The more I get to know London, the less I realise I know of this city heaving and overcrowded with history. And the more I get to know the city, the more I love living here for now.
My New York blogging buddy, jacquelin, told me about Postman’s Park, just behind St Paul’s. I met up with my husband one sunshine-filled lunch time last week, and we walked across the London Millennium Footbridge over the Thames, towards St Paul’s Cathedral – a sight that still takes my breath away – and we walked around the massive and awe-inspiring church to this little spot:
This little spot is interestingly one of the biggest parks in the City of London. It was built in 1880 on the site of a churchyard and burial ground of St Botolph’s Aldergate. Named as it is because it stands on the former site of the General Post Office where postmen often sat to eat their lunch, Postmans Park is also home to a sheltered wall commemorating, as something of a protest against the upper class, ordinary people who lost their lives heroically trying to save others. G F Watts, the painter (1817 – 1904), came up with the idea and he commissioned Doulton to create the hand-lettered tiles to honour the otherwise unheralded and unnamed heroes.
In a similar vein, one of my colleagues showed me this little site just down the road from our office. Known as Cross Bones, this is an unconsecrated burial site, going back to medieval times, for “single women” and paupers. (“Single women” was a euphemism for prostitutes, known in the area as “Winchester Geese” because they were licenced by the Bishop of Winchester to work within the Southwark area known as the Liberty of the Clink.)
According to Wikipedia, the Liberty of the Clink lay outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, and as a result became known for its brothels and theatres, bull and bear-baiting. The age of the graveyard is not known: John Stow (1525 – 1605) wrote about it in A Survey of London in 1598, and by 1769 it had become a paupers’ cemetery for the poor of St Saviour’s parish. It is believed that about 15,000 people are buried there.
When the London Underground planned the construction of its Jubilee Line through the area, between 1991 and 1998, archaeologists found this overcrowded graveyard with bodies piled on top of one another. Test showed the deaths to have been caused by anything from smallpox to TB, Paget’s disease, osteoarthritis and Vitamin D deficiency.
The find captured the attention of local community members who created an informal group – Friends of Cross Bones – to campaign for a permanent memorial garden on the site, which has also become the site of annual Halloween festivals – held every year since 1998 – marked by processions, songs and candles.
Today is officially Squirrels-Gone-Mad Day. I know you might have been expecting a Royal Wedding post from this heaving city because nothing much else seems to be happening here at the moment. People are camping outside Westminster as we speak to get a glimpse of the family-that-is-not-boring and the couple-who-are-also-not-boring as they get set to tie the royal knot on Friday. But squirrels captured my attention today; they just did.
As I walked to my bus this morning, I decided that the squirrels in our ‘hood had gone nuts. Firstly, I saw a squirrel scurrying towards the water as I crossed the dock. There was no tree in sight and, I know it’s been a bit warmer here, but I didn’t realise squirrels liked the water. Although I saw no towel or swimming cap (health and safety considerations, of course), I think my squirrel friend was going for a squim.
Then, when I walked past a row of weeping willow trees, a couple of squirrels rushed past me and scurried up a tree. I heard a crinkling sound and then saw that one of the squirrels was carrying a large, crumpled-up piece of paper in its mouth. I watched it as it ran to the top of the tree, towards a nest. (Do squirrels have nests?) I thought maybe the squirrels just wanted to do anything to take their minds off this royal madness all around them; it was their equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la-la-la”! I know the feeling.
My version of doing that is to share a few more of the things that I love about life in London and, in so doing, to keep the attention away from the you-know-whats.
1. Sir John Soane’s Museum
Friends of ours told us about this little hidden gem in the heart of London. Sir John Soane was the Royal Architect (sorry for using the “r” word) in 1806 and, according to his website, began “to arrange the Books, casts and models in order that the students might have the benefit of easy access to them and proposed opening his house for the use of the Royal Academy students the day before and the day after each of his lectures. By 1827, when John Britton published the first description of the Museum, Soane’s collection was being referred to as an ‘Academy of Architecture’”.
We visited this Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Field near Holborn in central London a few weekends ago. We stood and waited our turn to enter the hushed and hallowed halls of this building that was home and house to both a family and an exorbitantly large collection of stuff. The number of visitors to the house at any one time is limited to about 20, as space to move is at a premium. I had to put my handbag into a plastic bag and hold it in my hand, to avoid the risk of knocking over artefacts that are stood and stored everywhere; all cameras and laptops were surrendered at the front door and no photography permitted. No washing machines either.
