My train from Bath pulled into Waterloo station – the busiest in London, counting human heads passing through it (88 million in the last financial year) – and I was in the Great Smoke again. The last time I visited I was 18 and it was a long weekend during the Queen’s Jubilee. This time, the Pope was in town. Or as I’d like to think, both had decided to show their faces in public on behalf of me. Elizabeth and Benedict are good like that.
I wanted to like London, the only other time I’d visited was when I was three, and my parents tell me the only thing I had to say about it was that I was inexplicably hungry the entire time. Thankfully English cuisine has changed a lot in the 20 years since, not to mention the last eight since I lived there. My goal this time was to approach London with an open mind – it is, after all, one of the unofficial capitals of the world in terms of culture and business. This trip has begun to feel like window-shopping for a new place to live, and I do want to upsize. But is London the answer?
As soon as I got off the train, my body involuntarily lurched and my head started to ache. By the mid-1800s Waterloo station was nicknamed Central, and by the later part of that century it was so ramshackle that it had 16 platform roads, but only 10 platform numbers – different sections or levels of the station used the same numbers more than once. By 1897 three separate (and separately-owned) underground stations named ‘Waterloo’ had sprung up around the Central one. It was joked that a person at Waterloo station had no idea of the wanted train’s platform, departure time or destination.
This confusion – and frustration – met me again. I really wanted to embrace London in all its sprawling particularity, but it’s a metropolis (one of many I’ve been to) that really does feel like a flushing toilet. Perhaps Waterloo was not the best way to enter it, though I guess its moniker is apt.
My cousin, Shannon, lives on Goldhawk Road, which is near Shepherd’s Bush, and I dragged my increasingly heavier bag there for the beginning of my two-week stay. The story of Goldhawk Road station isn’t very interesting, only that it came about after the original location of Shepherd’s Bush moved a few blocks north of Goldhawk Road, changed names a couple of times and now there are two above-ground stations within walking distance. I like the name Goldhawk, however: it’s one of those compound English words that conjure heroic and ancient imagery, like the nearby Ravenscourt and Wormwood. English town names are legendary in their peculiarity, too. For the Pope’s visit I created a joke for one of the Central line’s stations: What do catholic priests wear? A: Theydon Bois.
Even though I was already drained by the city, my cousin greeted me with open arms, and I soon found myself surrounded by laughter and beaming faces from her boyfriend, James, and our other cousin, Megan, who I’d never met before. Meeting family a quarter of the way into ones life is a strange and surprising thing. It feels somewhat fated, but in a different way to making a new, exciting acquaintance. With family there’s an added security and familiarity about the meeting (I guess Etymologists would say “Geez, duh!”).
The next day Shannon took me to Westminster (via Central and Jubilee lines) and we explored the Foreign Office on Whitehall – open this one day of the year, called predictably enough, Open House London. Then we bustled our way through Saturday tourists to the Geological Society on Piccadilly, where we encountered the protest march against the Pope and Catholic church (though it must be said, there were a few Catholic priests in the throng demonstrating their hatred for their figurehead, so it was more against the Bar o’ Soap than the faith). Out of the tide of people skipped unmet cousin #2, Alice, who joined us for the rest of the night, which included a poke around Fortnum & Mason, and a 30th near London Bridge.
Westminster station’s Jubilee line is at the bottom of one of London’s deepest excavations (39 metres down), not to mention precarious: its location means it could’ve sunk the Houses of Parliament’s clock tower if proper engineering precautions weren’t taken. The whole underground network of London is like an ant farm – forever being fixed and extended by its worker-drones. While I might gawk at the Renaissance-style interior of the Foreign Office, or the rebuilt Georgian architecture of Regent Street, beneath the surface of London, there’s just as much history and redevelopment. I wanted to scratch the surface this time.
Tottenham Court Road
My cousin’s housemate Phil, a kind, tall, sculpted to every last abdominal, gay man, with pictures of Kylie and Men’s Health magazines in his room, took me to Soho the next day to show me cafes where gay men cruise or sit back and watch eye-candy mince by, and shops where I could buy tight, primary-coloured underwear. On Old Compton Street, gay is no longer a part of the underground. It’s mainstream, it’s visible, and it mingles. The Soho district contains the big theatres and Chinatown and high-end and high-street shopping – tourists, locals, queers, queer tourists and queer locals all descend here for a good time. For that I loved the area, but I was similarly unmoved by the overly sexualised nature of queer culture on offer. But that’s a personality thing. I’m tall too, but choose to wear oversized woollen jumpers and carry a puppet from the Sooty Show around, listening to a Mexican band called Fuck Her, or the Terrorists Win. I decided that this hipster needed to see Shoreditch.
Over the two weeks I ended up in Shoreditch – London’s trendiest, designer-haven, “edgy-in-a-gentrified-kinda-way” district in the East – more than I expected to, which was no bad thing. I don’t know, but maybe I’ve been involved in the arts scene too long, or read too many fashion blogs, but I instantly liked the area. Sure it could be pretentious in parts, but maybe so am I.
