24 hours in Piccadilly: Peter Popham spends an all-human-life day at the circus (Eros is not what he was)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I arrive as the Tube opens up and commence loitering. The brass-topped 'heritage' rails cordoning off Eros - or the Angel of Christian Charity, as he is more properly addressed - make luxurious leaning.

There was one blanketed body in the entrance of the Odeon Haymarket, one in the forecourt of the Nat West on Shaftesbury Avenue. Pigeons, drizzle, a wayward seagull. Snug in their Ford Transit, London Transport Engineering Services eye me and gun the motor.

5.32 Two Japanese girls in long skirts, ankle socks and sneakers show up with a camera and pose for each other in front of the famous neon. But only some of it is alight at this hour: Panasonic, VHS, McDonald's. Above and below McDonald's are strips of kinetic graffitti, spelling out GOOD LUCK WARWICK, HAPPY 40TH BIRTHDAY BARBARA BRALY, COCA-COLA TIME 14.20.

5.45 I discover I am being observed. Bolted on to the arms of two of the 'heritage' street lamps to the east and west of Eros are video cameras.

6.05 Underground. Too early for lavatories . But I could telephone or have my picture taken.

6.45 Human contact: drunkenly teetering blond girl, male beanpole lurking behind her: 'Excuse me young man, can you spare us 20 pence?'

'No I can't' Now I am 42 I find this 'young man' angle displeasing.

At the Expresso Bar in Shaftesbury Avenue, open now that they've finished mopping the floor, I drink cappuccino and buy a pastry for 50p, but return it for a refund because it's stale.

6.53 The traffic got busy in a hurry: swirling through now. The drunk blonde tries her charms across a litter bin on another young man while her squire hides round the corner.

7.05 A man in green waterproofs speeds a green streamlined rubbish sucker with blinking amber lights round and round Eros. Another man with wellies and a hose sluices the pavement of Shaftesbury Avenue. Periodically he whips out a scraper to have a go at some chewing gum.

Small, thin, tired-looking men in wind-cheaters and carrying sports bags trudge hither and thither to their places of employment.

8.00 It has brightened somewhat. The sluiced-down empty wastes of beige and tan artificial stone paving around Eros almost gleam.

The lights and fountains of the galloping Horses of Helios outside Sogo, the Japanese shop, have sprung into life.

8.10 Chap out walking seven, count them, Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppies.

8.45 I position myself by the busiest exit of the Tube. The station is 'like a turbine grinding out human beings on all sides' as somebody once said, but the one that disgorges on to Lower Regent Street is the most favoured. People are now spilling steadily through the wickets.

People look at me scribbling. An accidental locking of eyes with a stranger at Piccadilly Circus that lasts more than, perhaps, 7.5 nanoseconds, is an Event, to be remembered or consciously discarded, depending.

8.55 Does Westminster always take its cleansing duties so seriously? Or is it connected with the election campaign which has just finished? We've had the green sucker, the hosepipe, a little truck spurting out water from an 8ft articulated bar at the front. Now more men roll up, emptying the bins into big plastic sacks which they drag on bakery trays. I'm impressed.

9.10 We have no beggars here. I find this fact troubling. What have they done with them all? What Draconian measures keep them away?

Since the big refurb several years ago, Eros is an island no longer, but surrounded by car-free paving. Paradoxically this has made it more truly isolated than before. In the past people fought through the traffic to get on to it, and having done so they stayed put, Kings of the Castle. Now that it poses no challenge, most people pass it by; only real tourists wash up on this desert island. To get off it again they must take a photograph. They waste little time in doing so.

9.35 Raining, so I am underground again.

When you stand at the top of the Tube for a while, you lose all sense of where the travellers are coming from, the network of trains far below; nothing exists but the flow of people up and through the wickets and the shrieking of the (unseen) escalators.

11.10 I learn that the two video cameras trained on Eros are monitored in Leicester Square. There are also two small loudspeakers, so if someone clambers up into the fountain, a disembodied voice will say, 'Can you please get off the fountain?'

