and now his brother is dead.

I look out of the train window at the city that colluded in the crime. The raised railway lines were punched through the Georgian streetscape by progress-mad Victorians in stovepipe hats commanding gangs of sweating navvies. Their ambition bequeathed future generations of railtravelers a sweep of skyline, a broad swath of the distant city that today is cowering beneath rolling gray clouds. Planes dip toward Heathrow in the west and the London City Airport to the east, its proximity giving the planes a more urgent, barrelling silhouette. It’s a rare view; London’s hills, little more than bumps in the broad topography of the Thames Valley, provide vantage points only to the lucky few who live on them. Everyone else makes do with the views opened up along the river, which darts serpent-like through the city, blurring the points of the compass.

The next morning things are brighter. The clouds have been rinsed away by a night of rain. Blue sky takes the bite off the cold. The train lumbers into the station, while a mechanized voice drones apologies for the late-running service to the passengers. These few extra minutes on the platform act as a useful barometer for the day ahead. Either the delays wash over me, offering more precious time to be immersed in headphones or a book, or I let the prospect of an even longer delay before I can reach the distant desk that holds a mountain of unfinished work trigger an almost psychotic response, a fury that has to be kept turned inward, lest it spark similar outbreaks amongst my fellow travelers.


* * *

You can’t predetermine your own mood, but more than anywhere else, London seems to anticipate and nurture your state of being. Start off happy, and chances are you’ll be sustained by the day’s thousand chance encounters—a shirtless man pulling on his pants just as the train passes his apartment, a small child in a park waving cheerfully at the passengers, the still-stirring sight of the broad river, the sun glinting off the Gherkin. Today is a good day. Even the endless false starts of the modern British winter fail to dent my mood. Things are looking up. That distant desk is clear. Delays hold no fear. I have spent the winter sickness-free, although bugs have been circulating, carefully replicating themselves along the mucus trail that binds new families like mine together. One by one, our friends seem to be succumbing to flash fever and vomiting, leaving everyone husky and weak. Yet, for whatever reason, I feel fine.

Nostalgics mourn the loss of the killer fog, a traffic-calming measure far more effective than a thousand Congestion Charges. It brought death, but also gave the city a mournful romanticism, a world of blurred streetlights and looming, soot-stained buildings.A recurring symbol of the day ahead is a series of encounters with individual, private unhappiness, moods and nuances I only start to notice when my own frame of mind swings low. A lone woman, sobbing discreetly on public transport. A vagrant, surrounded by squalid possessions and, above a lank beard, his red eyes conveying impossible sorrow. A couple arguing with only their eyes. Convention dictates that I don’t do anything about these social transgressions—I let my attention drift to somewhere less problematic: a view, a child, a book, a newspaper—though all the while they continue, lurking somewhere in the corner of my eye. As the train makes its final approach to the mainline terminal, we pass the half-ruined hulk of Battersea Power Station. This forlorn brick shell is either a beacon for future regeneration, or a vast architectural carcass, condemned to a life of frustrated plans and slow, inevitable ruin. Like everything else in this city, the interpretation is open to your mood. In London, triumph and tragedy are embodied in everything, often simultaneously.

By the evening, I’m grouchier. It’s Thursday, and the commuting army is sapped by four days of grind while still cruelly being denied the weekend. The tube is standing room only. Polite entreaties to move down the carriage are met with snarls and raised voices. I’m squeezed up against a rosy-faced young man with a freshly-grown beard. His iPod headphones leak Paul Weller, acoustic and live, hell three times over. My own music is off, so my shields are down. Our bodies are so close together there’s no need to strap-hang; we’re wedged in place. My teeth feel on edge, my over-caffeinated gums making the enamel ache. Someone nearby has an evening paper, complete with two-page spread on the murdered lawyer, my school friend’s brother—family photos, childhood snaps, parents’ hopes, a life cut short. This is tabloid journalism in hyper-emotive mode, and I normally have the luxury of disconnection to prevent me from getting sucked in. Parenthood breaches the first levee of apathetic dislocation from the news, and my tenuous connection to the victim surges over my remaining defenses. The city’s underside has finally claimed me.

The sadness of the modern city is always present, concealed beneath a layer of distraction. When you’re unhappy, that distraction vanishes. Suddenly people are sad, crying, arguing, violent. As the train draws into the next station I watch a seated man drinking in the tightly-swathed form of the woman beside me. In the crush of departing bodies, no one’s looking down, only to the door, and he obviously feels his ogling has gone unnoticed. As he stares, he looks frightened—of her, of himself, of all of us.


* * *

London is a living organism; like the human body, its cells die and new ones appear. Like the body, it too can fall victim to stasis when new growth is thwarted or stunted. Yet all the time the city is renewing itself, whether we want it to or not. Buildings come down, shops move, people die. To make any sense of the urban fabric one has to define the ephemeral over the enduring. Should things endure, or should they burn brightly and then vanish? What does endure in the city?

Unsurprisingly, it’s the archaic that persists. In a city built on such old foundations, the bits that underpin my everyday life, be they sewers or tubes, culverts or tunnels, are in a perpetual state of decay, constantly yet ineffectively refreshed. On the streets near my house, roads are currently “up” for a new water main. Contractors slice through the tarmac, then through several feet of London soil, indeterminate historical strata that have long since obscured the true ground level. Red plastic bollards line the streets. Everyone has to shift their cars or they’ll be hoisted away and left to rot in some far-off municipal hinterland, reclaimable only by payment of a fee.

On the mainline train again, finally heading home at the end of the week. We pass a building being demolished. A little yellow digger sits atop the uppermost floor, now open to the elements. Bits of feathery concrete rain down on the half-cleared site. I recall reading somewhere that novice tower crane operators, while ostensibly lording it up above the skyline they are forging, are frequently given laxative-laced flasks of tea or coffee during a long working day. Just one more unpleasant initiation ceremony in a city that will bare its teeth to anyone who gets too complacent.

From my seat I look back on the skyline. A murk of low cloud obscures the receding city, the Houses of Parliament just discernible in the haze on the horizon. It’s a far cry from the dense fogs of the ‘50s, when a combination of fog and soot made even walking hazardous. In December 1952, a pea-souper rolled in for several days, the sulfur-laden fog killing thousands. Nostalgics mourn the loss of this killer fog, a traffic-calming measure far more effective than a thousand Congestion Charges. It brought death, but also gave the city a mournful romanticism, a world of blurred streetlights and looming, soot-stained buildings, not hassled commuters, incandescent with tube-rage and berated by scare-story headlines.

Another overpriced and underwhelming new apartment building whips past the windows. Sadly, these are the things that will endure despite themselves, betraying our generation’s criminal short attention span and lack of attention to detail. Maybe it was always so. Perhaps the ephemeral route is preferable after all, and we should all tread lightly, making no attempt to engage with history. The next open patch of ground is also a building site. A white piling machine is drilling deep into London clay for the foundations of another block of flats. For a moment, the builders’ work seems futile, and my cynicism conjures up a vision of yet another faddish structure to appease novelty-driven young minds. And then suddenly the feeling passes and the raging inner voice fades away. A simple train journey becomes just that, and with this realization the city flips from antagonizer to accomplice, once again a source of wonder and fascination. And so the cycle is repeated.


TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell