Walking through the capital again
Having got used to handing over king-size portions of your weekly wage to be granted entrance into London in a way that doesn’t destroy the soul (obviously excluding Megabus and any unhappy long wait in a Victoria coach station aisle that oozes the desperation of forgotten people, including me), you almost feel like you’ve somehow typed in a cheat code that teleports you there when you find train tickets that get you there and back for 10 pounds.
The last attempt at getting there by train was thwarted by severe weather, which enhanced the feeling of total ease in getting there this time around. The writer Will Self talks about how one can experience walking from London to LA, by walking to Heathrow and then from the LA airport, as if it is one unbroken ramble, due to the strangeness of the experience of air travel making us feel like we haven’t really traveled at all, but (perhaps for somebody used to using the underfunded, neglected rail system connecting northern English towns) I get some sort of similar feeling traveling by the mega-fast, electricity-run East Coast train (I say Mega-fast, because nothing at HS2-level faster is really needed for the majority of people in the country).
For this reason there felt to be a level of unbrokenness to the walking that made part of my journey to Wakefield Westgate station, and the walking I was doing as I got off the train at King’s Cross. So I decided to carry on walking to my destination, Bermondsey, just south of the river. It really doesn’t take long at all, and once you have a general grasp of the city you can get to more or less the right places without map guidance, even if you don’t find yourself taking the most direct route.
The skyline has changed since I was down last. It’s beginning to look like the thing I increasingly worry international cities are becoming; high rise playgrounds for the super rich, whilst increasing hardship for everyone else. I struggle to find anything positive to say about these novelty-shaped ‘brand buildings’ such as the recently built ‘The Pinnacle’, and I look over to see if I can see the much-preferred brutalist architecture of the Barbican, which I can. The Barbican is almost of stage set of how socially-orientated architecture could have built a better world for us all; a stage set precisely because it’s a playground for far more affluent members of society.
The centre of London has never felt quite real to me anyway, even when I was living down the road for a few months. The Shard is only impressive if I actually remind myself how tall it is, because when it is merely registered in my brain as ‘the Shard’, as I see it for the first time in that day, it merely blends into all the countless photographic images I have seen of it through the past 2-3 years. Nothing supposedly ‘Iconic’ in London ever feels real; what is termed ‘iconic’ or ‘landmark’ has always been hyped up (directly and passively) through the inescapable-everything media, to the point where it becomes hyperreal – the Jean Baudrillard term for objects/places/feelings that become so heavily mediated to us that the original no longer precedes the replica and everything becomes simulcra; and if it is more real than the real, then it is hyperreal. I didn’t see ‘Big Ben’ today, but when I passed it on occasions during my 3 month stay here it always seemed like I was looking at one of the many toy models I had seen of it; it looked like something I would be able to pick up and put in a packet like all the tourist paraphernalia available in the shops across the road from it.
The walk I took from King’s Cross, down to the river, and following the Southbank, roughly corresponds with these two sensations felt above; the hyperreal and tourism. In fact I hate the tourist bits/the views. I can’t imagine anything more cringe-worthy than taking a ‘selfie’ on a bridge looking out onto the Thames,with a cabaret of ‘iconic’ buildings gathering together like best mates in the background. The city is experienced like a selection box of iconic buildings and views, and it is like a ‘very best of…’ album I’ve never wanted to own. I wonder if anything between 200 years ago up until 60 years ago, whether the city was populated with chattering-class voices saying “oh yes…that was once where that happened….and, oh yes, this is the most….”; somehow I can’t imagine it being so. I walk past the reconstruction of the Globe theatre, and, through my modernist leanings, I dare to ask myself (regarding its reconstruction) “why…?”. I desire to see an 8 million plus (12 million plus including the sprawling commuter belt surroundings) human settlement in life in the 21st century. Not as a theme park to all that has been (albeit a theme park that in some means or another must dispel the Dickensian reality for many from the tourist’s and ‘desirables” gaze, whether through measures that result in an economic apartheid, or just through people being so engrossed in taking photographs, and gazing into nice eateries/drinking establishments, as if they have already joined the musuemified dead surroundings in not really being here).
South London, after Southbank, walking southeast seems to give me the most real interpretation of this metropolis as anywhere else possibly could. After all, the south east is where I stayed , and it’s where part of me remained – as it died there. It has a realism that northern cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds have once you’re outside their gentrified centres – albeit on a unsatisfactorily scale (likely down to net north to south migration), for one wishing to come into contact with an environment that makes physical resemblance of the ‘everything all the time’ bombardment we all now experience daily due to cyberspace technologies. Such a feeling is harder to grasp in more hyperreal spaces in the centre.
As I walk to Bermondsey, I begin to tire. I walk such distances in Yorkshire towns all the time, but the amount of information fired into your thought processes and the amount of little decisions you must make due to that, is just far far greater here. Still walking, I begin to make my eyes focus on nothing but a half-metre high wall, and the grass behind it, I need cut my losses in the war the mind has with the information, so as to be as little as possible an exhausted wreck before I meet my friend, and conversation begins. I realise, as I respond to things occurring around me often like others respond to being shocked by an electrode why as little time as possible in this city is possibly beneficial, despite an ingrained assertion that everything that is anything, and everyone who is anyone is in London, still making me feel that I “must” come here from time to time.