Cocks and Staches and Stouts

photo by bubbahop on flickr
photo by bubbahop on flickr

Yesterday I went into town to see my friend V for a beer in the City.  It was strange to be back– starker now that most tourists are gone, and perhaps the lay offs have sobered the place, emptied it out? The shadowless St. Paul’s, now diapered in canvas and scaffolding, and Paternoster Square with its big bronze pineapple crowning the concrete fan of pavement– I always feel misplaced there, like the extra that’s wandered on the wrong set or like I’m the apple in a Magritte painting.

While perching by the churchyard, an extremely handsome, well suited man stopped me and asked the way to Paternoster Square– I told him he was almost there, and pointed, but he walked away as I was explaining about the pineapple– which is really the information you need to know you are actually there.  His loss. When people ask me for directions and I actually know them, this makes me feel like a Londoner, almost.

My friend and I met in the Cockpit, our favourite pub on the corner of a little side street.  The place is run by two men with magnificent moustaches and no matter how crowded it is I never have to wait too long to be served. I was amused that last night as I stood at the bar some gentleman called to the landlord, There’s a lady at the bar! I think he was trying to do me a favor but there was a tone of wonder in his voice.  The pub is usually filled with suits, bankers decompressing from the hard work of bringing the entire world to its knees, toasting each other while looking forward to the next day when they can hold all economic recovery hostage to their whims.  But I digress!  The place is painted dark red and decorated with steins and paintings and statues of cocks–  some of it perhaps from when the tiny, circular bar was actually a cockfighting ring.

V and I joked about the vertiginous spiral staircase to the ladies room. After our third (or was it fourth?) round, they were closing up, putting stools on tables.  I ventured up the stairs and as I came down I saw a little door open in the side wall of the flight of stairs– an Alfred Jarry sort of moment (each floor of his flat was cut in half to make another floor)– where the mustachioed proprietor crawled out!  I jumped and said, Ha-llo! to cover my embarrassment and he just looked at me like, Lass– you’re squiffy!

On nights like the last, London seems to say: I love you, why don’t you say it back? And then it goes and takes my favourite necklace of 15 years.  It must have fallen off on the tube. I feel naked without it.

Hanwell Cinderella

If I leave Vagabonds (a goth club near London Bridge) after midnight these are my travel options according to Travel for London.  The last tube is a few minutes after midnight. For a cosmopolitan city, London really does shut up early.  Some clubs like Vagabonds are open until 3, but how do people get home?  I suppose they wander the streets for three hours until the first trains leave in the morning?  When I put in “show me routes with the fewest interchanges” the first return routes began at 5:30 in the morning, even though I put in midnight.  So basically TFL is telling me to stay in the club until 3am and then sit on the banks of the Thames, etc. until 6?  There aren’t even 24 hour diners in London where you can nurse some coffee and greasy eggs at 3am.  If you have a group of friends I suppose you could split a cab, (last time I shared a cab the ride to Hanwell was £75.)  Or brave the night buses as a posse, but as a woman traveling alone it’s just a bit impossible.  The last time I braved the night bus it never showed up.  I waited for over an hour in an abandoned Sloane Square at 2am for the N11 which never came.  I finally hailed a cab which cost me £28.

Better stay home.

Fat-bottomed girls, they’ll be riding today…

Today, after Kate and I had exhausted ourselves with I Knit’s fab Knit-in-Public-Day Treasure Hunt, we stumbled upon hundreds of naked people riding bikes. Apparently today was also the World Naked Bike Ride which is a protest against oil dependency and car culture. All that was missing was the Queen song.

According to websites and fliers the nakedness serves not only to celebrate “the power and individuality of the human body” but also to raise awareness about cyclists vulnerability in traffic. I have friends who cycle everywhere and they are quite brave. Sometimes even crossing the street in London can be dangerous– drivers often don’t give pedestrians the right of way even when they should legally, and the situation is much worse for cyclists. London runs on anger and aggression and this often shows in the way people drive here.