1.30 Emerging from London Pavilion's Rock n' Roll Circus, I find that the passers-by, having attained critical mass, have turned into a swirling horde. Standing at the top of the steps outside the Pavilion, I register: three security ladies in caps eating chips out of a big bag, two female Scandinavian students, 35 French teenagers wearing orange and green backpacks. A laughing Lebanese in green trainer pants. A very bald man wearing a sand-coloured trilby. A tiny, fat Asian Mohican, PUNX NOT DEAD on the back of her leather jacket,the Mohican strip died orange and kind of curly. A Japanese businessman in a grey suit. A very sick Afghani in a beautiful herringbone overcoat. Thirteen members of the London Fire Brigade in peaked caps and navy uniforms. A blond, ginger-bearded man with a sleeping bag and a haggard green face.

1.45 '. . .Located in Piccadilly Circus, the heart of the UK capital,' prattles the Rock n' Roll Circus announcement to the passing horde. The show, by the way, is lamentably bad, pitifully phoney. Everything in Piccadilly Circus is more or less phoney. Even the beautiful restored Criterion restaurant, with its ceiling covered in gold mosaic speckled with small lights, feels kind of -themed.

It all went wrong when they closed down Ward's Irish House in the 1980s: the big, dingy, labyrinthine pub in the bowels of the London Pavilion, with zinc counters, Dublin standard Guinness, gruffly amiable service. Underground, it was a sort of sanctuary, a club for the unclubbable. Nothing like that left now.

3.45 I'm clutching: three newspapers, brolly, notebook, tape recorder, CDs bought in Tower Records' sale, hip flask, wallet, cough medicine, pens. What I need now is a carrier bag: passport to the streets Within nine hours, you too can feel like a mad tramp.

6.10 Girl with pink hair, handcuffs hanging down her back, sign on the back of her jacket:

INSTANT ASSHOLE

Just add alcohol.

6.32 Toff watch at the Lower Regent Street exit of the Tube. Where are the young blades who should be racing up the escalators just about now, teeth bared, laughing horsily as they bounce down to the clubs of St James's for a hand of whist and a bumper of port?

6.40 No toffs.

7.15 Nobody is playing in the fountains or misbehaving in any way, but suddenly the loudspeakers next to Eros burst into a spasm of strange Goonish ying-tong speak, as far as I can fathom saying something about chicken curry. It happens twice.

8.10 Eros is nicely lit up. But there are no beggars, buskers, punks, rent boys, vandals, English people or hawkers here. In other words, they have cleaned the bejaysus out of the place.

8.22 A Rastafarian sax player belies my moan. Simultaneously, bagpipes emit from Boots.

10.55 Fully dark, and the neon comes into its own, blooming and wilting, green, white and red. The windows of the buildings around the Circus send back slick, shattered reflections.

11.20 A track by Bark Psychosis from Ambient 3 resonates mellowly through the basement of Tower records, open until midnight, where many customers are exploring the risky thrill of buying records after the pub. Mute film of the D-Day landings on the monitors.

11.47 Girls clutch their boys like trophies and frogmarch them towards the Tube. Hands stretch out towards cabs. Another bout of street cleaning commences.

12.08 This place is no more menacing at midnight then at five in the morning or afternoon. As I lean against the rails by Sogo's Horses of Helios, a bubbly young couple ask me to take their picture. 'Yes, happily,' I reply. 'Happily?' says the boy, looking at me sharply. As if I'm going to get some illicit kick out of it.

12.14 The guy with the ginger beard stands slightly bowed at the bottom of Shaftesbury Avenue, eating cake out of a box with a plastic fork, the box being balanced on the rim of a litter bin. Then he wanders off, leaving nine-tenths of it.

1.00 It's raining again, which flushes out Eros's last snuggling couples, leaving the Circus to the morning paper sellers and the handers out of disco tickets, and the next Westminster cleansing effort.

The Circus just died. I have the feeling of being stranded in the wrong room at a party. I edge eastwards and discover the action. Over at Leicester Square, someone is playing a jig on a concertina, someone is preaching the Gospel, portraits are being painted, girls are being picked up, someone is tootling Careless Whispers on a sax. I'm back in the city again, you can tell by the smell of the hamburger stand.

Goodbye, Piccadilly.

(Photographs omitted)

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