London is a sprawl of intellectual and cultural stimulation. But it’s also the only place I have visited and lived where the image exported is incongruous to the reality.
Words Catherine McMaster
Neatly packaged and marketed as the cosmopolitan capital of Europe, it’s a polyglot and variegated cosmos. Yet, there’s a darker side; London is a bubble almost impossible to infiltrate. Naturally, tourists see London in a more flattering light. Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament are sites of wonderment and the city’s eclectic inhabitants are a source of genuine curiosity. Yet, for live-in Londoners, Leicester Square has been swallowed in drab kitsch, while Chelsea, having sadly lost its bohemian aesthetic, is now populated by reality TV stars with slick quiffs, too much cologne and voices clipped and curled by elocution lessons.
I moved to London from Australia almost 18 months ago and find myself fusing more into the local stereotype than I dared hope. That is, I’m cantankerous and perpetually irritated, specifically with the swarming populous of enthusiastic tourists. I wasn’t always so cynical but it’s a protective blanket all Londoners adopt.
I struggled in those early days and developed a silent loathing for the city, its cruelty and intolerance, its shadowy cynicism that reminded me constantly I was still an outsider. It was a time of baked beans on toast and unsympathetic local acquaintances. I shopped at cheap variety stores and hoarded freebie chuck-outs from the street. I walked everywhere to avoid exorbitant Tube fares and ate digestive biscuits for breakfast.
During my first 12 months, I took on several interesting roles to fund myself. I sold German furnaces at a design expo. My opening line? “Madam, do you know the benefits of moisture plus?” Assuredly, I received strange stares and quizzically raised brows. I was employed as a waitress at the Guard’s Polo Club at Windsor Great Park and was instructed to wear tight white trousers and a polo shirt a size too small. The local elite weren’t there just for the booze and horses.
Like all great capitals, London is a voyeur’s haven. I am constantly enthralled by the social dynamics and intimate idiosyncrasies of its myriad communities. Just as the streets of Paris are the creative and artistic inspiration for artists and writers alike, so is London, but insights are far more raw and cruel.
Yet there’s something intrinsic that pulls people to the capital. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia of an earlier age. We pine for Dickensian London, Shakespeare’s Globe, Platform 9 ¾, Anne Boleyn’s White Tower and the home of the infamous Krays.
Wherever you go, there’s a potpourri of interlaced characters. A walk along the Embankment reveals bankers in made-to-measure Italian wool Savile Row suits strolling nonchalantly past the scatterings of the homeless. French summer-school kids with olive skin and nose piercings smoke Camel cigarettes on the pavement. Out of towners in their I Love London T-shirts amble idly. And the natives? They’ve got their heads down, briskly walking, tutting irritably, avoiding eye contact. London is home to 8.67 million people; we haven’t got time for niceties in this stimulating, cruel but intoxicating place.
But in times of severe hardship, war, the recent terror attacks and fires, the city and its residents rally, and the hard exterior that seems so impenetrable cracks to reveal an open, giving heart. Whatever people may feel about London, I don’t think it’s ever apathy.