When we got the nod, we stepped into a surreal world of compulsive collections of artwork, furniture, paintings, statues, stained glass, casts, architects’ models and history. Our eyes stood out on stalks, our senses were overloaded and the abundance of assembled heritage from every corner and age of the world just about blew my mind. The house itself is a fascination of levels and sunroofs and alcoves and cellars and nooks and crannies. Every available surface and space is filled with another piece of art.
The “monk’s cellar” at the bottom of the house is home to a collection of Egyptian art, including a sarcophagus, complete with hieroglyphic engravings as well as a wooden mummy case. A cellar-level courtyard hosts the final resting place of “Poor Fanny” whose inscription on a massive headstone tells of a greatly revered personality, laid to rest in pride of place. I asked one of the staff members who “poor Fanny” was and was surprised to learn that “she was, madam, Mrs Soane’s dog”.
We were ushered into a high-ceilinged room whose walls were lined, from floor to ceiling, with paintings. The door was closed behind us and a white-gloved curator proceeded to talk us through the profusion of artworks that covered the walls. He talked with perfect comedic timing through a series of William Hogarth paintings, A Rake’s Progress, and then described the provenance of each other gem hanging from the walls, or should I say, cupboard doors, as they opened to reveal a further collection of artworks lining the inside of the doors and the real wall behind the doors. The opposite “wall” was also so composed, with one difference: the doors opened to reveal another set of doors which then opened on to an open space above the monk’s cellar, where Soane’s model of the Bank of England stood proudly for all to see. We all gasped and applauded.
The rest of the house brought with it equal numbers of surprises and sensory treats; it certainly requires a second and third visit and you can be sure that we’ll be back to discover more.
2. Charity in London
I work for a small charity that does remarkably big work in London. I never cease to be amazed at the level of dedication to our work that I see all around me every day, and the pace of change that results from passionate and focused campaigning.
Ten days ago, we stood on Tower Bridge and cheered on the 100 or so runners who joined the 36,500 others to run the London Marathon 2011 in our charity’s colours towards a goal of raising some quarter of a million pounds for us. It’s far and away our biggest fundraising event of the year, which makes sense: the London Marathon is, I am told, the “biggest fundraising event on the PLANET”.
Each person running for us had a reason to run for us: to raise funds for world-class research that might change the course of his four-year-old son’s life; to run in memory of her nephew who died 15 years ago, aged 16; three university students who ran because their mate is in a wheelchair and he’s an awesome guy; brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, friends – all honouring someone close to them and supporting them in this amazingly tangible way. There are no more words.
3. Endless eavesdropping opportunities
Last week, a woman sat behind me in the bus on the way to work. She arrived at her seat mid-conversation on her cell phone. She had a slight accent, and from what I could overhear, she was whingeing about someone; female I think.
The conversation continued in a monotone and then I heard her say, “But you know what? I’m really worried about the herpes.” I then began to wonder what kind of a weekend she’d had, exactly, and began to understand why she was so irate with this other person.
“Everything else is okay, the shoes and everything, it’s just the herpes. And I’m really worried. I don’t know what to do about it.”
I was about to move seats, when I realised I was heading off down the wrong track.
“You see, the thing about the herpes is that … well, it’s more like a veil than a herpes. You see?”
She was talking about a “hairpiece”.
4. Riding along the Thames
I am quite proud of myself because I can still ride a bicycle. Well, ride might be too generous a word. I can stay upright on a bicycle and not fall off. Just.
Easter Saturday was a beautiful, sunny day with a light breeze. My husband and I set off on our newly-sorted bikes to enjoy a little ride along the edge of the Thames. I haven’t been on a bike for about 30 years but, as they say, it’s just like riding a bike. I managed to stay pretty much balanced and didn’t wobble myself to a complete standstill.
Thank goodness we didn’t ride in traffic, just along the Thames footpath, and I mostly managed to avoid hitting any pedestrians. For a short distance we rode on a road with traffic and I discovered a have a unique instinct: instead of fight or flight, I have my own response: act like a complete idiot. Fearing being knocked over by a car, I do the sensible thing when I hear it approaching: I ride towards it.
I don’t think that approach will lengthen my life, but I’ll stay off the busy roads just in case. It is also a bit of a challenge riding a boy’s bike that is slightly too big for me, but I’ll get over it. In fact, I did! And the uncomfortable saddle. And the handlebars that seem designed for gorilla-length arms. But you know what? The freedom of riding along in a gentle breeze, alongside my best friend and along the edge of a raging river that’s been churning and flowing since time immemorial, made me feel alive and unbeatable.
