The Betrayal of All Humanity

I saw a woman walking down a footpath towards the sea. One woman of a group of three pedestrians, not yet elderly, certainly no longer young.

They carried between them the paunch of middle age, tucked neatly under a belt or a waistband. The woman wore sensible leggings stretched out underneath a summer shift, a pursebag between the stripe of a strap across her back, sandals slapping on the footpath.

“I’ll let you know the next time we get one and I’ll send it over,” her friend was saying, as they swung past me on the final zig of the sea-bound zig zag.

“That’d be great,” the woman replied, leaning to her partner by her side. “Last time we paid, what was it? Sixty? You can go by train, but…”

As she said these words, she veered to her left, reached out a hand, grasped a stray branch and, with the deft clench of an expert, stripped the branch of leaves. She walked on, without breaking her stride.

“Oh no, you’ll want to fly,” her friend said.

But it was too late. In that moment, the woman had betrayed all of humanity for the apes we are.

The Mowing of the Lawns: A Study in Green, Gordon Square

The mowing dance plays with a steady whorr, with punctuating snap and crack of sticky twig or cruk of stone. Once around the round herbaceous border, once again, concentric circles of sliced and diced lawn rippling out in tidy daisy death.

This is municipal gardening, large scale, industrial mowing, without distinction. One lawn cuts the same way as the next. Sunbathers roll out of the way of the slicing machine trundling their way, sneezers get a lungful of grassy effluent and a guitar man is swamped in steady whorr.

Uniformly green shirt, blue trouser, red glove, three municipal gardeners assault the expanse of lawn, the side borders, trimming edges with mask for strimming protection.

His hair has had the same treatment by a municipal dresser, course grey lines, the borders neatly trimmed, stark against bare skin, skirting round ear curlicue, sweeping down the nape of the neck, defined: hair / not hair.

Underground Demographics

Carriage 96515 on the Jubilee line between London Bridge and Southwark at about 1340 on Valentine’s Day 2011. Every seat (in my section) was taken: 14 people.

  • There were 7 women and 7 men.
  • Of which 8 were white Caucasians.
  • 4 people were reading.
  • 2 were eating.
  • 1 was playing with their phone.
  • 1 was listening to music (audible).
  • 6 people were talking (3 separate pairs) – the rest were silent.
  • 2 of the men were clean-shaven; 5 had facial hair.
  • 1 person wore a hat; 1 person wore a headscarf.
  • 8 people were wearing glasses (including 5 in a row opposite me).
  • 2 people were wearing ties – all men.
  • 6 people were wearing scarves – all women.
  • There were 7 adverts on the overheads, including 3 for the same telephone company.

The woman next to me was reading “Pink iced heart cake recipe,” her eyes transfixed, her apple, half-eaten, paused in her hand.

Review: Infernos Nightclub, Clapham

The club was called Infernos. Because it wasn’t just hot, it was hotter. The name brings up some interesting theological ideas: not just one hell, but hells, each lovingly designed to its individual occupant’s worst nightmare. One man’s torture is another man’s pleasure, after all.

But I wasn’t there to be tortured and there were only two hells to choose from: House Party downstairs and Discotheque upstairs. I choose upstairs. Stairway fake curtains are plastered to the wall in chipped red paint, draped over a stair-length looking glass, screwed to the wall like in your cheap bathroom.

Hellish Thought #1: am I destined, forever more, to dance to the music from Grease?

Revellers don’t so much dance as simply coexist in the space. A girl, heavily made up, walks past me on the dancefloor, yawning. Two lads, one short, one tall, try to talk. Some laugh, some cry, some sing, some shout. But vacant looks dominate.

I find an open space on the busy dancefloor in which to jerk my arms and flail my feet as best I can. Then I realise: vomit is swilling around my ankles. The dance swells out from the caustic pool.

A girl sits alone, arms crossed, on a leather-effect sofa that shows signs of wear. She’s dressed up fine and her legs are bare. But she doesn’t look like she wants to be there. A security man perches on a low wall above the dancefloor, blankly watching the action below. One leg dangles. Menboys swing their shirts around their heads as the DJ hollers though the smoke puffing from his smoke machine, ‘Gonna switch the style after this one!’

Hellish Thought #2: are they having fun or are they comatose?

Impossibly, two aquariums shatter disco light in their water. Bemused fish, deaf, hoover up gravel with their bulbous lips, ignoring a girl and her boy who play hide and seek through the glass. In a mirror-image of excess and delight, a disco light revolves drunkenly above the convulsing crowd, its bulb gone.

