I’ve never experienced London.
I must have visited the place at least twelve times, but these were either when I was very young and things were at least slightly different, or occasions on which the Underground has shielded me. The sprawling network of tunnels beneath the old city are more than just a quick method of transportation for travelers who use the capital as a hub between the north and south via train and coach. Many have a mental image of the London Underground as a rather grim place, and that is mostly accurate. The air is stuffy, most surfaces are caked in grime, and London commuters are indeed obnoxious and pushy. But the Underground represents something more, and that is a way to bypass the world above, to hide oneself from the despairing landscape overhead as if packed like sardines into the trains, we re-enact the events of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033.
On my most recent trip, however, I had time to kill, and good reason not to waste money when my legs could carry me just as easily. An hour’s walk presented an opportunity to actually see this city, which up until that point existed for me more as a theory than a reality.
Firstly, I can confirm first-hand that London’s population is barely English, but one can prove that on the Underground journey alone. No, I actually got the chance to see how these people live, rather than just their composition. People there take remarkably little care of both their appearance and the state of their businesses and homes. Everything looks rotted, chipped, weather-worn, and often adorned with illegible graffiti. The stench of some pedestrians would put the Middle Ages to shame, particularly the Bangladeshi migrants I encountered, all of whom looked either dejected or menacing.
I saw beggars with cardboard signs, many of them white but judging by the grammar on their signs, perhaps not native to this island. Their stories ranged from a simple “lost job” to more complex tales. They sat huddled in the doorways of false fronts, or near lamp-posts featuring all manner of left-wing sticker-art demanding a living wage, and funnier still “a world in which everyone works for pleasure.” There was also an amusing sticker from ANTIFA with crosses through both the swastika and the Star of David. Of course, it was alluding to some kind of ‘anti-Israeli apartheid’ sentiment, but I found it amusing nonetheless.
These weren’t the only things plastered up for all to see. I did not once encounter a phone box that was not wall-to-wall with prostitute advertisements, and this isn’t an exaggeration. Trannies were comparatively cheap, with photos to prove how convincing they were. I wasn’t convinced.
One scene I found particularly ironic was that literally meters from what I assumed to be the embassy of Uganda, with its distinctive crane-emblazoned flag, were a set of custom, taxpayer-funded traffic lights which glowed with the symbols of various sexual orientations. I wondered if the Ugandan staff ever look out at the thinning population of actual Brits and wonder how they were ever conquered in the first place. More to this effect, there was a small ‘club’ nearby that framed in its windows the evidence of an earlier era where it had not been such a welcome addition to the neighborhood. A letter reads:
Sir, RE Endell St.: W.C.2. At above address there is the ‘Caravan’ Club (?): only frequented by sexual perverts, lesbians, and sodomites. It’s absolutely a sink of iniquity. Your kind and prompt attention is respectfully craved by: Some Ratepayers of Endell Street. To: Commissioner of Police.
Who knows what decade it was written in, but I don’t doubt that the ratepayers of Endell Street have long since either passed from this world or moved away. It’s a source of pride and conquest for the club’s owners, but for me, it is only a reminder that at some point communities across this country, decent people, were aware of what was happening, and there was a brief period of this awareness before they were gone.
A strange treat was waiting for me towards the end of my journey, and that was a live encounter with London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan. Fate can be funny like that. What chance was it that on this occasion of viewing the capital as if on a safari tour of liberalism in practice, I’d see that shining beacon of everything London has come to represent: its first Muslim mayor? Don’t ask why he was out in public, it was some kind of film screening for which the city’s population of pseudo-intellectual book clubbers had shown up. Khan is thinner in person, more tired and gaunt. He carries himself exactly like any contemporary politician. Fake, in other words. Much presentation but no substance, like fool’s gold (although fool’s pig iron might be more appropriate). There really is nothing at all remarkable about him. He’s more Arafat than Bin Laden; down with the home team, but not beyond ripping them off if he can escape with his head.
If I had to identify a lowlight, though, all that I’ve mentioned pales in comparison to the monument outside of Buckingham Palace. The monument to Queen Victoria was unveiled in 1911, and I can scarcely describe how ornate and well-crafted it is. The central column where the stone-faced queen sits is surrounded by four figures, each accompanied by a lion. A female figure holding an olive branch represents Peace while Progress is featured as a naked youth with a torch. Agriculture and Industry are depicted as you might expect. Atop the central column is the winged goddess of victory, her angelic wings casting a shadow over the promenade that stretches ahead.
Swarming all over this monument, clambering upon its outer walls, dipping their grubby paws into its waters, were hundreds of people shouting in languages I couldn’t even identify, racially ambiguous mixes from here and there with selfie sticks to make sure their imposition upon a piece of history was immortalized. The naked torchbearer looks down on precious Progress and seems to smile. I can only see crows picking over a corpse. Not far from that very spot, and not far from the lines of shops selling royalty-themed tchotchkes, is the residence of the supposed Royal Family. There is no sacred character to anything here. It may have existed once, but it would be error to think the Royal Family is truly revered by even the native-born, let alone those who arrived by boat yesterday. A photo-opportunity is all they are. And as I looked upon this scene in front of the palace, I could only think to myself:
A far cry from the Forbidden City, isn’t it?
They say that the capital is the beating heart of multiculturalism, but even as a staunch critic of that concept, I say that it doesn’t describe what I saw. Perhaps some boroughs are home to this tapestry of cultures, but I didn’t see any culture whatsoever at all that day. I saw trinkets from cultures for sure; kebab huts, Chinese New Year lanterns, even a union jack at one point, yet all of it is like refuse that washed up on a shore one day, cut from its root and waiting for another tide to bring in more. As the natives decay, so does the city it seems, and make no mistake the people are decaying. It’s often hidden behind heavy makeup, but some don’t even try to hide it, as demonstrated by the delightful woman who joined protests against an edgy art gallery in Dalston last week, declaring “I don’t care what you believe, I believe no Nazis.” I’d say these creeps crawl up from the sewer, but as I alluded to before, the sewer in London is overground. I struggle to imagine what it might have been like before the rot set in, and the same goes for all of the major cities of the UK from Birmingham to Manchester. I can see why every metropolis needs a Lee Kuan Yew to cane the feet of gum-chewers and hang the dealers in the underpass, because the very nature of a city is to incubate within its urban sprawl the worst excesses of society. They are the environments in which social pressures that select for both care and virtue struggle to function, and it is in such places that the firmest hand is needed. That hand is totally absent from the capital, which heaves its commuters, buskers, whores, gangs, and hipsters back and forth in the course of a working day, and with every movement the place gets just a little less bearable.
That’s the real London. Next time I’ll take the Underground.