Until I hit a cobbled path and riding over it was like being aboard a jackhammer at full throttle. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
This post has felt a bit like Sir John Soane’s museum – nothing really makes too much sense; it’s filled with bits of this and bits of that and peppered with randomness and collections of thoughts and observations, with nothing really to hold them all together except that they all come from me. I don’t think there’ll be people queuing for a viewing of my thoughts but you never know; this is London, man, and people here are crazy.
As I arrived in central London today, I realised I could have chosen a better day to go and have my hair done. I unwittingly booked an appointment at my Soho salon – just off Oxford Street – at the same time as about quarter of a million protesters walked along said street to deliver a powerful message about the government’s cuts in public spending.
The police got jumpy, the protests got messy and what the Guardian website described as a “generally good-mood” became “soured by violent and destructive attacks on symbols of wealth including the Ritz, banks and a luxury car dealer and an occupation of Fortnum & Mason”.
I couldn’t catch the bus from my area to Tottenham Court Road, as I would usually do, as all the roads around Oxford Street were closed. I caught the tube to Bond Street and emerged at the Oxford Street exit directly into a heaving mass of shoppers, onlookers, riot police and protesters.
I turned right out of the tube station and shuffled along in the midst of a mass of humanity for about ten minutes before I realised I was walking in the wrong direction. I turned around and shuffled back through those same relentless crowds, and walked towards the Soho salon.
There’s a kerfuffle in the crowds and I hear the faint chanting of “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” in the distance. As the singing gets louder, I realise that Boots (a health and beauty store) across the road has been closed; it is fronted by police in riot gear, and a bunch of protesters dressed as walking wounded, with “blood-stained” bandages around their heads, are singing the oddly bizarre Christmas song to the grim-faced police officers.
I discover most of the large stores are closed and fronted by riot police. Many smaller shops have boarded their shop fronts. It’s an odd afternoon of business as usual, shoppers out for a bargain, against a backdrop of one of the largest protests in the past ten years.
I walk a little further and faster, trying desperately to look discreet and remain under the radar. The growing crowds, mounting evidence of riot police and chanting protesters all around, are just plain menacing.
I think, “I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be here”. I soon hear police whistles, raised voices and, as the police storm a crowd of people in the middle of the road, a mass of humanity surges forward in my general direction. I see a sea of people, I see no space to go and I seek panicked shelter in the doorway of a nearby shop. A police officer tells a buggy-pushing dad that it’s not safe to be on the street with a buggy. The panic dissipates as the police presence recedes and the protesting crowd continues on its set path. I unclench my jaw and breathe again.
A little further along the road, I see a crowd gathered around an inordinately tall man. He is dressed in a fluorescent yellow worksuit and I assume that he is a side-tracked protester. People are taking photos of him; he is inviting one gentleman to feel his leg to see that he is not wearing stilts, and cameras click all around. He must be seven foot tall. What a bizarre diversion.
Eyes back on the road. I continue through crowds that ebb and flow. In the midst of an ominous flow I decide to step away from the main street. I walk down past the London Palladium, past Liberty and, with Carnaby Street in my sights, I turn into my chosen street in Soho. It’s quiet down that road, except for a protester walking towards me bearing a banner that reads: “Nick Clegg is a chopper”. I am so glad to enter that familiar doorway and find solace and shelter in my cosmopolitan hair haven.
I greet the multilingual receptionist, and, with a dramatic sigh, I tell her I could’ve found a better day for my hair appointment. She looks at me with a confused smile, until one of her colleagues says, “Oh, right. The protests.”
I am shown to my seat by a young Greek stylist, who settles me down, capes and covers me, and offers me coffee. I ask him if he’s seen what Oxford Street looks like. He tells me he went to the Apple store earlier (excuse me all you Apple-geeks for not knowing this, but apparently some new gadget was due for release today), and he was amazed to see such a crowd of people waiting to get into the store.
“Crazy, hey?” he says to me.
I realise we are speaking at cross purposes and, after acknowledging the stress of an Apple-storming crowd, I tell him about the protests and that they are becoming quite heated. He tells me he has no TV so had no idea what was happening, and asks me if I know why the protests were happening. We have a short discussion and then he says to me, with a sad and wry smile,
“No matter how bad things get here, they will never be like Greece.”