The place to get your drink (of water) is called The Cocktail Bar and the girls’ toilet is called the Ladies Powder Room. No sign of a possessive apostrophe though. Singers sing in sound-proofed silence in the Popstars Karaoke Lounge. There’s a pool table in one corner, but no one is interested in playing games.

Empty beer bottles hit the dancefloor, where they are kicked and kicked again until ejected to the periphery, where a man carrying a red fire bucket picks them up. Boys hit the dancefloor, where they are kicked and kicked again until ejected the periphery, where a girl carrying a handbag picks them up.

Hellish Thought #3: I enjoy this.

London Bridge, Riverside

There’s a fountain, maybe six jets rising from a cobbled paving. A tourist family stops to let the son take a photograph with his new manual camera. The young man, a youth, turns the lens seriously, focusing. He steadies the camera carefully, framing. The other members, five or six of them, gather around behind their serious son, waiting for the artist to finish his work. Suddenly the father, paunch, mid-aged, runs, head down for the fountain. He jumps through the six jets of water, all youth regained. Damp laughter.

Canada Water: A vista

It looks computer generated. Straight lines, an exercise in perspective perhaps. A long flat roof opposite – of a sports retailer. The roof is supported by two storey poles and the shop abuts the water’s edge. Stacked behind this in our perspective game, at an angle receding into the distance is another, taller flat roof. Even the cladding of the building looks computer-pixilated. The Home of Quality Newspapers. A number of other structures poke above this warehouse. One in green, tall towers with sloping roofs.

I notice, now, why the vista looks so odd: none of these buildings have windows, just bare flat greys and greens. It is like the first stages of a computer simulation, before details have been added for realism.

Behind all these foreground buildings, far away, I know, on the other side of the river, is the tower of Canary Wharf. Its light for aircraft flickers on / off sharply. A pyramid in the centre of London. 9.55 am.

Surrey Quays Exterior

Someone’s painted a box on the ground beneath a cash machine. For demarcation against intrusion. For the protection of the PIN. For the exclusion of undesirables. The slot for the card has a green light flashing on/off, begging for custom. A man and a woman approach. I can hear the click of the slot opening. The woman is pressing the buttons, the man stands in the box as well. They leave. The light starts flashing again. The screen too is busy. It advertises Halifax financial services and exhorts users to protect against fraud or theft. In the corner of the box, dropped by a left hand as the right worked the machine is the torn, curled peel of a satsuma. 9.43 am.

Waterloo Station

It’s hard to count them, hard to measure them, hard to evaluate them. All of them on their way, all of them the centre of the Universe. It’s easy to hate them. It’s not so easy to love them, but I’m going to try.

People with instruments over their shoulders – I’ve seen several. Violins, guitars common. People with their faces fixed in an outsider grimace. People with their headphones in their ears. People with bags over their shoulders, people walking with a slow strut, figuring things out.

People flicking nervously with Railcards.

Fat people with their bellies overflapping their tight jeans and their breasts lumping hopelessly over their tight bellies. People who would look more comfortable naked, stripped clean of the grime of their city clothes. People sneezing and wiping their hands on their combat trousers while they talk on their mobile phones. Fat men reaching into their suit pockets for their tickets and then struggling with the machines. A lady pulling her wallet out of her pocket and at the same time a receipt pulling clear and dropping to the ground. She dials a number on her touchscreen mobile phone.

A running man with a guitar. It could be a bass. A man walking slowly, talking on the phone, with bags poking out of his bags. A woman on crutches, bent over, in a pink cardigan, slowly making for the ticket gates. A pause to get her ticket and then through as quickly as she can before they close on her hobbled legs.

Two young girls in electric blue dress and long leather coat strut past, both earphones in and faces on. A man in a button-down shirt, pink with checks, and sunglasses on his coiffured head walks past with his telephone in his hand, looking very sure, but at the same time trying to organise his head around the station concourse. His shoes are tan brown and he walks with a clip. A man walks past in fresh jeans and a polo shirt, a jumper neatly folded on his shoulder.

A family of pink child and empty pushchair.

A fat woman dragging a red bag along the floor. Two old fat women, struggling to walk but with their feet in sports shoes. A young girl, fat, with a bright yellow Selfridge’s bag. A man delicately holding a blue coffee cup – to take away, to throw away – picking his way through this unsuited mass to his train.

