It is the lack of geography. It is alienation made concrete.

Everyone is foreign, transient.

Any accent, any language, up to and including English. It is the melting pot that has melted down. This sprawl was once part of England. All places, all cultures, have come here and mill about in crowds.

Dilapidated Lego jigsaw semidetached suburbs of crumbling 1890s assembly line manufacture.

Disorientation by Tube. Dark tunnels that jolt and turn and pull in at some place that could be the same place. All stations are the same one. No map. No geography, save winding rows of houses, and the winding grey-green greasy Thames.

Too many conflicting maps. Straight lines on the tube map wind and twist on the steet map, and vice versa. Too many cultural identities, no culture.

Capital of Grey Britain.


I didn't like London much in 1999. There were reasons. I wanted to put it behind me. I am back in 2002 and am slowly learning how to love London.

There are at least two Londons. There is the London that only exists when you enter its transport system, and the London that exists when you get spewed into the city and refuse to enter the beast.

The underground world of the beast known as the "London transport system" extends beyond your actual individual journeys.
It colours your experience: you move about the city in disjointed, discontinuous ways. You get on a bus in dulwich, and you end up in Barbican. You did this by passing through areas in which - for the first time in your life - you are in the ethnic minority. You got off the bus at a time that only your intuition told you was propitious, only to walk up and down stairs, moving through tunnels, sometimes on foot, sometimes very quickly. You navigate the largest city on the continent without really knowing where you are. You see strip lights, billboards, billboards moving past as you run down THE LEFTHAND SIDE of the escalator, advertising straight lesbians, aging sex-symbols, new books neither you nor anyone you know will ever read, and then you're looking around trying to find the next map, the next place to go. Eventually, after enough of this you get vomited onto the surface, there to find a specific address by wandering around a small area you have no mental map of whatsoever. You get there grimy, you do the business, then you're off to your next stop, by tube, passing people the like of which you have never seen before, and people t
he same as those everywhere you've ever been. You pass a jumble of tall architecture, marked with grime, the occasional building scrubbed, the better to leach the wealth of the wealthy, not for you son, maybe when you've made it, get on, get on. You do this again, and again, and again, until, eventually, hours, days, years later you get on a bus, a train plane, and you leave the city, with no real idea of where you were, how you got there, or even how you got out.

Then there is the other city. In this city you rarely descend below ground, or enter the belly of a metal beast. After being vomited into the light of the city, you walk, or if you want to navigate the city like a running fox, quicker than anything else in the metropolis, you cycle. You decide where you want to go, you consult your map, you build your mental model of the city. As you go, more of the city fits into your head: It becomes comprehensible, familiar, perhaps even friendly.

In this world, streets and places make sense, and if you get on your bike you travel them quicker than anyone else. The surprise is how short these streets are. The size of the city comes from the fact that it's so damned tall, and everyone's passing cheek-by-jowl.

In this world, the cyclists move like crazy cats, doing things no-one would dream of elsewhere. For some reason, the bus drivers aren't trying to kill them. Maybe that's what fills them with confidence.

In this city, you are aware of your surroundings, you see the shades and the colours, the dangers and the rewards, you're learning a little about the place, you know that it ain't nice out there, but you're coping; you're not paranoid. Welcome to London, kid.

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