He says that that was the worst time of his life, when the streets of Athens were a burning, destructive mass of economic protest. Every time he returns home, he tells me, more shops have closed down and more businesses are struggling. He is due to fly home again tonight, and he’s unsure what sights will greet him this time.
My Bulgarian hairstylist, bubbly and constantly smiling, glides across to take care of business. I drink my coffee and remind my shoulders to subside. I begin to relax.
Half an hour later, four siren-blaring police vehicles storm down the quiet Soho street in front of the salon. Hot on the wheels of the vehicles are about 20 sprinting youngsters, dressed in black and wearing face masks. The hairstylists who don’t currently have scissors in hand all rush the front door and watch the action. The seriously gorgeous Australian owner of the salon watches out of the shop window and shouts, “Go, ninjas”, as his scissors fly this way and that.
It is with much trepidation that I emerge back on to the street, newly coiffed. I look up and down the street and decide which way to go. I turn right, and right again and eventually end up heading into the eye of the storm. I realise Piccadilly is not my desired destination and turn to go back to Bond Street. I walk through thick and thin crowds of people, some with banners, some with face masks, all animated, all looking exhausted and all, it would seem, heading towards Bond Street station. The air feels heavy with tension.
I get on to the tube and I stand all the way home. I see a young guy, tousle-haired and anxious, looking through photographs on his camera. I watch along with him for a few minutes and see a range of blurred, close-up and random photos of protesters. A few sight-seeing photos pop into view, showing token protesters in the foreground, and he seems to be searching for that right shot. I couldn’t work out if he was a paparazzo or a tourist. I conclude that he must be both: a tourazzo.
I get home, and I realise how relieved I am to feel safe. I turn on the television, and see that an element of the protesting public has gone ballistic in Piccadilly, smashing ATMs, hurling metal grates into bank and shop fronts, spraying graffiti on building walls, letting off fire crackers and, ultimately, starting fires in the streets of central London.
Right now, I have no idea where this will end. It’s been an afternoon full of cops and yobbos. I’m so glad to be home.
There’s little that should surprise me in this heaving world city that is London. But hearing a Middle Eastern man testing out his Afrikaans on me in central London certainly made me smile.
I bought myself a new handbag last week. Carrying around a postage-stamp-sized bag just so I don’t have to take my Oyster card (London Transport travel card) out of my bag to ‘tap in’ every time I travel on the bus or the tube (the card reader can read my card through my bag), had long since lost its novelty. I needed to carry a bag that could hold more than my Oyster card, glasses, cell phone and one pound.
So I went to our local shopping centre and found a bag I wished to buy. The vendor told me the price and duly closed the sale. As he handed me my change (which I could now fit into the new handbag), he looked at me sideways and said, “South African?”
I assume he recognised my nationality from my accent. Not from the cheapness of my purchase. I smiled and nodded.
“Buy a donkey!” he said.
He then stepped back and beamed with pride like he’d just performed a magic trick.
I nodded and smiled my super impressed-ness to him, decided against saying something back to him in Afrikaans because that would have just been awkward, and walked away, smiling.
For my non-South African friends, baie dankie, which can, to an English ear, sound like buy a donkey means thank you very much. It was a very sweet interaction.
Travelling home on the bus the other day, I eavesdropped in Afrikaans. The guy sitting next to me had a long and detailed catch-up, in Afrikaans, with his friend on the other side of the aisle. I think I might have leaned over to listen more closely to what they were saying and I might have asked them to repeat a few words that I hadn’t heard properly. Apart from that I think they were oblivious to my nosiness.
One asked the other how his wife was and when his baby was due. (I’ve heard many a South African say the other one asked the other one, but that’s a story for another day.) He replied that the baby was due on Sunday, and his friend said,
It’s not the kind of expression you can translate easily. It could mean oh dear, how unfortunate or alas. In this context, I would say it means “Ah, shame” or “Ah, cute”. But you would never hear any men speak like that to each other in English. Some words just cannot be translated.
Shame is a word that is used in an interesting way in southern Africa. I could look at your new baby and say, “Ah, shame.”
Before you rush off to the paediatrician for a full assessment, you would need to know that what I’m really saying is, “Your baby is really cute/gorgeous/pretty/bonny/handsome/so small/so chubby/looks just like you/clearly the child of the milkman”. You can choose. But know that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your little one.
The appropriate response would be for you to smile and say, “Buy a donkey”.
