Maybe it's because they're not Londoners

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The Independent Online
PIGEONS, a column, a fountain, a few hundred people with video cameras on their shoulders: in Trafalgar Square there was everything a tourist might expect. Except Londoners. The tourists were in the same capital, of course, but a very different London from the workaday version.

It was as though a clear plastic dome lay over them, cutting off the life of the city outside. You should have been able to pick up the whole square, like a snowstorm toy from one of the cheap souvenir shops on its rim, and shake it, until all the the pigeons rose into the air and floated, glittering, round Nelson's head.

Elizabeth Barck, from Sydney, was gazing upwards within this curious world, entranced. 'I just love tradition]' she confessed. 'I could sit here for hours and look at Nelson. We're going to look at Buckingham Palace next.'

Bob and Simonne Hoggarth from Vancouver, Canada, were standing nearby, smiling. 'It's a whole lot cleaner than Paris,' they said. 'And people have been a heck of a lot friendlier. We're very, very pleasantly surprised. We thought it would be really dirty, and people would be impolite. And we love your taxis. We got a very polite taxi driver. He was unbelievably friendly.'

From the square it was easy to pick out the Londoners, hurrying, with withdrawn faces. The station of Charing Cross was sucking them in, delivering them out from south London. On the trains lay discarded copies of the midweek 'South London Press'. 'Bogus cabbie rapes woman', it proclaimed. 'A woman was punched in the face and tortured with a lighted cigarette before being raped . . .'

By the Thames, the Tower of London rose, white and grey against grey skies. A woman from New Zealand waiting in the queue for tickets said she had been all over England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland in 23 days and what had struck her most was the Lake District sheep. 'They were wonderful,' she said. 'Black faces] We have a lot of sheep in New Zealand, but none as pretty as yours.' We walked towards the Middle Tower. In the tourist shop, teddy-bear versions of Yeomen Warders were on sale for pounds 24.95, and, indeed, the Yeomen Warders, plump and jovial, seemed uniformly teddy-bear-like.

It was like being inside a model castle from Hamleys, clean and neat, with a working portcullis. In the Armouries, the crowds had formed into a bottleneck between the barriers in order to admire a genuine thumbscrew in a glass case.

Carol Turoff, from Arizona, was admiring the guardsman outside Waterloo Barracks. His eyes were glazed. She was staying in Leamington Spa, and she was puzzled, she said, by the people there. 'They avert their eyes if you're passing on the sidewalk,' she said. 'In Phoenix, they say hello.'

But even this had not dented her enthusiasm. 'Your tube is wonderful]' she said. 'And the ticket collecters on your British Rail trains are so helpful] And the history here is just fabulous.'

To and fro they walked among the relics of violence, butchery and injustice. Here, Anne Boleyn had her long neck severed, by this pretty patch of grass. Here, among the polished furniture and clean matting, the political prisoner Walter Raleigh fretted out his last years. 'We're having a wonderful time,' said Mrs Turoff. 'I want to go to Harrods next, and the British Museum.'

A few miles outside the castle walls by unclipped raven's flight, London's East Enders picked up their copies of the 'Newham Recorder'. 'Man who gave up all hope', declared the front-page headline. 'The tragic story emerged this week of a disabled man who died on a hunger strike after being told he would have to wait for specialist care.'

Replete with ice-creams and history, the crowds flowed out of the Tower, towards McDonald's. A family from Lille were sitting in the sun before a coffee shop. They liked the English beer, they said, they had found the people gentils. But what about the food? There was a pause. 'Ah,' said maman at last. 'Here we eat Americain.'

The coffee shop was called Enough 2 Feed an Elephant. The waitresses were smiling. One of them was talking to a German couple in German. It was true, through tourist eyes, the capital really was friendly, and the people really were gentils. In clean, tidy, renovated Leicester Square, two policemen in shirtsleeves were smiling and chatting in the sunshine to a litter collector. You could buy a plastic version of their helmets round the corner for pounds 1.99 to remind you how helpful they were.

At Piccadilly Circus, a small boy called Sanyan from Bangladesh was playing with the badges on a souvenir stall and, even so, the stallholder was beaming at him a great, fat smile.

His mother was Amatun Noor Panna, an advocate of Bangladesh's special court and a civil rights activist. 'British people seem so civilised and co-

operative,' she said. 'They help out if you are stuck.'

She had seen Hampton Court and the Crown jewels, but what had struck her most was how good the educational programmes for children were on British television. 'Children's rights are very good here,' she said.

The rush hour was beginning. Further up the line, in Old Street tube station, office workers were picking up that day's 'Islington Gazette'. 'Fury as education cuts go through', one headline read. 'Education chiefs pushed through cuts of more than quarter of a million pounds amid angry scenes at Islington Town Hall.'

I threaded my way through the happy crowds on Shaftesbury Avenue. Hidden in a shop door, a punk girl was desperately slapping the face of a half-unconscious young man. On cue, a shiny red London bus arrived, with friendly conductor, to deliver shop girls back to the grey, pollution- hung streets where Londoners live and dream of moving to the country. In Leicester Square, Eileen Larkin from Dublin was sniffing with relish. 'It's diesel and burgers and cigars and warmth,' she said. 'I love the smell of this place.'

For tourists breathe different air.

(Photograph omitted)