Watching all the flesh speed past, I was lost in reverie. For a moment I pictured an Amsterdam in London, teeming with bikes! It was a beautiful thought.

Of all the things London can be, it is never really a joyful place, and yet today these protesters seemed gleeful, flirty and free. I wondered, cynically, if they were really Londoners at all.

Leafing through the streets

Yesterday was May Day, and a lot was going down in London. We started out at Green Park where Space Hijackers, a group of trickster anarchists, were holding a May Day street party to commemorate the forgotten, carnavalesque and radical roots of the day. Some people had dressed up fully OTT– a glittering mermaid did a tailed cheesecake pose for photographers, a tall man sported an abbreviated 18th century gown that showed his suspenders. There were peasants and pirates and a couple V masks. But many people failed to dress up for the occasion– some “cake-eaters” street theatre. They were in lame ironic tee shirts or typical anarchist black hoodie and bandana get ups. I made the effort in a corset, bustle, bloomers and 80’s acid wash bolero– with matching parasol.

I was handed a verbose pamphlet entitled WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE ARRESTED by a scruffy dude in a brown, moth eaten sweater. Buzzkill. There were more cops and photographers than revelers but they seemed like a fun bunch– even the police were laughing and smiling. I suppose supervising us would be a preferable assignment to, say, dealing with the aftermath of certain football matches. I shared grapes and a pie with some other corseted women and then we were off to a small square– the exact location escapes me. I did notice though that every lane out was lined with cops and they had two vans with them, ready to close in and cart people off. It felt like a set up. Now, cops in Britain (at least after the Thatcher days) are mild and good spirited compared to the armed, robocop looking riot police I was used to seeing at LA demonstrations. Even still, I felt a bit nervous, having never done anything with these organizers. I thought maybe their intention was to get arrested, as there were a cadre of black-hoodied anarchist teens already mocking and baiting the police and it just didn’t seem in the spirit of things. Plus there wasn’t any drumming or musicians– just someone with a boom box blaring dub. I didn’t want to wait around to see what would happen. (Later I met up with some other revelers who stayed for several hours and they said everything went down peacefully– dancing and eating and singing– and they actually felt protected by the large police presence.)

The night before I had gone out with my friend Hadyn to see the greening of the Jack at the Market Porter pub. This Jack-in-the-Green is an old May Day custom, revived in Hastings in the mid 80’s by a troupe of Morris Dancers. The greening started rather late and we were already drunk and ready to go home, but a few people were busy putting leaves and flowers on a wire Jack. Basically, this leafy giant is attended by “bogies” or men in green-man suits, and a troupe of musicians. Everyone gathers around the Jack and goes from pub to pub on May Day, and since the bogie inside the Jack can’t see, everyone must shout directions and help him, and as the day goes on and people get more drunk, this becomes more…interesting.

We met up with the revelers at the Charles Dickens in Southwark. They arrived very late, headed by a guy in a bear suit who proclaimed to us “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING ON” as the band tumbled in, the bogie was helped out of the Jack and everyone started drinking. Again.

(the crazy man in the center with the fresh scab on his face kept trying to follow me into the bathroom at each pub but one of the guys was really graceful and effective in dealing with him.)

I confess I have a thing for the green beards– these men who are willing to embody an archetype and maybe even make a fool of themselves for a day. They all befriended us as if we were one of them, buying us rounds and inviting us to the celebrations in Hastings and telling us about the history of the custom. One bogie shared a swig of single malt out of his silver flask, another bought me a pint of wonderful bitter. And another who played the accordion actually knew something of Portland beer culture! And he we laughed about the looks on all the commuters faces as the Jack-in-the-green swooned down the streets– how surreal and subversive joy can be, especially in black-suited London.

