Sunday, 27 March 2011

How did I get here?

No thanks to another miserable British train network experience I have just returned from a weekend away, back in the Midlands visiting my family.  Another set of cancelled trains, another slow crawl out to Birmingham on Friday night on an overstuffed train.  What joy!  But eventually I made it and have passed a lovely weekend seeing various family members - some belonging to me, some belonging to another.  Despite the fact that I had always called Staffordshire home until about 3 and a half years ago, people are often surprised when I reveal my Midlands roots.  I am constantly mistaken for a Southerner.  On occasion people have refused to believe I have not been a London citizen all my life (not bad for an Accidental Londoner, eh?).  I'm not sure why.  Maybe it's the distinctly non-Midlands accent I have, honed by boarding school, but quick to slip a bit when I head further North than Sheffield.  Maybe it's my obsessive knowledge of London bus-routes (including which one's TFL has ranked most dangerous).  Maybe it's my furious loathing of tourists and people who don't come from London that disrupt my morning commute.
After I correct those convinced I have lived here forever, I get asked the same question: "So, why did you move to London?".  To which the honest answer is, well, I didn't really mean to.  (Hence my Accidental prefix.  Keep up, people!)  When I left university I was adamant that I'd never live in London.  It just didn't appeal to me.  It didn't have the buzz and excitement of Paris or New York (let alone the glamour), and I thought it was dirty and full of people who did not look happy to be there.  Yet after two months of temping for a local council department in Staffordshire I was climbing the walls.  I had a two week internship lined up with a charity in London to look forward to however, so I answered phones and input data until the time had come for me to head to the city for that to start.  Within days of being down here I was thoroughly enjoying myself.  The internship was fun, and I never had to be in the office before 10am.  I had friends here who were all too keen to help me spend my weekly lunch and travel stipend on dancing and margaritas.  I had a kind Accidental relation who didn't seem to mind me living in her spare room.  I had freedom and London's wealth of entertainment at my feet.  The internship was extended a week more, then another and another.  When I finally returned to Staffordshire I suddenly wanted to return to London. 

Together with a uni friend who was in similar local government office purgatory in Sussex (she administrated yellow lines being painted on roads, I dealt with the crazies at Social Services), I hatched a plan.  Loads of our friends had done it, it couldn't be that hard.  Sod it, we would move to London, find a flat and jobs.  And with that, we did.  Shuffling from sofa to spare room, between our nearest and dearest, we met with pushy recruitment consultants, attended interviews for a myriad of crazy jobs, picked the least horrendous sounding ones and signed on the dotted line.  We were employed, now we needed a house.  House-hunting, we discovered, was far more stressful and tough than job-hunting.  (My jaundiced experience on the subject was captured in one of my earlier posts.  Bottom line, estate agents are loathsome, and in London prices are high and flats microscopic.)  

After trawling the dregs of the January flat rentals market for five weeks, and recruiting another potential housemate on our search, we did find a lovely place to call home for two years.  We learnt to commute across the city, and curse TFL.  We learnt the satisfaction of the first post-work drink, and the misery of the office hangover the next morning.  We made new friends, and dodged old ones we were less keen to bump into on the bus in the mornings.  We discovered the best places to shop and eat and explore.  We began our education in becoming Londoners.  Whilst the course may be long, with each person who mistakes me for a bona fide Londoner, I feel that I am slowly approaching my graduation.  

Friday, 18 March 2011

If you prick a city, does it not bleed?

The newspapers tell some pretty gloomy stories about our world at the moment.  The eternal struggle between man and nature has claimed thousands of lives recently.  A powerful few are making decisions which have an impact upon the lives of millions; often without a thought for anything but their own self-interest in obtaining more terrifying power.  Lives are being utterly remodelled and everyday patterns turned upside-down.
In the past week poor Japan has been shaken then drowned.  Its cities, towns and villages have been pounded by a force which has done more than caused financial damage and a bloody great mess to clean up.  Infrastructure systems have been destroyed and disrupted.  Roads have ground to a standstill.  Businesses have been shut up or abandoned.  In the unfortunate areas in the proximity of Fukushima, even breathing the air and simply staying put could kill you.  Towns which were once safe homes are now threatening, dangerous places.  It must be a terrifying, suddenly alien place to be, yet the Japanese are behaving with immense and quiet dignity.  They are living their lives as best they can, coping with this hideous disaster.

