Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Repost: Some people I've seen in London

I have nothing to say tonight, so I thought I might repost this entry: some character sketches written in London during my trip there in October, when only four or five people were reading me. I was framing some pictures from my trip today, and one of these people came up in a conversation, so it seemed appropriate. I'm hoping it'll be new to most of you.


My first morning here I kept walking past a policeman who looked exactly like Johnny Lee Miller (Sick Boy from Trainspotting, pretty much nothing else). I didn't think much of it, filed it in my head as what would likely be the closest I came to a celebrity encounter. He was on my street, just a couple of blocks north, so I've walked past the place several times since. I started to notice that there was always a policeman standing there, a different one each day. Curious, I looked at the buildings by where the cop was always posted. And that's how I found out where the Iraqi embassy in London is located.


On Abbey Road on Saturday, I saw an elderly woman walking up the street while I waited for my bus. I asked her if she'd lived in the area long.

"All my life." She puffed up a little. This may have been some sort of accomplishment I didn't understand.

"So were you living here when the Beatles recorded here?"

"Maaaahhh," she said, making a sign to ward off evil, and then moving away from me.


A woman in the coffehouse I frequent asked a man (an American, as it happens) for a sheet of paper. He said he didn't have any.

Thirty seconds later he reached into his bag and pulled out a sheet of paper without any rooting around. He knew exactly where it was. He gave it to the woman.

She thanked him twice immediately. The second time contained all sorts of extra words meant to convey the depth of her gratitude and her humility for having bothered such an obviously august personage with such a trifling request.

I got the impression that this was exactly the response he wanted. That perhaps he always said no before saying yes in order to produce a disproportionate amount of thanks for even the smallest of basic, common-courtesy gestures.

Which would be a weird, although perhaps gratifying, way to go through life.


Grabbing lunch in the same coffeehouse, I took a comfortable seat in the same little chair cluster as a woman whose unhappiness was so palpable as to fill the two seats between us and brush uncomfortably against me.

Her mouth turned down at the ends in two vertical lines which seemed permanent. Even just looking out the window her expression was of utter disappointment or perhaps disgust. She threw a couple of baleful stares at me when I sat, even though she had no drink or food in front her and arguably, therefore, far less claim on the table. It wasn't clear if she was even a customer or just someone who came in out of the rain.

She dropped her umbrella and, before picking it up, she grabbed what might have been a small sliver of nut, a shell from a seed, or perhaps a fingernail from where it lay on the floor in a footprint next to a cigarette butt. She put it in her mouth.

I started to think maybe she was homeless. Her hair was clean, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. Her clothes were plain but not dirty. Homeless remained my best guess until she pulled out a cell phone and sent a text message. Then I didn't know what to think.

She grew tired from all her angry staring, curled up in her chair and went to sleep.

Later she awoke in time to dart like a squirrel across the room and snatch some sunflower seeds off an empty table which hadn't yet been bussed. Eating them, she placed a phone call. When she spoke, it was in a surprising high-pitched baby-doll voice with a heavy French accent.

I don't know what was said by either party, but the call appeared to have changed her life for the better. Before I left (during a bizarre jazz arrangement of Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines") I actually saw her smile.


A guy outside the National Gallery took off his shirt to eat his lunch. Somebody must have said something or just been staring because, as I walked by him, he screamed "Well, if you don't like it you can bugger off!" at a seven-year-old girl.


A woman with a ridiculously deep fake tan and vertigo-inducing cleavage runs the coffeehouse on my way to the Baker St. Tube stop.

My first time there was on my dawn walk my first morning in London. I stopped there largely because they were the first open coffeehouse I had seen. I had some trouble figuring out the coins I was paying with, and she patiently waited while I checked the backs and counted it out for her.

The last time I was there, a middle-aged woman with Elvis Costello glasses revealed herself to also be an American. She was having the same difficulty with the money as I had had.

After about a second, the woman who worked there barked, "They're labelled, yeah? Right on the back. Work it out!" And then walked away without taking her money. The other counter girl had to fill in until she returned.

From some similar observations I have concluded that she is nice only to male customers and people she knows. Which seems like another weird way to go through life.


Liz Dwyer said...

Nice to see that it's not just an LA thing and that women who only like men live in the UK as well. I have to get over there one of these days, but until then, I'll live vicariously through your memories.

Chris said...

Normally I journal when I travel and when I was in London way back in 2000 or was it 2001, I can't remember - I did just that. But all my travel journals are sitting in a box in my parents basement until I can figure out a way to ship the rest of my stuff here.

My last trip to London (a few weeks ago) I did not journal, just took lots of pictures. I'm already regretting that as the process of writing it down forces you to think about your day, the people you experienced and the impressions you felt.