The first time I went, I visited a graffiti-art gallery and wandered past dozens of design studios, wondering how they all stayed in business. The very next day I went back with my cousins to a Vietnamese restaurant, which earned Shoreditch a few extra points for liveability. Later I’d go again and connect with the Book Art Book Shop, a main distro for zines in London. It’s all in close proximity to the Brick Lane markets and Spitalfields – I could imagine living there; the first time I could do that in London.
Unfortunately, there’s no circus at Oxford Circus, but it is the busiest of all the tube stations (when you exclude the stations connected with the National Rail service). On my sixth day in London I caught up with a friend from Adelaide, Brooke, outside it and we quickly ducked and weaved out of the way of people and the rain to stumble on the PopUpHouse on Berwick Street in Soho. It was a space transformed by the House Collective for their very first project – an event tied in with the London Design Festival. We participated in an interactive theatre piece and then sat and talked with Dilini, Theo, Antonno and Barney about what it’s like to run an arts collective and an extensive two week event. They were, by far, the closest thing to Format that I’ve met so far. It was great to meet them, but it threw the support Format gets in Adelaide into sharp relief. Sure we’ve won two industry awards (hahaha, wow, do I sound ungrateful or what?), but we always contend with not achieving critical mass. It’s completely unfair to compare Adelaide with London, yet I was envious of the exposure they got, and they’d only formed a few months before. The positive feeling I took from the comparison was how proud everyone involved with Format should be of their work, achieving so much with such a slow-burn audience as the judge.
I then took Brooke to another part of London that I could imagine living in – “imagine” being the operative word – Brompton and South Kensington, where Harrod’s and Sloane Street are, darling. I don’t aspire to be a rich twat, living a status-symbol lifestyle, keeping my children closeted to the dangers of the world, like sandwiches teetering on the edge of their use-by date. What I do enjoy in these affluent suburbs is the grandiose houses and forcing myself to walk upright, with dignity and sense of purpose. I like looking at Prudence from Notting Hill directly in the eye without giving away the fact I’m more than likely to return home broke.
The day before, I’d strolled around Holland Park and Chelsea as well, playing the “yes/no” game with the houses tightly packed next to the other (though the game differs slightly with townhouses, as the curtains need to be open to discern your taste). My imagination worked overtime of the types of careers I’d need to have to afford a whole one. Lawyer? Judge? Ringmaster? I pictured myself smiling (as one would do when that rich), rummaging in my Hugo Boss attaché case for my house keys, pushing open the door and escaping the circus of the city outside.
Thursday night I caught up with my friend Mia and her boyfriend, Jimmy, and we chatted the night away, mostly about living in London as opposed to, say, living in New York or Adelaide. The practical option for me seemed more apparent: I could get my ancestry visa for the UK, and I had slim chance of obtaining a green card for the US. And like Mia and Jimmy, Adelaide wasn’t really an option anymore.
On my second Friday night I met my mate Keith at Mile End tube station – someone I’d only met once when he stumbled upon Format in March – but cool/nice enough to seek out when in his territory. He took me to his place in Hackney, and then we went out with his girlfriend, Olenka, and friends, including the talented Crystal, to Dalston – apparently another trendy part of the city. By this stage I was falling for London, though I still felt overwhelmed by it. A pretty face in the crowd would soon be replaced by another; one cool cafe had a twin and a triplet in different parts of just one district; there was something for anyone looking in the right place. How do you begin with a city like that? And when does it end?
The next day my cousin and her friend Gus and I met up with my friend Vic at the Borough Market – a foodie’s heaven: the free tasting enough to get you full. The Borough Market lies just west of London Bridge on the south bank of the Thames. The rhyme ‘London Bridge’ doesn’t actually relate to any one time London Bridge fell down, and is thought to take inspiration from how difficult it was to bridge the river. My favourite story is that it refers to the old custom of burying live children underneath the foundations of a bridge to keep it from falling down. I guess the class system has changed quite a lot since those days. Who would we deem that expendable these days?
Later on that night, Vic and I went back to the PopUpHouse and watched a fashion show. I then went on to another birthday party where I met a real, live travel writer, Robyn, who inspired me to keep going down this track. (FYI: I realise how unedited these blog posts are).
Hammersmith was the site of one of London’s first settlements, and has since gone from an industrial epicentre of the city, to a very prosperous commercial and residential zone. The tube station saw a derailment a few years ago; where the penultimate carriage decided it had had enough and tried to exit through the Broadway shopping complex. This is where I met up with another friend, Jess, and we caught up over an amazing Persian meal in the Polish district of town.
Over the two weeks I walked miles and miles, and tried jogging a handful of times, but the heavy pollution of London took its toll on my lungs, that by the end of my stay, I had to stop soon into the run. One fun thing to do after a day out in London is to trace the edge of the inside of your nose and discover black on your finger. That’s some hefty emissions, my friend! I also had a tea with a friend of mine and Format, Jillian, near the Spitalfields Market, and met up with my mate Dan, who I would travel to Copenhagen and Berlin with.
On my last night in London my cousin took me to the Blue Anchor pub on the banks of the Thames overlooking the Hammersmith Bridge. I reflected on my time in the big smoke: I’d met a great new handful of friends, and my social life with old ones was unrelenting. I had an established family and friend circle there: something people spend years developing. I looked out at the bridge, ate my fish and chips, and had an overwhelming desire to return to the city that had finally captured my heart.
Or had it?