We all leapt up like cats as the homeless man lunged towards us.
“You’re all fucking Al Qaeda!” He shouted in strong Glaswegian accent. Wild eyes. An animal backed into a corner.
I held up my palm in defence, but as quickly as he had shot up, he shook his head and sat back down on his blanket, muttering to himself.
I wondered what had brought him here, to a life sitting on a blanket by the River Thames. Failed by society, cast adrift in an indifferent metropolis.
This kind of thing is a common occurrence in London of course, where you will often brush shoulders with millionaires and the destitute within a few footsteps and there is little time to take stock. Ceaseless crowds of tourists and Londoners from almost every nation, subculture and tax-bracket, pour down the streets, millions of characters with stories you will never hear.
But so what? This is true of most cities. There is however, a vibrancy and diversity in London that can be rivalled by few. Over a third of the residents were born outside the UK. Hundreds of languages are spoken. When this many people from this many different cultures and subcultures come together, the results will always be interesting.
We headed to the Sky Garden, on the 36th floor of the Walkie Talkie building. The garden provides a 360-degree view of the city over terraced levels with the principal viewing deck focused on The Shard, which juts into the sky ahead.
We all bought overpriced coffees and gathered around a table on the top deck. The conversation flitted from what the limits of human vision are to whether Jordan Peterson had some good points or was just a hateful charlatan, before ebbing briefly.
“Cool place, eh?” Mike said, looking around.
“Amazing views.” I said. “It’s just sprawl as far as the eye can see.”
“Where are we going for dinner, anyway?” Si said.
Brad cleared his throat. “There’s a place in Islington which is quite cool. Meatliquor, I think it’s called.”
Dave nodded. “They have one in Leeds, too. Let’s do it.”
Down the Tubes
We took the tube to Angel station as the winter sun set. I have always found the tube (and metro systems in other cities) to be an interesting form of travel – public transport users, whose general inclination is to avoid all interactions with strangers, forced to face each other, with all the awkwardness that entails.
Walking down Upper Street for the first time, I realized how much of London I had not yet discovered. I have lived near London for the last decade, but despite dozens of visits, I still feel like a traveller there. Would actually living there dampen my enthusiasm, I wondered. I had certainly heard Mike, who lives there, designate various areas of the city as ‘dives’.
The entrance to the restaurant was accessed through a nondescript alley and we were met by a door, decorated with mystical symbology. The theme inside was that of industrial urban decay.
I noticed there was a leaderboard for an eating competition called the ‘Triple Chili Challenge’. The challenge was to eat a chili burer, chili dog and a plate of chili fries within ten minutes, the prize being a free meal. I was astounded to see the man at the top of the leaderboard, Chris ‘the chili champion’, had managed the feat in just over two minutes.
After our meal we took the tube back to Camden, where we were staying. That night we joined the throng of drunks on Camden High Street as we danced around the bars and spouted gibberish to anyone that would listen.
Discovering that the bar we were in, Underworld, had no dancefloor, we struck out in search of greener pastures and arrived at the nearby Electric Ballroom.
“Good Crowd in there?” I said, to the Eastern-European bouncer.
He shook his head and chuckled. “Thirty-five plus only, my friend!”
A Four-Star Experience
I woke the next morning with the familiar feelings of guilt, shame and a general failure of health that accompanies a night well-lived. Nobody was able to formulate a coherent thought until around one-thirty in the afternoon, when we decided to venture out to the nearby Camden Lock market.
The market is one of the few places which is actually enhanced by the hordes of tourists, giving it the ambience of a bustling bazaar. We strolled the passageways of the market, taking in the variety of arts, crafts and t-shirts emblazoned with wolves howling at the moon, on sale.
The rest of the afternoon blurred into a haze of tube journeys, river strolls and verbal assaults by homeless men (as detailed above). By sundown we had arrived on Brick Lane, famous for Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine, the eponymous market and trendy nightlife.