Tokyo is a capital city, the nerve-centre of a country, yet it too is struggling; trying to keep the rest of the nation going whilst dealing with its own traumas.  Cities are not merely collections of buildings and communication and transport systems.  They are not all hard concrete and steel, tough yet before the power of the natural world pathetically brittle.  Cities are alive.  They are organic communities that experience happiness, sorrow, fear and hope.  People do not shatter down their seams like skyscrapers in the event of a disaster.  They absorb the impact of a threatening force (whether it be natural or man-made), rather than crumbling before it.  A collapsing wall feels no pain, but cities hurt.  Cities scream in shock and terror, and they weep in grief and mourning.  
After two planes tore a hole in New York City the entire island of Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs cried out.  The city's cries were heard in swiftly erected banners and flags, and photocopied prints of people who had vanished.  They were heard in the establishment of volunteer centres where ash-covered firefighters slept in cots at the back of churches, taking breaks from desperately searching rubble for fellow citizens.  In some places you can still hear the cries today, maybe softened as life has attempted a return to normalcy, but when a city is hurt the wounds take time to heal.  No shiny tower, however high, will replace the Twin Towers, which in their absence have come to mean more than they ever did still standing.
Not so long after 9/11 London too came under a similar attack.  I wasn't yet living here, but remember frantically phoning friends who commuted along the same routes hit by the terrorist attacks on 7th July 2005.  The morning rhythm of the entire city was disrupted.  The streets filled with shocked and disoriented people, passengers slung off transport services which had stopped running.  And despite the oh-so-British practice of trying to go back to normal as soon as possible, the effects of the bombings could be seen in the everyday functioning of the city.  Patterns which Londoners could normally reproduce with their eyes shut suddenly required full concentration to begin replicating once more.  A once tedious and frustrating commute became a challenge, and formerly annoying fellow tube-riders became suspicious enemies.  Even today, with an awareness of what once happened in this city, I watch seemingly unattended baggage nervously.  Regardless of the fact that it probably contains nothing more scary than two weeks' worth of dirty laundry and a straw donkey, I imagine the potential explosive horrors which could destroy me inside.  As a wound leaves a mark on one's skin, so an attack leaves an imprint on the collective consciousness of a city.

I am one, small, Accidental city-dweller yet I can all too easily imagine the horrendous feeling of violation, of one's city and home, currently being experienced by those millions of people who have built their lives in the cities of Japan, in Benghazi and Tripoli, in Sanaa and in Manama.  Yet from the living energy of a city comes its power to heal itself.  Buildings will not repair themselves, yet people will begin to piece a city back together.  Not just by reconstruction of the physical environment but by speaking and sharing experiences and showing support for one another.  Just as the human body is surprisingly resilient to the knocks it sustains in a lifetime, many a great city has witnessed violence, fire and flood.  Yet there are few cities which are completely abandoned by their citizens in times of crisis.  When the mourning is over the city slowly begins to regenerate, through the return to urban life by its inhabitants, driven by that most insanely optimistic yet utterly human emotion - hope.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Accidental Visits: Highgate Cemetery

I like reading fiction which is set in London. Somehow having a mental image of a place drawn from a memory or familiarity rather than having to construct it solely from the words on the page before me makes it easier for me to become immersed in a story. I read a book not so long ago, the second novel from a much heralded author whose first book had been an extraordinary hit, which was set in London, not so far from where I live. Highgate, and strangely its cemetery, was the location for this somewhat unlikely tale of ghosts and identical twins. And yes I know I should suspend disbelief, blah blah blah, but I just wasn't wild about this book's plot which got ever more unbelievable and fantastical as it went along.  But its descriptions of London held my attention. It even created a desire in me to go and visit the setting for much of the book's action; Highgate Cemetery.

London has numerous burial grounds where hundreds of years of citizens have found their final home in the city. Many of the most famous Londoners, or frankly people of all time, are interred here; from great political minds to some of our nation's more peculiar television presenters.  The cemetery is split in two, divided by a narrow lane; one on side is the East Cemetery and on the other, the older West Cemetery.  Neither cemetery is the blank, organised graveyard which often springs to mind, with perfectly laid out rows of headstones and trimmed grass down the middle.  They were designed as "garden cemeteries", full of trees and shrubs, hence a wander around feels rather like a visit to a slightly wild and tangly country park.  As the West Cemetery is only accessible via scheduled tours, my Accidental companion and I pottered at our own pace around the East.

Despite the fact that the East Cemetery is still used to inter many recently departed Londoners (who had the foresight and finances to reserve a plot), parts of it feel very much unvisited or undiscovered.  Maybe visiting it on a soggy Sunday gave a particular vibrancy to the green grasses and weeds and trees.  In some corners nature was very much claiming the intrusive stone and metal.  Tangled branches wrapped themselves around mausoleum columns and carved crosses. In some places stone angels or obelisks had been toppled by the force of an immovable tree root.