It’s been a funny old week in London. On Monday, the 2012 Olympic machinery launched the official Olympic countdown clock in Trafalgar Square in London. I’m not a huge fan of the London Olympic logo myself, and I find the shiny, angular, steel construction of the countdown clock to be quite jarring. Especially in a setting such as Trafalgar Square.
The clock was unveiled with much fanfare, to herald 500 days until the opening of the London 2012 Olympics. Last night our news bulletins told us that the clock had had to have some running repairs done to it. The visual they showed was the clock presenting 533 days to go until the opening of the Olympics. The clock had started ticking and running backwards. In the words of the Telegraph reporter, “If only this were a wind up.”
Let’s hope that isn’t any reflection of how the Games will go, although if the clock is anything to go by, I think we might have already missed them.
And, after a really busy day at work today, I blasted my mind into refreshment with a fabulous Zumba class. I haven’t been for a few weeks, so it was great to enjoy the dance and movement again. I tell you what, though: Shakira’s hips might not lie, but mine? I wouldn’t trust them for a minute.
I couldn’t have imagined it happening, but just over a week into my new job and I have another memory to throw into our red box. I’ve also seen a few sights I’ve not seen before, and overheard a conversation that enlightened me about the expressions of young love. As far as first weeks at work go, this one’s been pretty good, thank you.
I can’t get enough of the fact that I work so close to the River Thames. Any opportunity I get, I take myself down to the water and walk and walk and watch and enthuse. Last Monday lunchtime we launched our walking club from the office: we walked down to the river, walked over the London Millennium Footbridge towards St Paul’s Cathedral, and then walked along the far side of the river as far as Blackfriars Bridge and back to our office.
Bright blue sky and weak sunshine provided a perfect backdrop for the walk. I couldn’t stop looking all around me, soaking in everything that makes London such an amazing place to be. City workers in dark suits sat dotted on benches all along the edge of the river; some eating sandwiches, some reading newspapers, some just sitting and thinking. Runners paced past us in both directions, and tourists were everywhere with cameras in hand capturing the London-ness of the day.
Seated on one of the benches was a musician playing a didgeridoo. I so wished I’d had my camera with me to document such a unique sight – I’ve seen a didgeridoo player in a tube station before, but never out in the waterside sunshine. I was riveted.
Another day I walked the other way along the river, and sat in front of The Globe (Shakespeare theatre) to eat my lunch. I was surrounded by tourists, office workers and schoolchildren all out to enjoy an outing in the chilly sunshine. I walked past a group of primary schoolchildren seated on the riverside wall, with pencils and sketch pads in hand, and they were all drawing pictures of the Globe Theatre. I then walked past a headless statue that was attracting much photographic attention, and many foreign students gathering together to visit the Tate Modern art gallery.
I wrote last week about the conversation I overheard on the bus, and I continue to hear funny things said on the buses almost every day. I enjoy the commute as I have not only a stunning walk to my bus stop, but the ride gives me an opportunity to read, although when I hear something that fascinates me I find it hard to concentrate on my literature. I have just finished Bridget Jones’ Diary, so my eavesdropping has occasionally taken a back seat!
On Thursday, I volunteered at a big fundraising event organised by the charity I work for. They run a calendar full of such fundraising events, and this was their inaugural Sports Quiz evening held at world-famous cricket ground, Lord’s. It was a black tie event, and the draw card for the evening was the presence of a number of British sports celebrities, including cricketers, rugby players, athletes, swimmers, a famous sports broadcaster and a certain Scottish manager of one of the most successful premier league football sides in Europe.
My colleagues were surprised that I had volunteered to help at an event in my first week! Perhaps they don’t know that I suffer from a hereditary condition known as FOMO (fear of missing out) and I am mad about sports. Put those two together, and you literally couldn’t keep me away from Thursday night’s event!
It was such fun and it so didn’t feel like work; the hardest part was running around in a little black dress and high heels. The former England rugby player who hosted the evening and ran the auction was brilliant – so funny and entertaining, it was like being at a comedy show; his banter with fellow sportsmen was fabulous and so well received.
I listened and laughed and watched and took in as much as I could as I ran in and out of the function room and did what I was told to do. I loved every minute of the evening, and was glad to share a cab ride home just after midnight. My aching feet were relieved of another walk to the tube station.
So, seeing a tiger in a tree on our walk to church this morning was nothing too out of the ordinary. We’ve come to expect the unexpected in London; it’s constantly filled with surprises and as for this week, it was good. Really good.