Monday 11 November 2013


I’m back in London, the city of my birth, trying to be a tourist. Considering my day out has only just started, I’m doing pretty well at looking like an outsider.

As I head up the platform in Stanmore Station towards the waiting train, the voice on the tannoy announces

“The next train to Stratford will leave from Platform 3 in 2 minutes.”

I stop in my tracks. The train I’m just about to board is on what used to be Platform 2. To be honest, even though I grew up down the road, I never knew which platform was which, because there were only two. There was this one and that one, and as Stanmore is the end of the line, you just jumped on whichever train was there.

Platform 3?

I turn around and oh look, wow, they’ve built another one over there. I may not be a mathematical genius, but I can tell pretty quickly that if there’s 3 platforms, the one in the middle cannot be Platform 3, so I leg it back up to the top and sprint down the new platform and jump onto the train, whereupon apathetic heads turn to focus cold London eyes, silently scornful of my jumpy thumping arrival, my heavy breathing and my far too enthusiastic smile.

Couldn’t feel more touristy if I tried. I fell at the first fence, my home town station.

The train eases out, purring along in relative silence compared to the raucous clatter-bang of those old carriages that used to take me to school. They felt as if they were made of nails and wood, held together with strips of metal. These days the Tube is slick, air-conditioned, perfectly lit and spotless.

Each time I come back I notice something different in Tube behaviour. Last time it was that absolutely every passenger had a smartphone; now it’s that they all have a single earplug linked to their smartphones. Some of them are listening to music, some are talking out loud to themselves. A decade ago they’d have been dumped into the barrel marked ‘nutter’. Now they’re just on the phone. 

Or maybe they're still nuts and merely pretending to be on the phone.

I have to make a call, but my own phone is a dinosaur Nokia, sporting a long crack on the screen, held together by Sellotape. Ah sure, what can you do, and there’s another problem. Last night my niece took the piss out of me for sounding Irish, and as I chat to my friend I have to dig a little deeper than I’d like to make sure I don’t sound like some dreadful plastic Paddy. I don’t mind pretending to be a tourist in my old town, but I don't want to pretend to be someone I’m not.

You know the way you never appreciate what's on your doorstep? Well, I didn’t see St. Paul’s Cathedral until I was 24, when a friend visiting from Australia asked for the touristy tour. So my first stop today is the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square because, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve never been there either.

The Londoner in me expects to greet Trafalgar Square as an old friend. I’ve seen it in so many lights. In my hotheaded political youth, I shouted and protested there at the end of countless CND and Anti-Apartheid marches. You know the sort of thing. Gay Whales Against Racism. Life wasn’t always so serious. On a far-distant New Year’s Eve, I got stocious in this square, as Martin jumped into the fountain and onto the BBC news.

But today Trafalgar Square has been hijacked by the USA’s NFL. Jacksonville Jaguars are running around in full sporting regalia, blowing loudly on their whistles. Nelson’s Column is obscured by tents and a stage, upon which somebody is breakdancing. To both my tourist and local, the place doesn’t feel right, so I embrace the gallery, marvel at the beauty of the collection, and then find myself back on the streets, with several hours to kill before I meet my friends.

The pubs aren’t open yet, and the endless houses of Costa Coffee and Starbucks are full, noisy and bland. What a wonderful yet lonely place London can be. Oh for Quay Street right now, just to hang for half an hour, to watch Galway TV floating by.

Reverting to type, I decide to seek refuge in a cinema, and just for a few minutes the Londoner in me erases the tourist, as I dive in and out of remembered alleyways and shortcuts, making the job of checking out all the cinemas a lot easier.

Gone are the awesome caverns that once bordered Leicester Square, where my jaw dropped at the sight of the mother ship in Close Encounters; I jumped out of my skin at the falling head in Jaws; rocked with the Who’s Tommy and tried to look cool at Led Zeppelin's ‘Song Remains The Same’. 

Instead I watch Woody Allen’s ‘Blue Jasmine’ in a poky little studio cinema, which wanted to charge me £2.75 for a bottle of water.

Locals rarely socialise in the city centre. They stick to their neighbourhoods, not only because London is so vast, but also because the West End is a touristic rip-off zone.

Finally it’s time to see my friends, these people I have known for over 35 years. We’re a curious bunch, all heading different ways in life after school, yet never losing touch, never forgetting how to have a blinding night out together. I both laugh and drink to excess as I realise how foolish I’ve been, trying to be a tourist. With friends like this, I’m never going to feel anything but at home.

The onboard computer on the late night Tube has gone bananas, announcing stations randomly:

“The next stop is Dollis Hill, Baker Street, Baker Street. The next stop is the next stop is stop is Wembley Park.”

Do Tubes dream in alcohol?

1000 words
©Charlie Adley

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