Monday, March 09, 2009

London

The moment of crisis came deep in the swarming bowels of Green Park station. We had spent the previous 45 minutes fighting through the Saturday morning Tube ticket scrum-queue at Victoria, riding one stop in a standing crush, then elbowing a painful passage to the Jubilee northbound platform. And when we finally got there, a handscrawled whiteboard informed us that the line was closed for planned engineering works. Since our final destination was Kilburn, a tense, verging-on-furious and oft-jostled consultation suggested that our only hope was to go back on the Victoria line to Oxford Circus, change to the Bakerloo for Baker Street, then find a replacement bus. A prospect almost too horrible to contemplate.

“The solution,” said Mrs Brit, “is to check on the internet to see which lines are closed before you come to London, and then plan a route.”

“The solution,” I replied, “is to not live in, visit or even go near to London ever, ever again for as long as we live.”

But some time later, upstairs in the Magdala’s old-fashioned dining rooms, ensconced snugly in a brown leather armchair and sipping a pint of Fuller’s Pride amongst loved ones, London didn’t seem so bad after all. As with mothers and the pain of childbirth, the human brain deliberately weakens the memory of London transport because otherwise nobody would risk it twice.

The outside-the-box solution we eventually hit upon was to take the Victoria line north to Highbury & Islington, then the overland train west to a mobile phone-revised destination of Hampstead Heath. When it comes to complex directional decision-making under pressure, my approach is to slow right down, stroke my chin and contemplate the map with the deep deliberation of the chess grandmaster. Mrs B’s approach, by contrast, is to speed up and rely on instinct– the Blink method, if you like. This doesn’t necessarily make for harmonious relations in the middle of a sea of pushing tourists, but between us we seem to get there.

Has it occurred to you that the underground train systems of the world’s great cities are a neat microcosmic representation of that city, or country, as a whole? The Paris Metro is dirty, unfriendly, the map purposefully confusing to the outsider, but once you get attuned to it you can sort of see the appeal. In Berlin everything is clean, efficient and clearly signposted. A breeze, in other words. A cold, cold breeze. The London Underground is a bloody mess that, against all odds and by the skin of its teeth, somehow makes it through each day. Splurged on top of a solid bedrock of evocatively-named stations (plus the design genius of the Tube map), is all the chaos of entrepreneurial, multicultural London. Sometimes it makes you long for some Germanic top-down planning. They have plasma screen technology in there, but instead of using it for, say, handy up-to-the-minute travel information in multiple languages, they scribble illegible notices on whiteboards and use the screens for adverts, just so much more visual ‘noise’ in the clamouring, clashing, brain-aching bedlam of the Tube. Exhausting.

Ultimately, I suppose, coping with crowds is the issue. Some thrive in it, most of us just have to find a way of dealing with it. It is possible to take solace in London’s sheer anonymity. It takes the pressure off; you’re there, then you’re gone. You really are a nobody to everybody. Except of course, to your friends and loved ones, ensconced in cosy leather armchairs upstairs in a pub. And who gives a damn about the rest? Let them swarm and jostle, outside.

16 comments:

will said...

I'll drink to that!

I also have a massive love/hate relationship with london, also, like yourself focused on the transport issues I have when ever I am in the capital (about once a month)

I love just about everything else about the place, apart from the seething couple of hellish hours I have to endure every time I enter or leave it

malty said...

Brit, joyfull I am to read your praise of Berlin, Europe's most enjoyable, laid back and value for money city, the view from the Reichstag across to the Hauptbhanhof at night is without equal. It is what Paris must have been like after Hausman knocked it into shape, substitute classical for modern. Wide boulevards, meandering rivers, bloody good restaurants, laid back friendly people, Trabant hire, reasonably priced housing, not strangled with huge gobbets of retail emporia. Cracking maraton, well worth taking part, Potsdam also well worth a visit. An excess of lyric waxing ? maybe.
As for Lunnen, had good times in the sixties, mrs and I lived and worked there awhile. Last visit about 7 years ago, thanks but no thanks, Sodom and Gomorrah with shops, although there is an exhibition of Richter portraits at the moment.....

Brit said...

Berlin is my second favourite city break, after Barcelona.

Loved it, but... meaningless to ignore the history when it's so recent. The Jewish museum, which is brilliant, encapsulates the problem. It is admirable but it is also an apology - a hopeless, inadequate apology.

will said...

Berlin is a great world city - the most attractive thing about it would be the rental prices, which are ridiculously cheap to live in such a major european city - and their flats are often those lovely 'old style' european apartment buildings with a rickety wooden staircase and big windows

still, I'd much rather live in Munich though. World capital of beer, full of hot women, great hot summers and snowy winters..and less than an hour away from the beautiful mountains.

Brit said...

One thing about the Krauts (contrast the Frogs) is they love it when you have a go at the lingo. In Munich we were eating in the restuarant under the Rathaus; the waiter beamed and squirmed with patronising joy as I plodded steadily through my order in phrasebook German, then when Mrs B pronounced 'Schmecken' at the meal's conclusion he almost wept he was so happy.

malty said...

As you say Brit, Barcelona is a good place for a break, pity about the bunch of thieving bastards who live there, had me mobile nicked in the Ramblas. If you're ever in Berlin again try the Vietnamese restaurant close to the British embassy, a real eye opener. The Jewish museum is a must, as you say, apart from the security.

David said...

This is extraordinary.

I was at a party Saturday night when the conversation turned to how the British are always complaining about the Tube, when in fact it's so great.

That's synchronocity. (Also, spare a moment to pity me for the type of parties I attend.)

Brit said...

Well, it's great when it works. I have a love-hate relationship with the Tube specifically as well as London generally. When it doesn't work it is the purest hell.

Nige said...

London Schmondon - what I want to know is this, Brit: Boy or Girl?

Brit said...

I have answered the above question further above, Nige.

Ali said...

Prague is nice. The food is rubbish though.

I apologised for every joke I'd made about the French after seeing Paris for the first time.

Brit said...

But with beer that good, who's worried about the food?

Prague - now there's a nice simple underground. Three lines: red yellow and green, change at Museum, I seem to remember.

David said...

Ah, Prague. I remember the surprise that accompanied every food order that wasn't biftek and the sheer bewilderment that greeted our inquiry into whether there was a restaurant in town where we could get one meatless meal.

Then I'd drink the beer.

David said...

Ali:

Paris is wasted on the French.

Ali said...

David: Not the French chicks.

Explaining the concept of being a tee-totaller to Czech restaurant staff is a joy in itself.

I just got back from Istanbul which is shockingly nothing at all like Lahore i.e. pleasant, organised and stress-free. Next up in April are Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Amsterdam, Madrid, Toledo and Barcelona

gaw said...

Nice post. Agree about Berlin - stupendous.

The thing about London is that it feels totally different living in it versus visiting it. Having a fixed point means the vertigo stops and you can start to relax.