A tourist in my home town

Click to follow
The Independent Online

You wouldn't guess to look at it, but Belvedere Road, London SE1, an otherwise unremarkable street that runs out from behind Ken Livingstone's old stamping ground of County Hall, is one of London's internal frontiers. South of it, and you're still in the shadow of Waterloo station, much made over lately yet somehow irretrievably shabby, just like most of the rest of our workaday capital.

You wouldn't guess to look at it, but Belvedere Road, London SE1, an otherwise unremarkable street that runs out from behind Ken Livingstone's old stamping ground of County Hall, is one of London's internal frontiers. South of it, and you're still in the shadow of Waterloo station, much made over lately yet somehow irretrievably shabby, just like most of the rest of our workaday capital.

Then you come to the border, marked by a row of taxis and a long line of buses with peculiar number-plates, bearing distinguishing letters such as D, F, A, PL, NL and CZ. Beyond, you discern stalls and queues stretching in every direction and, towering over everything, a magical white wheel in the sky. Across this boundary without border-checks lies Disneyland-on-Thames, a totally different universe, peddling fantasy and illusion, disconnected from the world you have left. If a resurrected Dante went from Tuscany to this northern river, he would have you entering through a giant arch bearing the words, "Abandon all reality, ye who enter here."

Last Sunday afternoon, my wife and I and our young son passed through the arch. For the next 24 hours or so we would be tourists in our own city, accompanying a couple of American friends who were over from Chicago for 10 days with their two daughters, pre-teenaged and just teenaged. That evening, it would be the London Eye, followed by Shakespeare at the Globe. Next morning, we would make a tour of Parliament, reopened for public tours that very day. All were experiences as new for us as they were for our friends.

At 4pm we assembled, as agreed, in the Eye's ticket office - we bearing a makeshift picnic for later, they attired in shorts, trainers and baseball caps, moneybelts round their waists, camcorder in hand. It was all systems go. No aches, pains and tummyaches among the assembled troops, a clearing sky and an excellent weather forecast. Everything was set fair for the adventure ahead.

The Eye has one of those maddening queues in which, after a quarter of an hour, you get to the front of one line, only to find there's another equally long one ahead. But finally, exactly on time, we boarded our 5pm "flight", and our capsule of 25 souls inched upward toward the heavens.

There are, it should be said, still problems with this unexpected smash hit of the London Millennium festivities. For one thing, they haven't quite got the air-conditioning right yet; with an outside temperature of 70-odd degrees last weekend, it was bearable but occasionally a mite sticky. On a really hot day, it would surely be an inferno.

For another, you risk coming up against one of those zealots who spot a couple of tiny beige structures way out in the direction of Stansted airport, in Essex, and insist on informing the entire company that they have just spotted the twin towers of Wembley Stadium. I tried gently to point out that Wembley was in north-west London, not on the way to East Anglia; but if I'd pushed the point too hard, I'd have had a fight on my hands.

Instead, carried away by the technical beauty of this British craft, I became quite the little chauvinist, boasting to our American friends that from the top of the wheel, with a view of 25 miles in each direction across the richest region in the EU, 1 per cent of the entire GNP of planet earth lay stretched before them. Well, maybe not 1 per cent, but close; anyway, the Eye is the sort of place that makes you stretch a point.

Mark you, the psychological decompression on disembarking is pretty brutal. As you leave the Eye and head off down the Queen's Walk, tacky tourist London is upon you in all its malodorous splendour. First come the hot-dog stands, purveying greasy sausages and fatty fried onions as only the British do them; for you, squire, a positive steal at £2.50 each. A far better deal were the laminated posters, among them the inevitable Queen-as-Miss-Piggy, at £1 apiece. Next, you pass half a dozen operators offering henna tattoos. "Your name in Japanese," proclaim the posters. Or, if you are so minded, you may adorn your skin with oriental characters purporting to mean "Sexy Love Tiger" and "Sensual Wolf" - all guaranteed to stay on for four weeks.

But, for our friends, it's all fun. Word of overpriced Britain reached the shores of Lake Michigan long ago, and they operate on the basis of what costs $1 in the US costs £1 here, meaning they don't bridle at £1.50 for a small bottle of mineral water. They are mildly curious about why Jubilee Gardens, next to the Eye, look like a trampled farmer's field where a pop festival was held the night before. Otherwise, though, they take in their stride London's endemic filthiness - as usual, more litter on the ground than in the three-quarters-empty rubbish bins along the route.