Woman running, another trying to, her breasts bouncing with the effort in high heels. Another trying to walk the floor into submission, determined. A woman runs past. And again. One end to the other. A lady with curly red hair pulls her suitcase past, smooth. Two young girls flop their sandals into the floor, their bellies thrust out, forcing their path with their sexual organs. Teenagers.

An old woman reaches into her bag, a pink and white check shirt thrown over her body, sizeable but in a friendly old woman kind of way. She walks with a limp and asks the platform attendant of the correct train. A man with an umbrella furled follows her and asks the same question. A man with a pencil moustache and a matching blue bag and two-tone blue jacket strolls past with his family.

A woman in violent green shirt.

All of these people breathing and thinking and calculating. Sweating, their skin and their flesh folding around their clothes. Nothing could be further from the truth, could it? Exhausted people, with hairspray and glasses, with their chins shaved that morning, their shirts ironed at some point recently. Their shoes polished – or not.

Their hair managed. A turn, a wave, a turn. Make up. A scratch, a bite of a fingernail. Belt tightly wrapped around corpulence. Phone pressed to ear. Wrist wrapped with watch. Shoes tied, jeans pulled up and fastened. Wallet with ticket, bank card, else. Shopping bag with items. Tears. A scarf. Hair tied back, pushed forward. A newspaper. Eyebrows managed – or not.

Healthy afternoon snack. Unhealthy life. Earphones. Mouths moving, feet walking. Breast and bellies. Attraction – or not.

Walk with a bounce, with a stutter. Feet damaged, groaning under a weight. Tears. A suitcase with a telephone number on.

A girl with tears in her eyes – or is that just the way she looks? I don’t know, but here she is again, walking slowly around the concession kiosk at my back. Tears. Can I count those tears? Can I measure those tears? Can I evaluate those tears?

I wait.

HMS Belfast

Sitting facing the north bank, facing the city. Hays Galleria is behind and to my left. But in front of me, with her guns aiming at the men and women responsible for the financial market crash, is HMS Belfast. She is painted in two shades of grey. I wonder who designs the camouflage pattern? Does it change with each season? Of course there is building work going on even on the destroyer. Scaffolding swaddles two structures that I can’t make out. A man walks to the bow and presses a button on the bare flagpole. I can’t see what it is. CCTV? There is a red light shining at me. Two, in fact. They give the mild impression of a very small party boat. A rope of lights are strung over that bow section, above where the anchor is run. There is the sound of a hack saw working and the lapping of water around an motorised dingy.

A man poses for a photograph in front of the HMS Belfast, next to my bicycle. The man swaps places with his friend and the taker gets taken. He wears a circular patterned pink shirt. They speak foreign, words tumbling out of their mouths. Hindi, I think. Their camera is, of course, a telephone.

The city opposite, from where the rumble of cars drifts, is a hotchpotch of buildings, vying with each other in architectural folly. The Gherkin looms over a mock gothic / modernist building. A church pokes its spire up amongst them. Spread out on the riverbank is a regency mansion, but obscured by trees, the Belfast and daunted by the stature of the buildings behind it. Two British flags peer over the Belfast. A jogger, female, pants past behind me. Red buses cross London Bridge. I can see the heads of commuters in a steady stream crossing, mostly south to north. From London Bridge train station to offices on the north bank. The gulls have no such respect and fly west to east, towards the strengthening sun. 7.00 am.

Bankside

Facing the cathedral, from the opposite bank, with the Tate Modern at my back. I can hear a constant hissing of water sprinklers for the small area of grass behind me. The wind in the birch trees shakes early falling leaves to the concrete, where they tumble about, scratching. Now the patpat of a jogger. Occasionally the squeak of a small bird. Underneath it all, the steady muffled traffic from the opposite bank, like the roar of waves onto the shoreline, wipes sound away, white noise over an orchestra. Another jogger, a boat engine, a gull, a jogger, a man walking to work with sunglasses on and earphones in. A leaf. 6.37 am.

The Millennium Bridge

The river divides London. The sun shines in my face. Ripples of the river look confused, striving one direction, pushed another. Birds, gulls, dip into the water, crawing. The bridge is quiet. Two men fall off the horizon towards the Tate Modern. Straight ahead is Tower Bridge, a landmark. Its perfect H is broken by some construction work in the background, there’s always some construction work. The wind is blowing her way, cold, pushing my jumper into my back, bringing up goose pimples.

