The Po-Po on Ho-Ho
There are a number of facts about London that any tourist fresh off the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow could tell you:
- There are A LOT of people and some of them (tube-riders) are mean and scary
- There’s such diversity that no one will look twice if you’re any race/accent/style/covered in tatts/sporting a mohawk/yelling profanities/wearing a sheep’s costume, but Lord help you if you’re lugging a suitcase up stairs
- The Thames is a disgusting shade of murk, but there’s no smog (totes expected Dickensian fog, which was eradicated when the coal fires were)
- The sun may not shine a lot, but when it does, the Eye, the Shard, the Gherkin and Big Ben’s clock-tower shine out over the city and it’s a glorious thing to be crossing a bridge just then.
But there are other things that you don’t notice as a tourist because you are either not in the right place at the right time, or you don’t experience things enough to see a pattern. After about 8 months, here are some (very) random oddities I’ve noticed about London:
There’s a touch of the old-fashioned in the big city
Forget the obligatory nods to the past in the form of tourist traps and beafeaters, London is a weird mix of the old-fashioned and ultra-modern. My new work building is so flash that it has airport-style security and scanners (and staff that leave me wishing for a pat-down, rawwwr!), but it also has a shoe-shiner that I wave at every day on the way in. What’s more is that people actually use this service! I dunno about you, but I feel fancy if I even dubbin my own shoes, let alone have someone else do it for me… when they’re on my feet! Talk about awkward.
Step outside the door, and there are young lads cycling past on tuk-tuks, primarily advertising (moving billboards aren’t just for buses), but also carting the suited gentry from A to B. Go two stops further east to my home-station and there are Police Officers with guns on their hips riding horseback, although I hope they’re not trying to enforce local laws since they’re certainly not picking up their pet’s droppings.
They think I can’t handle a coffee
Every time I order a takeaway coffee from one of the super-mega-chains stores that are virtually the only option in London (Eat, Costa, Pret – Eat, Costa, Pret – say it with me!), it comes complete with a complementary serviette wrapped around its gillets. I admit I have experienced the odd unfortunate spurt out of that wee oblong hole we call a caffeine-dispenser: when texting/drinking/walking and the pavement gives way to road suddenly; an unexpected jolt in the car; a spontaneous falling-over (where is that sticky-uppy pavement demon?!); or, most likely, as a result of rummaging for the work ID whilst yanking off the headphones and shoving le device in a pocket and maneuvering the bag overhead to pass through security (I never did master juggling). But if such a disaster were to occur, on hopefully an occasional basis, I’m certainly not averse to brushing my shoulder off. And I’m certainly not sure that the minor potential justifies the trees that meet their deaths in those cravats for coffees.
Evangelism is alive and well at Westfield
I recently braved the Stratford mall (still povo, but I could literally see the holes in my boots, so…) and was once again accosted by the pervasive tympany of an MLK style address, complete with microphone, back-up ‘amen’-ers, and television cameras. This ego of evangelists reminded me of a very similar group (if not the same) that frequents the Shebu mall, and so it seems they’ve found their stomping ground among those with enough cash and spare time to brave the madness of the Westfield dyad at either end of the Central Line.
I find this an odd choice of location as there seems to be a certain trend among them of the recent-minority-immigrant who perhaps came to London for a brighter life, only to find their dream in the gutter when they took a job sweeping said-gutters (something I can in a way relate to), until they were helped out and tipped back on their feet by a community religious group. No surprise then that they’d want to spread the message and offer help and be thankful for the favours they’ve received. But I’m not sure the Westfields contain exactly the target audience.
I also find it difficult to swallow the rhetoric they spew forth that you can be saved, even if you are a homo, or have sex, or take drugs, or enjoy that bloody Sauvignon Blanc too much. I *just* restrained myself from giving their cameras the fingers as they were shoved in my face, because I realised that at least they said I could be saved, even if I don’t believe in the concept. There are much worse groups out there, like those Westboro Baptist kids, damning us all to hell no matter what we do. I think we can probably all agree that we’d be okay with them all going up to heaven without us, as they keep threatening.
Douching is still a thing?
If you’ve ever used the term ‘douche-bag‘ and never understood its origins, I’m not gonna explain it to ya, but you can go here, and then come back when you’ve removed the inevitable grimace from your face. I thought modern science and good old common sense had prevailed to eradicate douching from sensible society, as I have NEVER seen any such products in NZ. When you do such things to a self-cleaning organ, it’s like smearing oil on a pimply face, having more Kiwis than Ozzies on a Topdeck tour, or putting a ten-pound weight in one shoe: it upsets the balance. Nevertheless, such products are alive and well in London. I’ve seen advertising on television, posters on the Tube, and spotted specials near the counter while waiting in line at Superdrug. Who are the ladies buying these products that reek of Victorian-era hygiene-paranoia? And seriously, how are your ladyparts?
The dichotomy of views
London is a very flat city. Having lived previously in three hilly cities in NZ (Aucks, Duns, and Wellytron), I find this alternatively disorienting and convenient. I never have to worry that I’ll arrive puffing to a fancy event, but I can’t see anything from anywhere. For this reason views seem to be both rare and prised, but in very different ways. One school of thought posits that for a beautiful view you must WORK FOR IT. The ‘monument’ of Monument station is a towering Doric memorial to those who died in the Great Fire of London, and for a fee of a few pounds and a few hundred steps, you’ll get breathtaking views of the most iconic of London views. The same goes for the Dome of St Paul’s, which is slightly fewer steps and quite a few more pounds, but of course you’ll get a bit of history and definitely some more dead and buried folks along with your view.
The other school of thought is that any great view must be got to as quickly as possible (preferably by an outside-the-building lift for maximum viewership, a la Heron Tower), and celebrated with champagne. My own new work building (she of the shoe-shiners) is 42 floors, called Tower 42, and has a champagne bar at its crest called Vertigo 42. What a creative marketing team huh? But at least these people understand that while 42 may be the answer to life, the universe, and everything, life, the universe, and everything go down better with a glass of champagne.
Although some people here think NZ is some sort of backwards tribal island nation, we do actually get all the big brands, and have many of our own that don’t export to the UK. However, I’ve noticed that the big brands do a bit more than I bargained for here. Subway does nachos. Snickers does flapjacks. The chocolate bar Aero does ‘mouse’ (hidden deceptively in the yoghurt section). The pharmacy does a cheap sammy, drink and snack lunch combo. H&M does women’s, men’s, kid’s, shoes, accessories, tights, jewellery, umbrellas, and poor service. Everyone is everything to everyone. And while it may be convenient sometimes, it also leads to that contradictory feeling that this business is desperate for your business, but also that you are just another number, and, fittingly, that number is 12,000,000.
I titled this post ‘Strange facts about London: Part 1’ because I know that there are so many random oddities in this sprawl of a town. The problem is that things become normal so quickly. I like to be a person who notices things and doesn’t take the ‘normal’ for granted, but I know that certain strangenesses will be passing me by.
So remind me! Fellow Kiwis in London, fellow strangers in a new town, what do people where you are think is normal that you think is just a little bit weird?