Oddly, I didn't mind, either. As you walk east with the foreign tourists along the south bank of the river, as a low sun shafts down on to the opposite skyline, the Londoner understands anew just how extraordinary, multi-layered a city he inhabits. Its charms are haphazard. Its buildings and its habits are the steady accretion of centuries. It's not a preening beauty like Paris, a history-cursed capital like Berlin, or an awe-inspiring glass-and-concrete behemoth like New York, but an old mercantile centre of serious money, practical power, and infinite adaptability.

And so, on to the Globe. If the city is invariably dirty, another rule of London summer tourism is that Shakespeare must be bawdy. We British perhaps pay the Globe less attention than it deserves. But the scrupulously reconstructed open-air theatre, with its oak, thatch and wattle, is at the top of an American visitor's list of London attractions. For him, the Bard and Churchill are what make England different; so, after the Cabinet War Rooms by Whitehall, he's off to the Globe. And on a perfect cloudless evening, Shakespeare doesn't come much better.

They're doing The Tempest, featuring that listed monument of the London stage Vanessa Redgrave, as Prospero. In truth, from where we were sitting, you had to strain to hear the fine verses uttered by the usurped Duke of Milan about life, fate and justice. It's the knockabout stuff and the lewd bits that make the show, especially for the younger element: Caliban belching as he bites chunks out of a raw fish, then reeling around with too much wine inside him, and then stuffing someone else's hat down his backside and hauling it out of the front of his trousers.

But the real question is whether, near the close of the first act, the drunken butler Stephano actually peed on stage, up against a pillar, in full view of the audience. Our 10-year-old son swears he did, and from where we were sitting it certainly looked like it. And about the biggest laugh of the evening came when the stage hand appeared during the interval, holding his nose at the smell, to mop up the offending fluid.

Now I doubt the Globe's the right place to appreciate the finer points of Hamlet, Othello or some other dark-worded tragedy. But for Shakespeare-as-pantomime and Shakespeare-as-tourism, it's just the job. As you watch proceedings, with a glass of wine or a beer in your hand, you're just thankful old Sam Wanamaker was so determined to rebuild the place.

Finally, back to an old haunt newly on display, the Houses of Parliament. It was the first time I'd been back since I worked there as a lobby correspondent between 1976 and 1978, and Monday was the first day of organised public tours since Airey Neave, the Conservative politician, was blown up by an Irish terrorist bomb in the Commons car park in 1979.

What struck me again, as it struck the Americans with us, was just how small the two debating chambers are, especially the Commons. The sensation is exactly like going back to school - not surprising since Parliament resembles nothing so much as a school that has just broken up for the long summer holidays. As a pupil, your school was the universe, its rooms vast and its corridors endless. Return in adult life and you realise the place is tiny, almost claustrophobic.

The tour was terrific. Nowhere in London, perhaps in the whole world, is there a building with as many ghosts as the Palace of Westminster. Mine are the ghosts of the late Seventies: a scowling Jim Callaghan marching down the Committee Corridor; Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Opposition, porcelain-blonde and venomous; and a strutting Jeremy Thorpe, about to be brought down in a scandal, as ridiculous as it was tragic, that even Shakespeare couldn't have dreamt up. In the intervening 20-plus years, nothing much has changed. But since last Monday, and until mid-September, the tourist can go where I never went as a lobby correspondent: the Queen's robing room and the Royal Gallery on the Lords side and, in the Commons, the voting lobbies themselves, then behind the Speaker's chair and out into the Chamber.

An ever, watchful policemen stop you sitting where they sit, but you can brush your leg against the seat of Tony Blair, put your hands on the dispatch box and stand at the Bar of the House like a new MP on his first day. The whole thing lasted 75 minutes, and my only objection was to our guide's remark, as she was explaining the reform of the Lords, that Mr Blair had "followed the people's will" when he got rid of most of the hereditaries. Personally, I had a soft spot for the hereditaries. But I can't complain. At £3.50, the tour must be about the best deal in London. Sometimes, you can't beat being a tourist.

r.cornwell@independent.co.uk

Comments