Just to my left are the steps of St Paul’s. To my right is Shakespeare’s Globe and Bankside. The Tate Modern, a converted power station, looking like nothing more than a converted power station. Or possibly a piece of monumental Mesopotamian architecture, the blocks of structure riven by grooves that tear glass windows through the building. A jogger walks past me. A cyclist cycles the other way. It is forbidden to cycle on this bridge and the plates of the metal floor ripple like the water below as his weight rolls past. In the distance there is the syncopated rhythm of an alarm. It comes and goes with the wind, sometimes clear, othertimes indistinguishable from the background noise. Two police sirens, one from the city, one from Parliament converge. A boat powers through the water below the bridge. A private vessal, manned by white haired old men, pointing the way ahead.

I turn and face upstream, the wind in my face now. Five cranes on trucks are evenly poised on the next bridge west. Another three, static, crouch on the banks north and south. Building work. A structure is covered with scaffolding, a train station, I believe. Floating on the surface of the river to my right is a rubbish collector. A flotilla of gulls take in the sun near the bank to my left. A man in a suit carrying a green plastic bag walks towards the city, his hair, fine and grey, caught in the cross wind. 6.29 am.

Paternoster Square

A short walk from the steps of St Paul’s is Paternoster Square. The once tall monument stands, topped with golden thistle. Once tall, now surrounded by the same brushed limestone buildings that abut the cathedral, if in a more modernist style. At the foot of the monument are two table tennis tables, some summer event for the people. The square is faced by a chain supermarket, not yet open, two chain coffee shops and several restaurants. There is the sound of a barista pulling chairs and tables out onto the flagstones, a sound more suited to France or Italy, but transplanted here to London for the last of summer. I imagine they shall be pulling those chairs out, in hope more than expectation, well into winter. A place of refuge for smokers to huddle with their espressos and their cigarettes. A few people cross the square, heading for work in suits with no tie. Tie in pocket. A couple sit, as I do, on the stone benches that surround that extraordinary monument. A man near me drives sheep across the square, in bronze or cast iron. 6.09 am.

From the steps of St. Paul’s

For the naval of the Anglicans, St Paul’s cathedral is a soulless place. There’s a cramped plaza in front, a road curving around it. It’s a simple road, one lane in either direction, lined with chain restaurants. In the pedestrian plaza, covered in swept stone, there is a chain supermarket, a chain bank and a chain coffee shop. The buildings are brushed limestone, uniform, grandiose. The statue in front of the cathedral, a king perhaps with divine advisers at his feet – is that Britannia? – is dwarfed by the buildings now, camouflaged stone. Pigeons scatter about the steps beneath me, working in uniform lines, like scenes of crime officers, scouring the steps for food or cigarettes. They make their way, walking steadily along the step and then up one, hopping. They don’t fly, careful, their heads bent to the ground. Occasionally they’ll peck at some unseen morsel. The clock strikes six am.

Outside Mornington Crescent Tube Station

Right now outside Mornington Crescent tube station in London (at 1825 on Thursday) a man in a green, black and pale blue striped jumper, peaked cap and khaki trousers talks on his mobile telephone, one hand in his pocket, he just strides up and down the street.

In the background some scaffolding has been erected against Greater London house and there is graffiti against the slate grey hoarding. The trees stand and at their foot are eight mopeds and an assortment of parked cars. The traffic on the main road is busy.

The man is wearing earphones around his neck and a bag slung over his shoulder

“This area is covered by CCTV.” A yellow sign with a stark black image of a camera in 2D above the lettering. A discarded television lies beneath this sign

Two cyclists drift across the main road casually, with no regard for the traffic. Three black youths, one riding standing up, tall on the back wheel with his hands on the shoulders of the guy pedalling. They are not wearing helmets.

The scaffolding is by a company called Beacon. There is red and white tape around some of the poles. The building rises to six stories high. The trees are patterned like camouflage, mottled lichen greys, ash whites, greens, browns. The leaves are dark green, light green, leaves cut out from a pattern using those scissors that automatically cut serrated edges.

Russell Square

The warmth of the sun and the idle chatter of Spanish transports me, a dog sniffing the ground and people walking, talking, sitting, relaxing, soaking up the sun. Mothers with young children – one fallen flat on her face – the dangers of her scooter are obvious. The fountain blows foaming water. She’s back on the scooter, the Spanish turns faultlessly to English as a friend approaches. Round and round the fountain goes the little girl on the scooter. Another girl joins her, observes the water’s edge, doing nothing but enjoying the movement of the scooter. She pushes, pushes, pushes and then lets it roll – oop – one foot in the water. She goes and parks up next to mother.

A man in a scarf, thick black coat, heeled leather shoes and a black hat walks swiftly by – a swarthy look contrasting to the pink and fuchsia of the little girl.

