I love wandering around London. Always the disturbing little alley you’ve never seen before. The hidden courtyard. The fragmentary glimpse of history from centuries ago. Fascinating. But I’m never convinced she’s the kindest of Mistresses…
Are You Listening?
The city isn’t a nice place. It has its dirty little secrets. When the city is sleeping it doesn’t have very sweet dreams.
Here’s an idea. Why don’t you look at the street you’re walking along? Look past the repetition of faceless office building and parasitic coffee shops. Take a look at its genesis. Take it from source. You barely even touch its history on your short walk to work but its history is there. Waiting to speak to you. You really think nothing seeps out through the paving stone cracks? Well think again.
The collective resonance of a thousand footfalls is remembered here. The city may be sleeping but the cumulative force of human actions shapes its dreaming thoughts. The city would like to speak to you. It doesn’t matter that you choose not to hear her. You don’t get to entirely tune out a thousand years of her assiduous listening.
The only problem is when you choose to reply.
Smart phones for stupid people. You’d think the banality of the human condition would all but kill anybody’s desire to listen in but the city is used to the platitudes of human interaction. The woman in the ironic t-shirt tweets the names of her fellow Southbank diners to the world as the Southwark boatmen had shouted the price of fresh whores across the Thames. Add a little passion and the cities all ears. Beneath the veneer of cheerful sociability she hears the grasping cries for attention. And remembers.
She always remembers.
The city remembered as a man fell to the gutter on Hercules Road. Stabbed for the price of a meal. The fourteenth of May 1802. She remembered as the outcast dead were buried at Cross Bones cemetery. Paupers and prostitutes. Winchester’s fair geese. 1603. Tourists walk the floors of the Imperial War Museum. Three hundred year ago you visited this building to be amused by the clinically insane. Conveniently Bedlam moved but did it really leave nothing behind?
You don’t think the city has something to say to you? It remembers nothing of these events? Of the plaintive mediocrity of human lives? Take a seat and watch. I can’t really advise it but then maybe you’d started to notice too. Hadn’t you realised you’d begun to watch every step? To circumvent the cracks in the paving stones?
You instinctively avoid waiting on a certain tube platform. Every time. Somebody always wants to start an argument. About anything. For no reason. You don’t want a drink with me? Why? Bitch. A scuffle about football. A relationship ends in screaming ignominy. But move one stop further down the line and you can peacefully wait among taciturn fellow travellers. Your friends advise that you really shouldn’t take that short cut home across the park but nothing, nothing at all unpleasant has ever happen there. The street behind the welcoming coffee shop is always home to a vagrant. The corner of the connecting alleyway always the scene of a traffic accident. Somebody always stands begging by the small shop that sells hardware. An old woman waits at the last bus stop. Every day. Every hour. You’ve never seen a bus arrive.
The house you used to live in never felt like home. A stranger’s rooms you shouldn’t be visiting. A dark hallway that left you grasping for a light switch. Friends who always prefer that you visit with them. Ikea pastels don’t seem to fix a clinging sadness on the stairwell. Another annex of the past that desires to tell you something. Just like you, nobody ever lives there very long. Always easier to say you need to move closer to work.
Start watching for the patterns. They’re barely hidden by the mundanity of your day- to-day life. Pick at a few corners and you’ll be surprised what’s underneath. You don’t need all the jigsaw pieces in place to see what the picture is. What happens on the city’s streets has always happened there. The foundations were laid centuries ago that dictate the behaviour of its fleeting human visitors. But once you’ve noticed, her subtle coercions are too difficult to ignore. All-pervasive. All-encompassing.
Now you’ve noticed the city, the city has noticed you.
She doesn’t have many people to talk to. Thousands lost in gym membership, being seen at the right places, networking a career move. Grimly keeping up the pretence of a happy, productive life is a full-time occupation. Drinks? Tuesday? The work was so inspirational. If you tell enough people you’re fascinating then you obviously are. It’s better if you shout. The city can only whisper to these preoccupied edges of perception, but if she finds somebody who’s listening you’ll have her undivided attention.
The Northbound journey towards the river produces nausea now. The horizon line reeling until you’re clear of the street. Walk to Westminster Pier and the stifling claustrophobia around the new hotel complex leaves you exhausted. Gasping for breath. The adrenaline-fuelled surge of fight or flight forces you from St George’s Park.
A plague cemetery. A railway for the dead. The grounds of an asylum until 1930. The Internet can tell you most things. It’s full of useful information.
Bet you wish you never started to listen.
You learn to plan your route around centuries of slumbering misery. The intonations are faithfully memorised for you to hear, in every step of your journey. You walk in a city that whispers of her ruin. It’s cadence seeps around the stone on which you walk. Only tragedy has happened here. Only tragedy will happen again.
Pick your way between the starvation and the cruelty. Quickly sidle past a house where murderous anger fills the air. Circumvent an unpleasant cross roads. Avoid a former workhouse behind the store façade of elegant clothes.
Now the city has your attention she wants to tell you all about her past. And you really don’t know how to stop listening.
Smart phones for stupid people. Maybe they’re just trying not to listen too.