National Gallery Grand Tour Catalog

From the book’s flyleaf:

“One warm(ish) night in June 2007, while most people were tucked up in bed, paintings from the National Gallery were being ‘set free’ in London. The streets of Soho, Chinatown and Covent Garden were turned into an open-air gallery…”

This catalog for the National Gallery Grand Tour captures perfectly the street life of the paintings: “instead of the public seeking out its art, the art sought out its public.” And this was like the dream-scene in Will Self’s Book of Dave, where all the statues in London come to life and flock to Trafalgar Square.

Plus, this blog is quoted (liberally and prominently) in it– which is a thrill.

Happy Christmas, Dearest Reader

Christmas in London is a serious affair simply because everything closes. No tube, no buses. No shops or restaurants. The bustling, crowded city turns into a kind of ghost town. Other Americans have said to me, “I always dreamed of a London Christmas” and I’ve often wondered what exactly they meant– surely not the apocalyptic stillness I’ve encountered, having no one to see and no where to go on that day.

There is the argument that Dickens invented Christmas. Perhaps these Americans are thinking of A Christmas Carol— ragmuffins in the snow, conscience-pricking ghosts? Or is it something quaint, mulled and jolly– a received protestant memory? I suppose it’s where the archaic “Merry” comes from in the American “Merry Christmas”– this throwback of an idea. London is the Victorian city celebrating in ye olde stylie. Except it’s not. The only truth in these fantasies is that London at Christmas is a heap of juxtapositions, and maybe that’s why it’s amazing. It’s the one time of year you might have a Londoner smile at you for no reason, and that shopkeeper who you’ve seen twice weekly for years now might just let on that he remembers you. Of course, after the New Year things go back to brisk, slightly hostile anonymity.

Yule has always been my favourite time of year. I love the long nights and in London the nights are even longer. It’s harder to forget the pagan roots of the holiday– the lights and decorations are consolation in the darkness and the bitter cold. There’s less “Happy Birthday Jesus” and more puddings, ales, mistletoe and holly.

It’s easier to avoid the consumer cataclysm in London. I’m sure it exists on Oxford Street, the King’s Road and Carnaby Street, but if you don’t go there you don’t have to deal with it. If you do have to go to a store you’re more likely to hear a bizarre (to my American ears anyway), new-wave take on Christmas: Wham, Band Aid or even the Plastic Ono Band and Wizzard instead of the same schmaltz you’d hear in American retail establishments. Less Chipmunks and more Fairytale of New York.

And there’s something modest about the celebrations. As far as I can tell the big festivity here is the office party, and barring that, the coach ride to see relatives. Last night I was at our local pub and there was a table of celebrants having roast dinner. They all wore paper crowns (save two killjoys who took themselves too seriously. I believe you can judge the character of a person based on whether they are willing to wear the paper crown.). They read each other the stupid jokes out of the crackers which they pulled with childish glee, even though the lot were middle aged.

But there is the bizarro mirror, of course– being an expat here I see the British indulge in a Yank-style Christmas with I kind of sardonic guilt– it’s full on Hollywood romantic comedy, credits rolling over Louis Armstrongs’ It’s a Wonderful World. (The film Love, Actually kind of sums up this adaptation in a horrifying way.) Today two Radio 6 DJ’s I love to hate– Russel and John– played christmas music as they got drunk on cider and rose petal vodka this morning. And they played typical Yank Christmas songs, snarking all the way but still loving it, probably because they were opening gifts that contained even more alcohol. Damn if I didn’t get all warm and fuzzy, too. Especially when they played the atypical Ramone’s Merry Christmas, I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight. *sniffle*

But then, this time of year, almost anything sets me off, a song, a string of lights, a commercial for an ipod, even.

So today, after listening to Christina’s brilliant Xmas song, Things Fall Apart, I went for an astringent walk down the canal near my flat– frost-speckled webs drawn across the skeletal vegetation, only the thorns were left clinging to the frozen bank. The fog was so thick and ghostly, it blanked everything out– every tinselled sentimentality.