I'll be better next time.

Caroline said...

When are you visitng London again? We'll have to organise a blogmeet for when you do.

I liked "a woman with a ridiculously deep fake tan and vertigo-inducing cleavage." There are so many characters like that living around the country. They scare me.


Anonymous said...

I understand about the coinage problem. We faced in last summer in Canada. It is such a small and basic thing but it takes a while to become completely used to it.

In London, there are the homeless and there are beggars. These are not the same. Beggars are often not destitute or homeless and make good money. It is not unusual to see a beggar with a mobile phone.

Nor is it unusual to see people who look like homeless or beggars and are neither.

I like London. Incomprehensible things are going on all the time. It's just as well they are incomprehensible as the truth is probably disappointingly banal.

I often think how amusing it is that your city is familiar to you and strange to me while my city is strange to you a so familiar to me.


Bank Of Doge said...

Last week I attended the occasion of a few quiet leaving-do drinks after work in All Bar One on New Oxford St.

I had reserved the long table near the bar from 5:00 p.m. but didn't arrive until almost 6. Worried that I might have lost my reservation, I was a little dismayed to find Sid Owen (Ricky out of Eastenders) sitting at the table alone and looking rather grumpy. I politely pointed out that I didn't think his name matched that on the reservation. He grunted "i'm leaving in a minute". I replied "that's ok mate, finish your peanuts first."

Squirmy Popple said...

My Dad had a hard time figuring out the coin thing as well when he came to visit me in Britain. Whenever he'd have to pay someone, he'd just hold open his hand and trust that they were going to take the correct change. It's a good thing I was with him most of the time.

The Moon Topples said...

Liz: At the moment, I must resign myself to living through my memories as well.

Chris: I find the process of journalling while away to be a good way to force things into a context. Still, I imagine it's nice to put on a different hat sometimes, and I'm certain you got some lovely photographs.

Caroline: A blogmeet sounds both wonderful and infinitely frightening. I'm really quite disappointing in person. I don't know when I can come back to London. Money's pretty tight these days, and I'm trying not to take on too much extra work so that I can retain my writing time.

SilverT: It only took me a day or two to get reasonably comfortable with the money thing. The weird part for me was which denominations are coins and such. Those are different here. I think incomprehensible things are going on in any large city fairly constantly, but being in London made these things feel more special, I guess.

Grumpy Old Man: Never seen EastEnders, but I love your tale. Thanks for stopping by.

Katie: My Chicago blood would not allow me to trustingly extend my money to a stranger. I simply learned which was which. It didn't take as long as I'd have thought, especially as I could almost immediately spot a pound or 2 pound coin and just use that if necessary.

When I got to the airport, I had oodles of change to try and spend before returning home. I was able to buy a bottle of gin, some candy, lunch and a hardcover book with the contents of my front pockets.

Unknown said...

Isn't it interesting when we go somewhere that seems familiar (maybe because of the same language) all the differences stand out all the more?

I found it the same in the US when I visited in 2005. Flippin weird place I thought, for about the first week. Then, I got used to it.

S. Kearney said...

Nice. I think I've met ALL of these people in London as well, and in Paris, and in Lyon. Are you following me around?

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I liked these sketches. I doodle words all the time, too, intending to "use" them in something, sometime. Usually, I lose the scraps on which I've written them instead.

In SF, we have many people whose housing status cannot be determined. One is a burly guy in djellaba and gold crown who mooches by the all-night Walgreens. I once emptied my change into his beefy hands and he demanded bills, which I didn't have. (The change totaled $4-5.00)

A week later, I saw him getting behind the wheel of a new BMW SUV a few blocks away.

swimmer6foot4 said...

What insightful observations! Thanks Moon. I find it easy to make notes on characters I meet when away from home but once back in London it is difficult for me to sketch out the people I see everyday. So thanks for the alternative look at my home.

Note to Silvertiger, who writes: "It is not unusual to see a beggar with a mobile phone." You are right. However, it is precisely because many homeless people are incredibly isolated (and mental health is often a major issue toboot) that many homeless organisations give out cheap Pay-As-You-Go 'phones with, maybe, five or ten pounds of credit on it to clients. With the ability to communicate with the outside world, it can be a lifeline for a homeless person.

The Moon Topples said...

Cailleach: I never fully got used to it, but in a good way. Everything felt fresh for the whole time I was there, possibly because I was clinging to that feeling.

HinSF: Perhaps you are subsidizing his car washes or morning lattes. BMWs are expensive, and perhaps he has no money left for food, having spent his allowance on his crown instead.

Swimmer: An interesting insight. We don't do that at all in the States, although I do not know why. Seems like a very humane action, trying to keep someone from slipping off the edge of the Earth.