Beyond the tussle between man-made monument and plants however, we found stones commemorating The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author, Douglas Adams, and the final resting place of punk legend, Malcolm McLaren.  A random group of companions clutching bunches of flowers huddled in the drizzle in front of a vast monument, atop which was a monstrous bust of Karl Marx.  One particularly striking, and everso slightly tasteless, tombstone stood 5 feet high in dark slatey stone, with cut-out letters spelling out "D - E - A - D".  We noted from the inscription the person interred below was an artist; suddenly this design went from slightly shocking to a tad pretentious.
A common feature of many of the graves in this site is the addition of what their eternal inhabitants did whilst upon this mortal coil. Most simply state a single word to define who they were, beneath their profession.  An artist here, a nurse there.  Doctors lie next to poets.  Publishers share a plot with font developers.  Other epitaphs indicate a little more about a person's style, how they were who they were.  One person who had worked in media production was commemorated with "Memories of laughter and lunch".

I learnt that you can begin to know a lot about a person from what is written about them on their tombstone - a final and eternal report-card.  You can learn even more about what is not written.  The matching headstones of a husband and wife stood near the entrance.  The husband had died first, his wife choosing the lettering for her beloved: "Loved by all".  His wife had followed him out of mortality, although her epitaph had clearly been written by someone who didn't hold her in such high esteem as her husband: "Loved by many".  (I'm guessing the less devoted minority had chosen the second tombstone's text, to highlight that she wasn't missed quite as much as her husband.)  So be nice to everyone - you never know who will end up writing your epitaph.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

All the books in Britain

When I am writing an essay for my university course I will do anything not to sit down and actually do it.  The television I rarely watch, my iTunes music collection, the washing-up, and even the laundry all seem more tempting than the reading and analysis which proceed the writing of several thousand words on development and gendered ageing experiences.  I usually have to remove myself from my flat to work, to save myself cleaning the bathroom or baking a pie in order to do anything but get my essay written.  Typically I seek peace in coffee shops, finding my university library too terrifying a place to work; it is usually wall-to-wall panicking students which does little to reassure me that I needn't be panicking too.

The other day however I made for the library to end all libraries in London - the wonderful British Library.  The British Library has stood in its current position amid the train stations of Euston Road since 1997, when a striking new building complete with a sculpture-strewn piazza opened to house a significant chunk of the nation's collection of printed matter.  Within this red brick edifice, which has oddly oriental elements to it with its sloping, tiered rooves, are housed literary treasures such as a handwritten manuscript of Jane Austen, Captain Cook's journal and ancient copies of religious texts.  Many of these items appear in permanent exhibitions, whilst temporary displays appear to detail topics such as the changing nature of slang and the hidden propaganda of maps.  Stretching up throughout the centre of the structure, spanning the floors, is a glass-housed collection, once belonging to George III.  Occasionally you can see a shelf slide back and a librarian claim a tome before replacing the shelf and vanishing. Yet there are millions more books, papers, even every back issue of British Vogue, hidden away underground beneath this building and miles away in repositories in Woolwich.  And these are the books that many hundreds and thousands of readers, writers and researchers come here to see.  
Ever second person, i.e. those here to use the library for its original purpose rather than there merely as a tourist, clutches a clear plastic bag containing pens and notebooks and usually a laptop.  Each looks oddly like they've just been through airport customs and been frisked of all their personal effects.  They camp themselves on benches, at odd, tiny triangular-shaped tables on high chairs (along a wall in the excellent Peyton & Byrne cafe), and spread out along balconies and every square inch of space.  Yet the building is so well designed that even when fully occupied the space never feels over-crowded or untidy.  (Tucked away, several floors up on the back of the building, is even a secret garden.  Visit it in the summertime and you can take a break from your hard work and look out over the busy city surrounded by a wall of unexpected roses.)  At the British Library there is enough going on to make for absorbing people-watching, yet not too much to make it impossible to be equally absorbed by one's books.
I force my focus back to my work and type away and consult my notes and piles of photocopied articles.  Surrounded by all the ancient words of notable authors whose works have illustrated history I hope desperately that some of their creative and literary genius will rub off on me.  I visualise words and phrases creeping out of the yellowing pages and floating silently and invisibly in through my ear and out once again through my fingers tapping on the keyboard, populating the blank document on my laptop screen; a process of creative osmosis, if you will.  And so fuelled by a lot of coffee and in the company of the world's greatest novelists, philosophers, poets and explorers I finally finish my essay.
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