As I trudged up the street, several South-Asian restaurant staff accosted us.
“Are you hungry, gentlemen?”
“No, thank you.”
“Two-for-one-beers with every meal.”
“Four-out-of-five hygiene rating!”
I stopped to consider why he had resorted to advertising his suboptimal hygiene rating as a final gambit, then thought better of it, striding on up the street.
Putt up or Shut up
After finally locating Junkyard Golf Club, a den of crazy-golf courses, loud music and alcoholic cocktails, we signed in and were directed to our course.
Mike took an early lead and was happy to make me aware of my failings as I repeatedly missed the loop-the-loop pipe which led to the third hole.
By the fifth hole, Brad had usurped Mike’s position and carefully carved out a cushion of three strokes. It looked like everything was wrapped up.
“Looks like you’re buying mine and Brad’s drinks, Dave.” Mike said with a grin. “Winners win.”
Dave grunted dismissively and prepared his shot.
By the final hole, Brad and Mike were neck-and-neck with Si trailing by one shot. Dave and I remained a few shots from the top spot. The shot involved hitting the ball up an incline with several holes in it, only one of which led to the end point.
Si went first, managed to fail at every attempt and slinked off in disgrace. Next up, I scuffed my first shot, but recovered and on the next shot, the ball clattered through the tunnel and into the hole. Things were looking up.
Brad’s turn went almost as badly as Si’s – another fall from grace. Mike was up next. He took his time to line up his shot and exhaled. But fate had already decided, it seemed. Again and again the ball rolled up towards the correct hole and back towards his feet. After ten shots he putted the ball home and shook his head.
Dave approached the tee and took his stance. The thumping music, the bustle and squawks of surrounding conversations seemed to recede as we all took a sharp inhalation. This could decide it.
He punted the ball up the incline. It slowed near the top and traced a reverse trajectory into the hole before rattling through the tunnel for a hole-in-one.
“Yes!” He growled.
Mike rubbed his eyes.
“Winners win.” Dave said with a chuckle.
We returned to Camden with the idea of having a final booze-filled blowout and entered a pub just off the high street. My stomach however had other ideas. I ordered an orange juice to the disgust of the barmaid and took a seat.
Another trip to London over, I thought. Every time I seem to leave with a contradictory feeling of the place having exceeded my expectations and at the same time, leaving disappointed that I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to do here.
Why do I return to London?
We have been sold a story about London, a vision of dynamism, a unique organism that has grown through the ages from its Roman roots two millennia ago, to the melting pot of the twenty-first century.
The cultural mythology of the city has something for everyone, whether a chance to gawp at the grandeur of the Royal Family, Walk the zebra crossing at Abbey Road, or wallow in the bars of Camden Town.
The characters of London walk a blurry line between fact and fiction, from Charles Dickens to Sherlock Holmes – and the city certainly benefits from this blend of folklore and tradition up until this day, as tourist attractions such as Harry Potter’s ‘Platform 9 3/4’ at King’s Cross station demonstrate. The list of famous thinkers, poets and artists that have worked and lived in London from Sigmund Freud to Karl Marx to Shakespeare, is endless.
But behind all the hired bullshit and famous names is the reason I think London is so great – I have never really run out of things to do there. Even after you have seen the tourist hotspots like Big Ben, the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace, shopped in Knightsbridge and Oxford Street and downed shots in Camden and Shoreditch, browsed the markets from Brick Lane to Brixton – there are still a thousand things to do.
However you think of yourself, whether a traveller, tourist or some kind of transcendent flâneur, most of the time, someone is trying to sell you a vision of a place, a story to immerse yourself in. Perhaps because of its long history as one of the most influential cities in the world, London has a rich matrix of these narratives to dive into. A constantly-evolving blend of ideas and movement, while at the same times, retaining some kind of identity, I have certainly bought into the idea of the place and am now a repeat customer.