Saturday, August 08, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #356] New London Town

Guy Ritchie (I know, I know) made an erudite observation about the British capital: "New York is the centre of the Western world, London is the centre of the rest of the world." New York sucks in money, people and ideas from around the world, but it's largely from the relatively developed world; London's centre of gravity is just the opposite. New York has taken the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and London got the wretched refuse of the teeming shores. Perhaps it's London's proximity to the economically lagging Eastern hemisphere, or that even though the spoils of Empire have stopped coming up the Thames its people have not, but the citizens I share my streets with are, to put it Britishly, distinctively uncivilised.

An anecdote is this story snuffed out any desire Natasha had to stay in London: she and Chris were walking on Streatham High Road, an area of South London with a heavy North African population. As they were outside a store, a child from inside came to the door, undid his trousers, pissed on the sidewalk, and then went back inside to his family, who continued talking throughout as if there were nothing abnormal about this. This is, you see, because where they were from, nothing was.

This is the modern actuality of London; it is a world city in reality, not just euphemistically. You have to accept that living here means living a little bit in Karachi, Calcutta, Mogadishu and Rangoon as well.

Two weeks ago I was at the Royal Albert Hall for a BBC Prom. It was the 800th anniversary of the founding of Cambridge, so the audience was saturated with alumni, including Prince Charles. Since a royal was present, before starting the official concert, the people rose to their feet, the orchestra struck up, and the choir and audience sang, boisterously and proudly, the British version of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee". In that moment, in the impressive domed hall, surrounded by patriotic countrymen proud of Queen and country, deep in the heart of classic and classical West London, ensconced in parks and rows of terraced period homes, I saw a glimpse of the London the British remember: the Capital of the Empire, a regal, elegant city, free of council estates and yobs and public urination, a right, proper and proud place - and I was reminded that London is part English, too.

Two symphonies and two cocktails later, I boarded the District Line heading East, a bit warmed by my brush with an idealised London, but happy to be heading back into the urban, gritty East End, London's welcome mat to the world.

On a less lofty note, I went to Brighton Pride for the first time last weekend. London's Pride is probably the biggest in the UK, but Brighton is the emotional favourite, in a park (in a city) by the sea. It rained. And rained and rained and rained. My friend Alexi, a Brighton native, said it's the wettest he's ever seen, a literal washout. And yet it was charming nonetheless. Having it in a park, rather than in the same crowded streets you see every other weekend, gave it a real festive air, despite the 'British sunshine'. People were still smiling, and there was that general ease and friendliness you only can get when people are on holiday, even if just for the day. I enjoyed it immensely, and in fact relished the rain for the pure British absurdity of it, and will definitely be back next year.

Below, some random pics from the past couple weeks, including my night at the Proms and Brighton Pride.

Cheers from the capital of the rest of the world,

01) DSC00001 - Northern Line straight ahead! Or right...

02) DSC00004 - Me and a painting of... Paula Abdul?

03) DSC00005 - The twin towers of Watney Market

04) DSC00010 - Fairytale British naming

05) DSC00016 - Royal Albert Hall

06) DSC00020 - The organ we sat next to; very convenient for the Organ Symphony that night

07) DSC00026 - Brighton Pride begins

08) DSC00034 - Me in the official Pride 2009 outfit

09) DSC00035 - The view from our hotel -- the next day

10) DSC00036 - The Brighton Pavilion

11) DSC00001 - Out my window this morning

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