This green unpleasant land: On the anniversary of the Countryside March, Stevie Morgan came to London in search of bright lights and entertainmen t. She found a silent, dogged population staring at pigeons
Saturday 27 February 1999
So by the time I've got to Paddington, eavesdropping on the boring half of six conversations has made me grumpy. Still, I leave the train with the sense of expectation which always accompanies my arrival here. I mean swinging London, right, the place where exciting stuff happens.
The first disappointment is that there is no one on the platform that I know. Outrageous! I have 18 friends in London and not one of them is among the hundreds on the concourse! What's the point of a crowded place if you don't run into somebody you know? Still there is the rest of the day, I could get lucky...
I don't get lucky on the Tube. But then it looks as though nobody does. There's an overwhelming atmosphere of dull misery. Not even the punk guy with the pinstripe suit and the crimson hair looks like he has much fun, and the young black Maya Angelou lookalike seems ready to slap everyone in the carriage. It's like we've all been given one month to live and have to spend it here on the Bakerloo line. Perhaps some of us have been given just one month to live - who knows what fascinating ramifications of human experience we could share, if only somebody would speak. They look like an interesting bunch to me, but I'll never see them again. The train doors open, and another lot of strangers sluices in.
I walk across Trafalgar Square. I need animals as an antidote to all this city. Passing through the pigeons with their dry, taffeta rustle of feathers all around me is very comforting. Other people are seeking the solace of non-human life forms too. How come, if the architecture and the cultural buzz are so great in the city, people come here to see pigeons? Not one of the 50 people hanging out here even glances up at poor old Horatio. (Incidentally, on a nice day Londoners don't play in the traffic, they go and find a piece of imitation countryside, the park.)
A guy from Battersea and his grandson are covered in birds: "I bring him every week," the man tells me. "I always tell him how these are wild birds." With pigeon food at 25p a shot, this could be the only entertainment bargain left in London.
I hail a taxi. At least taxi drivers talk to you. And God knows there's always time to talk in a London cab. The traffic is parked from Charing Cross to Fulham. By the time I arrive (having navigated for the driver using my pocket A to Z. The Knowledge! Pah!) I know about all his children's careers, marriages and interior decor. "Course, I don't live in London," he says. "I like the country. Hendon's where I go to roost."
The ignorance of the city-ite is almost touching. They seem to believe that the Wylde starts at Hampstead, and anywhere west of Swindon is virgin rainforest. I know a high-powered lawyer who stood in my garden and expressed astonishment that potatoes came from underground.
At the meeting my colleagues are concerned about my journey from "The Country". When it turns out it's taken me less time to get here from Devon than it has taken them from Chiswick, Greenwich and Camden, there is a short but significant silence. "So why do you live in London, then?" I ask, perhaps a little unkindly in the circumstances. "I've forgotten," is the sole reply.
Back in the taxi I have time to read Time Out, every word. Great stuff to do! So this is why people live in London! Although perhaps not if I'm to believe the twentysomething publicist in the cab with me. "I thought London people went to the theatre every night," she says, "and talked about exhibitions all the time. Then I moved here and found they all go home to Hammersmith and play Ludo."
I decide to do some culture. I choose a flamenco performance and phone for tickets on my jaded friend's mobile. It's sold out. I walk, dismally, to see a movie instead, and in spite of the fact that it's OK, I feel somehow cheated. That's the trouble with London, someone always seems to be having a better time in the restaurant that you didn't book, or with the theatre tickets that you couldn't buy.
I climb on the train home, exhausted and dissatisfied, like child who threw up on the waltzers and the dodgems. London can be a great ride, but who wants to live in an amusement park?
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