Opposite, two police officers talk to a man, standing, pointing. Another man sits and the dog plays around them. They are taking details. The man sits and I can see that he is aged, with a flat cap and white beard. The mother bends to take a photo of the child and the dog interrupts, sniffing at whatever that is. He leaves to take a piss. The man talking to the police I can see is holding a can of beer – seems a little early to be enjoying that. Perhaps they are homeless. The mothers are beautiful, well made up and sporting sunglasses and accoutrements of fashion. You can tell the people who were dressed by seven a.m. – they have coats folded over their arms, not expecting the heat of this sun, which has been hidden by the cold winds blowing through town.

The gardener talks to the old woman during a break- he is a Rastafarian – gumboots, green combats, black t-shirt and black hat holding his hair in. He seems to be an engaging man and I’ve frequently seen him in the parks around here. He does a good job and I like to think of him, living with the land, even in the city. His beard and face bear the marks of a life lived. His priorities are obvious: the land comes first. The city would be nothing without the green of the earth and spring. What would the office workers do without the thought of a stroll through the park en-route, or the lunch hour spent lying flat out on the warmed grass? He has a couple of jumpers and a rainbow scarf of some description – a piece of fabric he always wears.

A group of three men sitting on a bench split up to take their leave – the third stands slowly – they are all old, but he is older and moves even more slowly in the same direction, his blue coat having a waterproof complexion.

The Spaniards say goodbye – I say goodbye quietly. Everyone is very casual around here, the circular shape of the centre of the park provides a natural cat walk for the passing people, in a good mood on account of the sun and vaguely smiling because they know they are on show, the runners even more so – not running around the park but bisecting it – cutting a diameter through it.

The Rasta laughs loudly and the old woman’s body shakes quietly. They are talking earnestly and happily. The child wants to play in the water and the fountain doubles in size. The girl lets out a controlled squeel of excitement. The wind catches the water and blows it softly over them, air-conditioning two blonde girls, daughters of two black-haired beauties.

A man walks through the park, head bent low, suit grey and open but head and shoulders still tucked over himself, still in winter stance, a typical Englishman, broken by the weather. The weather which governs our constitution coats, which breaks our necks and our spirit. Heavy clothes which can only weigh us down, lead coats that take us to the bottom of the ocean of drizzle.

The Rasta has gone, the old woman too. The dog plays on the bench between the two old men, the police are gone, the old men stand and drift away, stopping to talk to a woman on a wheelchair motorised, the dog yelps excitedly and jumps up at his master. A woman is making the rounds with a microphone asking questions, getting vox pop (which I suppose is Latin – vox populi – voice of the people). She has red hair.
“If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?” She’s from SOAS radio. She almost vanishes in the sunlight. The girl next to me answers, “Romania, because that’s my home.” I answer, “Vietnam, because my friend’s there.” I don’t tell her that I study at SOAS too.

The man in the grey suit walks back again, the same step, the same stride and the tie flowing over his shoulder. The Romanian’s perfume fills my nostrils. The raven haired mother’s husband arrives – he looks Mediterranean and plays with the girl, lifting her and attacking her with his teeth, burying his face in her side.

An old man, grizzled beard, wearing a woolly grey-blue hat with Tottenham written on the side comes to empty the bins. He is wearing a fluorescent jacket, a marker of his officialdom. The fountain falls to an ambient trickle of water, just a small puff of water surrounded by two rings of six acolytes – twelve, like the apostles. A man comes to the centre of the circle, mutters something and then sprints off in the direction of the tube. The girl splashes in the water, the sunlight sparkling off the surface of the concrete. They are in silhouette and the flakes of sunlight, starlight, jump up and she tries to go deeper, but is drawn back – where did the scooter girl go?

An old man in a wheelchair, thoroughly wrapped up, takes the air, pushed along by his aide. His aide, wearing a mischievous grin, pushes him towards the water, but swerves away at the last. The old man leans up and mutters something to him from inside the folds of his scarf and hat and coat and blanket. The aide beams on.

I could stay here all day, but the family have left in unison and the pigeons go back to their paddling. The Romanian reads, the tourists struggle with a map, the bin-man finds more litter. Two more tourists enter the scene, a man on the phone enters the circle, stands and leaves the way he came. A woman with a puffa jacket and a shoulder-swinging stride goes from left to right and the whole world is a stage, everyone is performing, even the old man, eyes closed, hands folded in his lap, his stick between his legs, relaxed, facing the sun, whispering, “Take me away, take me away.”