It’s been many years since I lived in the capital of Cruel Britannia. It never appeared to me as being the grimiest city in which I’ve ever had the chance of inhabiting, but then there’s a few reasons it shouldn’t. First, you don’t notice your own dirt. Over the years we learn to love and live with our own brand of muck. Partners even tell us that its our own unique smell. And London stands out in this respect.
But then you move away from a place, either to never return or do so only into the folds of well acquainted kin. In pricey town-houses, we are welcomed by the familiar. There’s an exception to this rule. You fail to fall into one of those two categories and return to London as a foreigner. You’ve been away so long that you lost touch with all those you knew. Your contacts have royally screwed each other over and are no long holding together the fragile network, a web that once hung across an alleyway trapping flies. Come back as this person and you’ll get led by the hand to certain places. I’m not saying places you would never have been before, but when you get there, you’ll definitely be talking to people who you would never have previously looked in the eyes, talking in a different language. You keep quiet when you smell shit and pretend your new friends are what is fashionable. Everyone will follow suit, because they’ve been afraid of them for a while now. You’ll be on top of the stack of shit, and all the shit-stack climbers will want to be you.
Then you look around again and you realise that London is the shit-stack by which the world measures such deposits. Then no one appears organic And you realise you have become the dirt. Your own unique smell.
Every system has to evacuate its waste products to function smoothly. So think, smoother functioning equals smoother waste ejection. But where does London’s waste go? How immense can the underground system supporting such an enormity be? You don’t need me to tell you it’s huge, just think how much money you have to pay if you want to see some starlet drugged out of her face in an exclusive nightclub, just think of the endless rivers of people flushing across the concourse at Liverpool Street Station between the hours of eight-thirty and nine a.m., just think of the heat in summer, tipping your head to the table, only raise it later to find that nothing has changed. You’re still in the same circumstance.
It’s a delicatessen next to the Windmill. The heat seeps upwards from the peaks of your forehead, not to mention every other part of the hair-line, front and back. A humid pulse throbs underneath the interlocked hands, clasped around your neck.
The words of those sitting around you form a cluster-fuck of languages. You excerpt words mistaking the language each time for one you understand. You keep thinking you understand, but you don’t even know the topic.
You blame having over-eaten and being too tired. You can’t be active with this much recuperation pending in your physiological agenda. But you should know that something larger is at play. The attentive waitress has been bringing you orders of tap water since you arrived and there’s a veritable trickle of sweat coursing permanently around and over a few of those veins on your neck.
Never get bored on any street corner in this town. Wait on York’s Way for half an hour, don’t move and wait until something happens, until somebody fucks with you. You’ve spent all day pounding the places you love, the street pulses in your feet. Soon a couple of black guys are going to cross the street in front of oncoming traffic. They’ll wave their arms and shrug their shoulders like it was the cars that had mounted the curb. One of the guys throws his beer bottle in pursuit of the vehicle with the noisiest driver. Off the street, a traffic bobby stops giving instructions to tourists and tries to apprehend both men at once. In the process of being handcuffed, the first slyly dumps the contents of the rear pockets of his jeans. His partner gathers a choice of the items and flees, leaving behind a few scraps of litter and two ink-correction pens.
The next morning, you sit on the terrace of a café just off the concourse of one a mainline station. When the waiter brings you coffee, the blunt memories of the twenty-four hours just passed force you to look him in the eyes. He places the espresso on the table and walks away. Today he doesn’t ask you to pay. Yet when you get on the train home that night you hear the announcement, ‘can I ask customers to assist train staff by firmly closing the exit door to the train behind them’. You spent the whole day stoned in a hire car, driving around the city one last time.
A small provincial town, like the one you come from, is defined by the people who inhabit it. A city, like the sprawling monolith that is London, appears not to suffer this same problem. To the untrained eye it is the Londoner who defines himself in line with the city. He or she must always keep up-to-date, toe the line and observe and abide by the unwritten rules.
But with so many rules and so many people, there is no consensus. What you see at first sight is what you came to see. What everyone else does is what the fuck they like. Some save up to be able to enjoy an evening that only comes around every once in a while, whilst others open the guide because they want to go out now. The city has no personality, just free museums and trashy celebs; no closing times, just over-priced drinks and slutty company; and no principles, just the accused and the guilty.