Many things have changed in the years since I’ve spent time in the UK; however, many things have stayed the same. Here are some very free-form observations:
Time Out, the thick magazine that was once the Bible of everything cool, is now free weekly in, I suspect, a diminished form; I couldn’t get my hands on one to check. I still remember the weight of the pound coins in my hand as I approached the sales clerk with a Time Out in hand, ready to read a heady collection of snarky TV reviews, in-depth theatre provocations, and serious considerations of opera, all revealing a deep abiding love of all that London has to offer. It was a necessary luxury, and I felt bereft of its wisdom and its wit on this trip.
In the past I’d often get a good sense of shows and products on offer while riding up and down the escalators in the tube stations. Lining the walls were posters for the latest stage shows (many running months, even years) and ads for the newest products. Those displays are still there, but the paper posters have been replaced by digital displays which often display one show or product in multiple spaces, making the up/down trip a blur of sameness. I suppose digital posters are more efficient than the old paper ones, but the effect is much less varied and exciting
The three Rs (reducing, reusing, recycling) have filtered into TV programming, from shows on vintage fashion to programs in which houses are furnished using repurposed and antique furniture, often very creatively remade. I’ve been a vintage consignment, and thrift shopper for years, so it’s great to see national programs that celebrate the history and value of older, used clothes, as well as their connection to sustainability. Of course, strolling around Oxford Street and other big shopping sections of the city one encounters many fast fashion outlets producing vast volumes of clothes that are cheap, but liable to split apart or lose their allure as the styles shift: certainly not a sustainable option.
Bikes are now a huge presence in England, particularly in London. Green asphalt bike lanes fill the city, the home of groups of riders, often in pelotons, cycling at speed through the city, many in their suits, ties flapping, a few in heels, and, I fear to say, many without helmets. Of these, many are Boris Bikes, the blue bikes nicknamed for the city’s mayor, Boris Johnson, available for low-cost rental for anything from a half hour to more. The bikes can be found all over the city and certainly seem to be getting used. I puffed along on a Boris Bike through Hyde Park and Kensington Park, as I didn’t feel up to the magnificent mayhem of London traffic. It was a beautiful day, the park was green and lovely, full of people picnicking, walking, running, and I found the hefty bike good exercise.
Other forms of transit are much the same, from the tube stations to the train stations, though these too have changed in the digital redesign. Digital displays now quietly update information on destinations, times, and platform numbers. Once noisy placards spun to update this information, a noise I’ve always associated with the excitement of travel: as if the placards were mini wheels of fortune, spinning to who knows what and where, their click-clack a promise, a possibility. It’s very efficient, I’m sure, but I miss the visceral nature of the old way.
So what’s the same?
Well, there’s the smell of the newsagents: fresh print, a slight sweetness of candies, and the slight tang of money. In a few places in the city there is the acrid smell of urine, a reminder of the many residents and their bodies, the waste that is usually kept well away from sight and smell in the city’s vast sewers. The familiar sounds include male pigeons cooing as they strut and spin, pursuing bored female pigeons who walk on by, the sound punctuated by the thin whisper of their tail feathers as they drag them along the ground, seeking at least a flicker of interest. To this is added the mournful sounds of the doves, resounding in the trees and green spaces.
The tube sounds and smells the same: there’s the slightly damp, subterranean smell carried in the whoosh of air created as a train comes though the tube, the air blown around one’s body, pieces of paper moving along the concrete floors of the station. Then there’s the loud thrum-thrum, whoosh kittle kettle of the train along the rails, the shaking of compartment as it goes around curves, everyone swaying slightly, enduring the loud grumbles and the occasional shrieks of the train on the tracks, as well as the slap of people’s feet as they race down stairs and passageways to catch that train or the next one. In the stations I find myself slipping back into my old London persona: brusque, fast-moving, easily annoyed by others, and indifferent to the strangeness of traveling underground through these narrow tunnels with hundreds of strangers.