My date asked me the other day what it is that I like about London. I'm always a bit guarded when I answer this question, because I know that a lot of people here and around the world love this city, but after I told her what I thought the place had going for it, I couldn't help but launch into what I DON'T like about the city by the river. And so, since I've already started extolling certain virtues of this godforsaken place, I shall now venture to articulate some (let us say) alternative opinions. For those of you who aren't up for a serve of negative vibes, please stop reading now (go look at the photos of Paris for goodness sake!).
If I had to concentrate these abovementioned feelings into one(ish) word, it would be 'wind-up'. This place gets me so wound up sometimes...I can literally feel it in my stomach some days....and I believe that it's due to the plethora of daily factors, all strangely related to each other, that this place serves up at you that don't have to be that way.
Example no 1 - Indirectness
A sense of this pervades many if not all things here:
* - I teach at a school about two blocks from my house, that is, as the crow flies. Don't get me wrong, it's a cushy deal, but because my suburb is built of big long streets, I have to walk halfway down one and then back up the other to get there...
* - Argos is this great cheap chain place where you can buy every single thing for your house, but because it was originally only a mail order service, when you go into the stores you have to fill out a card with the number of the good you want, then wait in line to pay, THEN go wait somewhere else while they dig it out of the back of the store for you, i.e, you can't just walk in and buy something...
* - When you register with a doctor here as part of the NHS, if it's just a regular appointment or check-up, you can't just get the next available time - you have to book a week in advance...
Example no 2 - Administration
Hopeless! You want anyone in any particular organisation to do something for you, then it's going to require you to fill out a whole bunch of forms, wait three or four times longer than is reasonably necessary for it to be done, and then when it's sent back to you, it's usually wrong, so you have to ring somebody up and figure it out what's actually happened!
* - Earlier in the year, I went to take out £10 from a cashpoint, and somebody had a card copier rigged up in there somehow, so by morning all my money had disappeared. "No worries," says Natwest anti-fraud squad the next afternoon in a phone call, "just fill out some forms and it'll be back in your account in a week or two." TWO MONTHS LATER, after about 15 phonecalls, I finally find the guy one afternoon in the system who I'm presuming clicked a button and bing, there it is back in my account, two hours after I talked to him.
* - Went for an interview with a music service a while ago - they were interviewing in November for place in January - why so early? Because the background criminal check takes THREE MONTHS - they were already hugely backlogged, and you can't work in schools until it comes through....ridiculous!
Like my uncle J says, 'nice guys finish last' - to get stuff done here, sometimes you just gotta yell and get angry, and for some inexplicable reason, people here seem to respond to that?
Example no 3 - Physicality
This is a difficult place to get around in. Sure, the public transport is great and goes everywhere, but it's dealing with a 17th century street system which makes no sense whatsoever.
* - The tube, supposed engineering miracle, on various lines is consistently delayed or breaking down, due to signal failures, lack of staff, employee strikes, lack of safety measures, flying saucers et al. Various lines have various reputations i.e, Jubliee and Victoria lines good, District and Northern lines bad! And if you're lucky enough to be on the tube during rush hour...I can't think of ever being closer to purgatory, especially if you're doing it twice a day, five days a week.
* - One of the great things about my four days in Paris was walking down all those grand boulevards and feeling a sense of open space, standing at the end of the Louvre and being able to look across the Seine to the Eiffel Tower and beyond! Sure, there's Hyde and Regent's Parks (and they are great), but central London feels so closed off sometimes
I think my grievances about this place can best be described by an account of a particular day I had in mid July. At the time I was working 9-6 five days a week at a Real Estate firm as a personal assistant (stapling, photocopying, filing, blah blah). I had no gigs, no teaching, no money (strangely enough), I was living in a one-bedroom apartment with my ex-girlfriend (a whole other saga), any love life I had was absolutely MESSED UP....the tube bombings happened the week before, so police were everywhere (it might have been the next day when that Brazilian guy got shot)...let's just say the tension in the air was high!
So I stumble out of my day job, eyes fixed on the ground, two blocks down to the tube, and what's happened? Station closed - security alert. It's Green Park - three lines go there - central London, it's 10 deep on the pavement, the traffic's nuts, the buses aren't going anywhere.....the only way I was going to get 'home' before the next day was an hour and a half's walk....TOO MUCH!
So I decided to take that walk home, and on the way I did two things, one of which was quite foreign to me personally, but is quite common here - I put on a scowl. Now, for someone who has always endeavoured to be as genuine as possible at all times (if I do say so myself), this was really quite strange for me, it felt like it went against who I am, and yet it came so naturally. I figure somehow that it was London, as a presence of some sort, maybe trying to tell me something......of course the other thing I did was have a drink on that long walk home, something which has always been quite familiar, to myself and the inhabitants of this town especially!
In my long-winded way of telling things (by the way, if you've hung on this far, you're doing great!), what I'm trying to say here is that London really sorts you out. When you first get here, it sucks you along, you play by it's messed up rules only, but then it DOES level out, and that's when you realise that it forces you to seriously ask those big questions of yourself, about what you're doing with your life.
The circumstances surrounding me coming here, in short, were fairly scattered, and the situation I got myself into I thought I'd never get out of, so what did I do? I thought harder, I went faster, I became smarter...London presented me the challenge of itself and I took it and went with it, realising that I actually had the energy, in fact I had LOADS of energy, to deal with this place.
And that, my dear friends, is why at the moment I'm thinking about trying to stay here for longer than my two year visa. That's right! After taking this long to slag the place out, I'm actually considering extending my time here. And I think you might be able to see why. It's when I get past my grievances that I take into account the obvious benefits of living here, combined with the feeling that if I've survived here this long, why not get the most out of it that I can? It's all wrapped up in the same thing, see?
Before coming here I spent four months playing piano on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. A lot of people have asked me how amazing that must have been, and I still have mixed feeling about it, but YES, there were definitely amazing parts about it, and I always seem to recount stories from that time quite eagerly.
And so, as it follows, I was already imagining the other day, ten years down the track, being some place else (probably up the back at a gig, hunched over a house Red!) and some youngster asking me what my years in London were like.
And I suppose I would answer him with a shake of the head, a roll of the eyes, a chuckle....and maybe a wistful smile....